Ever since I heard a deep explanation of the story of the woman at the well in the gospel of John, I have been fascinated by its relevance to evangelization. It truly is a blueprint for how we should engage with anyone who we wish to admonish or instruct, according to works of mercy.
I firmly believe that if more Catholics paid attention to this story and the lessons it holds, we would see a transformation of our world overnight. Far too often, particularly on social media, I see Catholics adopting the tactics of the scribes and Pharisees rather than Christ himself. We have lost the art of listening to others, presuming for some bizarre reason that listening means that we condone wrongdoing. We forget that condemnation and judgment do not come until after death (and from God alone), and that while we draw breath here on earth, there is always hope and the opportunity for reconciliation.
The question has to be asked: How do we bring about reconciliation in a world that feels overwhelmingly irreconcilable? The correct answer eludes us in the age of weaponized rage – it is a profoundly unsatisfying one when 280-character quips give us the hit we so strongly desire. The answer to the question of reconciliation begins with ourselves, then those within our immediate sphere, and then beyond, if God so wills. If we get that order mixed up, we cause far more harm than good.
Now, let’s get into the story of the woman at the well. It is a long one, but I encourage you to click over and read it if you haven’t in a while.
I am no theologian. This blueprint I offer is based on some reflections I have heard on this story, combined with the truth of it in my own experience both in therapy and as a fertility awareness coach engaging women in situations that are often shameful for them.
Using this story, I outline 5 steps to engaging for evangelization.
Step 1: Meet them where they are.
Step one seems obvious. You can’t engage without proximity, even on social media. But few of us really reflect on what it means to meet someone where they are.
So let’s enter the story. Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, is stopping at a well in Samaria. Already the situation is cause for alarm, as we know that Samaria was not on great terms with the rest of Israel.
John introduces Jesus by saying he was tired. I have always loved this detail. Jesus was after all, fully human, and he participated fully in our humanity. It was presumably lunchtime, since the apostles had gone to buy food, and they had been traveling in the desert. Jesus is in a physically weakened and vulnerable state, God made man, but very much one of us.
What is even more remarkable about this meeting is the woman’s circumstance. Drawing water from the well was typically done in the morning. This was, after all, the desert. Water was drawn early in the day because it was needed and to avoid the heat. You can imagine all the women of the village gathering to draw water at the same time, how that would be a social ritual, an opportunity to converse and connect. But this woman was drawing water on her own, in the afternoon. She was ostracized from that social ritual because she was a sinner. She, too, is vulnerable.
As a rabbi, Jesus would be fully aware of the reason this woman would be drawing water when she was. In her experience, a man and rabbi no less, would have immediately left upon seeing her. But instead, he says, “Give me a drink.” Not only does he remain, but he dares to request a drink from a sinner’s bucket. She is shocked! She is seen, she is known, and rather than be abandoned, she is engaged.
To meet someone where they are means having the courage to enter their world without rushing to judge how that world looks, but rather taking time to understand the whole story. This is not license. It does not equate to, I understand how you got here and it’s ok to continue. Rather, it says, I understand how you got here. I can see the pain you have endured, and I would like to help you bear this burden if I can. This is a profound gift and invitation to freedom, and as the story unfolds we will see how Jesus does this.
Step 2: Engage with curiosity.
Having endured nothing but rejection because of her life choices, the woman responds to Jesus with cynicism asking, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (John 4:9). In other words, Why are you talking to me? Don’t you, a Jew and a rabbi, think yourself so far above me, a Samaritan and a sinner, who isn’t even allowed to draw water with others? Am I an object for you to convert or deride when I don’t conform to your words immediately? Or will you dare to see me, to enter into my world for a moment, and not immediately dismiss or fix or run?
Her cynicism was a challenge rooted in pain, and Jesus saw that.
How often are attempts at evangelization met with cynicism because the approach is rooted in our prideful desire to be proven right rather than to see a human person? The impulse is to respond in kind. But what would happen if cynicism was met with curiosity and kindness, and we changed our approach to one that seeks to see rather than assign an explanation for our own comfort? How disarming that would be! And what we see in this story is Jesus doing just that, which in turn piques the curiosity of this woman.
“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” [The woman] said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep; where then can you get this living water?” (John 4:10)
Step 3: Find Common Ground.
What did Jesus have in common with this woman? At first glance, absolutely nothing. He was a rabbi, a Jew, a holy man. She was a woman, a Samaritan, ostracized from her community. But they did have something in common: thirst. Two kinds of thirst, in fact, one very practical and human, and the other very intangible and spiritual. Jesus came to this vulnerable woman in a vulnerable state himself, thirsty and tired just as she was.
This woman was longing for connection. She was weary of being excluded from village life. It is for the simple reason that the Man she was speaking to had made her for connection. A life lived in isolation, no matter the reason, is contrary to our nature and profoundly destructive. But in order to regain connection, she needed reconciliation, the kind that could only come from naming her reality and giving her the freedom to change it if she wished.
I often say that if Jesus, who is God, could find something in common with this Samaritan woman, then we can easily find things in common with absolutely anyone – we are all human and we are all sinners. We’re not as different as we like to think we are, but then, we are experts at self-deception. If we are honest, aka humble, we can find our humanity in anyone we meet, no matter their faith or political affiliation.
We are all made for connection. The truth of this lies in the mystery of the Trinity, that our God exists as three distinct persons though one. We were made in that image – for relationship. We feel rupture in relationships deeply and profoundly as injustice. We long for reconciliation when those ruptures happen, because we were made in the image and likeness of a God who would send his Son to take on our debt to bring about reconciliation.
Far too often, we grasp at destructive behaviors and tactics to heal because we respond to these ruptures with fear and panic, rooted in our own wounds, rather than curiosity. We don’t know to use kindness, gentleness, and a listening ear because in most cases we haven’t experienced that for ourselves. But that is precisely what Jesus did with this woman. And the result was transformative.
Step 4: Name the wrong without shame or judgement.
Jesus saw the deepest longings of this woman’s heart. She wanted to be free of the consequences of having 5 husbands. She wanted to be reconciled to her community and have relationships once again. But she couldn’t do that without giving up her life, the only comfort she had known. The key to transformation was to be able to name her reality without judgment or derision, and she knew that was not to be found among her friends.
Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 9: 16-18)
Her sin is named. And the response is not disgust or derision. The response is “You are right.” She is seen and known precisely for who she is and what she’s done, and she isn’t judged, derided or abandoned. Jesus remains present with her.
I once had a client who was having a hard time naming something. I could sense tremendous shame, and an uncomfortable effort to use every euphemism to describe an act rather than the term itself. I knew it was out of fear of being judged. I had my client pause and asked, “What do you mean? Please be specific.” She stuttered a bit, but stated what she meant clearly. She later shared it was an immense relief to be allowed to say what she meant without judgement.
Naming is vital to healing. In my example, it was not important for me to know the term, but it was for her to say it, and know that I heard her and that I was responding to it. If we do not name a wound for what it is, it doesn’t exist and there is nothing to heal. It’s a trap because it’s a lie. There is a wound, a deep, gaping infected wound that needs a Healer.
But we have to know that when we name something, we will not be met with more hurt. We have to know that we will be met in love and compassion. This is the profound power of confession, the ultimate reconciliation. There is something about our human psychology that needs to be able to name our wounds and our sins and to hear the words “I absolve you.” I forgive you. I see you. I see myself in you. You don’t scare me. I will remain with you.
Step 5: Respect their freedom.
Almost at the end of the story, Jesus reveals himself to this woman: “I am [the Messiah], the one who is speaking with you.” (John 9: 26). Once he does, his apostles return and the woman leaves to go announce to the whole town who Jesus is.
I have always been struck that Jesus gave her no marching orders. He met her where she was, gave her what she was longing for, and then let her be. It is similar in the story of Blind Bartimaeus. Jesus tells this man after he restores his sight “Go your way” (Mark 10:52). Despite giving them everything they asked for and more besides, Jesus lets both the woman and Bartimaeus choose: What do you want to do with what I have given you?
It would have been easy and understandable for Jesus to demand some kind of payment. In fact, in other stories of healing, Jesus is noted to have said “Follow me.” But not here. Jesus knew that without the invitation or command, the lives of both the woman and Bartimaeus were changed forever. Truth offered in perfect freedom has that power. Bartimaeus chose that his way was to follow Jesus. And this woman became a John the Baptist of sorts to the village that once shunned her.
Ultimately, in order for reconciliation to occur, changes must be made. There must be a reckoning. This woman had to abandon her life of sin. She had to do so of her own free will, not out of coercion, but out of an experience of love. She knew that, and that’s why, before Jesus, she didn’t change. Jesus gave her the ability to change and the support to do so. He did not leave this little sheep outside the herd. He sought her, and brought her back within the fold, so that through the experience of relationship and community, she could more easily remain in communion with God. Where force had kept her in her sin, curiosity and truth delivered in love freed her from it.
The Woman is You.
You’re not Jesus.
Hopefully that didn’t bust anyone’s bubble. Yes, we are to strive to be like Christ, to model our behavior on his, but we aren’t him. We cannot go into relationships with others with the expectation that we can change them with one conversation.
Jesus was able to encounter this woman perfectly because he’s God, and perfection is Love. In order for you to be an effective tool of evangelization, to be gentle as Christ was, you have to allow Jesus to meet the woman at the well within you – and love her.
Ok, so you don’t have 5 husbands (or maybe you do).
But maybe you have deep wounds you refuse to address and it is ruining your relationships. Maybe you haven’t been to confession in months or years because you don’t agree with the Church’s teachings on sin or you let your shame convict you. Maybe you feel alone and isolated and rush to judge yourself because you know what’s wrong and still do it. Maybe you can’t confront your own sin, and rationalize it with many excuses. Maybe you feel unworthy and refuse to speak truth into that lie. Maybe you’ve lost hope and become cynical living in this crazy world.
How do you meet yourself in that darkness? Do you engage yourself as the apostles and the townsfolk did the woman, with derision, fear, condemnation and ostracization? Or do you recognize your humanity, your need for a Savior, and treat yourself, the person who God loved from all eternity, as Christ would? Do you recognize conversion, especially your own, as an ongoing, painful interior process, one we are constantly having to reconcile because we constantly sin? Do you dare to see your depravity and respond with curiosity? Have you ever really let God see you for who you are, or only the dressed up version that is nicely (and falsely) packaged?
This is why Jesus said to recognize the log in your own eye before removing your brother’s splinter. In order to engage the brokenness you encounter in your home and the world with any effectiveness, you must first engage the brokenness within yourself. You must experience being seen and heard precisely where you are, and of having your brokenness engaged with curiosity and kindness rather than judgment. Only then can you understand it’s transformative power.
This is not easy because being seen for precisely who we are is both our deepest desire and our greatest fear. But until you do that in courage, you cannot be an effective tool in God’s hands for bringing His love to others. You will be a liar and a hypocrite, preaching one thing, but believing and living something else. It is not a coincidence that the era of wokeness and cancel culture on both extremes exists in conjunction with an era of blindness.
Jesus gave us two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. These three loves either coexist or don’t exist at all. If you harbor contempt for someone God loves, including yourself, any claim to love God is a lie, and the triangle quickly collapses.
The problems of the world right now seem overwhelming and insurmountable, and it is that disposition that leads us to be cynics. But we are a people of hope! We have hope because once 2000 years ago, a little Child of no notoriety, was born in the most obscure part of the world to parents who were equally obscure. And yet, that event left the world forever changed. That event “reconciled the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5: 19).
What a world it would be if every person was treated as the woman at the well – ourself, our spouse, our children, parents, siblings, friends, extended families, neighbors. The path to reconciliation is simple, but it is small and time consuming and painful, and therefore we are primed not to do it.
Will we be courageous enough and humble enough to try it?