`And, may I add, we had no running water, for example. You had to fetch water in a bucket from the well – which is a wonderful way to learn the value of water.’
Werner Herzog, filmmaker
What I want to do is wrap up these reflections on the `woman at the well’ story found in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. However, I want to take a bit of a meandering route….something like a river.
THERE IS A RIVER.
There is a long subterranean poem about different kinds of water running through several chapters in the Gospel of John. For John, Jesus inaugurates His ministry by turning well water into wine at a village wedding, and then declares its terms by overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He points out to Nicodemus (and those with him) that ritual washing/baptism of repentance must be supplemented with genuine spiritual rebirth. Later in that same section His cousin picks up the wedding scene imagery to remind critics that he is only the `the friend of the bridegroom.’ Jesus then does something that carries hints and echoes of several Old Testament betrothal narratives. He turns up as an exhausted, thirsty traveler by a well in `enemy territory.’ Nonetheless, He is still the suitor/Bridegroom….and the Samaritan woman the potential `bride.’ John draws our attention to the play of words and meanings shifting around the kind of water that Jesus offers the woman. Once again in Jerusalem and close to the sheep pool (and in the shadow of the law?) we are reminded that ritual washing and even `miracle’ water are no substitute for engaging and encountering the person of Jesus. In the section that follows, Jesus supernaturally feeds thousands of families, but only His immediate circle get to see Him walking on water. In some cultures well or river water, or baptismal font has benign meaning or spiritual potency. It is the larger bodies of water that symbolize untamed spiritual power or chaos. Jesus walks on the surface of this `chaotic’ water demonstrating His `Lordship’ over the wind and the waves….and also suggesting the image of Moses potentially leading Israel through the Red sea. The limitations of this `Moses’ reference surface when Jesus encounters the crowd he had previously fed. They had very clear, somewhat limited ideas about what His Lordship and spiritual power `should’ mean in terms of their opposition to Rome. They walk away when Jesus talks to them about a deeper level of engagement with Him. Then John talks about a temple feast where Jesus describes Himself as the source of a fountain of living water. This leads into a controversial story about an adulterous woman He is called upon to `judge.’ He `writes in the dust’ the names of all who depart from Him, those who forsake this fountain of living water (compare John 8:1-11 with Jeremiah 17:13)
In the next section, water has changed shape and symbolic value again, and is now a pool called `Sent’ and a man born blind has to make his way there and wash the mud from his eyes. The blind man, like the earlier paralytic is made well, but he is also thrust into a world of uncertainty and alienation from culture and tradition. John’s somewhat fluid adaptation (pun intended) of the water metaphor in various narrative settings throws growing light upon the person of Jesus and the consequences of following Him. Even the pool called `Sent’ carried echoes of earlier symbols and traditions. At one level the pool was `fed’ by a secret aqueduct carved into the temple construction by Hezekiah. He was intent on protecting the water supply into the city. At another level, some have caught a reference to the `gentle stream’ that the prophet Isaiah describes Israel as metaphorically turning away from… prior to their conquest and domination by a foreign political power.
THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER
The idea of poetry and multiple layers of significance in Scripture are welcomed by some, viewed more cautiously by others. It was the calcified layer upon layer of scholarly elaboration and commentary on the Scriptures of Israel that formed part of the `tradition of the elders’ that Jesus kicked against, saying it painted a distorted picture of God, and put too much power in the hands of the gatekeepers. The church fathers argued among themselves when it came to synthesizing the different interpretive traditions for scripture. Much later, these synthesized traditions, combined with abuses of ecclesiastical power paved the way for a Reformation. Some emphasized an approach to Scripture that involved collapsing the interpretive layers into a historically and textually informed plain sense.
We can learn much by patiently exploring these histories….and learning their lessons. But we can lose much if we do not remain open to what authors like John are doing.
AND HERE WE END.
In our exploration of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, we have dipped into cultural history, social science background and also literary allusion and visual art composition in our attempts to deepen our reading and our hearing of the different echoes woven there. In our journey we have touched on the lives of the hero/ancestors of Israel and their wedding stories…in order to suggest that Jesus, as described by John, was the `true bridegroom’ and the real source of `living water.’ Finally we can go back beyond even those stories to a story concerning the founding patriarch of Israel, Abraham himself. Abraham, as you know, was made promises by God. When Abraham trusted God, things went well. When he tried to help God out…….not so much. He and his wife Sarah were promised a child, even in their late years. Things were not progressing according to Abraham’s timetable, so he thought he would move things along by impregnating his handmaid, Hagar. Success. But then Sarah also had a child. This was the one promised by God. Tension grew between the women of the household. Hagar’s child, Ishmael, fought with the child of promise, Isaac. Abraham ended up telling Hagar and child to go. Hagar packed her bags and left. Eventually, the supplies Abraham had given them for the journey ran out. She was alone with her child in the desert. According to the Genesis author she was alone, desperate and facing the bleakest possible future when an angelic being appeared to her, and provided water for her and the child. Hagar gave her mysterious provider a name. If we allow that it was God who undertook on her behalf…then the name `El Roi’ …The One who sees me’ might be one of the earliest names for God we have in the Bible. (See Genesis 16)
I am not alone is hearing an echo of the well story in John 4 here. This story, among others, reminds us that God meets people at points of desperate need. We do not need to speculate how much the woman at the well was in dire straits….in spite of her bold front. Her words to the villagers about meeting a man who told her everything about her life suggests that there was a depth to the conversation that John barely touches. John was intent on reminding us that it was Jesus Himself who initiated this forbidden conversation , and that He was the one who was tired, thirsty and alone when He initiated it.