Introduction: Wells and weddings
Abraham decided it was time for his son Isaac to get married. In Bible times, fathers decided these things. So Abraham sent his servant to go to the place of Abraham’s birth, to a foreign land, and, among his relatives, to find a wife for Isaac. The servant packed ten camels with tons of goods and gifts and headed out (Genesis 24).
After entering the foreign land, the servant stopped by a well and he prayed: “There are young women coming to this well to draw water. I am going to ask for a drink. May the one who gives me a drink and offers to water my camels, may she be the wife you have chosen for Isaac.” Even before he finished his prayer, Rebekah arrived at the well and did everything he had asked. When she finished watering the camels, she ran home. The servant of Abraham was then invited to supper, but before he would allow himself to eat, he asked that arrangements be made for the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac.
Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob also met his bride at a well (Genesis 29). After traveling to a foreign land, Jacob stopped near a well and began asking whether anyone hanging around knew his relatives. Just then a young woman came up to the well. Scripture says that Jacob kissed her and wept. Like Rebekah, her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Rachel immediately ran home. Eventually her father and Jacob made marriage arrangements.
Fast-forward to Moses. After he got into serious trouble with Egypt’s pharaoh, Moses fled from Egypt and went into a foreign land called Midian. Scripture says that he “sat down by a well” (Exodus 2). What have we come to expect at this moment? Sure enough—the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came with their father’s flocks for water to the well where Moses rested. But a group of shepherds started giving the women trouble. Moses stepped in, defended the women, and made sure that their flocks had all the water they needed, and then the women went home. After Moses was invited to supper, one of the seven sisters, Zipporah, was given to Moses in marriage.
Wells and weddings seem to go together.
So what is going on in John 4? What are we to think of this scene? “[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon [the sixth hour]” (vv. 5, 6, NRSV).
Like his ancestors, Jesus goes to a foreign land, to Samaritan land, and he sits down at a well. Is Jesus looking for a wife? While I do not believe he is, I am interested in why the story is told in such a way as to suggest he is, or at least to remind us of others who have found their brides at wells. Just a few verses earlier John the Baptist talked about Jesus as the Bridegroom and himself as the friend of the Bridegroom (3:29). What did John the Baptist mean? What is being suggested by this sequence of stories?
Verse 7 says, “A Samaritan woman came to draw water.” Just like Rebekah, Rachel, Zipporah, and her sisters, a Samaritan woman came to draw water. “And Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)” (vv. 7, 8). Later in the story, when the disciples return from getting food (4:27), they are dumbfounded. Scripture says they “marveled that He talked with a woman” (NKJV). Given their questions, the disciples seem to assume that what happened at past wells is going on here. Probably, given their understanding of the Messiah as an earthly ruler, Jesus seeking a wife is not a bad thing. But this particular woman is a huge problem. A Samaritan cannot be part of Jesus’ family. She is not an acceptable bride. Why not? Who is she?
After Jesus asks for a drink, verse 9 says, “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans)” (NRSV). She is surprised that Jesus is talking to her; women and men who were strangers did not talk together in public. She is surprised that a Jew is asking her for a drink because Jews would not use a drinking vessel or an eating utensil that a Samaritan had used. Jews considered Samaritans unclean in every way. As New Testament scholar Gail R. O’Day observes, “The woman herself notes the scandal of their conversation.”2
It went back to a time of war; when God’s people were conquered and relocated. Those who intermarried with other cultures—Samaritans were looked down upon by those who had not. They had “spiritual germs”3 because Jews and Samaritans had a different set of holy books—a different hermeneutic, we might say—and also because Jews and Samaritans had different worship practices. From the disciples’ perspective, she cannot be part of Jesus’ family because she is a Samaritan. And every minute that Jesus talks with her is a violation of appropriate social behavior. Yet Jesus keeps talking!
Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. 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?” (4:10–12, NRSV).
Notice how this section of the story reminds us again of the story of Jacob. We are reminded that Jacob was born because of an encounter at a well. We are reminded that Jacob became the father of a dozen sons because of an encounter at a well. We are reminded that Jacob and his sons used this very place to water their fields and provide for their animals. Jesus, are you greater than Jacob? After all, this is the gospel that starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”! Jesus, are you greater than Jacob? Jacob gave us this well, its water, and a secure place to live and flourish. Here Jacob gave us a future. Jesus, are you greater than Jacob?
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13, 14, NRSV). And the Samaritan woman says to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water . . .”
I must admit, I am surprised at Jesus’ next words. She moved from assuming that her ancestor Jacob was greater than Jesus to asking Jesus for living water. Is that not what we are supposed to do—to ask? So why, in this story, does Jesus bring up her past?
Modern western readers typically think of her as a loose woman with a sinful past—because of her five marriages and because, at the time she met Jesus, she was living with a man who was not her husband. However, in the world of Jesus’ day, men decided issues of marriage and divorce, not women. Unlike today, only husbands could get a divorce, abandon their families, and kick out their spouse. Also, in the world of Jesus’ day, women could not survive unless they were attached to a man. After this woman’s first abandonment (through death or divorce), if she did not have a father or brother or adult son who would take her in, she had to attach herself to another man in order to live. Going through this experience five times is tragic beyond words.
Given the world of Jesus’ day, her story is probably more of a discarded woman with a painful past than of a loose woman with a sinful past. Why was she discarded so many times? Since her current living conditions were based on her own survival, she was living with someone who refused to acknowledge his responsibility to her. We should probably see her more as a slave who had to do whatever he wanted than as a secret lover having an affair. She was trying to survive. He should have married her.
Whatever her sad story, when Jesus asks her for a drink from Jacob’s well, in society’s view as well as in her own mind, this woman is as different from Rebekah, Rachel, and Zipporah as it is possible for her to be. They were young virgins with fathers who offered security prior to a proper marriage. They met men who, guided by God, offered the protection of a home, the promise of children, and the hope of a future. This Samaritan woman does not seem to have any of these things. Hers is a past full of pain.
Yet Jesus keeps talking with her. He keeps offering her living water. He proclaims to her that His “hour” is coming and when it comes, worship of God will not be about ethnicity or whether one worships on this mountain or that mountain. With Jesus, the hour has come where true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth. Jesus tells her that God seeks such worshipers. In this encounter at a Samaritan well, the family of God is expanding!
For the first time in John Jesus shares his true identity.4 When she begins talking about the Messiah who is coming, Jesus says, “I am”! I am the Living Water, the Messiah, the One coming, the One here, God! Suddenly her hope for the future is also for the present! The Messiah is no longer something to anticipate, the Messiah is here . . . present with her and with us! She experienced the presence of the future.
The presence of the future
One of the Adventist convictions I find most moving is a sense of the presence of the future; hope in the return of Jesus when all things will be new. I find it so inspiring that this church movement believes that we should live out our hope now. And such dedicated living gives us glimpses into the future right now, in the present. If some day Jewish men and Samaritan women will be treated equally, to be Adventist is to believe that the time has come! When the Samaritan woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming,” Jesus said, “I am!” It was the presence of the future!
Typically in scenes when women and men meet at wells, the woman leaves the well and goes to her family, and the family then comes to meet the man, the future bridegroom, at the well. Then, after they share a meal, the two families make wedding plans. In John 4, the Samaritan woman does not go to her family. This is another clue in the story that she probably does not have one. But she does go to her community.
It is ironic that as she goes to town to tell everyone about the Messiah, the disciples arrive from town with food. Do you remember how Abraham’s servant refused to eat anything until the marriage arrangements between Isaac and Rebekah were completed? Jesus will not eat the food brought by the disciples. Instead Jesus begins talking about His food being the completion of God’s work, like He has some wedding plans to arrange. The disciples are totally confused, wondering who gave Him food. Meanwhile, the Samaritan woman is preaching her heart out in the town.
She does what the first disciples, Andrew and Philip, do when they witness to Jesus earlier in the gospel: “Come and see,” she says. “Come and see!” (1:39, 46; 4:29). She witnesses and people in her town come to believe in Jesus because of her word (4:39, 42; 17:20). What would get a town of Samaritans interested in a thirsty Jewish stranger sitting by a well?
With all the Samaritan woman’s past pain, limitations, and questions, she is used by God to bring people to Jesus. Later Jesus says to the disciples, “‘I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into that labor’ ” (4:38, NRSV). Who labored earlier? The Jews? The Samaritan woman? God?
Earlier in the set up to this story, John 4:6 says, “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon” (NRSV). Then Jesus says,
“ ‘I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.’ ” Those who share the good news enter into Jesus’ labor. The “I am” invites human beings to enter into His labor, and our feeble efforts build upon those who have gone before—people like Philip and Andrew and the Samaritan woman.
As Jesus is talking about fields ripe for harvest, the disciples are puzzled. They went into the city and brought back food to Jesus that He does not want. It did not occur to the disciples to bring Samaritans to Jesus. But the fields are ripe for harvesting, and the harvest has begun. All the people from the town start coming across those fields to meet Jesus at the well. They will share a meal with Him—a real meal, Jesus’ true food, which is to do God’s will: to share God’s goodness with Samaritans; to create a new family!
Together they will make marriage plans. Scripture says that Jesus “remained” with them two days, the same word for the Spirit that “remained” with Jesus after His baptism (1:32, 39). The language suggests intimacy, connection, kinship. They will join together as one family. Since Jesus’ new covenant bride/church transcends all boundaries, Jesus the Bridegroom really is the Savior of the world.5
The family of God has expanded. The harvest has begun. Jesus receiving hospitality from Samaritans for two days must have meant lots of sharing of eating utensils and drinking vessels. When women from other Samaritan homes went to the well for water to cook and serve Jesus and His disciples, did the disciples go with them to help? What boundaries were broken down during those two days? How were the disciples’ eyes opened? After all, in the future they will follow the Samaritan woman’s example, bringing all kinds of people to Jesus, in all different cities and villages.
Jesus is thirsty again
At the end of John’s Gospel, when Jesus is handed over to be crucified, it is said to be “the sixth hour” (noon), the same time when Jesus rested at the well and met the Samaritan woman (4:6; 19:13, 14). Jesus’ body is exhausted from His labors—He is no longer beside a well, He is dying on a cross. And Jesus is once again thirsty.
What could Jesus be thirsty for? He is the Living Water. Is Jesus thirsty for a world where Jews and Samaritans worship together? A world where justice and righteousness flow like streams, like living water?
What could Jesus be thirsty for? He is the Living Water. Is Jesus thirsty for a world where women with painful pasts experience security in a new type of family? A world without prejudice, without discrimination?
What could Jesus be thirsty for? He is the Living Water. Is Jesus thirsty for a world without crucifixions and all other kinds of violence? A world where women and men meet at wells and offer each other a future with integrity and intimacy, loyalty and love? A world where the people of all nations make up God’s family? A world where no one is ever thirsty again?
Jesus said, “It is finished.” He completed His work—that which was food to Jesus (4:34), forever breaking down the barriers between Jews and Samaritans. Then a soldier pierced Jesus’ side, and blood and water flowed from the Living Water. Jacob’s well might provide water for the fields of Sychar, but the water from Jesus’ side nourishes a world of fields ripe for harvest; lands waiting for harvesters.
What would it mean for us to live in such a way that the Living Water bubbles up in us? What would it mean if sharing that Living Water with others was like our food? Imagine people in our towns saying to us in the words that forever honor the Samaritan woman: “ ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world’ ” (4:42, NRSV).
1 A version of this article was shared as a devotional presentation at the January 16, 2013, meeting of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) in Laurel, Maryland, USA. It is also a chapter in the recently published work Signs to Life: Reading and Responding to John’s Gospel (Melbourne, Australia: Signs Publishing, 2013).
2 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995), 491–865, here esp. 563–573.
3 Rodney A. Whitacre, John, IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Grant R. Osborne, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 102.
4 Later revelations include John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19.
5 Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Continuum, 2005), 182.