The Woman at the Well: How Transformation Happens

The woman at the well is transformed by her encounter with Jesus. Her experiences, from past to present, help us understand change.

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Throughout the gospels in the New Testament, there are many stories about encounters between Jesus and seemingly random people. I often study these scriptures (and sometimes, commentaries) in an attempt to extract meaning from these brief exchanges. In this story, there’s a personal transformation as well as a change in the community as a result of a woman’s willingness to share her story. Here’s more about the woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus:

Background: A Samaritan woman meets Jesus alone when she goes to draw water from her town well

One of the encounters is between Jesus and a Samaritan woman, who is often referred to as the woman at the well. The story is found in the Book of John, Chapter 4:4-42.

I’ll note that the Jews and Samaritans, in general, weren’t friendly to each other. Jesus uses the example of the “good Samaritan” in a parable not only to encourage compassion but also to agitate the religious establishment; that is, the holy people don’t help the traveler in distress but the Samaritan does. (Ouch.)

Anyway, in this story, Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Samaria. The disciples seem to have disappeared for a while and so Jesus goes to the well by himself to get a drink of water. There he encounters a woman with whom he has an unusual conversation. She seems to know a lot about spiritual practices and beliefs, including the promise of a Messiah. As they talk, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah and offers water that satisfies all thirstiness. He’s saying that he gives abundant, eternal life so we don’t have to keep going back to the well after getting temporarily satiated.

Lessons: Honesty and willingness to see a different reality leads to dramatic change

In the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, we see how conversation sparks transformation. We aren’t told exactly what the woman is thinking but we witness a turnaround in her beliefs, her feelings about herself, and her credibility with the people in her town. Using this story as an example, here are ways  to experience transformation:

Encounter the divine in the ordinary

The woman has a face-to-face, one-to-one interaction with Jesus while she collects water at the well.

This meeting is not a chance encounter and is unusual for a variety of reasons. Typically, people come to the well early in the morning. But this woman arrives in the heat of the day. She may want to avoid other women as she may be shunned because of her promiscuity (she has had many husbands and the man she lives with now is not her husband). So, she ventures out when it’s unlikely that she’ll see anyone else.

The interaction between Jesus and the woman is unconventional. A Jewish man (Jesus) wasn’t supposed to talk with a Samaritan woman. And, a private conversation between this holy man and promiscuous woman could be considered scandalous.

True transformation involves an encounter with God. We may not expect this interaction but it happens in the course of our daily routines.

Be upfront with God

The woman was upfront with Jesus about her beliefs and her doubts. She questions him and his motives. For example when he asks for a drink of water, she responds, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

She continues to challenge him, even daring to ask if he is greater than “our father Jacob, who gave us this well” and mentioning the argument between Jews and Samaritans about where people should worship. Her directness and honesty are a great example of how we can be straightforward with Jesus, as long as we are open to hearing the truth.

Based on this story and my own experiences, I believe Jesus prefers honest questioning over human holiness or false respect. Instead of accepting conventional wisdom and what we’ve been told by others, we can confront God with our concerns and confusion. He welcomes the opportunity to speak with us, even in unconventional conversations.

Be willing to change our worldview

The woman at the well articulates and defends her worldview to Jesus. She starts by questioning his actions in the context of the initial interaction, asking why a Jewish man should interact with a Samaritan woman. Then she moves to broader issues, challenging whether he is greater than her ancestor Jacob who gave her people the well and whether the proper place of worship is on the mountain or Jerusalem.

What is most notable about this encounter is that the woman changes her view of the world based on her conversation with Jesus. She doesn’t merely fit new facts into her base of knowledge but reverses much of what she has long believed. She exchanges past suppositions for new truths.

Changing the lens through which you view the world is perhaps the hardest thing that we can do. For me, abandoning a long-term belief is difficult and upsetting. It’s painful to realize that my reasoning in the past has been based on bad or incomplete information. But being able to toss out wrong ideas and replace them with more accurate views of reality is a turning point, sparking transformation.

Recognize truth and accept grace

We are told what the woman said in her conversation with Jesus. But we aren’t really sure how she is feeling about the exchange until the very end of the story.

When Jesus confronts her sin in a matter-of-fact way, she acknowledges the truth but doesn’t ask for forgiveness or rationalize her actions. Instead, she says that she “can see that you [Jesus] are a prophet,” then proceeds to ask him about religious practices. Later, she tells her fellow Samaritans that “He told me everything I ever did.”

Interestingly, she doesn’t seem to feel condemned (perhaps she couldn’t feel more like an outcast than she already did) but rather excited about Jesus’s words, the grace that is extended to her. Again, we don’t know exactly how she felt but we do know that many people believed because of her testimony.

Both truth and grace are vital to transformation. The woman had most likely experienced plenty of truth about herself and her transgressions; as a result, she wanted to avoid others. But here, she also experiences grace, acceptance and forgiveness, which compels her to share her story freely.

Share your story

The transformation is evident when the woman tells her story to the people in her town. Her words must have been convincing because she now has credibility in her community.

Being able to triumphantly emerge from a difficult situation and articulate how change occurred is both a sign of transformation and a transforming experience itself. In my experience, when I’m able to understand, describe, and tell my story, I can see more clearly how I’ve changed.

I think this woman is ready for a new, different life. Interestingly, she seems to have above average knowledge about spiritual practices and beliefs of the day. But, after taking a few wrong turns in life, she may not  know how to make things right. Like her, we may think that our mistakes have doomed us. Here we see how an uncomfortable situation helps redeem this woman and transform her relationship with God and other people. By sharing her story, she likely sparks a change among those in her community.

Want more? I’ve published a video sharing my experiences in change and published a Bible study on this topic: Woman at the Well Bible Study.

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