THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA.
THE Jew whose discussions had thus deeply moved the followers of John may well have been one of the prominent Pharisees; and our Lord soon became aware that they were watching his proceedings with an unfriendly eye. Their hostility to John was a still deeper hostility against Him, for the very reason that His teaching was already more successful. Perhaps in consequence of this determined rejection of the earliest steps of His teachingperhaps also out of regard for the wounded feelings of John's followersbut most of all because at this very time the news reached Him that John had been seized by Herod Antipas and thrown into prisonJesus left Judæa and again departed into Galilee. Being already in the north of Judæa, He chose the route which led through Samaria. The fanaticism of Jewish hatred, the fastidiousness of Jewish Pharisaism, which led His countrymen when travelling alone to avoid that route, could have no existence for Him, and were things rather to be discouraged than approved.
Starting early in the morning, to enjoy as many as possible of the cool hours for travelling, he stopped at length for rest and refreshment in the neighbourhood of Sychar, a city not far from the well in the fertile district which the partiality of the patriarch Jacob had bequeathed to his favourite son. The well, like all frequented wells in the East, was doubtless sheltered by a little alcove, in which were seats of stone.
It was the hour of noon, and weary as He was with the long journey, possibly also with the extreme heat, our Lord sat "thus" on the well. The expression in the original is most pathetically picturesque. It implies that the Wayfarer was quite tired out, and in His exhaustion flung His limbs wearily on the seat, anxious if possible for complete repose. His disciplesprobably the two pairs of brothers whom he had called among the earliest, and with them the friends Philip and Bartholomewhad left him, to buy in the neighbouring city what was necessary for their wants; and hungry and thirsty, He who bore all our infirmities sat wearily awaiting them, when His solitude was broken by the approach of a woman. In a May noon in Palestine the heat may be indeed intense, but it is not too intense to admit of moving about; and this woman, either from accident, or, possibly, because she was in no good repute, and therefore would avoid the hour when the well would be thronged by all the women of the city, was coming to draw water. Her national enthusiasm and reverence for the great ancestor of her race, or perhaps the superior coolness and freshness of the water, may have been sufficient motive to induce her to seek this well, rather than any nearer fountain. Water in the East is not only a necessity, but a delicious luxury, and the natives of Palestine are connoisseurs as to its quality.
Jesus would have hailed her approach. The scene, indeed, in that rich green valley, with the great cornfields spreading far and wide, and the grateful shadow of trees, and the rounded masses of Ebal and Gerizim rising on either hand, might well have invited to lonely musing; and all the associations of that sacred spotthe story of Jacob, the neighbouring tomb of the princely Joseph, the memories of Joshua, and of Gideon, and the long line of Israelitish kingswould supply many a theme for such meditations. But the Lord was thirsty and fatigued, and having no means of reaching the cool water which glimmered deep below the well's mouth, He said to the woman, "Give me to drink."
Every one who has travelled in the East knows how glad and ready is the response to this request. The miserable Fellah, even the rough Bedawy, seems to feel a positive pleasure in having it in his power to obey the command of his great prophet, and share with a thirsty traveller the priceless element. But so deadly was the hatred and rivalry between Jews and Samaritans, so entire the absence of all familiar intercourse between them, that the request only elicited from the woman of Samaria an expression of surprise that it should have been made.
Gently, and without a word of rebuke, our Lord tells her that had she known Him, and asked of Him, He would have given her living water. She pointed to the well, a hundred feet deep. He had nothing to draw with: whence could He obtain this living water? And then, perhaps with a smile of incredulity and national pride, she asked if He were greater than their father Jacob, who had digged and drunk of that very well. And yet there must have been something which struck and overawed her in His words, for now she addresses Him by the title of respect which had been wanting in her first address.
Our Lord is not deterred by the hard literalism of her reply; He treats it as He had treated similar unimaginative dulness in the learned Nicodemus, by still drawing her thoughts upward, if possible, to a higher region. She was thinking of common water, of which he who drinketh would thirst again; but the water He spake of was a fountain within the heart, which quenched all thirst for ever, and sprang up unto eternal life.
She becomes the suppliant now. He had asked her a little favour, which she had delayed, or half declined; he now offers her an eternal gift. She sees that she is in some great Presence, and begs for this living water, but again with the same unspiritual narrownessshe only begs for it that she might thirst no more, nor come there to draw.
But enough was done for the present to awake and to instruct this poor stranger, and abruptly breaking off this part of the conversation, Jesus bids her call her husband and return. All that was in His mind when He uttered this command we cannot tell; it may have been because the immemorial decorum of the East regarded it as unbecoming, if not as positively wrong, for any man, and above all for a Rabbi, to hold conversation with a strange woman; it may have been also to break a stony heart, to awake a sleeping conscience. For she was forced to answer that she had no husband, and our Lord, in grave confirmation of her sad confession, unbared to her the secret of a loose and wanton life. She had had five husbands, and he whom she now had was not her husband.
She saw that a Prophet was before her, but from the facts of her own historyon which she is naturally anxious to linger as little as possibleher eager mind flies to the one great question which was daily agitated with such fierce passion between her race and that of Him to whom she spake, and which lay at the root of the savage animosity with which they treated each other. Chance had thrown her into the society of a great Teacher: was it not a good opportunity to settle for ever the immense discussion between Jews and Samaritans as to whether Jerusalem or Gerizim was the holy place of Palestine Jerusalem, where Solomon had built his temple; or Gerizim, the immemorial sanctuary, where Joshua had uttered the blessings, and where Abraham had been ready to offer up his son. Pointing to the summit of the mountain towering eight hundred feet above them, and crowned by the ruins of the ancient temple of Manasseh, which Hyrcanus had destroyed, she put her dubious question, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship?"
Briefly, and merely by way of parenthesis, He resolved her immediate problem. As against the Samaritans, the Jews were unquestionably right. Jerusalem was the place which God had chosen; compared to the hybrid and defective worship of Samaria, Judaism was pure and true; but before and after touching on the earthly and temporal controversy, He uttered to her the mighty and memorable prophecy, that the hour was coming, yea now was, when "neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem" should true worshippers worship the Father, but in every place should worship Him in spirit and in truth.
She was deeply moved and touched; but how could she, at the mere chance word of an unknown stranger, give up the strong faith in which she and her fathers had been born and bred? With a sigh she referred the final settlement of this and of every question to the advent of the Messiah; and then He spake the simple, awful words"I that speak unto thee am He."
His birth had been first revealed by night to a few unknown and ignorant shepherds; the first full, clear announcement by Himself of His own Messiahship was made by a well-side in the weary noon to a single obscure Samaritan woman. And to this poor, sinful, ignorant stranger had been uttered words of immortal significance, to which all future ages would listen, as it were, with hushed breath and on their knees.
Who would have invented, who would have merely imagined, things so unlike the thoughts of man as these?
And here the conversation was interrupted, for the disciplesand among them he who writes the recordreturned to their Master. Jacob's well is dug on elevated ground, on a spur of Gerizim, and in a part of the plain unobstructed and unshaded by trees or buildings. From a distance in that clear air they had seen and had heard their Master in long and earnest conversation with a solitary figure. He a Jew, He a Rabbi, talking to "a woman," and that woman a Samaritan, and that Samaritan a sinner! Yet they dared not suggest anything to Him; they dared not question Him. The sense of His majesty, the love and the faith His very presence breathed, overshadowed all minor doubts or wondering curiosities.
Meanwhile the woman, forgetting even her water-pot in her impetuous amazement, had hurried to the city with her wondrous story. Here was One who had revealed to her the very secrets of her life. Was not this the Messiah?
The Samaritansin all the Gospel notices of whom we detect something simpler and more open to conviction than in the Jewsinstantly flocked out of the city at her words, and while they were seen approaching, the disciples urged our Lord to eat, for the hour of noon was now past, and He had had a weary walk. But all hunger had been satisfied in the exaltation of His ministry. "I have food to eat," He said, "which ye know not." Might they not have understood that, from childhood upwards, He had not lived by bread alone? But again we find the same dull, hard, stolid literalism. Their Scriptures, the very idiom in which they spoke, were full of vivid metaphors, yet they could hit on no deeper explanation of His meaning than that perhaps some one had brought Him something to eat. How hard must it have been for Him thus, at every turn, to find even in His chosen ones such a strange incapacity to see that material images were but the vehicles for deep spiritual thoughts. But there was no impatience in Him who was meek and lowly of heart. "My meat," He said "is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish His work." And then pointing to the inhabitants of Sichem, as they streamed to Him over the plain, he continued, "You talk of there yet being four months to harvest. Look at these fields, white already for the spiritual harvest. Ye shall be the joyful reapers of the harvest which I thus have sown in toll and pain; but I, the sower, rejoice in the thought of that joy to come."
The personal intercourse with Christ convinced many of these Samaritans far more deeply than the narrative of the woman to whom He had first revealed Himself; and graciously acceding to their request that He would stay with them, He and His disciples abode there two days. Doubtless it was the teaching of those two days that had a vast share in the rich conversions of a few subsequent years.