I didn’t include this story in my “Daughters of Zion” biblical retellings (you can find that here: Daughters of Zion (Biblical Retellings) only because the theme of that book was miracles experienced by women, and not just biblical stories in which a woman was prominently featured. Otherwise, this would have been one of the big ones. The story only appears in the gospel of John, though it makes sense why John specifically would have chosen to include it. The theme of his gospel is love.
The Jews of Jesus’ day scorned Samaritans, and from a religious standpoint, it would seem that there were good reasons for this. The Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with pagans of neighboring nations, violating God’s commandments to Joshua (Joshua 23:11-13), and falling prey to the doctrine of Balaam (from Numbers 23-24). God specifically told the Jews not to intermarry with those who worshipped other gods, lest they be led into idolatry. But when Assyria captured Samaria (2 Kings 17:5-41), the Assyrian king sent foreigners into the land who worshipped other gods. The Jews there did intermarry with them, and incorporated their pagan practices into their worship of Yahweh as well. Because of this, devout Jews wanted nothing to do with Samaritans, and wouldn’t allow them to worship at their temple. The Samaritans had thus erected their own temple for worship instead (John 4:19-20).
Even among her fellow Samaritans, though, this woman was an outcast. This is implied by the fact that she went alone to the well in the heat of the day, rather than in the morning when it was cooler, with all the other women. Her story, as Jesus revealed it, indicates the probable reason for this: her immoral behavior presumably caused the respectable women of the town to look down on her. This was probably why she was so shocked when Jesus spoke to her, even humbling himself to the point of asking her for a favor. (I’m sure He really did want a drink, though, as we’re told earlier in the story that He was weary from his journey, and it was mid-afternoon so possibly it was hot, John 4:6. The story never mentions that the woman actually gave Him a drink, so as I wrote the retelling, I kept thinking, He’s still thirsty…)
Jesus’ humility in asking the woman for a favor probably lowered her defense mechanisms initially, but I love how Jesus proceeded to dismantle whatever remained of them with just a few sentences. Every “chick flick” or “chick lit” story features an archetypical down-and-out heroine, embittered by the adversities of life. She then surreptitiously encounters a romantic hero who is the very embodiment of perfection. He’s not only handsome, confident, and kind, but also several rungs above her on the social ladder to boot–but he’s never arrogant about it. He sees through our heroine’s prickly defenses to the soft heart she’s trying to protect, and he’s absolutely taken with her. From that point on, he pursues her relentlessly, refusing to be dissuaded. Try as she might, she can’t resist him–because as frightened as she is of letting herself be vulnerable, all she’s ever wanted is for someone to look past her faults, see her for who she truly is, and love her anyway. She falls in love with him in spite of herself… and then of course they live happily ever after.
That’s how I see this story, and I think it’s how John saw it too. It’s not a romance in the human sense, and yet (as author John Eldredge would put it), it’s “The Sacred Romance,” writ small and personal–almost in allegory, though this was also a real woman, too. We are not called the Bride of Christ for nothing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this woman was the lowest of the low in that society, either–and yet, despite that, this woman is the first recorded person to whom Jesus overtly declares His identity as the Messiah (John 4:25-26). Of all people, He chose her to be the first to hear the news–just as later, the formerly demon-possessed Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. (John is also the only gospel writer to explicitly record this encounter, in John 20:11-18.)
If Jesus qualified even these women, then there’s hope for all of us.