A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” (For his disciples had gone off into the town to buy supplies.) So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) -John 4:7-9
We all live a culture that teaches us a specific code of social conduct; we all learn an ethic of appropriate behavior. Included in this ethic is a list of people we have “nothing to do with.” Perhaps this list includes criminals. Or people from other countries. Or people who speak languages other than your own. Perhaps the list is based on class distinctions. We draw boundaries between those we associate ourselves with and those we don’t, and it’s easy—in fact, expected—for us to live in a manner entirely disconnected from those who fall into these “alien” categories.
The categories were even stronger in Jesus’s day than in our own. Distinctions between people were not blurred by the illusion of American equal opportunity, but explicitly upheld by the class and religious systems of the time. A Jew had nothing to do with a Samaritan not just because of preference, but because of religious mandate. The conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well was more than unusual: it was culturally unclean.
In striking up a conversation with this woman, Jesus breaks free from expected cultural and religious codes of conduct. Violating the way that things have always been done within his community, He transcends the norms of his day. This transcendence requires an extraordinary level of consciousness. Conscious of the commonality and connectedness between seemingly disconnected people, He notices and interacts with a person he had been trained to ignore.
I’ve heard this story interpreted in a number of ways. I’ve heard evangelical preachers focus on the woman’s openness to conversion at the end of the story, claiming that its lesson is Jesus’ evangelistic creativity and dedication. I’ve heard conservative preachers focus on the woman’s history of divorce, claiming that it shows that we can’t hide our sins from Jesus. But the story has much greater significance if we look beyond the content of the conversation—and first appreciate the simple fact that the conversation even took place.
If Jesus’s goal was purely evangelistic, he could have gathered a crowd at the well; or he could have left the well to preach where a crowd was already gathered. If Jesus’s goal was purely educational and corrective, he could have spoken in direct terms with Samaritan woman rather than in the abstract language he chose instead. Instead, Jesus simply paid attention. He noticed a person he wasn’t supposed to notice.
Compassion requires that we pay attention. Our daily interactions at bus stops, with baristas, or drive-thru operators may seem insignificant, but they define our experience of life. When we pay attention to each other, we validate each other and we affirm our shared humanity. Compassion is not solely feeling sorry for or helping others: it is often as simple as noticing others. Today, I invite you to ask yourself who in your daily interactions you have been trained to ignore. Are you ignoring those around you based on distinctions you’ve made based on class, age, skin color or gender? You have the freedom to choose a conscious life, transcending cultural codes of conduct to notice someone you have been taught to ignore.
About the Author
Elizabeth Jeffries is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pittsburgh and writes nonfiction on a freelance basis. She and her husband, Mark, live in the City of Pittsburgh, and members of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in the South Side neighborhood. You can find her online at www.elizabethjeffrieswrites.com and on Twitter @EPJeff.