In the Lectionary

March 15, Lent 3A (John 4:5–42)

Rethinking the woman at the well

I was a seminarian in my home church when the new pastor arrived. I’d been a member there since birth and was now in my midtwenties and my second year as a pastoral intern. I’d worked closely with two interim pastors during this rough time of leadership transition.

“I want to empower you,” the new pastor told me. I remember it still, 25 years on, because it seemed so off the mark. I didn’t need him to empower me—especially if what that meant was him writing words for worship that I would then recite, which is what it turned out to mean. I felt like a puppet, and not a very empowered one.

I tell this story by way of apology to the woman at the well. I’ve always read her as a sad or sinful sort, someone Jesus was kind to recognize and empower. I’m not alone in this assumption. A hymn I otherwise love casts her as living “with broken dreams” and as having once had “wayward ways.” This is no doubt in reference to her five marriages—though they could only have ended by each husband either dying or divorcing her.