Well, well, well
Today is Lent’s third Sunday — and the second week that gives us a Jesus story about spirituality and water. I sometimes jokingly call this series of texts as “wet Lent”! Last week, the lectionary offered “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Next week, we’ll hear about a healing at the pool of Siloam.
This week is a long story — indeed, it is the most extended conversation in the entire New Testament between Jesus and an individual person — known as the “Woman at the Well.”
The conversation is notable for several reasons — that it is between Jesus and a woman, and that the woman is a Samaritan who is a marginalized person. It is the first of the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s gospel (“I am he”) although many traditional scholars have overlooked the appearance of “I am” in this story (because of interpretive misogyny, perhaps?).
What I consider to be most significant, however, is that the woman at the well prefigures — or underscores — another major figure in this gospel: Mary Magdalene. There are similarities between this story and stories about Mary in John 11 (we’ll be talking about that a couple of weeks from now) and John 20, where a woman recognizes Jesus’ real identity, is overcome with devotion, and responds by proclaiming the gospel. If Mary is, in effect, the First Apostle, the “apostle to the Apostles,” the woman at the well is the first evangelist, the person whose preaching brings many to faith.
Keep this in mind as you read my reflection under the picture. Today’s essay is drawn from my book, Grounded, and suggests a surprising connection between this text and Genesis. Both the Mary Magdalene emphasis and the Genesis thread have increasingly convinced me that John’s gospel is the most feminist book in the New Testament.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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.) 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.” 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.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 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.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
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?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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.”
Water plays a central role in the Bible from beginning to end. In Genesis, water is present with the spirit before creation; in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, life-giving water flows from the being of God’s own self.
Watery images serve both as warning (the flood of Noah or the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, for example) but also carry the promise of God’s kingdom (when the desert shall run with streams and every well be full). Indeed, the power of water as a fertility symbol and the spiritual feminine is evident also in these ancient stories. Three of Israel’s patriarchs – Isaac, Jacob, and Moses met their wives at a well, signaling that their unions will be life-giving and fertile.
The New Testament, written in the first century, is set in what is now Israel, a land then under control of the Roman Empire, ancient home to the Hebrew people, the place God had promised them would be a land of milk and honey. In ancient geography, Israel was part of what was called the Fertile Crescent, an arc shaped cradle of land, home to the watersheds of some of the greatest and most storied rivers of human history. It was in these watersheds that humans first invented and practiced irrigation, making possible the growth of cities and modern agriculture.
They were also susceptible to drought, however, and things like soil and water management were generally unknown.
By the time of the New Testament, much of what had been rich farmlands were struggling with desertification, as the moist soils and the rivers that gave them life began to dry. The Jordan River, where John the Baptist baptized hundreds of people including his cousin Jesus, was, and remains to this day, one of the region’s major sources of fresh water. The Sea of Galilee, a fresh water lake fed by the Jordan, was where Jesus preached his most important sermon and performed his most dramatic miracles.
But of equal importance for human habitation in Israel is the underground water supply, the springs hidden from view: the fresh water of mountain aquifers accessible for much of history only by deep wells.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus meets a woman at one of these wells and strikes up a conversation with her:
"Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
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.)
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."
The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"
Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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."
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 4:7-15)
I have heard many sermons on this passage; indeed, I have preached a few. Typically Christians cite this passage to prove a unique claim of Jesus — “I am he” — that Jesus is “living water,” a moniker that identifies Jesus as divine.
In the story, Jesus does more than Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch who provided the drinking well, a spot most likely deemed sacred by local villagers. Instead, Jesus implies that he is water, not just a well. As he and the woman talk, Jesus layers spiritual metaphors for water: liberation, yearning for salvation, hospitality, healing, and as a source of life. With each poetic turn, his invitation to these waters becomes more compelling. Wisdom, like a spring, bubbles up through his insights. He gives water, and he is water. I am he.
The encounter is an interesting parallel to the story of Eve. In Genesis, the devil tempts the woman to eat forbidden fruit to gain divine knowledge. At the well, Jesus invites this Samaritan woman to drink God’s water to gain spiritual wisdom. The entire story is a reversal of sin; here, Jesus and the woman re-enact Eden with a different result. The woman’s eyes are opened; she understands.
Yet, instead of being run out of the garden by an angry god; she runs out and tells her friends that she has met the One who is Living Water. She is not cursed. Rather, the woman is blessed and offers blessing. Water is present at creation, and it is here also, at the world’s re-creation through Jesus. The woman becomes the first evangelist, a preacher of the water and word.
And this story frames the Christian imagination regarding water.
Oddly enough, in the spiritual history of water, it is not really unique (its most unique feature is how ordinary it is; unlike many other ancient waters stories, there are no supernatural elements present, no demons, no monsters, not even a healing). The story of Jesus and the woman at the well echoes shared human spiritual experience, perhaps even a universal one, that God — or the gods — provide water; thus, the water itself is (in some way or another) a divine gift. Although later Christian theology will carefully draw a distinction between water-as-symbol and water-as-God, one must admit that even for the staunchest monotheist, the metaphorical territory here is pretty thin. Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is living water. “I am he.”
In the not-too-distant future, however, living water might be mere theological memory – a spiritual metaphor increasingly lost to our descendants. If nothing else, those coming after us will surely interpret the spirituality of water in starkly different ways than we do now. For water is under siege all over the planet, watersheds are collapsing, streams and rivers drying, even once-safe water systems face toxic threats. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well — the search for both safe water to drink and the water of salvation — may be more urgent than ever. And much depends on how we navigate these rivers of change.
(Today’s reflection is adapted from Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, pp. 74-77)
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What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you're up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
— Randall Jarrell
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for hourse and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory — what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our "flooding.”
In this late season, who is the woman at the well
drawing water, reflecting on the woman at the well?
Millennial fissures in the well-rim, weed-choked cracks
where brackish water rises for the woman at the well.
At the bottom of the well shaft, the sky’s reflective eye
opens, closes on the shadow of the woman at the well. . .
— Carolyn Wright, from “Ghazal: Woman at the Well,” Please read the ENTIRE POEM HERE
AND, IN OTHER NEWS:
We got a new puppy! He’s a Glen of Imaal Terrier named Padraig, aka “Paddy.”