The Disciples at the Well

I have been doing some of my routine memorization in John 4. I love to do memorization, though I am not very good at it. It helps me to focus on the exact words that I am trying to memorize, and I believe it helps me to notice things I would not notice otherwise. This time, trying to attend closely to John 4, my attention was drawn, not to the Samaritan woman who came to the well that noon, but to the disciples who came back from the town with the lunch.

It was fortunate for the woman that she had already been talking to Jesus for some time and had reached the critical point in their conversation in which Jesus told her plainly that He was the Messiah. If she hadn’t gotten to that point, she might never have gotten to it because of the disciples. “They marveled that He was talking with a woman.” Talking with a woman violated some of their social conventions, and it was no doubt made worse that she was a Samaritan. By this time the disciples had been with Jesus for some time. They had been amazed to hear some of the things that He had said when they first met him associating with John the Baptist, or arguing with the Pharisees about whether He had the authority to overturn the money changers’ tables at the Temple. They had been amazed to recall Scriptures that He was fulfilling. They had been amazed to see some of the signs and miracles He did – the water into wine and the other signs He did at the Passover that had convinced so many devout Jews.

Now they were amazed – and not in a good way – that He was talking with a Samaritan woman. The “honeymoon” was over. He had drawn them in with His grace and with miracles; now He offended them with His grace. They had been convinced that He was the rightful King of Israel; now they were not sure they liked the kind of King He was turning out to be. They marveled that He would stoop so low as to talk with this strange woman.

But they were still in awe of Him. They were afraid to question Him even when they were irritated. No one dared to ask Him why He was doing such a shameful thing. No one of them even dared to ask the woman what she was doing there, what she wanted. No one of them dared to tell her to her face that they didn’t approve of her being there, that they didn’t want her there. For some reason, best left alone, their Rabbi had decided to behave in this absurd fashion and they could just be glad that none of their friends – some had doubtless mocked their following the crazy preacher – that none of their old friends were here to see this embarrassing episode. John wrote this account. I think he wrote it the way he did because he had been one of the disciples to be most offended. He and his brother had given over a prosperous family business, their respectability and social status, and left it all with their father and the servants, and they had walked out of their town to the incredulity of many of their old neighbors. How could they go home and face them again if anyone heard about this? But Jesus had His moods, as they well knew. They didn’t dare ask Him about it. Sometimes His explanations were as puzzling as His actions.

But the woman knew what they were thinking. She could read their expressions, their faces, their silence. And she was used to it. She had been astonished herself when He had spoken to her at the first and then even answered her questions, though His answers were as odd as His answering. She knew she was just a woman, and a foreigner, and she had grown up knowing what it meant, and she knew rightly enough what they were thinking.

So she left her water jar there, unfilled, and went back into the town. What else could she have done but flee, surrounded by twelve indignant men and one whom she could not fathom?

And that is enough of the story to make us pause, for John could have been describing us. We are those disciples. How often, I wonder, do Samaritan women and other derelicts come into our churches and meet with indignation from the disciples of Jesus? I think it happens a lot. I have seen it happen. I have felt it happen. I have even, I am ashamed to say, caused it to happen. You don’t have to go to Westboro to meet self-righteous indignation. We disciples just keep on being disciples, no better than the originals, even though our Teacher keeps trying to explain it to us.

And perhaps no harm is done sometimes. The Samaritan woman had already met Jesus. She had to flee from His disciples and that is bad, but she went away as one who had met Him. She went away as one who had faith – as small as a mustard seed, perhaps, but faith nonetheless.

The question, of course, is: how many people like the Samaritan woman come into our churches and flee from the disciples Jesus has left in charge? How many of them flee before they meet Jesus? We have never met Samaritan women here in the U. S. of course, but we have our own equivalent. Not long ago it was single moms that we made unwelcome. Where I grew up it was black brothers and sisters who were emphatically not welcome. I know churches where it is made perfectly clear that if you are not their brand of Republican you had best go somewhere else, of if you are not Calvinist enough, or financially stable enough. Homosexuals are often our version of the Samaritan woman.

Anne LaMott tells the story of the church that welcomed her Sunday after Sunday, pregnant and hung over, that continued to welcome her simply and kindly until she met Jesus. I am so grateful to hear that that happens, that if Jesus returns today He may still find faith on earth. May we all be like that congregation, growing up in the grace of God. It is one of the primary goals in the congregation I attend – where my wife is the priest – to grow into being more fully the kind of church that will not drive people away. We want to become disciples who will be as gracious as He is, who will not be surprised or offended by His grace when we see it. And being as gracious as He is always a stretch indeed, and always a greater stretch. I know we have a long way to go, but how can we call ourselves disciples if we do not seek to grow to be like Him? Or more chilling, how can He call us disciples if we don’t? It is my prayer that no one who has not met Jesus is turned away from our churches because we turn him away. And I pray that no one who has met Jesus will be received at our churches as other than a brother or sister.

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4 Comments on “The Disciples at the Well”


  1. This is a fresh approach, of focusing the movie cameras upon the disciples during the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well, with a separate story and lesson to be learned. This post blessed me. Thank you.


  2. Beautifully done!!! Please, please, please consider submitting this for publication – it would touch many hearts and maybe open some doors.


    • Thank you, both of you. I am glad that it is a blessing. Truthfully, though, Vivian, I don’t know how to go about submitting it for publication. I am pretty out of it when it comes to the Christian media. The only magazine I know at all is Christianity Today and I don’t know if this is the kind of thing they would print. I could try, but my enthusiasm level is low. Thanks for your encouragement.


      • I would be willing to do some research on possible markets is you would like. I think you have something special to offer. What if Phillip Yancy or Eugene Peterson had not published? My life would have been less rich is they had!!


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