In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” They’re words sometimes used to belittle people, especially young people, whom we believe have not experienced enough of the character building adversity we did, and, therefore, don’t have enough character. It’s a common theme passed down from generation to generation, and more that highly suspect. Still, what exactly is character? It’s a word with many meanings in English: what a character; you’re a character; he’s a character actor; she has character; etc. It’s clear that Paul meant character in the sense of courage, integrity, fearlessness, self reliance, and generosity. Where in scripture might we find an example of such a person?
We would find her in the episode from John’s gospel about the woman at the well. Jesus, thirsty from a long morning’s walk, stopped about midday at a Samaritan village well (John 4.5-42). There he met a woman who had come to draw water. What follows is the longest conversation recorded in any of the gospels. Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, whom they treated with contempt. Men were to have nothing to do with unaccompanied women. Women were to be obediently subordinate when in the appropriate presence of men.
Jesus broke all the rules by talking with her, a lone woman and a despised Samaritan at that. She broke all the rules about what Samaritans and women were supposed to be like. It’s often said that she was at the well at noon because she was an outcast, not welcomed by the good ladies of the village who came in the cool of the morning, not in the heat of midday. I’m not so sure.
She’s bold, honest and fearless. Asked for a drink of water, she didn’t meekly give it to him. She interrogated him. “How is it you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” When Jesus suggested he had living water to give so one would never thirst again, she didn’t buy it. “The well is deep. I have a bucket, but you don’t, so where do you get this water?” “Give me some, then I wouldn’t have to come out here every day.” This was a woman who stood her ground, wasn’t going to be scammed, and rules about submissive lady like behavior weren’t going to stop her.
Eventually, Jesus told her to go get her husband, and she forthrightly said she didn’t have one. When Jesus said he already knew all her secrets (“…to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”), she was unafraid to admit it was true that she’d had five husbands and was now living with man, but not married. Suspecting he might be a prophet, she posed a serious question: Where is the correct place to worship God? She got a serious answer: It’s the place where you are, in the moment you are there, through your spirit in communion with God’s spirit. Which, as it turned out, is exactly what was going on in that place at that moment.
One reason I’m not so sure she was a village outcast is that she left Jesus to tell the villagers whom she had met and what had happened. They not only listened, but went out to see for themselves. I doubt that would happen without her having a certain amount of standing and authority. I imagine she was a force to be reckoned with in that village.
So what about the five husbands, and the guy she was now living with? She may have been widowed. It happens. Given her self confident character, she may have been divorced by husbands who found her attractive, but didn’t get the passive, obedient wife they expected. And the current guy? Maybe she’d just had it with marriage ceremonies that didn’t mean anything. Maybe they were genuine soul mates. We will never know. We can only imagine what we imagine.
The point is, if you want to know what character is, she’s got it. And Jesus honored it by staying for several days, further breaking the rule: Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans.
When you are in conversation with Jesus, what do you talk about?