Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels--longer than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to any of his own family. She is the first person he reveals himself to in the Gospel of John. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and tell others. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings many to faith.
Jesus' choice of her is a curious one, because when I say outsider, I mean outsider. The woman at the well was a triple outsider. In the first Place, she was a Samaritan, which made her a half-breed and full pagan as far as the purists were concerned.
She was also, of course, a woman. In Jesus' time, women were not what you would call liberated. They were not even allowed to worship with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer, "Thank God I am not a woman." Women had no place in public life. They were not to be seen or heard, especially not by holy men, who did not speak to their own wives in public. One group of pious men was known as "the bruised and bleeding Pharisees" because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street, even if it meant walking into a wall and breaking their noses.
She was a Samaritan and a woman, but that was not all. She was also a fallen woman. Respectable women made their trips to the well in the morning, when they could greet one another and talk about the news. But this woman was one of the people they talked about, and the fact that she showed up at noon was a sure sign she was not welcome at their morning social hour. As Jesus soon deduced, she had been married as many times as Elizabeth Taylor and was living in sin at the moment, which made it all around less painful for her to go to the well alone, after the others had gone.
So imagine her surprise when she comes in the heat of the day with her water bucket balanced on her head and sees a strange man sitting beside the well. He could be anyone, but when he lifts his head and asks her for a drink, she sees the olive skin, the dark eyes, the strong nose. He is no half-breed. The man is a Jew, but what in the world is he doing there? Has he lost his way? Has he lost his faith, to be talking to her like that? The Jews have endless rules about what they may and may not eat and drink. She knows that much at least, and she knows this man will be breaking the law if she lets him sip from her bucket.
So they talk about it, and while it is never clear whether they are on the same wavelength, the woman understands that she wants what Jesus is offering her. …