17 The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:
18 For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.
(Joh 4:17-20 KJV)
Jesus and this Samaritan woman were having a conversation about water. Jesus invited the woman to ask for living water – that is, water that gives life, that quenches thirst permanently – and the woman asks for it.
Then Jesus tells her to call her husband. The standard interpretation is that Jesus is confronting her fornication, and the woman gets uncomfortable with that and changes the subject. That was how I always viewed it, until I started asking questions of the text.
If this is what Jesus was doing, why did he allow her to change the subject? Shouldn’t he have pressed on until she repented?
Then I understood something. Jesus knows the heart, but we have to ask questions. Jesus knows perfectly what is going on, but we need to explore.
The assumption that Jesus is confronting her sinful fornication is the assumption made by men from the perspective of men. If this was a man that Jesus was talking to, then the assumption is that the man has kicked out his wife five times looking for a younger or prettier model. We get that. But in that day, a wife didn’t have many options. Where would she go? How would she feed herself? What will she do?
Further, a wife didn’t divorce her husband; a husband divorced his wife. And this happened to her five times. She continued to marry the same kind of man, a man who didn’t know how to love, and continued to reap the same results – just as she kept coming to the well to drink the water. Eventually, she thirsted again.
Her quest for acceptance, security, intimacy and love led her to seek out the same kind of man over and over again. Eventually she gave up, decided that she wasn’t worthy of the dignity of marriage and simply let the sixth man use her as he saw fit. That was all she was worth. Her deepest longing would never be filled. But Jesus would change all of that.
Jesus, seeing the heart, knew that her problem was a problem of worship. She sought her healing and worth in the arms of men – one marriage after another; and she was discarded, one after another, by the same type of man. She thought that the next time her thirst would be filled. But that dream was as futile as thinking that water from the well would quench her thirst forever and she would never have to draw again. The reason we have to keep drawing water from the well is that the water of the earth can’t ever fill what we thirst for. The problem with the woman wasn’t lust and fornication. It was a problem of worship. The god she worshiped had her in hard bondage, a never ending cycle of abuse, degradation, and despair, until finally she required nothing, demanded nothing, and allowed herself to be used and discarded as a useless thing.
But Jesus saw a prodigal daughter, a woman in God’s image, and restored her in the area she needed the most: the area of worship. Jesus didn’t allow her to change the subject. We just need to see what the subject WAS. The subject they were talking about was thirst, and Jesus pinpointed her true thirst with one simple question: “Go call your husband, and come here.”
When true worship is restored, the bondage and cycle of degradation and abuse cease. He came to proclaim deliverance to the prisoners, not to harp on women like a Pharisee. He came to bind up the brokenhearted, and he saw in the women one who was brokenhearted. He didn’t stop at the outside of the cup; he went to the heart.
Did Jesus confront her sin? Yes, of course he did. But her sin wasn’t that she was a fornicating tramp who didn’t know how to keep a husband. That’s reading into the text what isn’t there. Her sin was deeper than that. It was a problem of worship.
Jesus didn’t let her off the hook on that one. He pointed his finger right at it, then when she confessed that he was right (“I perceive that you are a prophet”), he continued to do what he told her he would do, and gave her living water. But instead of falsely accusing her of something that she didn’t do, he went right to the heart of the issue, because it wasn’t his intention to further degrade her and humiliate her, it was his intention to restore fellowship with God, and this fellowship must be in spirit and in truth.
If we wish to evangelize as Jesus did, we have to learn to know people. Jesus saw the heart, but we have to ask questions and learn how to listen. Then we need to point them to the only one that can give living water. Too often I fear we settle for telling everyone what is wrong with them – but we usually get that part wrong. The heart of the matter is worship. We need to get to the heart, and that can only come with time and patience.