The conversation between Jesus and the “woman at the well” is one of the most familiar scenes in John’s Gospel (4:5-42). It is richly textured, conveying racial prejudice, gender discrimination, cultural hegemony, and the contextual adaptability of the Gospel. Jews and Samaritans have quite a history; Jews consider them “half-breeds” and retained long memories of Samaritan collaboration with enemies at the expense of Jews. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day would not be caught dead speaking to a woman in public; and one who has had five husbands and a current “live-in” is hardly worth a rabbi’s focused attention. Even passing through the village of Sychar was considered a disgusting route that the upright sought to avoid. Yet, it is precisely here, amidst all these narrative tensions, that Jesus offers some of his most profound theological reflection on his messianic vocation.
Topics abound in their exchange: Jewish-Samaritan relations; Jesus’ identity; the location and character of authentic worship; the nature of God as Spirit; the hope for the Messiah; and, her plight as a woman with little recourse but to engage in serial marriages. The most fascinating topic is “living water,” which promises to quench one’s deepest thirst—forever. As he often does, Jesus moves the conversation from a literal to a spiritual level, gathering up all the historic significance surrounding Jacob’s well and transcending it. In this instance, Jesus introduces the indwelling Spirit through the metaphor of life-giving water “which will become … a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14). (This is similar to the promise of the Spirit in John 7: 38: “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”) It is a promise of life eternal made possible by the abiding presence of God.
Humans are born thirsting for God. The deep, stabbing longing that calls us to pursue relationships, beauty, creativity, and worship arises out of the reality that we were created for God and , in words attributed to William Blake, “less than All cannot satisfy.” The gift of the Spirit, that gushing presence that draws us into the life of God, quenches this thirst. As we walk the dusty Lenten pilgrimage, identifying our true thirst allows us to receive the abundance of Christ’s healing presence, through the agency of the Spirit.
Molly T. Marshall
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