On Friday and Saturday of last week, I attended Wisdom’s Feast – an annual event run by the Centre for Theology and Ministry of the Uniting Church’s Vic/Tas Synod. This year’s theme was “Rivers of Life” and one of the sessions I attended was led by Sean Winter, who looked at water in John’s gospel. This, not surprisingly, included the Woman at the Well – one of my favourite gospel passages. Some of the material I wrote but couldn’t use in my chapter for the forthcoming book Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T & T Clark, edited by Chris Skinner), intersected with what Sean was saying, so I thought I would share it here, instead, with additions prompted by Sean.
Sean pointed out that in John, the imagery of water always has the potential to teach the reader/hearer something about life in the Spirit and that when water is introduced as a physical element of a Johannine story, it rapidly becomes spiritualised. This is definitely the case in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He begins by asking her for a drink (v 7), which surprises her because Jews don’t normally share things with Samaritans (v 9). He responds to her surprise by saying that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink of water (the Greek here has a dual meaning – either running water or water that gives life) (v 10).
Whenever I have heard the next verse read aloud, it has always been made to sound as though the woman is respectful and subservient, but I don’t think this is right. It doesn’t fit well with her question in v 12 – “are you greater than our ancestor Jacob…?” I think it is more likely that she decides that not only is the Jew unusual in talking to her, but also at least a little loopy. She is an intelligent woman, capable, as we will see, of holding her own in a theological conversation, so she tries to discourage him, but carefully, since they are alone at the well and he doesn’t appear to be quite balanced.
“So, sir, there is a major flaw in this offer – you don’t happen to have a bucket and this well is too deep for you to just lean over and scoop some up with your hands. (I have the bucket, remember – that’s why you asked me for water.) Who do you think you are – are you greater than our ancestor Jacob (ie, do you think you can create a new spring)?”
Jesus responds by telling her that the water he’s offering will mean she will never be thirsty again. It is not clear at this stage whether she is still humouring him – “Yes. OK. Give me some of this water so I don’t have to keep coming back here to draw water (v 15)” – or whether he has started to convince her that his offer is worht considering, but I agree with Sean that at this stage she is not actually conceptualising him as the Messiah.
It isn’t until he tells her to go and call her husband and it becomes clear that he knows an awful lot about her domestic situation that she starts to think that there might be something more to him than she had initially thought – and then she names him a prophet (v 19). Even when she leaves her jar of water and goes back to the town to tell the others, she is still saying “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” in a way that in the Greek expects the answer “no”. We never hear a claim that Jesus is Messiah from her lips, although it is probably reasonable to assume from v 42 that she, like the people of the town, believes him to be “the Saviour of the world.”
Traditional interpretation depicts her as an outcast because she is at the well in the middle of the day by herself, has had five husbands and is now living with a man to whom she is not married. In order to come to this conclusion the reader needs to fill in the information that women normally went to wells together in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day, and that this woman had been divorced five times. Given that average maximum winter temperatures in the area are around 12-16 degrees Centigrade (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit), noon does not always mean hot, though; unexpected events can lead to the need to get more water than was anticipated; and her husbands may have died from illness and accident until the point where there was no further male relative in her first husband’s family that she could marry. The fact that, when she returns to town the people she meets come out to find him suggests that she was probably not a total outcast.
I like this story because it traces the growth in the woman’s understanding of Jesus and her belief in him and because in it we have an account of a Gentile woman who not only comes to saving faith but is the means by which others come, too. I really don’t think, though that she immediately recognised Jesus as anything other than what she hoped was a harmless nutter of the kind that you get stuck sitting beside on a long haul plane flight when you haven’t brought significant work with you to do. We also need to remember that the account of the original conversation between Jesus and the woman cannot have been a firsthand account (unless we would like to suggest that the woman at the well was the beloved disciple – not a line I would like to try to run) because the woman and Jesus were the only two there. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus or the woman is the source of the story.