Jesus’ arrival at the well

This coming weekend is the 3rd Sunday of Lent. In the previous post we quickly reviewed the religious and political history of the Samaritans in order to place this story in stark contrast to what came before: when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus (3:1-21), he spoke with a named male of the Jewish religious establishment, a “teacher of Israel.” When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, he speaks with an unnamed female of an enemy people:  So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon. (vv.5-6)

As O’Day [565] notes, the introduction provides the setting for the narrative. Verse 4 links the Samaritan text to vv.1-3; to get from Judea to Galilee (4:3), Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Scholars are divided on whether the necessity of this Samaritan journey is strictly geographical or has theological overtones. The geographical necessity of the trip is supported by Josephus who notes that the most expedient route from Judea to Galilee during the first century was through Samaria; however, there is ample support to indicate crossing the Jordan so as to not enter Samaria was also routine. The word translated as “had to” (edei), however, usually is associated in the Fourth Gospel with God’s plan (e.g., 3:14, 30; 9:4). It seems best, therefore, to read the necessity of the journey through Samaria as both geographical and theological. Jesus’ itinerary may have been governed by geographical expediency, but his stay in Samaria was governed by the theological necessity of offering himself to those whom social convention deemed unacceptable.

Verses 5-6 provide a detailed description of the location of Jesus’ conversation with the woman. This description is important because of the OT imagery in which the geography is couched. The references to Jacob and his well introduce the patriarchal traditions that will figure prominently in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (vv.11-14). The description of Jesus’ arrival at the well (v.6b) also establishes the conditions of his request for water in v.7. Jesus was tired from his journey, and he arrived at the well in the heat of the day (“about noon;” lit. “about the sixth hour”).

Eisegesis is the process of (mis)interpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas into and on top of the text. It is difficult to know what to make of the literal expression “the sixth hour.” In John’s narrative, when he points to a specific hour it is an indication that he wants the reader to pay close attention. What is not clear is why this encounter between Jesus and the woman happens midday. The women of the developing world typically see the timing of the meeting as a sign that the woman is an outcast in her own village. Water is usually drawn from the well at sunrise and sunset, outside the heat of the day. It is the place/time when women gather to meet, chat and have community. Someone who comes at noon to draw water is either avoiding the others, is unwelcomed to the community of women, has been formerly shunned, or just happens to need water at that time of day. Eisegesis is to insist on one of the first three choices. And that may well be the correct reading, but exegesis (following where the text leads) is always preferable.

Image credit: Samaritan Woman at the Well,  Rudall30 | -ID 191658499

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