The Samaritan Woman at the Well

In the Old Testament, wells have matrimonial/covenantal significance. Abraham's son Isaac found his wife, Rebekah, at a well. Or rather, Abraham's unnamed servant found her on his behalf (Gn 24:1-67). Isaac's son, Jacob, found his wife, Rachel, at a well (Gn 29:1-14). Likewise, Moses met his wife, Zipporah, at a well (Ex 2:16-21). In each of these stories, there are covenantal references. For example, Moses meets seven women at the wall, daughters of one man; the number seven represents the covenant (Hebrew sheva means both seven and covenant). In the story of Jacob and Rachel, there are three flocks mentioned and the well stone is "rolled away;" compare with the resurrection of our Lord, where after three days, the stone of His tomb was rolled away. Additionally, Rachel's father refers to Jacob as "my bone and my flesh," which is matrimonial language taken from the creation of Eve (Gn 2:23). There is a very covenantal story regarding Abraham and one Abimalech, wherein Abraham complains about the seizing of one of his wells (Gn 21:22-34). Abraham and King Abimalech swear a covenant at that well, and the well is named Beer-sheba, which is Hebrew for "well of the covenant" (beer = well; sheba = covenant/seven as above (sheva)). Again, there is mention of seven ewe lambs in this story, seven being the covenantal number. Abraham's son, Isaac, later re-digs this well and establishes his own covenant with King Abimalech. He builds an altar there and sacrifices, calling on the name of the Lord which is, again, the form of covenantal worship. (Gn 26:23-33).

Moving now to John's Gospel, we meet a great story rich in symbolism. Read John 4:1-42 (it’s too long to post here). Here Jesus meets a woman at a well. As in the above OT stories, He asks her to give him a drink. It’s about the sixth hour, that is, about noon. But the number six represents the "non-covenant" (in contrast with seven which represents the covenant), so there is something non-covenantal going on. It is the woman, a Samaritan.

We need a bit of OT history to understand the Samaritans. Israel was originally a nation of twelve tribes. After King Solomon committed his infamous un-covenantal discretions, God told him He would split Israel in two as punishment, during his son Rehoboam's reign (1 Kg 11:11-13). When that came to pass, Israel split permanently into two kingdoms: (1) The Southern Kingdom of Judah (tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with capital city Jerusalem); (2) The Northern Kingdom of Israel (the other ten tribes, with capital city Samaria). While the kings of Judah remained fairly faithful to God and the daily sacrifices continued in the Jerusalem temple, the kings of Israel were consistently bad men and the ten northern tribes lost true worship. The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Babylonians around 740 B.C. The Assyrians mixed some of the Israelites among the other nations of their empire, effectively forcing mixed marriages and the loss of tribal purity. Likewise, foreigners moved into Israel to inter-marry the natives. The effect was the loss of the ten northern tribes' identity. And, over time, the entire region came to be called Samaria, after the former capital city; there was no more a nation called Israel. The Judeans (aka, Jews) of the Southern kingdom continued on even until Jesus' day; they looked down on the Samaritans as a great and tragic loss, their former people so diluted by foreign invasion. Hence the comments by the Samaritan woman to Jesus, whom she only recognized as a Judean.

One of the things prophesied of the Messiah was the re-establishment of the lost ten tribes of Israel and the restoration of all Israel. In this text, the Samaritan woman represents Samaria - the ten lost tribes who Jesus will "marry" to return them to the Covenant. We can see several examples of matrimonial imagery here, which starts with meeting the woman at a well asking for a drink, an image borrowed from the above examples.

Next Jesus tells her about her five husbands:

Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly." (Jn 4:16-18)

When the Samaritans were conquered by Assyria, people from five other nations in the Assyrian Empire were brought in to Samaria to inter-marry; these people each worshipped their own pagan gods. (2 Kgs 17:24-41) In Hebrew, then word ba’al means a pagan god. But the word ba’al also means husband. So, this woman – representing Samaria – had five husbands, five ba’als. The one who she/they have now is, of course, Jesus, and He is not their husband, not their God. But now read Hosea, chapter 2: Hosea was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel and was sent to bring a message to the Samaritans just prior to Assyria’s conquest. They were conquered by Assyria, but God promised to later restore them into God’s favor and the same matrimonial language was used:

"And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, 'My husband' (ishi), and no longer will you call me, 'My Baal.' For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD. (Hos 2:16-20)

Jesus is now fulfilling this prophecy; He is taking His people of Samaria back by establishing a new form of the Covenant, a form which brings all peoples - including the Samaritan remnants of old Israel - into God's Covenant. The prophecy used matrimonial language, therefore Jesus engages this matrimonial episode with the Samaritan woman.

What about the living waters of which Jesus speaks? From the OT:

12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jer 2:12-13)

God Himself is the source of living waters, which we understand to be – through the sign of baptism – His grace, His life. Any other cistern (or well) is symbolic of pagan worship. This lends even more meaning to John’s narrative. The Samaritans worshipped man-made gods; the Samaritan woman is gathering water from a man-made well. Jesus comes to bring them into the Covenant, to worship the Father, "in spirit and in truth." In doing so, they will return to the living waters of Jeremiah's prophecy. Finally, to top it off:

A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. … a garden fountain, a well of living water,… (Song 4:12, 15)

Brides, gardens, wells, living water – all symbols of fertile life, the Life that God shares with us through His bride, the Church, via the waters of baptism.