March 19, 2023 Living Water
Updated: Apr 11
The episode of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well is one of the most iconic stories in the New Testament. What is it about this encounter that grabs hold and fascinates us? First, by custom a Jewish male should not be speaking to any female not his wife, much less a foreign woman, and a despised Samaritan at that. And what is she doing at the well of Jacob which is way out of her village when there are wells that are closer? Is it that she is an outcast, living in sin with a man who’s not her husband, and prefers to avoid the gossip and chitchat among women at the village wells. Or is this all just part of an allegory about breaking down barriers? That spiritual allegory idea has become popular among scholars and commentators, where Jesus is tearing down the barriers between people.
The Jews and the Samaritans have been enemies for over 400 years, when invading empires took entire populations and replaced them with other conquered people. The Syrians took many Jews when they invaded, but the Jews managed to remain what they considered pure, by not intermarrying with other people brought in or carried away. Not so with the Samaritans, who did intermarry much to the consternation of the Jews, who considered them a “mongrel nation.” And when the Jews came back to Jerusalem from Babylon and began to rebuild their Temple, the Samaritans offered to help in the effort, but were turned away. So the Samaritans built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim in the very center of their territory and the antagonism between the Jews and Samaritans deepened for over 400 years.
What is Jesus doing here in the first place? He is traveling from Judea to Galilee which he decides to do when things are getting problematic for John the Baptist and his followers. So, he leads his disciples through Samaria towards Galilee. Why go through this hostile land? Because it cuts the travel time in about half, versus the trans-Jordan route which means crossing the Jordan river near Jericho and following the eastern shore until coming to the ten Hellenistic cities of the Decapolis, and then crossing the river again to enter Galilee.
So Jesus is weary and thirsty as he sits down by well of Jacob and he encounters the Samaritan woman and asks for water. She is more than taken aback since Jews and Samaritans not only don’t speak much they wouldn’t think of sharing the same vessel of water. And then Jesus starts talking about providing living water that will quench thirst forever. The woman’s reaction is as bit like the literal response of Nicodemus from a couple of weeks ago. She asks about getting some of this living water and never being thirsty again so she can quit coming to this well. But Jesus responds by telling her to go fetch her husband and she replies that she doesn’t have one, but Jesus somehow knows she has had five different husbands.
What? How does Jesus know this, and what is its significance? Some contemporary scholars make the point that this whole episode is not an actual event but an allegory on the history of Samaria, where five different nations were re-settled there by conquering kings, and Jesus is pointing out the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. And Jesus goes on to comment about how the Jews know how to worship and the Samaritans don’t really understand how or where to worship, but the time is coming that that won’t really matter, when the entire world worships in the truth and in the spirit.
But part of Jesus’s objection to the Samaritans’ way of belief is that they believe only in the first five books, the Pentateuch or the laws of Moses and they reject the Psalms and the histories and the prophets, even though the Samaritan woman calls out Jesus as a prophet himself.
So where is all this headed? Jesus is obviously breaking down the barriers as he says the time is coming that worship in Samaria or Jerusalem is immaterial – that it’s the spirit that will govern worship and faith. So it’s another element of allegory that the woman makes the perfect statement right then and there—that the coming of the Messiah is near and he will explain everything.
And Jesus agrees.
So the woman can’t wait to go and tell her village about this, leaving her wager jar behind as the disciples show up from their shopping grip for food.
The disciples want Jesus to eat, but off he goes, telling them that he has food that they don’t even know about. And now it’s their turn to take things too literally about this food, wondering what food he’s been given and by whom.
But Jesus is definitely on an allegorical roll here as he begins to speak of fields and planting and harvests and the disciples’ role in that – that spreading of the word and the spirit. Theologian H.V.Morton suggests that this sudden whitening of the fields is not a real harvest, or even a parable, but the vision of a multitude of Samaritans in their white robes, all moving toward the well of Jacob upon hearing from the woman about the Messiah being revealed to her as she leads them and perhaps this is the white of the harvest that Jesus declares to them. Here again we get a wonderful non-literal image of this multitude coming to receive he message of Jesus, this living water and this spiritual food for them, and for all. That’s the message that the author of John’s Gospel is pressing, just as so much of this book is draped in spiritual imagery that almost reaches out for our own interpretation of what it might really mean.
What do we take away from all these various points and images? Almost none of it can be taken as actual events. The woman is a social and moral outcast. What better example would Jesus typically use to become his messenger to her village? And then her fellow villagers who have been condemning her for her loose morals can’t wait to start streaming out to this remote well to see the one she has told them about. And this idea of never thirsting again by this living water or the spiritual food that sustains Jesus is a concept that requires us to wrap our heads around it as metaphor or allegory and at this point in time, I think that’s a pretty simple spiritual concept for us, but how did this hit those people in the first century?
Was this proverbial story of planting and harvesting that Jesus relates to his disciples a warning that they will be planting the seeds of faith, but not necessarily enjoying the product? Or is it this poetic vision of one-time adversaries flocking to a new way of worship and a totally new message of faith through the spirit? They beg Jesus to stay with them so that they can learn more, they can’t seem to get enough of him, and they admit this to the outcast woman.
And where do we place this whole story in the context of Jesus and his ministry? This late first century account is in sharp contrast to Matthew’s message clearly aimed at a Jewish readership,
or Luke’s message to gentiles, but here the Gospel writer reaches out to everyone not just through parables and proverbs, but through the underlying message that Jesus has been part of God’s message since before the very beginning and now is showing how that message can come to us through the all-encompassing power of the Spirit.
And the Gospel of John becomes a strange book, uniquely different from the three Synoptic Gospels, but still studded with what might appear to be actual events, even though logic says they are really more symbolic than real. But also know that almost half of John’s Gospel is about the final week in the life of Jesus, something we approach soon in our own Lenten journeys. But none of this seems to be biography so much as the predicted pattern of salvation through sacrifice, which when you get right down to it is a very Roman Catholic interpretation, isn’t it? Indeed, it is.
But at the well in Samaria, and in our world, we live in today, Jesus offers us something different: He offers living water that will quench our spiritual thirsts for all time. Accepting this living water engages us to partake from that sacred well and that all will know that they are accepted at the well of the Lord’s love, through the love of the Father, the Grace of the Son, and the ever-healing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.