Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE link between two kinds of God-given “living water” in the experience of the disgruntled Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 17.1-7) and the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.5-42) is obvious (Exodus 17.6, John 4.10).
Commentators on John 4 also point to a series of encounters at wells leading to significant marriages: Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah at a well and introduces her to Isaac (Genesis 24.10-61); Jacob finds Rachel at a well (Genesis 29.1-20); and Moses marries Zipporah after meeting her and her sisters at a well (Exodus 2.15-21).
The two motifs are drawn together elegantly by Brendan Byrne, who wonders whether, in asking for a drink, Jesus is “wooing” back the Samaritan people, to whom he longs to give the gift of life (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014). As the writer of Psalm 95 recognised in describing how God should be worshipped, it is always a matter of the heart — a matter of proper relationship.
The Israelites “hardened their hearts” against the God who had kept faith with them in their journey to a land of their own, and put that relationship at risk (Psalm 95.7-9). The Samaritan woman discovers through her conversation with Jesus that she longs for a relationship with God, even though she is able to define that longing in only vague terms.
John’s telling of the story is a further stage in Jesus’s self-revelation, after his interview with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Once again, Jesus puts his identity and calling at the mercy of another human being, who does not realise that she is being prepared to be a witness to the promised Messiah.
The exchange begins defensively, and with touches of irony. The woman points out the irregularity of a Jew asking a Samaritan — and a woman — for a drink, and the writer notes that the two communities “do not share things in common” (John 4.7-9). And yet their very setting contradicts this; for they share a common ancestry through Jacob and Joseph, symbolised by the well, which lies in Samaritan territory (John 4.5).
Jesus moves quickly to a deeper level, hinting that he is more than he seems, and that what he is offering in return for ordinary kindness is of infinitely more worth than drinking water (John 4.10). The woman responds with a mixture of incredulity and light contempt. A modern speaker might have said something like: “Can I point out to you that you don’t have a bucket?”
Her question: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob . . ?” comes close to the baldness of “Who do you think you are?” (John 4.12). The greatest irony is that Jesus is greater than Jacob, and he is serious enough about wanting to make something of this frustrating conversation to refuse to play games.
This requires more self-revelation; for asking her to fetch her husband leads to the realisation that Jesus already knows all about her. There is nothing that she can hide. This time, she drops her ironic stance, and frankly acknowledges that he must be a prophet (John 4.19).
Historical obstacles still exist, however. She uses the second person plural (umeis) in recalling that the Jews believe that Jerusalem is the only place for true worship (John 4.20). No matter how much she warms to this particular Jew, he is part of a nation that despises her people.
Jesus drops all caution, and describes a community of “true worshippers”, whose worship of the Father will be liberated from place and race, and offered in the freedom of “spirit and truth” (John 4.23). That time is very near, for the Messiah who makes the difference is already here in person: “I am he” (John 4.26).
There will be several other “I am” sayings as John’s story unfolds (John 6.35, 8.12, 10.9, 10.11, 11.25, 14.6, 15.1), showing how Jesus enables the perfect relationship that binds God and God’s people. There will also be a dark occasion when, once again, he must identify himself to seekers: to the soldiers who come with Judas to Gethsemane, looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he says: “I am he” (John 18.4-5).
The narrative at the well is dramatically interrupted by the returning disciples, who are as confused about the food of eternal life as the woman is confused about living water (John 4.27-38). Through this confusion, the power of testimony and encounter will draw others to Jesus (John 4.39-42). Despite the imperfections of human understanding, any meeting with Jesus is at the right time, the kairos that Paul points to as the moment when, incredibly, “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5.6).
What God in Christ creates out of those encounters is an incremental transformation — from suffering, through endurance, to resilience of character, to hope, and to love; from weakness, sin, and ungodliness to reconciliation (Romans 5.3-5, 8-11).