I’m a 42-year-old American male, but I’m the first-century Samaritan woman at the well. You are too. So is everyone we meet. Her story is our story. Here’s what I mean . . .
We are all influenced by our culture, yet created for a greater Kingdom.
We all have experiences—good and bad—that shape the way we see the world (including ourselves and others).
We all have categories and labels for defining our identities (and the identity of others).
Jesus frees us from those categories and invites us into a greater story.
Influenced By Culture
If you’ve ever studied John 4 or heard a sermon on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, then you’re aware of the cultural tension supporting the background for this scene—a dynamic that stretched back over generations. It’s easy to judge their prejudice from a distance, but the social and religious distinctions were taken seriously and even well-intended in some ways, like a desire to conserve the purity of beliefs, values, and way of life.
The audience of John’s gospel would’ve been keenly aware of multiple taboos being broken by Jesus and this woman. Men and women would not casually interact with one another. Jews and Samaritans would not interact with one another at all. Rabbis or prophets would not interact with someone of scandalous reputation. All of these things would’ve been considered out of bounds and unclean.
The Samaritan woman immediately calls attention to the surprising detour around normal cultural boundaries. It would never have crossed her mind to personally engage Jesus.
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
We too have cultural boundaries that shape our daily lives. Without consciously thinking about an infinite number of choices each day, we operate within a framework of what is normal and abnormal, expected and unexpected, even right and wrong. Like the Jews and Samaritans, some of these cultural norms are rooted in religious devotion and good intentions. But also like the Jews and Samaritans, other social factors become intertwined with our religious beliefs over time to create the fabric of our daily lives. Without someone stepping in from outside of our own context, it can be difficult or even impossible to recognize the way our culture has shaped our identity and limited our potential.
Like the Samaritan woman, for better and for worse, our culture is part of our identity. It shapes who we are. It shapes the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to everything else around us.
As a middle-aged, white, Christian, male, in the Southeastern part of the United States, what I believe about myself and about how life should work has been shaped in large part by where I’ve grown up. The way I see myself in relation to society includes countless factors that all carry a value system—as a person, as a spouse, as a father, as a citizen, as an employee, as a customer, as an investor, as a neighbor, as a church member, etc.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being shaped by culture. By its very nature, we shape culture and are shaped by it. Jesus’ life was deeply formed by Jewish cultural traditions and religious practices. We simply need to recognize the fact that we do not exist in a vacuum. A major factor in the way we see ourselves—the way we understand our identity—is our culture. Once we recognize cultural influence, we can look beyond the borders of our society to see the bigger picture of who we are in this world.
Culture shapes the way we see ourselves, but it does not define our identity.
Shaped By Experiences
Returning to our story, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at noon. She’s alone, outside of town in what we’d refer to as the Middle East, during the hottest part of the day, to draw and carry enough water back home. Once again, the first-century audience of John’s Gospel would recognize how out of the ordinary this was—red flags were waving all over the place. Jesus’ insight into her past relationships and current living situation reveal a series of shameful experiences.
“I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” John 4:17
We cannot know why exactly she had been married five times or why she was living with someone who was not her husband, but nothing about that scenario is good. We often assume that it had to do with her own sin, which is a reasonable conclusion due to the pattern attached to her identity. We can also assume that she was alone because she was either ashamed of or shunned for her past and present behavior. But it’s also possible and probable that some of her experiences were beyond her control. Culturally, a woman did not have the ability to divorce her husband, so at minimum, we know that five husbands had divorced her and sent her away as displeasing to them for some reason. Perhaps she was unfaithful. Perhaps she was barren. Perhaps she had a string of bad relationships. Even if her experiences were entirely unfair and no fault of her own, she had been identified as someone unwanted. She had no husband at home. She had no friends at the well. She was alone.
Like her, our experiences attach themselves to our sense of identity. Good or bad, happy or sad, fair or unfair, by choice or by chance, the events and circumstances of our lives shape us. Perhaps we come to believe that we are deficient in some way. Perhaps we decide that we are unlucky or unworthy.
This includes positive experiences too. Even when life seemed to be going better for the Samaritan woman—when she was married or had friends—those experiences shaped her sense of self worth but still did not define her. She was more than a wife, a friend, a neighbor. Who was she?
Remember that this story comes immediately after the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. Christ made it clear that all of the so-called righteousness of religious faithfulness and cultural pedigree did not result in being a child of God. Only a new birth through faith could result in eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Whatever has happened to you in the past and whatever circumstance you’re in right now . . . those experiences do not define you.
You are more than what you’ve done.
You are more than what’s been done to you.
You are more than your success or your shame.
Your experiences will influence the way you see yourself, but they do not define you. Your experiences will affect the way you relate to the people around you, but they do not define them either.
Categorized By Labels
As Christians, cultural categories and labels for determining “us” vs “them” no longer apply. Notice how Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman who keeps returning to cultural norms and personal experiences to make sense of what is happening. They reveal a deeper truth about her identity—and ours.
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” John 4:19–24
True worshippers. God the Father is seeking true worshippers.
At the heart of our identity is worship. What gives our life meaning and purpose? What is the object of our affection, attention, and devotion. What ultimately defines right and wrong, good and bad, true and untrue—is it our culture? Our experiences? Or something greater—SOMEONE greater?
The Apostle Paul often wrote about our new identity in Christ that transcends any cultural category or personal experience.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:16–21
I’m more than just a 42-year-old American male, but I am that. I’m more than just a husband, father, son, and brother, but I am that. I’m more than just an employee, volunteer, customer, citizen, etc., but I am all of those things. They are all important parts of who I am. But I am more than any one of those things. I’m more than even than the sum of those things.
I’m a worshipper of God, my true Father.
I’m an ambassador of that good news—you too can be a true worshipper and child of God.
I’m not limited to cultural expectations. I’m not limited by my experiences. But those can give me a greater humility and joy in relation to Jesus. It was true for the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. It’s true for me. It’s true for you.
He sees you for who you are . . . and He loves you.
He knows what you’ve experienced . . . and He loves you.
He comes to you . . . because He loves you.
He offers you new life . . . because He loves you.
He gives you the Spirit . . . because He loves you.
He welcomes you to the Father . . . because He loves you.
Freed By Jesus
The good news of Jesus—the gospel—sets us free to worship God in Spirit and truth.
If not for Jesus’ initiative, this woman would never have experienced the life-changing joy of a personal relationship with Christ. Her cultural expectations, personal experiences, and labels for categorizing life would’ve resulted in missing Jesus.
Don’t miss Jesus. Let Him surprise you and interrupt your so-called “normal” day. A right understanding of His identity allows a right understanding of your own identity.
He’s inviting you to know Him in a deeper and truer way.
He’s inviting you to know yourself in a deeper and truer way.
Walk in that freedom. Run in that joy.
Go tell everyone so they can too.
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” John 4:28–30, 39–42
Jeremy Maxfield is Director of Content for Rooted Network. A graduate of the University of Georgia and Beeson Divinity School, he has served in church and publishing roles for nearly 20 years. Jeremy and his family live outside of Chattanooga, TN.