This Samaritan woman Jesus teaches in John 4 is an interesting person. She had had five husbands and was living with another man. It is a little too much to assume that all five of her husbands died, so we must assume chronic divorce. This means that she had a very broken home, and it is easy to understand that she may have lost faith in marriage as an institution by then.
Yet she must have been an attractive and charming woman, since four men wanted to marry her after her first husband ended it, and another man was willing to live with her outside of marriage. But, too, she must have also been a strong-willed, contentious, and antagonistic woman, with five marriages ended. We can see a little of this in the beginning of her conversation with Jesus. He just asks her for a drink and she jumps all over him.
How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? (John 4:9)
“Why are you talking to me?” She challenges Him, and you can see she thinks He’s a bit of an upstart who needs to be taken down a peg or two, especially when He says He could give her living water. She tests Him. Her question "Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well...?" is a demeaning attack meant to wound the male need for respect and could have unconsciously pained Jesus's sense of divine identity.
It is admirable that Jesus never gets irritated, but answers patiently, inviting her to receive the gift of living water. Then His sudden statement about her married life is so startling and unexpected; how could anyone have guessed such a home life as hers from her simple sentence “I have no husband”? I really think the way he reveals this is meant to give her a taste of the living water of prophecy and discernment that was accessible to Him and which could be given to her. It was also a sign to her that He really did know who He was dealing with and what kind of problems festered in her life.
(If the conversation happened between just her and Jesus, I wonder how John found out about it to write it. Did she tell John the story, or did Jesus? I bet it was the woman; I don’t see that Jesus would have disclosed the info about her to John, but I can imagine the woman being willing to tell about herself.)
When He reveals His knowledge of her, she gains more respect for Him, but she still questions Him, going to the root of the age-old controversy between Jew and Samaritan over where the best place to worship was: is it Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim? She wants answers, and she’s not afraid to bring up a thorny divisive topic to get them.
After all this, it is notable that when the woman goes back to the town to spread the news about Jesus, she goes to the men not the women. (She was probably persona non grata among the women.) It indicates not only her influence among the men, but also their humility to listen to her and go see Jesus. Or maybe she was a tough enough woman to deal with that any positive change in her was a ringing endorsement for Jesus. Regardless, I like that she was such an enthusiastic missionary. There’s no telling how far she was in the conversion process, but she had to share it!
I also like that she was skeptical at first and challenging; it indicates how no-nonsense she was. She’d been around the block a few times, she’d heard some fair promises in her day that hadn’t been kept, and she was going to get to the bottom of any fakery. No pie-in-the-sky mysticism would satisfy her. She had harsh realities to deal with and suffer through. Nothing less than total transformation could help her.
Why spend this time examining the character of the Samaritan woman at the well? I think it gives us a better picture of the spiritual power and love that Jesus had that He was able to reach someone in such a difficult life situation. This story tells us that Jesus’s message isn’t just for those of us who have stable marriages and happy families; His message is also for those of us who are having terrible family problems and who are trapped in destructive patterns of relating to each other. When there is no peace at home, the peace of the gospel has a very big void to fill. But it CAN fill it.
That promise of the living water is for all of us.