Living water

The biblical story is well-known. Jesus and his disciples are on their way north from Judea back to Galilee; John’s account hints at some unwanted attention from the Pharisees in Jerusalem (John 4:1-3). Jesus takes the most direct route home, through the region of Samaria, even though there’s bad blood between Jews and Samaritans dating all the way back to the days of Solomon and sundering of David’s kingdom into two.

It’s the middle of the day. Jesus, hot and thirsty, sits down at a well. And not just any well — it’s known to the locals as Jacob’s well, located in the land that the patriarch Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph. (There’s no record of such a well in the Old Testament, and today, there is church on the site where the well is reputed to have been.) The Samaritans consider themselves descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.

The disciples have gone into town to buy food. The only other person around is a Samaritan woman who has come to the well to draw water. Jesus has nothing on his person with which to draw water himself, so asks her for a drink.

She’s surprised. A Jewish man, even a rabbi, talking with a Samaritan and a woman? Such things were not done. And asking her for a drink? Some rabbis taught that Samaritans were ritually unclean, and would refuse to share drinking vessels with them. “How can you ask such a thing?” she replies incredulously.

In response, he turns the conversation in a new direction, and speaks to her of the gift of living water. The word can also mean “running” water; for her, the mental image would likely have been a freshwater spring (and not a kitchen faucet). As the Pharisee Nicodemus had done before her, she takes Jesus’ words too literally and misunderstands.

Jesus tries again:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life. (John 4:13-14, CEB)

She still doesn’t understand. But she knows that she has needs, and senses that this man has something she desperately wants. I’m reminded of the later story in which Jesus miraculously feeds an enormous crowd and then speaks of being the “bread of life” (John 6:35): it’s clear, in response, that the crowds don’t want Jesus to be anything more than an everlasting lunch ticket. So too the Samaritan woman responds enthusiastically to Jesus, so that she will never be thirsty again, and never have to bother with the chore of coming back to the well (4:15).

We’ll come back to the person of the woman herself in a later post. For the moment, however, it’s worth dwelling on Jesus’ metaphor. People like myself take running water for granted. Open a faucet or hose bibb, flush a toilet — and there it is. As a Californian living in drought conditions, I’m much more conscientious about my use of water, but probably still waste more of it than many people in world have. And modern city boy that I am, I’ve never had to draw water from a well.

This woman doesn’t take water for granted. She needs it to survive, to carry out her daily routines — and she has to work to get it, as do her neighbors. She may not understand what Jesus is offering, but it sounds too good to be true, and whatever it is, she wants some of it.

I wonder if we moderns miss the sense of urgency in the story. For that matter, I wonder if we miss the sense of freshness and abundance that the image of a bubbling spring was meant to convey. We may have drunk from religious wells that seemed deep but were stagnant. What of the faith that we now profess? Is it a lively and endless source of refreshment, or spiritually still and stale?

“If you recognized God’s gift,” Jesus says to the woman, “if you only realized who I am, then you’d really want what I have to offer.” He presumes that she is a seeker in her own way. The life he offers is more than survival, and is more wonderful than she can imagine. Yet. That’s about to change.

What can we imagine of the gift of God?