Adult Object Lesson: The Woman at the Well
A Nameless Apostle Tells the Good News
There is a continuity to the book of John. The story moves from one personal encounter with Jesus to the next.
Start today’s story by reminding your learners of last week’s gospel. Jesus met (at night) with a well-known community and temple leader, Nicodemus.
Today’s lesson has a road-weary Jesus stopping to rest at a landmark well—the well built by Jacob and given to Joseph. The disciples have left Jesus alone as they go into town to find food.
Along comes a woman.
Keep in mind that in Jesus’ day social lines were strictly drawn. Men did not enter into conversations with random women. Jews did not engage Samaritans in idle chatter. The righteous would not seek out those who break the social codes. They certainly wouldn’t drink from the same cup—or well, for that matter.
But today, Jesus, the son of the Israelite’s Jehovah, meets a Samaritan woman of low social rank. It is not in the middle of the night. It is high noon.
The Samaritans were cousins of the Jews, descendants of Joseph. This Samaritan had every right to be dipping into this well! Their differences date to the Babylonian exile.
Jesus will strike up a conversation. There is no one else present—at least when they first meet. No one to interfere and point out the social rules.
Theirs will be a different kind of conversation than that of Jesus and Nicodemus, but one thing is the same. Jesus is again addressing Baptism and Living Water.
Remind your learners that the learned Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was teaching. Compare Nicodemus’ response to the exchange with the Samaritan woman. Point out that Jesus does not talk down to the Samaritan woman. In fact, he is more critical when he speaks to Nicodemus!
Point out that the gospel writer, John, remembers Nicodemus by name. The Samaritan woman, who engages Jesus in an equally deep theological discussion, has no name.
Isn’t it odd that today the rite of Baptism is colloquially called “christening”—the giving of a name? And there’s that word “Christ.” starting the word. In today’s gospel, there is much talk about living water but no names.
Jesus knew all about this woman. He surely knew her name. Why did John not record this information?
Her name will be today’s “object.” If you need a physical object mock up a license plate like the one in today’s featured photo.
Start the conversation by pointing out the meaning of the name “Nicodemus.”
Greek origins mean “victory of the people.” In Israel it might also mean “innocent of blood.” The second meaning points to the role Nicodemus will play later in the gospel story as defender of Jesus and as the person who provided spices and ointments for Jesus’ burial.
Knowing Nicodemus by name helps us to concentrate on all the good things that were part of his life.
And then we get to the Samaritan woman filling her water jug from the well that reminds its users of Jacob, the great forefather of the Israelites.
The Samaritan woman knew her place. She has no illusions. She does not try to impress the stranger. She is a Samaritan who has lived a life that violated the social standards of both cultures. She makes no apology. She is who she is. And we, centuries later know her by her faults. Perhaps John omits her name to protect her from criticism!
Take the time to tell her story, especially what happens when she returns to the village.
Ask your congregation to suggest names for her. Ask them to put as much thought into their choice as they would the name of their own child. Have them explain their choices.
You’ll want to have a lively discussion.
Prime the pump with stories of your own name or of naming your own child. Explain the various considerations (heritage, culture, popularity, meaning, hopes for the future).
Be ready to point out the meanings of some famous biblical names. Adam—man. Mary—wished-for child, rebellion, bitter. Jesus/Joshua—God saves. Peter—rock.
As you get a lively discussion going, be ready to point to the scriptural references that will support the various choices. The Samaritan woman is, in her own way, very influential. She manages to witness to her community with significant effect and grace — despite all that society holds against her. (Hey, Grace—that’s a possible name).
Write the choices on a chart. At the end of the discussion, have your congregation vote.
Remember the name your congregation chooses. It could come in handy!
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