Gospel: John 4:4-42
4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. (Gen 33:19, 48:22 Josh 24:32)
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) [The las t words are lacking in some manuscripts]
10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you [plural] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you [plural] will worship the Father neither on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem. 22You [plural] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, [he is supplied] the one who is speaking to you.’
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ [She is like Andrew: We have found the Messiah!] 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
I am privileged to have friends who have survived outrageous trauma. In the beginning, our trauma defines us. A husband dies of fever at a young age; another in the famine; the only one who will take on a twice widowed-woman turns out to be an animal, and abandons you. Eventually you end up living— if you can call it that— in the house of a man who hates you, who won't marry you, but who is pleased to have your service. And you live in the noon day glare of people's prejudice and judgement; traumatised, ostracised, and armouring off your soul which is, even so, as human, as alive, and as beautiful, as any other soul.
Those of us with a measure of success, even if our success is mostly in appearing to conform to social expectations, tend to project our own trauma response upon those who have suffered most, and who have more visibly crumbled. Long unconscious of this, I eventually realised I was as much defined by my own trauma, as was the woman at the well. I was worse off— completely in the dark, like Nicodemus, because, having suffered much less than the woman, I was still defined by the actions of others. But because I could look down on her, I did not realise I was just as thirsty.
Blinded by looking down on her, I lived my life according to the dictates of lost little children, small schoolyard bullies whose names I could sometimes not even remember. But she, exposed in the light, knowing her need, feeling her thirst, responded immediately when it befriended her.
The symbolism of the story is not subtle. She is at Jacob's Well: El-Elohe-Israel, the well with the altar of "God, the God of Israel. Genesis 33:18-20 tells us this was at Shechem, but the text of John calls the place Sychar. This provokes some discussion about place names in the commentaries as people concentrate on the literal story, which is ironic given that both this story, and the story of Nicodemus, direct us to look beneath the literal meanings!
Brown translates Sychar as Shechem in his commentary, assuming a mistake or a corrupted manuscript. (pp167, 169) Given that there is at this place "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" I wonder if we perhaps miss the obvious: "Sychar may be a [deliberate] distortion of Shechem, [which was] originally intended as an insult to the Samaritans." Sychar may derive from the Hebrew word for drunkard. (Sanders and Mastin, pp139, and footnotes) Will we drink this deeply of the living water?
The scars of our wounding run like sharp gutters across the path of our life. They are always there, always able to trip us up. We rehash and churn endlessly over the same old hurts. We melt down, and regress to old behaviours. "Never thirsting" does not mean some magic healing, and it is no good news to preach a gospel which substitutes saccharine lolly water for a deep intoxicating conversion to eternal life.
To drink the water of which Jesus speaks, is to be the despised wife of five husbands who is fully known, but who is nonetheless taken seriously, given dignity, and now lives life being healed. The process is ongoing.
This traumatised woman is an evangelist. She is like Andrew and Phillip: "we have found the Messiah… We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." (John 1:41.45) Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! (4:29)
I listened to one of my friends talking about "everything she had ever done" as she sat at our table the other night. I cannot imagine how we even survive such pain, much less how someone "strange yet friendly" can sit beside us at the well, and give us water that begins to quench what has been the deepest unending thirst. Yet she, and others like her, have told me everything I have ever done.
And the story ends with the same ambiguity and challenge as was handed to Nicodemus: "we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen." (3:11) "They said to the woman, 'It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.'" (4:42) There is some deeper hearing than merely accepting the word of another person. Something else is on offer.
My attention was drawn to a similar story of healing in Gerasa. (Mark 5:1-10) There, the people of the city reject Jesus. What is different? I can see, in my own life, one key thing which contributes to a positive response to Jesus; it seems to mirror something in John.
Jesus says, at noon, that "those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty." Yet, at noon, (John 19:14) Jesus himself says, "I am thirsty." (John 19:28) This is surely deliberate.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
I reproached some preaching with the harsh epithet "saccharine lolly water." There is a cheap slaking of thirst, a settling for easy answers, which seems to me to leave us thirsty. Jesus thirsted to the end. When all was done he still thirsted to drink the wine offered on a sprig of hyssop: the sprig used to sprinkle the blood of the paschal lamb.
Andrew Marr points out that in Gerasa, the people would not give up their scapegoat. They would not be converted. They wanted the easy answer. In Sychar people drank deeply. They were able to let go of their scapegoat, the woman, and live with from source of being; they gave "up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give." ("The woman is alone at the most social place in town and at the time of day when nobody else would want to be there, indications that the woman is the town’s scapegoat.")
I don't know the how of that. I do know that continuing to thirst, continuing to be honest about my lack of satisfaction with the easier answers about life and faith, and not settling for an easy faith, is intimately connected to a deeper healing of my thirst. And now, sometimes, I am almost drunk on the hints of glory which surround us.
And finally, I can only ask that Hope Publishing, and Brian Wren, will forgive me for posting this text in full. In the ongoing circles of life, I come back to it, and find deeper truth.
I have no bucket, and the well is deep.
My thirst is endless, and my throat is dry.
I ask you, stranger, silent at my side,
can words refresh my longings if you speak?
I have no bucket, and the well is deep.
Can love unbar the strongrooms of the mind
and scour the tombs and warrens underground
for toys and treasures lost, or never found,
for all I cannot name, yet ache to find?
I have no bucket, and the well is deep.
Who are you, strange yet friendly at my side,
and can you see and judge, yet understand
my hidden self, and heal with wounded hands?
Are you the path, the gateway and the guide,
the keys, the living water, and the light?
Come break the rock, and bid the rivers flow
from deep unending wells of joy and worth,
for tears, for drinking, drowning and new birth,
and I shall find and give myself, and know
the keys, the living water, and the light.
Brian Wren Words © 1986 Hope Publishing Company
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible – Doubleday)
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI
JN Sanders and BA Mastin A Commentary on The Gospel According to St John (Adam and Charles Black)
Brian Wren Praising a Mystery (Hope Publishing Company 1986)
The Girardian Lectionary, incl Andrew Marr Moving and Resting in God's Desire
Previously on One Man's Web
John 4:5-42 - Seeing the single tree