The Danger of a Single Story: The Case of The Woman at the Well (Part 2)

…As we continue to examine and transform our judgements of others – the danger of monolithic narratives, we take a closer look at the woman at the well – a woman maligned and scorned. Her reputation had been sullied by many a preacher. The sermons that I have heard about this woman shed no light on this woman at the well, except framed her as a woman who was not “well”. And without taking the time to know her (as Jesus did), I accepted that single story I had heard about her and approached her (in John 4) with all those preconceived ideas. I could not sit with her and engage her and get to understand her because I already “knew” her story and was blinded to anything else I may discover about this woman…But she triumphed. Her voice resounded above the noise for a chance to tell her own story – to write her own script – to interrupt the narrative that re-presents her as a loose, ignorant, insecure infidel.

You see, she was no ordinary woman. She was not insecure neither was she afraid to have a conversation with a man – a Jewish man. Perhaps by now, she had come to understand that she needed to be strong enough to stand for herself because the men in her life previously, had all abandoned her. She begins a conversation with Jesus about “WORSHIP” & “RELATIONSHIP”….

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])

12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”


In the conversation with Jesus, the woman, who had been assigned no real identity except that she was Samaritan and consequently, less than a Jew, reveals a few things about herself:

  1. She confronts Jesus about the prejudice that exists amongst Jews, against Samaritans and amongst men, against women. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” She asked, incredulously. She brings to the surface, the ethnic and familial tensions that existed between Jews & Gentiles – distant cousins who were worshipping the same God, yet couldn’t get along. She was no simpleton. She could situate the tension and began to interrogate Jesus’ motives. Of-course, Jesus demonstrated his difference . The affirms that which sets him apart in the response he gave (but I digress… this post is focusing on the woman).
  2. She asserts her equality, as a Samaritan, with the Jews by Tracing her lineage back to Jacob/Israel. Implicit in her question to Jesus’ offering of living water is also the statement of their heritage (“Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”). “What then makes me inferior?” Being a descendant of Jacob, she would have also known Jacob/Israel’s God – a reality that runs counter to the narrative than we have heard of her in sermons. But she has never been presented as such.
  3. Thirdly, this woman exposes something in her conversation with Jesus that we so often miss: (Authentic) Relationship as worship/ Worship as (authentic) Relationship. Often, we look at worship as simply an exercise in giving homage and adoration to God. How often do we consider the conflicts that exists among us in our faith communities; the walls of differentiation that we have erected to appear superior, while others are made to feel excluded? Is that part of our reflection as we seek to worship and bring honour to God? “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Even as we worship, how do we deal with those conflicts caused by perceptions of each other, forms, days and place of worship? “What is important in worshipping?” She wanted to know. Revealing the heart of a “True Worshipper”; not a harlot as some would have supposed; not a woman whose preoccupation was about pilfering somebody’s husband. NO! She wanted to understand what worship would please The Almighty God.

Now, according to John 4:4, Jesus had to go through Samaria. Not out of necessity but out of providence. There he would encounter a woman whose heart was towards worship. Who had been carrying the burden of a broken relationship between distant cousins (Jews & Samaritans). Who needed to hear the affirmation that despite all the other things (albeit misinterpreted) that were going on in her life; that despite failed dreams and aspirations; a sullied reputation, that she was and is a WORTHY worshipper!

So often we use sound-bites of people’s lives to define them. We make judgements of others without even getting to know them beyond the rumours and we keep those walls of differentiation up. How are we expected to have a fruitful worship community when relationships are deformed by the monolithic narratives we choose to hold of others? How do we encourage and provoke each other to grow and worship in spirit and in truth if we continue to compromise our relationships by holding on to parts of people’s stories, while refusing to unearth the rest that is beautiful and full of potential?

In the wake of the reconciliation of such relationship (between Jewish Jesus and that Samaritan woman, whose name I wish I knew), the woman left to tell other Samaritans to come and be reconciled with their Jewish cousin.. “Come see a man” . There may be no true worship without first building authentic relationships. I learned this from the woman at the well because I dared to see beyond a single story.

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