So, he came to a Samaritan city called Sy’char, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A 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.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.”
I hear the TV shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are quite popular. I googled “Dating TV shows” and a list of 25 shows appeared. It seems to be quite entertaining to watch another select a mate! There were some shows I recognized as old—“The Dating Game” for instance—but there were many unknown to me. I saw one on the list called “Dating Naked,” and I wondered? So I found out that two contestants are introduced to three strangers, go on first dates, and select their favorite. They are totally naked when introduced! I think I would ask for a “blind date!” I’m sure there is a commentary on our culture there somewhere; I’m just not sure what it says. Whatever happened to going to church to find a nice girl/guy?
When John’s audience hears that Jesus is at Jacob’s well they are also in for a shock. In Hebrew scriptures, Jacob’s well is the place men go in search of a wife. Hebrew stories use this spot like match.com or a single’s bar of the ancient faith. When a man goes to Jacob’s well, be it Moses or Isaac or Jacob, all the great patriarchs of Hebrew faith, a meeting at Jacob’s well ends in a marriage. So naturally, when John starts a story that Jesus is hot and tired from his journey and has taken a seat at “Jacob’s well,” eyebrows are raised and the audience is ready for what they think will come next. Jesus is at Jacob’s well, wink, wink.
When John says, “A Samaritan woman comes to the well,” I suspect there was an audible gasp from the listeners. Not a Samaritan! Jews and Samaritans were ethnic enemies. John is telling a story of a Jewish bridegroom (Jesus) at Jacob’s well in conversation with a Samaritan woman of all people! John reminds his listeners of what they do not need reminding as the Samaritan woman asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and the narrator adds, “(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” Duh.
The fracture between Jews and Samaritans occurred about a 1,000 years before Jesus when the Kingdom of Israel split into two nations. Each began to define themselves against the other; rivalry led to hatred, hatred, and fear to prejudice, and prejudices permeated through generations. That’s how we humans do things: define ourselves against each other, rivalry leading to hatred, hatred to prejudice: be it Christian against Pagan, Catholic against Protestant, white against black, male against female, heterosexuals against all other. Jews and Samaritans had generations of discord living in separate lands. Then history deposited these cousins back into the same territory. The people of Judah (Jews) began to call their cousins, the Samaritans, a “mongrel race.” They called them a “half-breed” race because their Jewish blood had mingled with the Assyrians a long time ago. “Jews do not share things with Samaritans” because they had segregated them a long time ago. “Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common” is an understatement. John sets a shocking scene: Jesus comes to the well as a symbolic bridegroom in the lineage of Jewish patriarchs, and he engages a Samaritan woman in conversation. The conversation centers on “living water.”
Living water is a symbol deep in the Hebrew scripture. Isaiah used it most frequently:
Isaiah 44:3—For I will pour water upon those who are thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon the seed, and my blessing upon your offspring
Isaiah 58:11—And the LORD shall guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not
Isaiah 12:3—“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Isaiah 55:1—“Everyone who thirsts come to the waters”
John uses this image of water four more times in his gospel.
This well of salvation, this living water, waters that do not fail to bring blessing, is a symbol of God’s Spirit that flows, sustains life, and binds us all as one. This living water is the Spirit of God that brings new life into desert wilderness and hope into hardened hearts and unity into divided world.
Oftentimes I’ve heard preaching or commentary of this story, which has focused on the part where Jesus notes that this woman has had five husbands and the man she lives with now, is not her husband. This story has often become a launching pad about morality and women’s lack of it. John isn’t telling a story about sexual immorality. To read John’s Gospel, we have to dive deep into his ocean of meaning and metaphor. In Second Kings, we learn that the king of Assyria brought people from five countries and placed them in the cities of Samaria. Each of the five brought their gods and religions. The Samaritans bonded with false gods; Hebrew scripture would call that idolatry or adultery. John is telling a story about God’s Spirit inviting people who have drawn lines, created prejudice, instilled hatred of one another, to come together as one people honoring the One Creator of all. Jesus crosses this social wall between people and offers the blessing of new life, of refreshing water, of reconciliation to the disenfranchised and marginalized. The story continues, the woman receives this new blessing from Jesus and she becomes yet another evangelist to invite her entire village to “Come and See” Jesus and his new way of reconciliation of all people.
John gives us the model for discipleship. We also are called to cross social, racial, religious, ethnic boundaries by offering blessings instead of curses to those we have segregated and denounced. John goes on to say “Out of the believer’s heart (out of the belly—the core of those who follow the Way Jesus shows) shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38)
Richard Foster writes, “A River of the Spirit is bursting forth … it is a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, and a broad river of unconditional love for all people.” It is a river we need so desperately these days.
We are blessed: we are included in God’s Spirit. We are blessed arteries that allow God’s Spirit to flow and overflow into the world. We are blessed so that we may cross barriers of exclusion, to be bearers of God’s blessings. We are to bring together streams of life that have been isolated from one another for a very long time, which can bring God’s scattered people home. God’s Spirit calls us back to our place of belonging, God’s Spirit invites us back to the well of water, renewal, and transformation to drink deep Living Water and to go forth to be Living Water—carving new paths of Divine Love—overflowing unto all. May it be so.