You don’t expect it to happen at “Gentle Yoga,” of all places. But the other day, as I was standing in line at the YMCA, mat in hand, a white-haired woman in sweatpants, built like a truck, walked up to me.

“Get out of the way,” she said. “I always go in first.”

She’d done the same thing before. I’d moved over before. But I was tired of moving over for her and just stood there, looking at her.

Boom! Using the side of her body, she bulldozed herself against me, throwing me off balance. But thanks to growing up with three older brothers, I instinctively hip-checked her, pushing her back. Her eyes widened. “Get out of the way!”

Yikes. At that point, the health benefits of Gentle Yoga seemed negligible.

“Stop being a brat,” I said.

“I’m not a brat,” she said.

Really? I guess the part about “Leave the world behind you and breathe deeply” wasn’t working too well off her mat.

The previous class ended, thank God. I opened the door and she walked in. Behind me. Next time, I’ll probably use the other door and keep my balance, in more ways than one.

In the meantime, I’m getting tired of cranky old women. I hope I’m not turning into one myself.

But just in case, that’s why I particularly like this Sunday’s (RSV lectionary) Gospel reading from John, the infamous Samaritan Woman-by-the-Well story (John 4). She is so irritable that she makes Oscar the Grouch look like Shirley Temple.

And yet she is the one that Jesus choose to talk to more than anyone else in the Bible. That’s a big deal—and overlooked for centuries.

Most likely, she had been handed down from brother to brother, in the ancient Hebrew Levirate system that, in its own idiosyncratic way, protected a woman’s right to bear a child if her husband died. Whether there was affection did not count.

No wonder she was irritable. No wonder she went for water in the middle of the day, while other women would be at home in the shade. She would have still been a laughing stock.

Humiliation and fatigue are written all over this poor woman. Yet I have a sense that Jesus enjoys talking with her, probably because she’s not asking him for anything. She doesn’t ask him for healing. She doesn’t want food. She doesn’t pander to him. Like a worthy debate champion, she lofts questions at him, using wry humor and sarcasm as her main tool. And despite her skepticism, she’s smart. She knows her history, her faith, and her own mind.

Lots going on in this story—and surprisingly, many commonalities between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, including:

They shared the same bloodlines. Both Samaritans and Jews were children of Abraham. Both held Mosaic law in common. Both believed in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Both believed in holy ground—and, in fact, met and conversed at Jacob’s Well—the well used by Jacob (Rebekah’s husband), and then passed down to his descendants—which would include both Jesus and the woman.

Their people were enemies. Cultural and racial disparities, hundreds of years old, permeated the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.

They knew their sacred history. They were both people of story, people of God, people of the word. They knew their traditions, their history, their conflicts, and their biases.

They were both cast-outs in their own cultures. Jesus had just come from difficult times with the Pharisees, that branch of Judaism that tended to keep score. Of late, they had been keeping numbes on who was baptizing more people—John the Baptist or Jesus. Tiresome. Irritating.

Because of the many men in her life, the woman was also a societal cast-off, which explains why she was going to the well at midday, long after other women and girls had collected their water in the cool morning hours.

They both invited people to enter into conversation, rather than remaining silent. Trademarks of Jesus’ ministry—inviting others to be in relationship with him, inviting people to drink of God’s eternal living water, inviting people to live a life reflecting God’s abundant life—was shared by the woman when she said, “Can this be the Messiah? Come and see…”

That “come and see” and “experience for yourself” framework was particularly emphasized in John’s Gospel, points out scholar Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan: “The Samaritan woman represents all the Gospel is about. She believes on her own experience, and she tells others so they can “see” for themselves and “believe.’”*

The woman at the well was an evangelist, one of the first. She was bright and smart and outspoken; she was a woman of humor. Most of all, Jesus considered her worthy—worthy of the abundant life which God had promised. Whether she knew it or not, she had indeed herself been dunked in God’s well of living water—and transformed.*

But for me, the bottom line is still this:  Jesus talked to her–a skeptical, cynical, and sarcastic woman–longer than anyone else. That gives us all hope for the future. Can’t get much better than that.


*Getty-Sullivan, Mary Ann, Women in the New Testament, (Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press), 2001 page 96 ff.

Photo: Scott Gunn, Kenya collection

Excerpts above taken from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman