A Samaritan woman came to draw water. – John 4:7a (NET)
In the fourth chapter of John, we encounter the story of Jesus and His conversation with a Samaritan woman. This was a highly unusual event. It is written that Jesus, while passing through Samaria, which was a customary practice of a Jew, “was tired from the journey” (4:6b), so He sat down next to a well. We also learn that this well was known as “Jacob’s well” 4:6a), and that it was “near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (4:5b). Because these are not haphazard presentations, but calculated theological treatises, mention of a well, along with mentions of Jacob and Joseph, are clearly designed to cause the listener or the reader to reflect upon the patriarchs of Israel. We are not surprised to find this to be the case, as the author has already presented a reflection back to Jacob at the close of his first chapter (“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” which is designed to invoke thoughts of Jacob at Bethel).
This talk of Jacob’s well is significant. Without going into an exhaustive recounting of all of the instances in which they are to be found, let it be said that wells are prominent a rather prominent feature within the Genesis narrative. We find wells associated with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Of course, the words that open this Gospel account, “In the beginning” (1:1a), tell us that the author intends the Genesis narrative to lie consistently in the background as the story unfolds. Beyond Genesis, wells are mentioned in connection with men such as David and Samson, among others, so it only seems natural that the story of Jesus include a story about a well as well.
In addition to such thoughts, a cursory glance at the narrative itself informs us that the treatise of John is deeply rooted in the history of Israel---giving it a historical depth, which should weigh on our minds as we consider that, in the end, the author intends to convey a message about a man that actually lived, actually died, actually rose again, and is still, by the presence of His Spirit, alive, well, and an abiding force within and for this world. We find this historical rooting amplified when we take note of the fact that questions about John the Baptist are couched within concerns related to the prophet Elijah. Along with that, Israel’s history is called upon in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter, as Jesus mentions Moses, alluding to Israel’s time in the wilderness following the exodus (which plays right into the exile and exodus theme that is found in John 3:16’s statement that contrasts perishing and eternal life, both of which are terms heavily influenced by Israel’s self-defining conceptions of exile and exodus ). So even though John offers up a very different type of historical narrative than that to which we are accustomed, we must remind ourselves that it is not to be looked upon as being a-historical.
Returning to the well in Samaria, and to the unusual event there recorded, we hear Jesus speak to the aforementioned Samaritan woman and say “Give me some water to drink” (4:7b). We cannot underestimate the startling impact that this would have had upon the woman. She would have been completely taken aback by the fact of this Jewish man speaking to her. Unless an audience was familiar with the story of Jesus, and presumably, John is initially composed and performed for a community or communities that were familiar with the Jesus story, this could be a bit surprising to a listener, especially if the one hearing or ready the story was from one of the Jewish communities of the diaspora. Of course, we are given a clue that this Gospel is composed for a mixed audience, as the author is compelled to include the fact that “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (4:9c), which comes on the heels of this woman, startled by the very fact of speaking and the request that it contained, says “How can you---a Jew---ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink” (4:9b).