…Jesus, since He was tired from the journey, sat right down beside the well. – John 4:6b (NET)
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, at a well that was said to be connected to Jacob, is rife with historical underpinnings. The author of John’s Gospel would know this, and it is quite reasonable to presume that he (or she, one could suppose) wanted to draw on the rich tradition of wells that dot the landscape of Israel’s received traditions. Indeed, there are so many wells to be found throughout the pages of Scripture, it is probable that a familiarity with these wells is entirely necessary. It may well be the case that the composer demands that this presentation of Jesus be understood within that context, presuming a familiarity with this history on the part of those that will hear or read not only this portion of his narrative, but the whole of his narrative of the life of Jesus.
Not only is it incumbent upon a reader to place him or herself alongside the woman at the well or in the midst of Jesus’ disciples when approaching so as to hear this story, but as consumers of a second-hand tale that began with a certain announcement about Jesus that provides the foundational structure by which one is able to understand the Johannine narrative, one must also approach the story of Jesus and the woman at the well from the perspective that the One speaking to her is the physical manifestation of the covenant God that has tacitly directed His people’s contact with wells from the very beginning.
This study is not going to make an attempt here to interpret the interaction or to draw conclusions about the encounter between the woman and Jesus, but rather, intends to think backwards from the fact of the woman and the well, trekking through Scripture in a way that should have the result of vesting this story with its appropriate context. Such would be the necessary steps that would put an observer in a position, if so desired, to rightly interpret the interaction and to form the conclusions about Jesus and His words in the pericope on offer that the author desires his audience to form. A reader should not only do this here, but naturally, for all of the Gospels and for all of Scripture, for doing this is what will actually allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.
As the search for Scriptural wells is here begun with Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman (an outsider from Israel) as the starting point, it should be noted with great interest that when it comes to the divine narrative, the first mention of a well is to be found in connection with another individual that would be considered an outsider from Israel. The sixteenth chapter of Genesis finds Sarai (later Sarah), the wife of Abram (later Abraham), expelling a pregnant Hagar from her household.
When Hagar ran away (having been expelled), “The Lord’s angel found Hagar near a spring of water in the desert” (16:7a). Though it is here said to be an angel, the reader quickly comes to learn that it was more than an angel, as “Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her” (as the author’s use of Lord is the proper name for Israel’s God), “You are the God who sees me” (16:13a). Further detail is provided with “That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi’ (16:14a), which is translated as “The well of the Living One who sees me.”