(from Lent Season Ep. 11 of the CouplesTheraPod)
The well or the water
John 4 1-3 Jesus realized that the Pharisees were keeping count of the baptisms that he and John performed (although his disciples, not Jesus, did the actual baptizing). They had posted the score that Jesus was ahead, turning him and John into rivals in the eyes of the people. So Jesus left the Judean countryside and went back to Galilee.
4-6 To get there, he had to pass through Samaria. He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.
7-8 A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)
9 The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
11-12 The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”
13-14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water [from this well] will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
15 The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”
The story of the woman at the well is a fairly well-known tale from the New Testament Gospel of John. It begins as a seemingly innocuous exchange that results in the moment Jesus chose to identify Himself as the Messiah for the first time, so it is easy to undervalue and overlook how the author sets up this story.
However, the introductory detailing of this story is rife with meaning and metaphor way deeper than water.
So what is going on here, between the notes?
See, the Bible is a religious text, as we all know, but it is also literature. We most often look to it for direction, hope, comfort and even discipline, but can sometimes forget to learn something. There are verses we may have memorized or songs about the books contained within the Bible that can allow us to develop a general understanding. We read it from time to time for various purposes or to various ends, but it seems as though it is rare that we take time to read the Bible in-depth; to dissect the books and letters in their individual entireties, not verse-by-verse. In doing so, we can miss so much and lose a lot of the literary value of the Bible.
Typically, when we digest literature we consistently ask ourselves questions like: “What do these characters represent?” “Who was the protagonist an allegory of?” “What is the author saying about culture and society?” “How is this part of this story a direct parallel to life in today’s society?”
There is no definitive reason not to read the Bible in the same ways, but we tend to stick to the surface level. Our focus on the literal, historical truth contained inside, as evidence of how we elevate the stature of these texts, can actually cause us to have an intellectually lower view of the messages those texts convey. We tend toward reading the Holy Bible just as stories that happened once. Historical events. Stepping stones to the next story. Any depth we find shows itself in simple lessons of what to do and not to do. In addition, many of us were told our only hope to escape an eternity of hellfire and damnation rests in our belief in the Truth of the Book. So it is no surprise that we develop a tendency to decide to “believe it” with or without deciding to “understanding it.”
Taking the Bible as a whole, I suppose these tendencies make sense, but this ignores the reality that the Bible was not written as a whole. Divine Inspiration notwithstanding, the Bible does not have one single author, but many, each having no idea what the next author would add to it or interpret and re-incorporate the prior’s words (Hosea couldn’t have known Matthew would repurpose a historical statement into a messianic allusion). Sometimes, these authors clearly did not know what scriptures would precede their own books and letters. (Several books of the Bible reference religious texts and scriptures that are not in the final canonized version of the Bible.)
Constructing and consuming the Bible as if it is one book already has required interpretive license and influence of the many human hands responsible not just for the final compilation, but the authors themselves. Yet, we, as recipients of the finished product largely ignore this. We satisfy ourselves with “I may not be sure of what it says, but it says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Anything else, we are taught explicitly and implicitly, would be a sign of a lack of faith. This leads to a desire of so emphatically proving our belief in the Bible and the literal truth of all of these stories that we often miss the purposes of each of them.
Let me put it another way: the Bible is not exhaustive. Obviously.
Not everything that occurred from the dawn of human existence to the end of the Earth is contained within the Book. Most of what Jesus did isn’t in the Book. So, moving past the argument of whether or not it is inerrant, moving past the argument of whether or not there are cultural or religious biases contained within the words, moving past any other of a number of arguable issues we are never likely to reach a consensus on: if this book represents what God wanted mankind to know about Himself and ourselves, in whatever fashion or purpose we can agree on, does it not stand to reason that each story contained inside is there for more than simply a history lesson? Would it not make sense that the point of these stories is not simply that they were true in the moment, but that they would always be true? That a deeper meaning and relevance is always just under the surface, radiating truth throughout time? That the messages and lessons contained between the lines are perpetually relevant? That there is something for mankind as a whole to push forward from, generation after generation, continuously? Isn’t that what a Living Bible might be?
So getting back to this story of the woman at the well, what is there just under the surface?
First off, at this time period, in this part of the world, this thirsty lady begins the story catching two immediate Ls (“unfortunate setbacks” for the unitiated): she is not only a woman (sorry ladies), she is also a Samaritan. For context, imagine the last person you would ever get caught in public with because it would nuke your reputation and the last person anyone that you respect would ever listen to, and that person would be this Samaritan woman. Yet, this was the first person to whom Jesus revealed his Messianic identity! (vs 26).
There were hints, whispers, and rumors of course, but He had not yet publicly claimed this identity Himself.
However, the first time He revealed this identity, He chose her. The last person anyone from His own religious tradition would ever talk to or listen to. Not only was this the first revelation, He also told her when His disciples and closest friends weren’t around to hear it, and He told them nothing when they showed back up. (vs 27.) In fact, it is several chapters later before he addresses this issue again to anyone.
Side Note: J.C. didn’t tell a group of people who happened to have women in it, or a male of high regard whose wife happened to be near enough to hear, He revealed Himself directly and only to this Samaritan woman. This is an interesting detail considering that today, many of the prominent Christian denominations still hold women in a mostly subservient view and passive role, often not allowing them to be ordained ministers and sometimes even teachers in any official capacity, all the while ignoring the fact, that the first person sent off with full knowledge of who Jesus was and His salvific purpose (i.e. the first evangelist) was a woman from the wrong neighborhood. For what it’s worth, all the eyewitnesses to the risen Christ’s empty tomb and words from the messenger after the Resurrection were also women. So anyone attempting to relegate women to specific places and duties in the body of Christ claiming to be affirmed by His word, are missing the clear message sent by His actions. I’m. Just. Saying.
Yet, I’ve often heard sermons or lessons on the woman at the well where this entire social, cultural moment is lost in translation. Those who do not see this as a moment where Jesus radically addressed sexism, racism, and religious bias with a simple question, opening the floodgates of grace, love, faith, and inclusion throughout the world, far beyond the restraints of the bloodline of Israel. I recently saw this story described as follows:
If people are spiritually asleep, you have to shock them, startle them, scandalize them, if you want them to hear what you say. Jesus was especially good at this. When he wants to teach us something about worship, he uses a whore.
Jesus is bone-weary from the journey, hot, sweaty, thirsty — and he decides: “Yes, even now, just now I will seek someone to worship God — a harlot, a Samaritan adulteress. I will show my disciples the worship that my Father seeks and how he seeks it in the midst of real life from the least worthy.
Yikes! – admittedly the lady was far from chaste, but a whore?! Also, notice how such a reading completely invalidates the actual event. To read it that way is to say, Jesus wanted to teach a lesson to the people around him (as well as us a couple thousand years later) so, even when He was dead tired and thirsty from a long journey, he grabbed some random sexual deviant lady to make an example of and as a result “witness” to. But that’s not what happened at all. This was a candid conversation between two people that no one else was privy too. The disciples weren’t even there for it to learn from it. He didn’t “use a whore” for anything. He lovingly spoke with a human being, not about “uncovering her hidden sin and shame” (as another theologian put it), not about promiscuity, and not as a ploy.
He had a chat with a young woman about water.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Like I said, this biblical excerpt has many layers.
I want to talk about water.
Water is a necessary component of survival. Infants are 75-78% water. Adults average between 50-65%. The planet is made of 70-75% water. Nothing survives without water in one of its many forms. The Bible constantly uses water and its necessity as a metaphor, though not always with the same meaning or connotation. Most often, and within this story of “the Woman at the well”, water is said to represent the Word of God or knowledge of God or even Salvation of God. It is the life-giving essence of the Divine. This is made clear when Jesus says “the water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (vs. 14.)
It is also important to note that going to get water from a well at this time, was significantly less convenient than you or I walking over to the sink. This also wasn’t a well just “over there” on your property, but a central location for everyone to use. When you went to draw water, you needed it for potentially a multitude of purposes and you might need to get quite a bit all at once. You don’t want to waste your entire day going back and forth to the well. There was an entire process and method to your activity because getting water was imperative.
In this story, however, Jesus asks the Samaritan women to give Him water and she came to the well with the purpose of getting water, but neither of them actually end up walking away with any. In fact, the Message translation says that she “in her confusion, left her water pot.” (I like that it says “in her confusion” like the translator is letting us in on the idea that finding life altering Truth can often occur without the accompaniment of certainty, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.)
So what else is going on here? Why did the author, who was not present for this event, by the way, feel that this story, apparently about a degenerate, unclean, pagan, adulterous Samaritan woman ultimately forgetting to draw water from a well was worth including?
What are we to gather from this moment?
I think that within the many layers of this story lies a metaphor for learning to distinguish Religion, Tradition, and perhaps portions of the scriptures themselves (or at least our interpretations of them) from God. (Stay with me.)
The story says that the Samaritan village bordered the field Jacob gave his son Joseph, and that “Jacob’s well was still there.” If no one in the story actually got any water from this well, why did the storyteller find it important to inform the reader of what specific well this was, and who put it there?
Well, who was Jacob? Jacob was Big Daddy. “Father Abraham” gets a lot of shine, and for good reason, but his grandson, Jacob – the blessings bully, is where the Israelites get their name. Jacob is Israel. His name was changed, as the story goes, after he “wrestled with God.”
-SideBar: If you think there’s not a wealth of meaning and interpretation contained in the idea that this man, who has come to know of God from the one-on-one covenantal and conversational relationship his grandfather had with God, further forged and solidified when his father, Isaac, was voluntarily offered up as a sacrifice by said grandpa, still had to “wrestle” with the concept on his own in the wilderness before finding God and his own true identity, you’re kidding yourself. But I digress.
Why is the well, being Jacob’s well, important? The Israelites don’t really have a universally accepted place of origin. They were a wandering tribe in the beginning. They were identified not by geography or ethnicity but by who their patriarch was and who their God is. The Israelite people come from Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. They come from the man who dug this well. The Samaritans descend from Ephraim and Manasseh, two of Joseph’s sons. They too come from the man who dug this well.
Their lineage is similar, their God is the “same” (somewhat debated), but their religious beliefs, cultures, and practices have diverged widely by the time of this chance meeting in the Gospel of John. Israel and Samaria are enemies but also family. The common ancestor and founder of whatever spiritual ideals each group was practicing at that time, however disparate, dug this well. This water was for all of them.
Now then, what is a well? A water well is an excavation or structure created in the ground by digging, driving, boring or drilling to access groundwater. A well is how you obtain water, but it is not the source of the water.
A well is simply an access point. It’s not really even in the same dimension as the water. The water flows or is pooled along a path. The well does not join this path, it intersects with it. They do not become one.
Now we already discussed how “water” is the Word of, knowledge of, and Salvation of God. So following the lines of this metaphor, how does one obtain knowledge of God or come to possess “the Word of God” and, as a result, the message of Salvation? Where would one find water?
Is not our religion and tradition, in whatever shape or form, whether structured and specific or otherwise, how we come to “know” God? Is religion not the access point?
I think so. Religion may be a well, but it is not the water.
So what is going on in this story? What point might the author be attempting to get across?
Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, comes to a Samaritan woman (read: hopelessly sinful, pagan servant) and asked her for water, a symbol for spiritual sustenance – something the prevailing culture at the time would suggest she was incapable of providing.
She, acknowledging the cultural context, points out that He, or at least people who look like Him or are from his neck of the woods, tend to express a spiritual superiority over people like her. She wonders why a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for anything, let alone something as important as water, knowing that the person they’ve asked to provide it must be “clean,” which Samaritans were definitely not considered to be.
He doesn’t respond by saying, “You are right. Let me get the water from Jacob’s well for you and myself.” He does not establish himself as better fit to provide her with water from this well due to his Jewishness. He offers her different water entirely. Water that does not come from a well any man dug, but Living Water – The real thing.
She asks, as if almost offended, if this Jesus man thinks he is greater than “our father Jacob!?” Is your access point to the divine life greater than Israel’s himself?
He says that drinking from Jacob’s well, while it will satisfy you for a time, will always leave you thirsting for more, but His water is endless.
Now, this is where things get a little controversial: She asks Him for this water and he tells her to go get her husband. When she says she doesn’t have one, He points out that she’s had 5 and the guy she is currently seeing, isn’t her husband at all. (This is all that exists in the story for people to justify calling her a whore. Which is interesting as today, this marital past is basically Presidential not prostitution, but let me not trump my own points here.)
My point is that a lot of people interpret this exchange as further proof of how low on the totem pole this woman is. The idea is Jesus has now called her out in her “secret sin”, and that she, in her shame, tries to avoid dealing with her guilt and change the subject. So in her shame, she makes an attempt to get Jesus off topic by challenging Him to answer the question of where people ought to worship.
I think that is a bad interpretation. Here is why I think that is short-sighted: to read the story this way, to say that she got embarrassed and changed the subject seems to suggest that a Samaritan woman looks at her status the same way a Jewish man would. That what He thought was bad about her would be something she agreed with. That may be, but I’ve never met a woman in my life that looks at herself the same way any man does, let alone adding in generations of racism and disgust expressed between Jews and Samaritans leading up to this meeting. Keep in mind at this point in the conversation, this is just a regular Jewish guy talking to her, not the Messiah. She expected Him to shame her the second He opened His mouth, a Jewish man referencing some reason why a Samaritan is bad wouldn’t have phased her. It would likely have been expected. She would have been used to this treatment already, so why would she run from it now?
Personally, I read this text in John as portraying a very savvy woman. She has first immediately noticed that this man doesn’t follow social norms because, well, He’s talking to her while she’s alone (where is your husband). She has noticed He has special insight, even “prophetic” as He knew her past. He understands the significance of Joseph and this well, and He clearly isn’t talking about real water. She seems to have noticed that whomever she is speaking with knows something she wants to know. I don’t think her sin caused her to shuffle and retreat, I think it brought her more into the conversation. She’s realizing they are talking about something bigger. He’s using water as a metaphor for something deeper. He’s talking about something outside of the physical. He’s talking about worship and religion.
I get that this might sound like I’m taking a bit of a stretch, but it is the Samaritan woman, not Jesus, that ties it all together. Keep reading the referenced text. She is the one that drops the metaphor entirely. Jesus and the Samaritan woman start talking about religious practices explicitly. She compares the way Samaritans worship with how this Jewish man was accustomed to worship. She acknowledges that each of these groups believes they know where and how to access God from the traditions and teachings of their religious leaders and writings (they share the Torah after all), so she asks Jesus where and what is proper:
“Should we worship at the Mountain (as was the Samaritan’s patriarchal practice) or the Temple (the official Jewish center of worship)?”
Notice that He does not respond by saying one of these options is right and the other is wrong. He does not say, “both are okay but there’s a new or preferred set of rules.”
While he does seem to say one is more knowledgeable about God than the other, he suggests both may be incomplete vessels. Both are signs pointing to the thing, but neither is the thing itself.
He says: “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God.” “True worshippers worship God in Spirit and in Truth.”
It is easy to say that this simply means the gap between Jew and Gentile was to cease to exist, and I believe that to be true, but are we too quick to assume we understood the dramatic changes He was getting at? Consider what He compared: “What you’re called: what is your tribe and affiliation.” and “where you go to worship” (traditional process and location through which you honor your God in a collective visual expression of faith). Those things won’t matter? Yet, to the evangelical, how is what you’re called and how you worship different from who you are and the way you live?
Maybe, as Christians, with this text in our hands which warns us of becoming too comfortable with our access points to the divine, we tend to lose sight of the difference between the access point and the source. We proclaim to provide the eternal source of this Living Water, while in practice it can feel as though we doubled down and dug yet another well – found another access point that provided just enough comfort.
To some extent, of course we did! Human nature. The lists and rigors provide comfort and certainty. They represent a transaction to be upheld by our concept of fairness – an If-Then truth table. We want black and white do’s and don’ts. However, these are concepts that the Gospel seems to suggest Jesus didn’t seem to care much for (see Mark 3 for doing good on the Sabbath, Matthew 19 for nuances on marriage and divorce, or Matthew 22 for the two commandments that are both “the greatest” for example).
Can we become so tied to our religion that we lose the importance of what that religion points to? Can we be so committed to being called Christian, we fail to truly follow “the Way” that Jesus claimed to himself be? Do we even know what “the way” is?
Perhaps we tend to hedge our bets, stay close to our wells so we can feel certain that some water is near instead of fully letting go and trusting in Living water. We cement our identities in our well and the names of those who dug it. We are Christians in name without realizing our deficiencies in “Spirit and Truth.”
Do we not, at times, use Christianity as our tribal name as opposed to an expression of our faith? An affiliation more than a creed? Are we more inclined to create categories of “Us” and “Them” as opposed to simply establishing what we believe, how we have come to know God, and how we have this hope available to everyone?
How many of us have boiled down what being a Christian means to a set of political views and posturing? “How can you call yourself a Christian if”-questions.
Or maybe tidy to do lists: “How many weeks in a row did we attend church?” “Did I read the Bible App verse of the day?” “Did I say I’m blessed instead of I’m good?” “I know how much he makes, there’s no way he’s paying his tithe like he should.”
How often have we seen these impulses devolve into things like protesting military funerals, denying life-saving help to refugees “over there”, young and old, in an attempt to “keep the influence of Islam from growing” here at home? Spending public dollars we don’t have on construction, installation, defense, and removal of unconstitutional monuments and statues, while cutting funding from public education, health or child services? Being so “not of” this world that we ignore scientific evidence of how we might just be killing it?
How many times have we driven our teens passed multitudes of homeless citizens in need of shelter locally, only to drop them off in another country where they “build homes for Jesus” that in reality get auctioned off to the highest bidder? Or driven past soup kitchens, shelters, and foster homes to stand outside and protest a Planned Parenthood? How many times have we taken up an offering to upgrade the car of the single mother at the end of the pew, yet looked right past that one holding the sign at the end of the street?
To be a little less dramatic: How about our social media interactions? How many simple conversations or posts turn into spewing hatred against people for their honest beliefs, cultural differences, sexual orientation, or even just slightly different interpretations of the same Book we live by because such things threaten our comfort zones, routines, and traditions? How many times has the validity of your Christianity been challenged by a peer evaluating a split second of your behavior or opinions?
How much of being a Christian has become a list of what we do that they don’t do, or what we wouldn’t do that they did? Sometimes it feels like that list has become so intricate and nuanced that the safest thing for a Christian to do is nothing at all?
Can we become so focused on what we brought to the well, our reverence in approaching the well, or our knowledge of who dug it, instead of simply sharing the Water?
If it is for everyone, from who are we so desperately defending it?
If Grace is free, why does it seem like other people need to earn it?
Are we off, too busy “being Christians”, being good little disciples, that Love can’t reveal His message through or around “His people” but, instead, must reveal his true identity to and through the “least obvious” and “least deserving” among us, like a Samaritan woman?
Or a stuttering exiled adopted ex-Egyptian prince?
Or a thief on the Cross?
Or a roman Centurian?
Or the Prodigal Son?
Or the women at the tomb?
Does He choose “these types of people” to make a point, or does He choose “these types of people” because that’s all there are?
Do we get so caught up in what we are called and where we worship that we sometimes lose our way, even while on the path to Spirit and Truth?
Perhaps it is time we all consider what we are truly focused on: our well, or the Water?
Perhaps we too, in our confusion, need to prayerfully leave some water pots behind.
But what do I know?