By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today’s Gospel reading requires a bit of background if we are to appreciate what is going on. First, we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews. Second, we need to know something about the significance of a man meeting a woman at a public well.
The Samaritans were a people of mixed religious and ethnic heritage. When the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians populated the region with peoples from five foreign tribes. These peoples intermarried with the Israelites who remained, and they worshiped their own gods alongside the God of Israel. By Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were politically part of the Roman province of Judea and worshiped the God of Israel; even so, the Jews considered them unclean foreigners because of their mixed ethnic and religious heritage. In particular, a Samaritan woman was considered a source of ritual pollution from the day she was born till the day she died. It was considered wrong for a Jewish man to speak to a Samaritan woman, and if he touched anything that she had touched, he too would become ritually unclean.
But there is more to be said about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In Jesus’ day, there was an implicit sexual tension in any meeting between a man and an unescorted woman. But to meet a woman at the public well had a special significance that is lost on us today. In the stories of the biblical patriarchs, it was not unusual for a patriarch to meet his bride at a public well. So, the very setting of the story hints at the possibility of an interracial betrothal, only furthering the impropriety of the encounter.