This week's readings: 3rd Sunday of Lent

02 November 2006


Exodus 17.1-17
Romans 5.1-11 
John 4.5-42

ABRAHAM sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s kin. The servant came to the city of Nahor, and waited at a well. Rebekah approached: “Please give me”, he said, “a little water to drink from your jar.”  She did so. By this sign he was assured: Rebekah was the woman he was looking for, to be Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24.1-21).

Later, Isaac’s son Jacob first met Rachel, who would be his wife, at a well (Genesis 29.1-14). There is more to such encounters than a formulaic story line. “A garden locked is my sister, my bride,” sings the bridegroom in the Song of Songs, “a fountain sealed; an orchard with trees of myrrh and aloes; a well of living water” (Song of Songs, from 4.12-15).

Now Jesus, at “the well of Jacob”, asks the woman of Samaria for water. But he has more to offer her than she has to offer him. She can raise the still water of a cistern. He has access to “living water” — the fresher water, she imagines, of a stream.

But this is not the water he speaks of. “All you who are thirsty”, cries Isaiah, “come to the water” of the covenant offered by God (Isaiah 55.1-3). “Those who eat of me will hunger still,” says Wisdom; “those who drink of me will thirst for more” (Sirach 24.21). Could any refreshment be more attractive than this? Yes, Jesus says: “Those who drink of the water I shall give shall never be thirsty” (John 4.14).

It is in the Law, according to Sirach, that God’s wisdom is offered to his people. The Law “makes wisdom brim over like the River Tigris in the season of fruit” (Sirach 24.25). But Jesus himself now fills the role of the Law. Those who drink of the water he offers are not passive recipients. “The water that I shall give them will become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life” (John 4.14).

We will later hear of Jesus in Jerusalem for the autumn festival of Tabernacles. On each morning of the festival, a procession went from the Temple to draw water from the spring of Gihon. Rabbis would claim that, in this ceremony, they drew up the Spirit of God. The choir sang from Isaiah: “With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12.3).

On the last day of the festival, Jesus will stand up and cry: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me — as scripture says, rivers shall flow from his belly, rivers of living water” (John 7.37-38). The last clause is famously ambiguous: is it from Jesus or from the believer that the water shall flow? The latter is certainly credible, as John explains Jesus’s words: “he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were going to receive” (John 7.39). The recipients of the Spirit become a source of the Spirit.

The woman of Samaria, wrote Rudolph Bultmann in his great commentary, typifies the aberrant life of those who reel from desire to pleasure. Rudolph Schnackenburg speaks of her “sinful way of life”. For Raymond Brown, she is “mincing and coy, with a certain light grace”. Is any of this justified by the story John tells? Almost certainly not.

The woman has been married five times. Exegetes infer she was immoral. But neither John nor his Jesus says so. The story of Tobit revolved around Sarah, married seven times; the seven husbands had all died before the wedding-night (Tobit 3.8). The Sadducees asked Jesus whose wife shall a woman be at the resurrection, if she had been married and widowed seven times (Mark 12.18-27).

In the first century, most women needed the dignity, funds and protection that only a husband could give. Was the Samaritan woman immoral, for failing to marry the man she was now with? Or had he refused to make her secure in his house, as only their marriage could?

The woman was fetching water. It was heavy work; and could deform the body. She does not see all there is to see about Jesus. But she sees enough to leave the jar at the well; from one burden she is, thanks to Jesus, already free. From now on, she has living water to sustain her.

She goes back to the town to speak publicly — not just to her partner — of the man she has met: “Could this be the Christ?” (John 4.29) She is a good messenger; the townspeople come to see Jesus for themselves. (Who would have listened to the disreputable woman imagined by exegetes?) After two days with Jesus, the people are no longer dependent on the woman’s testimony; they can now see more, for themselves, than she could see after a first short meeting. So they should.

This woman has done better, in her encounter with Jesus, than Nicodemus ever will; and no worse than the disciples. She is muddled by Jesus’s talk of water; as they are, by his talk of food.

At the sixth hour, Jesus, “wearied from the journey”, asks the Samaritan woman: “Give me something to drink.” Jesus will be condemned at the sixth hour; and at his death will say: “I thirst.” The woman offers Jesus the best refreshment she could; his enemies will offer him vinegar (John 19.14, 28). Nicodemus wil then bring myrrh and aloes, to anoint the body of Jesus. And so the garden of love, from the Song of Songs, will become the garden of death.

But not for long. The bride and groom will be together in this garden again. "I found him", says the bride, "whom I love with all my soul; I took hold of him and will not let him go" (Song of Songs 3.4).

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