3 Reasons Jesus Stopped at a Sacred Well in John’s Gospel

Water bubbling up from a well
Jesus didn’t have to stop at a sacred well on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee.

He could have taken a different route.

He could have gone with his disciples into town to buy food.

Why did Jesus stop at a sacred well in Samaria?

Over the past few blogs, we have been looking at Jesus’s reactions to several Jewish institutions in John’s Gospel: A wedding, the Temple, and a rabbi. We have looked at how each of these institutions points towards Jesus as their true fulfillment.*



The rabbi representing Jesus as the ultimate teacher – but much more than a teacher – a bringer of a new life.

In this post, we are going to look at a sacred well and how Jesus uses this imagery to reveal something about Himself.

The story in Brief

Jesus and His disciples are heading from Jerusalem to Galilee. They head through Samaria (according to Josephus, this is the quickestroute from Jerusalem to Galilee).

Map of Jesus's journey from Jerusalem to Galilee
This map is from bible-history.com
Whilst the disciples are somewhere else Jesus approaches a sacred well and asks a woman for some water.

The woman is astonished that Jesus is talking to her and asks why.

Jesus replies, stating that He would give her living water.

She doubts His ability to get a drink – as he has no bucket and states that it is impossible as Jesus is not greater than their ancestor, Jacob, who performed a miracle at the well.

Jesus states that his water ensures that she will never need to drink again and that they will indeed become springs of water themselves.

Finally, she asks for the water.

Let’s look at why Jesus stopped at the well.

1 To Make a Point About Jews & Samaritans

The story has several different overtones. The primary one that original readers would have noticed was the shocking interplay between a Jew and a Samaritan, as well as the shocking interplay between a male teacher and a female.

It is an understatement to say that Jews and Samaritans did not get on. The Samaritan people are distinguished as the northern kingdom of Israel who intermarried with their Assyrian oppressors and adopted parts of their culture and practices.

To Jews of the day they were seen as half-breeds.

This issue was further compounded when the Samaritans built an altar on a local mountain (Mt Gerizim) in around 500BC (which was destroyed by the Jews in around 200BC).

This was contrasted to the temple built on Mount Zion where the Jews worshiped (this knowledge helps us to understand the part of the conversation where Jesus and the woman discuss worshiping on two different mountains).

Based on the above reasons, Jews, when passing through Samaria, would not touch a Samaritan or engage with them in any way.  

This is taken further by the fact that Jewish men did not initiate conversation with a woman, nor would a Jewish teacher engage in public conversation with a woman.

At this point we can begin to draw a parallel with Jesus’s earlier conversation with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a named male; the Samaritan woman is an unnamed female. Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish religious establishment; the Samaritan woman is a member of an enemy people.

But here’s the kicker.

Nicodemus is ultimately closed to what Jesus is saying. The Samaritan woman is open and responds to Jesus’s invitation.

This story acts like John’s version of the prodigal son – but is far more shocking to the original readers because it is not just a story – it actually happened.

2. To Establish Himself as Greater Than the Jewish Patriarchs

Now we turn from the wider context to Jesus himself.

The text itself is rich with comparisons between Jesus and the patriarchs of the Jewish faith. In the text, we see comparisons between Jesus and Isaac (Genesis 24:10-61), Jacob (Genesis 29:1-20), and Moses (Exodus 2:15).

In the text, we also see allusions between Jesus and the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:10-11). This prophetic link is further established by the Samaritan woman in John 4:19.

The strongest symbolism stands with the comparison between Jesus and Jacob. Within Judaic tradition, five miracles are attributed to Jacob. One of these is that at the well of Haran (the same well that this story takes place) Jacob causes the well to overflow, and continued to overflow for the whole time that he was at Haran.

The key to understanding these references is the woman’s question to Jesus: “you are not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you?”.

Jesus has no way of drawing water from the well, therefore the only way that he can draw water for her is via a miracle.

Jacob caused a miracle at this place, essentially drawing water without a container because the water came to the top of the well and overflowed.

Therefore, if Jesus is to draw water then it must be via miracle, thus placing him alongside the Jewish patriarchs.

Jesus claims that, unlike Jacob's miracle, the water that Jesus provides will continually satisfy, placing Jesus greater than the patriarchs.

3. To Use Water to Teach About the Coming Gift of The Spirit

Jesus informs the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water. Like Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, the term living water has two meanings.

Living water can refer to water that is fresh and running, i.e. not from a cistern.

Living water can also mean water that is life-giving.

As with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman fixates on one meaning pointing out that Jesus has nothing to draw water with. Here we see parallels with the water into wine story. The steward does not know where the wine has come from, neither does the Samaritan woman know where this water will come from.

In John 7:37-39, we see Jesus again reference himself as a source of living water. This time John makes the connection for us between the living water and the spirit of God. It is the spirit of God that flows from Jesus into us, giving us life.

Conclusion

This story is a story of both elevation and revelation.

We see the Samaritans elevated from an ostracised, despised group, that became some of the first believers and spent two days with Jesus.

We see a woman elevated from a second-class citizen to someone who shows greater faith and knowledge than Nicodemus, one of the Jewish religious leaders.

We see Jesus elevated from just a normal person (in the eyes of the Samaritan woman) to someone who is greater than Jewish patriarchs.

We see water, a physical entity capable of temporary satiation of thirst, elevated (metaphorically) to the life-giving spirit of God that dwells within us.

We also see revelation. The Samaritans never were a half-breed people. The woman never was a second-class citizen. Jesus never was just a man. The water Jesus spoke of never was just water. Rather, each element’s true value is revealed in the light of Christ.

May we never treat people as second class. May we too ask for the water that satisfies. And may we understand ourselves and all that we are in the beautiful light of Christ.

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*The inspiration for this series comes from the bible projects' video on John's gospel. The majority of research I am using is taken from The New Interpreter's Bible - Luke & John (affiliate link).

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