It’s easier to be hospitable to those who fit our categories. It’s easier if the person looks like us, walks and talks like us, and smells like us. Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman in John 4, and my reading of and reflection on this story for a long time has lately sparked much of what I believe about queerness. It made me see myself differently because of the way the Samaritan woman saw Jesus, the way Jesus saw her, and the way she saw herself.
The Gospel tells us that while Jesus makes his way from Judea to Galilee, he stops at Jacob’s well in a Samaritan city called Sychar. Jesus is tired out by his journey, and when a woman approaches the well, he asks her for some water. From there, they have a conversation about living and eternal water, and as usual, Jesus reveals some things about her life to her, and about who he is, too.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by He Qi
When Jesus sits down and converses so casually with the Samaritan woman, she doesn’t pull any punches. Jesus’s dialogue with her is unlike anything anyone has heard and seen, and even today, it is still provocative. We don’t totally know her backstory, but we tend to make pretty unfair assumptions about her sexuality and relationships. Nevertheless, she is complex and fascinating, and her interaction with Jesus wreaks havoc on all those seemingly impervious structures around us that tell us what’s proper.
Their exchange makes us question everything we know about what’s appropriate. It’s an expansive, generous text with so much to traverse. When Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, she responds with a question: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). It’s an astonishing, brash question, but completely legitimate. Jesus is shirking the convention of his society by not only speaking to her but also requesting help from her—first, a Samaritan. Then, a woman.
It’s common knowledge that Jews and Samaritans have a history of hating each other, dating back to when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The Samaritans inhabited the former northern kingdom, and the Jews inhabited the former southern kingdom, and both groups detested one another.
For 550 years, walls of bitterness were erected on both sides. They fought over who had the rightful lineage. They battled over who had the correct place of worship. All these walls became institutions and structures grafted into the identities of every individual in the community. How people should interact with one another was determined by age, gender, socioeconomic class. A Jew wouldn’t have even glanced in the direction of a Samaritan. Yet here is a disruption. A fissure appears in the foundation of those systems that said who to talk to, who to interact with, and how.
I wonder how Jesus was able to ignore the ideological currents of hatred, prejudice, and misogyny that coursed through the veins of his people and hers. Somehow Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman so freely. But then the audacity of the Samaritan woman responding to him is equally remarkable. Traditional interpretations will simply claim the divinity of Jesus as the reason for his unusual actions.
While Jesus’s divinity and his legitimacy as the Messiah are clearly perpetual themes running throughout the Gospel of John, perhaps we might more carefully occupy the possibilities in this space where the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at the furthest edges and outskirts of the narrative—this space of intermingling.
Then Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” For me, this is the revelatory moment, because the request shreds rules and convention. In addressing the Samaritan woman, Jesus chooses to disidentify with his Jewishness and his maleness. Disidentifying becomes a strategy of transformation and resistance. It is another aspect of the blessedness of promiscuity. It doesn’t necessarily mean to completely shed one’s identity; that’s almost impossible. Though Jesus seems to reject those societal norms, he remains a first-century Palestinian
Jewish man. He is a regular participant in synagogue life. He observes the Sabbath and other important festivals and holy days. He partakes in community life, attending dinners and weddings.
This capacity to work on and against the ideological structures that would normally prohibit their interaction is part of the core of Jesus’s queerness. Rather than succumbing to these expectations, he disidentifies with the powers that dictate who, what, when, how, and where he interacts with others.
Queerness is an essential part of Jesus’s identity and of the way he reconciles divinity and humanity within himself. Queerness is a means of resistance that isn’t passive but constructive. Though queerness fragments, it is constitutive; it is the beautiful, creative power of the logos, the word becoming flesh.
In opening himself up to the Samaritan woman, he constructs a new identity and critiques the identities imposed on him by the empire, even as he is fully rooted himself. He is the Son of God engaging a human being. He is a rabbi and prophet, and he is also a needy person. He is a person with desires. He is a Jewish person addressing a Samaritan, but he is also a Jewish man engaging a Samaritan woman.
At its heart, queerness is promiscuous. It makes space for mixing and mingling, and for multiple identities to exist at once. It invites creative identity making and connection in every moment. Identity is fluid in that boundaries are porous, so interactions possess the potential of that slippage at any moment—as in this moment between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
Jesus’s complicated identity shows us a path toward queer welcome. Queering welcome is an invitation to call into question what identity is—how we use it to limit and restrict, welcome and reject people. It destabilizes and refashions identities not as strict categories but as multiplicities and subjectivities. It unmakes and remakes psyches. It has impacts on the subconscious and consciousness. It undermines the larger systems and inserts itself into the struggle within ordinary, everyday conflicts.
Jesus’s request for help is more than an invitation; it is a rupture, a rending, an opening. The woman responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She points out his identity and names her own; reminds him of convention, of history and tradition; questions him; criticizes him; and judges him.
While the Samaritan woman has a choice simply to respond to Jesus by giving him what he requested of her, she recognizes what Jesus is doing here and calls it out. It flies in the face of what’s normal and normative, and she tries to make sense of it as the structures of propriety begin to crumble around her.
She names the problems in this exchange, and the clash of identities. In doing so, she also participates in the process of disidentification, shifting everything beneath her feet—and his feet, too. He responds, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
I imagine Jesus watching the wheels turn in her head: He asks for a drink. Then offers me a drink? Perhaps he has had a touch of sun. She ponders this for a moment. This man is making strange statements, and then he’s got the audacity to offer me water when he clearly has no jar? She speaks again. “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep,” she observes. “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
She keeps at it. Perhaps she senses the possibility of a deeper truth in this queer interaction; in a way, she is thirsty for it. This encounter with Jesus has suddenly awakened a thirst she never knew she had before.
In this moment, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are culturally at odds, but a new kind of connection occurs. Without promiscuous searching and a willingness to engage beyond one’s borders, this connection would be impossible. But it’s not only the way they engage each other; it’s also how we engage Jesus, and how we engage the Samaritan woman.
We might read slight belligerence in her question but also a surprising curiosity by a woman who would not normally participate in that level of engagement. There is a bubbling intelligence, and a sign of thriving life here despite her circumstances. In this interaction, we see the possibility of reading both the woman and Jesus differently. When she questions Jesus, they make and remake the world with the fragments of identity that lay strewn around them.
The well is a place where her ancestors worshipped, and it is a tangible object that informs her identity. But waters there will run dry someday, and the conversation with Jesus has opened up the occasion in which she might find eternal life—her life, her being—specifically, in this scandalous relationship with Jesus. What is promiscuous about this moment is the radical mixing and crossing of boundaries, not only between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, but also those around their individual lives.
This is an excerpt from Mihee Kim-Kort’s new book Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith