Thought for the day
Today we are greatly helped by the wonderful Gospel of the Woman at the Well. On the third attempt, Jesus finally gets through to her but after that there is no stopping her. As Augustine teaches, she represents us: what do I thirst for? What is the most important thing in my life? Where do I now find God? By relentless challenge and resolute honesty, we too can be led to that encounter with Jesus, which changes everything, “giving life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” May we come to believe because we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the saviour of the world.
In the midst of the ordinary things, loving God, you call us to the deeper realities: your thirst for us and our thirst for you. Never let us be satisfied, until we come to the springs of living water, welling up for eternal life.
John 4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
John 4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.) 10 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
John 4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
John 4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
John 4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
John 4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the 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.”
This story is found only in the Fourth Gospel. The first four chapters of this Gospel address the different “constituencies” of the Gospel’s readers: followers of the Baptist (1:19-51), the Jews (2:1-12), the Pharisees (3:1-21), the Samaritans (our Gospel today) and the Gentiles (4:46-54). The story is symbolic of the journey of faith, using marriage symbolism from the Old Testament.
Kind of writing
This story is a symbolic narrative, typical of John’s Gospel. There may be a remote historical basis, but as it stands it is not historical. Typically for this Gospel (i) there is a one-to-one encounter; (ii) the person encountered makes a considerable journey of faith (Jew, greater than Jacob, prophet, Christ, Saviour of the world); (iii) the exchanges have two layers of meaning (living water = running water). Intriguingly, this woman becomes a herald.
Jesus’ question about her husband is only an apparent change of subject—as her next observation shows. Jesus first tries to communicate using the symbolic language of water (= worship). He changes his approach, using the (equally) symbolic language of marriage (= worship). Finally, he has a breakthrough, using the symbolic language of the temple (= worship). Only a later, moralising reading thinks of Jesus as exposing the disastrous moral life of the woman, forgetting perhaps that it is not immoral to have five husbands—just unlucky.
Old Testament background
(i) Often in the Bible, God’s covenant is described as a marriage bond:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4–5)
(ii) Very often, New Testament stories are based on patterns in the Old Testament, which can be strikingly illuminating. Here, the “type scene” of meeting your future wife at a well is used, following Jacob (Genesis 29) and Moses (Exodus 2). The pattern is outlined in the box.
(iii) The Samaritans were regarded by their Jewish neighbours as “mongrel” believers. This helps us to understand the five husbands (= five deities, as we see):
The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord. (2 Kings 17:24–25a)
New Testament foreground
(i) In John 1-4, bridegroom language is used of Jesus: 2:1-11 and 3:29. (ii) After the scene at the well, the wedding feast of Cana is invoked, without apparent purpose: 4:46. This recalls the wedding feast and brings in the seventh stage of the type scene—but Jesus is the bridegroom, not of the Samaritans, but of the chosen people, the Jews, and of believing Christians. (iii) Images combining marriage and water for the Risen Jesus come up again in the book of Revelation:
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:9) Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:9) The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
Verses 4-6 The scene is set and our interest awakened. Jacob’s well and his marriages (!) are recalled. (The preceding verses 1-3, recalling baptism, are vital to our understanding of this story.) Noon refers to time Jacob came to the well.
Verses 7-15 John often uses ironic misunderstandings (clear to the reader) to provoke a deeper insight. “Living water” and “running water” are identical in Greek, hence the confusion of the woman. Jesus speaks of a spring (“flowing”) while the woman speaks of a well (“stagnant”). The Gospel reader recalls, of course, John 7:37-39:
On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’” (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:37–39 NET Bible; the NRSV is not at all accurate here.)
Verses 16-26 Here we have an apparent change of subject to personal morality—but actually about authentic worship. The woman spots the change immediately and the conversation continues smoothly about genuine worship and what God desires of us. The expression “I am” echoes Exodus 3:14 and begins the long role of “I am” sentences unique to this Gospel (John 4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24, 28, 58; 9:9; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:5–6, 8).
Verses 27-38 Simultaneous telling is always tricky in narrative. The conversation with the disciples is a double echo: (i) of the Temptation about bread, otherwise not in this Gospel and (ii) of the sending out of the Twelve and the Seventy-two in Matthew, Mark and Luke, also not in this Gospel. The harvest has begun, including the bringing-in of the Samaritans, Pharisees, Gentiles and followers of the Baptist.
Verses 39-42 This completes the sixth stage of the type scene and closes the story with a very advanced confession of the identity of Jesus. The seventh stage of the type-scene, that is, the wedding, is alluded to in the subsequent verse 46, which recalls the wedding feast of Cana, apparently to no purpose. Within the tradition, the messiah fulfils God’s marriage bond with his first chosen people, the Jews (represented by the mother in that account). The final speech of the townspeople is in the symbolic language of the Johannine community. Compare the wording in 1 John 1:1–4.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4)
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus leads the woman along a wonderful journey towards a deeper and fuller life. You can enter the story with Jesus, the ideal leader, parent, teacher, or spiritual guide. Notice how he meets the woman where she is, needing her assistance, how he is patient with her, but also challenges her to grow to what she is capable of. Perhaps you have been such a teacher, or you can recall people who were.
2. You can also enter the story from the perspective of the woman’s journey. Notice the steps along the way: suspicion, distrust, curiosity, misunderstanding and conversion. Her journey was one in which a very human motivation attracted her to Jesus: the thought of having water in such a way that she did not have to come and draw it from the well. What have been the human motives that have attracted you to faith, prayer, religion, church and which have been stepping-stones to a deeper personal relationship with Jesus? Perhaps we can also see the same movement in the growth of some of our human relationships.
3. The woman’s final tactic is to attempt to buy time before responding (v. 25) —it will all happen sometime in the future. Jesus points out that the time for a faith response is NOW. How have you discovered the importance of the NOW moment?
O God, living and true, look upon your people, whose dry and stony hearts are parched with thirst. Unseal the living water of your Spirit; let it become within us an ever-flowing spring, leaping up to eternal life.
Thus may we worship you in spirit and in truth through Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.