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Water and the well springing to eternal life

John 4:1-42

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John" - although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized - he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The 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.) Jesus 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." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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." The 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." Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." 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 the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

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?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do 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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour." Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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."

Ezekiel 47: 1-12

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side. Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, "Mortal, have you seen this?"

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, "This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."

Tiredness: Jesus pauses at the well of Sychar in his tiredness. That he is tired is an indication of his frailty, a reminder of his incarnation. He is for real.

But he is also more than merely real. As this gospel's prologue has established, he is none other than the Word made flesh. As such he dwells among us. So there is also a positive side to his tiredness. It is not only rooted in his incarnation, but ennobled by it. This in turn affects his fellow human beings. It allows for all their various kinds of tiredness to be rendered sacred.

Thirst: The same could be said of their thirst. Thirst is the prime concern of Jesus at the well. His request for a drink is supremely human. It is, moreover, universal. The human body is constructed to depend on water. The Saviour's request for a drink matches every individual's need. Moreover, it imbues this need with dignity.

But the "thirst" of this passage involves more than bodily needs. Tiredness may be a function and a burden of the daily round. Thirst has additional dimensions, as does the water which can quench it.

Living waters: So we are no longer merely in the realms of H2O. There is talk of "living waters" that have an awesome power to well up to eternal life. This is not some modern commentator's fancy. "Living waters" were familiar to a prophet like Ezekiel. Here, the image provides the symbolism used by Jesus at this ancient well. The simple water of the well, as he points out, will always need to be replenished: the living waters which he offers in their stead will quench the drinker's inner thirst for ever.

Ezekiel's temple: Ezekiel in his time had visions of such waters pouring from the holiest source, the very heart of Israel. For streams of water issued from beneath the threshold of the temple, and they issued also from its sides. Plentiful and powerful as they were, the waters formed deep rivers, rivers which .purified polluted waters and enriched them. They anticipated the crystal-clear waters of the New Jerusalem in the age to come. The book of Revelation was to see them flowing "from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev. 22:1).

Holy places: But if Ezekiel had seen the temple in Jerusalem as the source from which such living waters flow, Samaritans could well respond with some dismay, "What about us?" For they rejected Jerusalem as a sacred centre. It is therefore not surprising that the woman at the well should juxtapose the rival holy places. Is the temple in Jerusalem the proper place to worship, together with the Jews? Or should one go to Mount Gerizim, in accordance with Samaritan tradition? This implied another question in respect of either: Should anybody's preference for the one mean condemnation of the other? For only one of them can be true, or so the woman must have thought.

Worship in spirit and in truth: Jesus is careful to express his preference for the worship in the Jerusalem temple since "salvation is from the Jews". But while he sees this as a welcome stepping stone towards salvation, he straightaway goes further. For new perspectives are required. As it is, neither Samaritans nor Jews possess the wherewithal to worship as they should. It is not enough to have a holy place. Nor enough to be a holy nation. Over and above conventional, inherited religion, authentic worship calls for inspiration, and the readiness to be inspired. This alone ensures that worship is "in spirit and in truth".

Is this presented as a distant prospect, a challenge for the future? It could be, says Jesus, that the appropriate time has yet to come. Nevertheless, it is equally and simultaneously a challenge for the present. For the time is coming "and now is" (John 4:23). The paradox and sting is in that "and". It helps to introduce an urgent present, and with it comes a prompting to respond.

The role of the Spirit: Responding is not so easy, is the obvious reaction. Certainly not easy if we depend only on our limited resources. However, worship "in spirit and in truth" implies involvement of the Spirit, the one God, for "God is Spirit". So begins another of the Saviour's sayings at the well. No other force engenders, no other force empowers, worship in spirit and in truth. It is not as if the welling up of living waters speaks of something else. When John quotes other words of Jesus concerning the living waters flowing from his people, he does not hesitate to add, "by this he meant the Spirit" (John 7:37-39). No wonder the Orthodox so frequently invoke the Spirit with the words, "Come and abide in us."

Sacraments and symbols: In common with other Christians, and since early times, the Orthodox have sought to summon the image of living waters by means of sacraments and symbols. The symbols offer a façade which is not intended to exhaust the inner meaning of the sacramental act.

The waters of baptism are sanctified with an invocation of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit may "indwell" us. So each and every member of the church emerges from the font covered with grace generated in those living and life-giving waters. In later years, the faithful may be offered blessed water to consume. Such water may also be sprinkled on their persons or their food. In the process, truths which remain beyond our rational comprehension may yet be tangibly expressed. They may be "‘marked, learned, and inwardly digested".

Mission: Did the woman at the well heed and digest the exhortation to worship in spirit and in truth? She certainly abandoned her precious vessel then and there, so as to inform her neighbours of this visitor's potential for them all. She was obviously convinced that knowledge of his presence must be shared. Such was her missionary zeal. And the urgency with which she acts suggests some understanding of his answers.

Questions: But she is slow to recognize the limitations of her various questions. It is not that they are limited in scope. However, though they may have touched on sociology, topography, hydrology, archaeology and biblical tradition, they were simplistic in themselves. Were it not for her partner in the conversation, she hardly could have gained important insights from them, let alone illumination. Indeed, she could have proved a tiresome nuisance, and no more. Yet there he is, her partner, highlighting fruitful aspects of her questions, providing guidance in what has now become her search.

To be fair, she also makes some contributions of her own. The very persistence of her questions needs to be admired. Moreover, had there not been questions such as these, we might still lack the answers. Reticence on her part would have brought the woman from Samaria not much nearer to the truth, even though she might have acted in the "proper" fashion by accepting such degrees of social segregation as were practised in her day. Jesus, for his part, willingly accepts her questions, "outsider" though she be. Not only an outsider, but a woman. Jesus' disciples may have been perturbed by this, but not he.

Restricted water? Segregation had not prevented Jesus from requesting water at the well. If there was already talk of Samaritans as ritually unclean and with household vessels which no Jew should use, he was ready to ignore it. At a different level, and in a world where he himself encouraged people to worship in spirit and in truth, he could hardly impose restrictions on their use of living water, the water which was his. Later, in Jerusalem itself, and at the temple, he was firmly to extend his invitation to anyone who thirsts: "Let him come to me and drink."

Depleted resources: He was the channel for such living and life-giving water - in anticipation of the Spirit "which was not yet given". Even so, does there come a time when he finds himself depleted of such waters? Not that it is immediately apparent in the way it happened, since his needs are reflected in a simple exclamation from the cross, "I am thirsty" (John 19:28).

This could speak directly of his physical requirements at the time. Hence the reaction of his guards. And he himself is ready to accept their offer of a drink. Could the thirst be more profound than that, as well? Could it be the counterpart of yet another exclamation, or quotation, from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here is one of the most anguished moments of the incarnation: Jesus ponders his own vocation as the Son of God. His thirst would seem to contradict the teachings at the well. But he has plumbed the very depths of anguish, and so has overcome it.

Superabundant grace: When the book of Revelation touches on the prospect of the age to come, it shows the New Jerusalem to be a place where any thirst is likely to be quenched. So "let the thirsty come", urges the narrator in this section of the book: "Let whoever wishes accept the water of life as a gift" (Rev. 21:6, 22:17).

On the earthly plane, newcomers to church life may have received their call to be baptized in words like these. But the message has wider implications. Superabundant grace is freely made available to all.

Sergei Hackel

An acclamation from the Orthodox service of mattins for the theophany of our Lord

O King without beginning, through the communion of the Spirit,
Thou dost anoint and make perfect the nature of mankind.
Thou hast cleansed us in the undefiled streams,
putting to shame the arrogant force of darkness,
and now Thou dost translate it unto endless life.

How to work with these texts


Water is a universal human need, as Sergei Hackel reminds us. In some situations, thirst is a life-threatening daily reality, in others we may use thirst as a metaphor for deep needs and desires. What do people thirst for in your local community? Who and what satisfies that thirst? Be specific and realistic. Where does the living and life-bringing water of John 4 and Ezekiel 47 fit into this?

In what ways did Jesus challenge traditional assumptions about relationships and about worship in John 4? What is the significance of the conversation for the Samaritan woman and her community? What can we learn from that?

How do we use water sacramentally, symbolically and metaphorically in the worship and life of the churches? Recognize the differences between traditions.

Sergei Hackel suggests, "It is not enough to have a holy place. Nor enough to be a holy nation. Over and above conventional, inherited religion, authentic worship calls for inspiration, and the readiness to be inspired." How do we open ourselves to the inspiration of the Spirit so that our worship is experienced as worship in spirit and in truth?

The vision in Ezekiel 47 is of life bringing water flowing from the place where God is worshipped. What flows out into the world from our worship? How can the living water given by Jesus bring new life to our worship, and thus to the world?

How does this Bible study help us understand and respond to the assembly theme "God, in your grace, transform the world"?