I’m not quoting here the words of a thirsty customer at some dispensary of intoxicants, but rather of the Lord Jesus Himself. This Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman, as part of the Church’s post-paschal baptismal mystagogy.
After a long journey through the dusty desert, Jesus rested at Jacob’s well in Sychar, under the high noon sun. He was thirsty with a double thirst: water for his perspiring body and, more importantly, He was thirsting for the salvation of the poor, sinful woman at the well, for his very sustenance was to do what the Father had sent Him to do (see John 4:34).
St John the Evangelist not only wrote the profound and mystically theological revelation of God contained in his Gospel, but he also, in the process, employed a unique literary style, one that delights in layered meanings, using misunderstandings or words with more than one meaning to manifest the mystery of God, which cannot be exhausted in a few declarative sentences.
Here he highlights a conversation centered on water and presents Jesus’ teaching on grace as a gift of living water, which quenches our deepest thirst for truth, love, and salvation. The little misunderstanding occurs in the contrast between well water and flowing water (“living water” is another way of saying “flowing water”). The woman was surprised that a Jew would want to drink anything touched by a Samaritan—for they were considered unclean due to a history of intermarriage with Gentiles and because of ritual aberrations—so she hesitated to fulfill his request for a drink. This was Jesus’ cue, so He said: “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” (4:10). Not getting it, she reminded him that they were at a well, not a flowing river, and He didn’t even have a bucket, so where was He going to get this living (flowing) water to give her?
So the Lord launched into his teaching about the grace of the Holy Spirit. We need no well, because this spiritual Living Water “will become in [us] a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” OK, so now she says she wants this Water, but she still doesn’t understand, because the reason she wants it is so she won’t become thirsty or have to keep going to that darn well to draw water every day!
Jesus patiently keeps at it, first with a reminder of her need for repentance (“he whom you now have is not your husband”), and then with a teaching that shows how God transcends local sanctuaries and is not tied to one place or one particular cultic practice: “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Finally, He did something, according to the Gospel accounts, anyway, that He didn’t do for anybody else during his earthly ministry (except the apostles, but for them it was much later than their first meeting)—He revealed Himself explicitly as the Messiah, the Christ. And He did so to such an outcast, who was evidently ostracized by the other townswomen; they would have gathered to draw water in the cool early morning, not at midday. When the woman at the well said that the Messiah was coming, and He would clarify all these issues for everyone, Jesus responded: “I who speak to you am He.”
We don’t get a chance to enter into this solemn revelation, nor share the thoughts of the woman, for at that very moment the disciples bustled onto the scene with their bags of groceries, insisting that the Master eat something (but refraining from making any comments about what He was doing with that slatternly woman at the well.) But his word had found its mark, and the woman ran back to town rejoicing that she had found the Messiah and inviting all to come and see. Jesus had done his work, had satisfied his thirst for the cleansing of her soul, and had thus done the will of the Father. Later tradition calls this woman St Photina, the enlightened one, for she heard the word of God and kept it, leading many others to enlightenment, for after hearing Him speak they exclaimed: “this is indeed the Savior of the world!” (4:42).
Let Jesus sit down with you at the well of your daily life. Listen to Him; let Him probe a bit into your soul and reveal to you what still needs to be done. Don’t quibble about fine points of theology; don’t evade the real issues. He thirsts for your soul, so go ahead, give Him a drink. You’ll get inexhaustible rivers of Living Water in return.