Scripture: John 4:5-42
Author’s note: This particular text from the Gospel of John spoke to me some time ago while preparing for a coffee house style gathering during a “Weekend for Theological Inquiry” hosted by my seminary. While almost impossible to recreate the setting and atmosphere of that long ago coffee house evening, still, I would beg your indulgence as we sing and play together with these words from our sacred tradition.
Sing “Woman” ~ composed by the author, based on John 4:5-42
Let us pray:
Living Water; fill our thirsty souls. As we gather this day to hear your word in new ways, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts guide us in learning your way of everlasting.
I invite you to read and re-read this Sunday’s text as homework, if you will; there are so many themes from this very long text that a single sermon cannot address them all. Here are just a few for further reflection:
“Water, living water, thirst, spring of life. Food, the kind needed to make it through the day, and the food Jesus has that the disciples don’t know about. The relationship between Jesus and non-Jews. The boundaries between men and women and the many boundaries Jesus disregards. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and who recognizes him, and who doesn’t. The disciples’ obtuseness and the woman’s perception. The role of experience and testimony in conversion and belief. Worship, where it happens and who is involved in it.”
The story of the woman at the well, found nowhere else in the Scriptures, is a compelling story on several levels. To be a Jew, as Jesus was, and to associate with the Samaritans, as she was, was anathema. There had been enmity between Jews and Samaritans for eons. Where did it come from? They are both children of Abraham and both heirs to the promises of God given to the people Israel through the ages. In Jesus’ day, the contemporary controversy, as outlined by the story, is that those in Samaria worship the Lord not in Jerusalem, where the trained and learned leaders of Judaism claim the only proper place to worship exists (the Temple), but in Samaria, at Bethel (House of God in Hebrew), named by Jacob as such where Jacob set up his stone as an altar to the Lord after he had his dream, often referred to “Jacob’s Stair,” or as the finger-string game remembers it, “Jacob’s Ladder.”
While there is no specific mention of “Jacob’s Well” by name in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, we do have this passage to go by:
“Gen. 35:1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”
Jacob does what God requests, and after this God re-names him Israel and is confirmed as the heir to God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac and settles in this region of Bethel, which later becomes Samaria. I would guess that Jacob’s Well (today an ancient well claimed such and located in the cellars of an incomplete Orthodox church) could very well have been dug by Jacob or his servants for his flocks in this area. And here, many generations later Jesus sits and asks a distant estranged relative for water, beginning one of the richest New Testament stories recorded. Why is it rich? Here are a few salient points.
- When Jesus and the woman have their conversation, Samaria is ostracized by the rest of Israel, even though they have a common ancestor in Abraham, so this becomes a ministry of reconciliation “within the family,” even more so when we realize that both the woman (“…our ancestor, Jacob who gave us this well…” 4:12) and Jesus are descended from Jacob although through different offspring (See Matthew for the genealogy of Jesus).
- There is evidence in the story that the woman has a deep awareness of the true message of Christ, even from their one brief conversation.
- She knows the current religious issues brought up by their conversation regarding priestly-political odds between Samaria and Israel, truth, and common hope in the Messiah.
- She knows she and her community are descendants of Jacob.
- Women went to the well in the early morning or in the evening in this culture, so we know she has felt alienation from her own community, else why come to the well in the middle of the day?
- She is so changed by the conversation with Jesus that she leaves her water jar by the well (4:28) to go and spread the news: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did, He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29) If that is not in and of itself evidence that she no longer “thirsts” but has drunk deeply from the Spring of Living Water, than what is?
- She, changed from her brokenness and alienation is, according to John’s gospel, the first evangelist for Christ, bringing her whole community to Jesus at the well and leading them to belief… “we no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (4:42)
- The message of reconciliation between the woman and her community is a metaphor for Samaria and the rest of Israel, yet it is also a foretaste of the entire message of Christ to the world: “if you knew who it was that asked you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”(4:10)
- The first time Jesus ever freely admits that he is the Messiah takes place here, in the broken and ostracized region of Israel called Samaria. “I am he, the one you are speaking to.” (4:26)
This is just dipping the surface of the rich cool waters of the pool in this story, and in such a way that often times overlooked pieces are brought to light. Can you imagine what amazing changes she must have gone through to go from ostracized to leading evangelist citizen all in one day? I would in invite you today, in your walk with Christ, to dip with your cup below the surface and drink deeply of the well of life. To start you off, consider this question: What truths about your own existence do you find mirrored in this rich story?
For me, I am reminded that there are still estranged “descendants” of Abraham in the world today in need of reconciliation: East and West, Arab and Christian, Christian and Jew, Arab and Jew, North and South, Latin and Caucasian, Left and Right, Executive and Judicial, Gay and Straight, Earth and Humanity, parents and children, brother and sister, perhaps even husband and wife. The list can go on and on, and as you can tell I’ve broadened the definition of “descendant.”
Do you wish to drink of the Water of Life? What does that look like for you? Within what dryness do you find yourself living now? Changing one’s life to make room for life-giving water may cause some rocking of the boat, but wouldn’t that be preferred to an endless pattern of repeatedly coming to the well in the scorching heat of day?
What else should be said? Come, Lord Jesus! We are a divided and hurting world, in your mercy, forgive us our divisions; and, by drinking deeply of your Living Water, let us work for peace and be made one in you. May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Duffield, Jill. “Reflection on the Lectionary” weekly post from Presbyterian Outlook
Questions for Reflection
As you read John 4:5–42, think about the meaning of water—its symbolic qualities, its presence in nature, and its use in human life. How is Jesus like water? What are the things that are most necessary in your life? Where do you get them? Contribute to or participate in a service project that provides clean water (or some other necessity of life) to people in need. As you do so, make a commitment to pray for all the providers and recipients of this service.
Household Prayer: Morning
God, my maker, hold me this day, with the same hand that shapes the mountains, with the same hand that cradles the deep. Keep my heart soft and supple, make my faith strong and firm. Renew me, re-form me, re-create me into the image of Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
We come to you now, O Lord, weary from the day’s journey, thirsty for rest, hungry for peace. Renew us in your love and restore us by your grace, until we find our rest at last by the river of the water of life. Amen.