Engaging With “Well-Women”

Reflections on John 4 & Sharing the Gospel

The story of the woman at the well in John 4 has always been a favorite of mine. There is just so much going on there.

Jesus is breaking through all kinds of barriers by initiating conversation with this woman—those of race and religion (“for Jews do not associate with Samaritans”), those of gender and status (a male rabbi would not deign to speak to a woman, let alone an adulterous one), and of course, spiritual barriers. And he goes out of His way to do this!

He stays behind when others go ahead. He initiates with this woman when she is intent on avoiding interactions. And most of all—this is what sparked this post—he persists when she resists.

Jesus is the greatest evangelist who ever walked the earth. He truly loved each person he engaged with and desired their ultimate good—even if it was painful in the moment. He knew exactly how to approach each person and situation. He was always bold in proclaiming God’s truth. Mostly, he was gentle and compassionate. On occasion, when dialoguing with the hardhearted and proud, he was even harsh. He knew peoples’ hearts. He knew their needs.

And in this case, with this woman, he sets another much-needed example of how to do this. (That is, minus the divine heart/mind-reading ability. That’s beyond us.)
This first struck me after a very odd and somewhat discouraging conversation I had. While doing missions work in Asia, I had this conversation with a friend from my university.  She began to tell me some differences and practices she had observed of the Muslim students (no pork, etc.)

Me: That’s very interesting. Do you have any Muslim friends?
Her: Yes, some of the girls in my dorm …
Me: Do you have any Christian friends?
Her: There are a lot of girls at our school.
Me: Yes, there are. Do you know any Christian girls?
Her: I like strawberries. What fruit do you like?
Me: Uhhh… me too. I like strawberries.

I was hoping to transition into a spiritual conversation and share about Jesus with my friend, but you can see how unexpectedly that was derailed. I didn’t really know how to pick it back up after the total topic change, so I let it go and hoped to circle back later.

Later, I still felt so confused and thought back over the conversation. What happened there? I don’t think she intended to rebuff my attempts at talking about Christianity. And there shouldn’t have been an issue with the language barrier (as I did use her language). I concluded that she was a poor conversationalist and had been talking without really listening. So I let it go and prayed for another opportunity.

The next time I read John 4, this conversation came to mind. Here is the dialogue from John 4:1-30, somewhat paraphrased with my comments in square brackets [ ].

Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Jesus: “Please give me a drink.” The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. [Simple ask.]

Woman: “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” [Brings religion/politics into it.]

Jesus: “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” [Turns the conversation to the spiritual.]

Woman: “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?” [Totally misses the point. Brings up more controversies.]

Jesus: “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” [Clarifies, offers eternal life.]

Woman: “Please, sir, give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” [Still missing the point. She’s still talking about the physical.]

Jesus: “Go and get your husband.” [Switches approaches. Leads into revealing her needs.]

Woman: “I don’t have a husband.” [Half-truth]

Jesus: “You’re right! You don’t have a husband— for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!” [Knows her sin. Challenges her.]

Woman: “Sir, you must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?” [Changes the topic. Brings up religious debate.]

Jesus: “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” [Graciously answers her and dismisses the issue. Blatantly calls for her to know and worship God.]

Woman: “I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  [Somewhat ignores His claim and appeals to the higher authourity of the coming Messiah.]

Jesus: “I AM the Messiah!”

Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask him about it. The woman left her water jar beside the well [still without giving Jesus a drink] and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” [Still not totally convinced!] So the people came streaming from the village to see him.

Do you see it? This conversation is so disjointed! Jesus is offering relationship, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life and this woman is totally missing it! It seems like she didn’t really even listen to what Jesus said and replies with something vaguely related—sometimes she changes the topic altogether! She even brings up some “hot topics” and religious controversies.

If it were me talking to this woman, I would have peaced out of that conversation pretty early on. I would have walked away thinking, “She’s clearly not interested. She just wants to avoid or argue. It’s better to just drop it.”

I’m so glad Jesus didn’t react like that. He is so patient with her. (And he has been so patient with me!) And as a result, John records:

Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I ever did!” When they came out to see him, they begged him to stay in their village. So he stayed for two days, long enough for many more to hear his message and believe. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42)

It takes time to make a connection with people. It takes time to draw them out. If Jesus is willing to spend the time, we should be too. He has been so gracious with us; how can we refuse to extend grace to others?

Next time you’re in a conversation with a frustrating “Well-Woman” type, persist. Be willing to engage with her where she is at. Be willing to address the topics he brings up. If at first, your attempt at surfacing the “spiritual” doesn’t catch on, try again. Lead with questions. Have a heart of compassion, recognizing that her eyes are now blind, and pray that she would see. Have compassion, he is lost in darkness, and does not yet know the goodness of the Light.

Pray for wisdom and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  “In your hearts honour Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

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