Column: John takes new approach to ‘woman at the well’

by Father Mike Stubbs

Third Sunday of Lent Jn 4: 5-42

The local watering hole is often a popular place to find persons of the opposite sex. That was true even in biblical times.

The patriarch Jacob met Rachel, the great love of his life, at the local watering hole. But in this case, “watering hole” does not mean a place where one can buy alcoholic beverages. Rather, it means a place to water the livestock: “Looking about, he saw a well in the open country, with three droves of sheep huddled near it, for droves were watered from that well” (Gn 29:2).

Rachel is tending some of the sheep. Jacob sees her and falls in love. That is appropriate, since a well can easily serve as a symbol of fertility, especially in the desert. A well is life-giving, just as sexual love can be. Eventually, this particular well acquires the name “Jacob’s well” as a local landmark.

Centuries later, John’s Gospel will place Jesus at Jacob’s well for his encounter with a Samaritan woman. We will hear the account of that event in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 4:5-42.

The parallel between this event and Jacob’s encounter with Rachel is obvious. A man and a woman meet at a well. They fall in love. It is life-giving. But in the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, it does not involve sexual love. It is a love of the spirit.

Throughout Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we see a movement away from the physical toward the spiritual. Instead of the physical water from the well, Jesus offers the woman his grace, symbolized by living water: “Everyone who drinks this water [from the well] will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Similarly, instead of worship situated on Mount Gerizim (the spot favored by the Samaritans) or worship in Jerusalem (the spot favored by the Jews), Jesus directs the Samaritan woman toward worship of a completely different sort, worship not tied to any particular location: “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

Later on, when Jesus meets up with his disciples and they urge him to eat something, he informs them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Once again, this food is not physical, but spiritual: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.”

This movement away from the physical toward the spiritual might suggest a total repudiation of material things. That is how the gnostic heresy interpreted John’s Gospel. But the more orthodox interpretation views the physical as the foundation on which to establish the spiritual. That is the same approach that we take toward the sacraments. Each sacrament is based upon the physical, to lead us to the spiritual.

For example, in the sacrament of baptism, we are physically washed in water in order to receive the living water of which Jesus speaks in Sunday’s Gospel. We move beyond the level of the physical to the level of the Spirit. That is the direction in which Jesus points us, just as he did with the Samaritan woman.

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