Barbara Ross looks ahead to the Third Sunday of Lent and its Gospel Reading of the woman at the well
The symbolism of water is of major importance in the Gospel of John, as it is in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this account, water is life-giving and the means of transformation. The source of the water of life is Jesus. In bestowing the gift of this water, he gives of himself and declares his divinity.
Jesus is travelling; he is carrying out his purpose of dwelling among us to reveal his glory. He ‘had to go through Samaria’ (4.4). ’The words had to imply that he was doing God’s will. Jesus is tired and sits by Jacob’s well, dug by Jacob some two thousand years previously. A natural spring still flows and bubbles up at the depth of the shaft. This spring of water, released from the rock by Jacob, symbolizes the old order. For the identity of the people of Israel came through Jacob, to whom God gave the name Israel.
So Jesus is ‘at the source of his own history’, in the words of Stephen Verney (‘Water into Wine’, DLT, 1999). It was through Jacob that God’s purpose was to be enacted. Israel was his chosen people, in covenant with God to make him known. But it is Jesus who carries out that mission and brings the salvation from the Jews, to which he will refer in the conversation with the woman.
The well has further significance. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a symbol of life.God is the fountain of living water (Jeramiah 2.13), and of life (Ps 36.8). And the Jerome Bible commentary on the passage gives traditional interpretations of water found in Qumran material and other ancient sources. For example, water can represent the truth. ‘He [God] will sprinkle on him [the righteous] the Spirit of truth’ (p 597). The Essenes associated water with the Law. They considered the Torah as a well from which they received their knowledge of the truth (ibid). In John’s Gospel, Jesus himself is the truth (14.6).
Flowing water is a metaphor for the wisdom of the Law for Sirach (24.23-29). In the Jewish tradition, water purifies. But Jesus has supplanted previous interpretations. At the marriage at Cana, he changes the water into wine, demonstrating that through water comes transformation. A well was the place where Rebekah met the servant of Abraham, who was seeking a wife for Isaac. The presence of Jesus at the well can suggest that he is the bridegroom, come to claim his bride, his followers, his church.
When Jesus sits at the well, it is the sixth hour, noon. The sun is at its highest; the light is at its strongest. So we can expect an outstanding enlightenment, and see a parallel later in the Gospel. It was the sixth hour, noon, when Pilate, indicating Jesus, says to the Jews ‘Here is your King!’ (19.14). He speaks mockingly, but declares the truth, a truth not accepted by his hearers. But in this account the sovereignty of Jesus is acknowledged. The discussion with the woman shows that Jesus himself is the well of living water, who gives eternal life. The woman goes up to the well, although there is a man sitting there, and no-one else in sight. She is not afraid to be venturesome. Her curiosity prompts her to flout convention.
Jesus initiates the conversation by asking the woman for a drink. Why? He perceives her potential for giving and sharing what she herself has obtained. As she will do with the gift she receives from Jesus.
She immediately focuses on the hostility between Jew and Samaritan. But Jesus overrides the cultural difference between them. He challenges her to know the gift of God, the living water of life. Jesus himself is this gift; he calls her to believe this. She fails to understand at first. Jesus explains that the water he gives is not to quench everyday thirst, but will ‘become [in those who drink] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (4.14).
He tells her to call her husband. Speculation has been made as to the meaning of the five husbands. Verney suggests Jesus could be asking the woman to share the living water she receives. Flowing water must overflow; if it does not and remains still, it becomes stagnant. The gift of water gushing up to eternal life in the believer must also be given to others. And so it gives new life in the present; eternity breaks through into time and space.
The woman turns aside from talk about her marital status to acknowledge Jesus as a prophet, and raise the question of the place of worship; for her, Mount Gerizim, for Jews, Jerusalem. But details such as place are not important; Jesus tells her that true worship must be ‘in spirit and truth’ (4.23), both of which flow from him. This prompts her to declare her belief in the coming of the Messiah. Jesus replies ‘ego eimi’, which means ‘I am’ – translated into English as ‘I am he’ but the addition of a predicate masks the meaning of the two Greek words. The words ‘ego eimi’ recall God’s reply to Moses at the burning bush. Moses wants to know God’s name. God’s reply is ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3.14). At the time the Gospel was written, the Hebrew Scriptures would also have been known in Greek; John’s readers would have understood that Jesus is giving an explicit declaration of his divinity. In the ‘I am’ sayings later in the Gospel, Jesus will elaborate on what his divinity means for us.
The woman leaves her water-jar and returns to the city to tell, in wonder and excitement, of her encounter. Why did she leave the jar? Not just out of forgetfulness. All details in the Gospel of John are significant. The abandoning of the jar can mean the woman’s leaving behind preconceptions and assumptions, basing herself instead on her dawning faith in Jesus.
Her faith impels her to urge the citizens to come and see the man she has met. Many believe on account of her testimony, but on being with Jesus, they have heard Jesus for themselves and know that he is the Saviour, of the world. For the abundant water of life springing from Jesus is salvation.
The woman gives a pattern of discipleship. She begins by approaching Jesus in a state of curiosity. She asks questions, allows herself to digress from what is central, but comes to faith and spreads abroad the good news of Jesus among us.
The fulness of grace in John’s Prologue (1.14) becomes concrete in the living water Jesus gives, which pours on us the Spirit and love of God.
There is more on which to reflect in this account, but I offer a focus on the significance and imagery of water. We may note, in conclusion, that the passage gathers together main themes of the Gospel of John. We are told of the carrying out of God’s purpose in Jesus. His divinity is declared. He has foreknowledge of people. Above all, Jesus is the source of all life (as in 1.3, 4a), and of grace, wisdom, and truth. Jesus is the living water of eternal life, poured out to overflow in us and give us a foretaste of eternity.