The three great Johannine stories of coming to faith (in Chapter 4, 9 and 11), which are read on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, date from the earliest celebration of Lent; their dramatic character and rich symbolism of water and spirit, light and faith, death and life provide ideal material for baptismal catechesis.
The meeting between Jesus and the woman of Samaria is rich in Johannine symbolism and unfolds with many levels of meaning. Jesus rests at Jacob’s well, a site most sacred to both Jews and Samaritans since it is named after Isaac’s son Jacob, later called Israel. While a woman coming to draw water at noontime is not surprising, the request of Jesus, a lone male addressing a woman in public, is shocking. The scene also recalls Old Testament meetings between future spouses at wells. Jacob meets Rebekah at the well of Haran, and Moses and Zipporah meet at a well in Midian. The literary frame for this meeting, which stretches from Cana in Jn. 2:1-11 to Cana in Jn. 4:46, is nuptial (as Sandra Schneiders notes in Written That You Might Believe). Jesus is “wooing” the Samaritan woman to true worship and to a mission of spreading the word.
After the initial surprise, the narrative focuses on the conversation between Jesus and the woman, using the familiar Johannine technique of misunderstanding to convey deeper truth. Jesus asks for a drink, and the woman responds with surprise that given the hostility between Jews and Samaritans, he would even speak to her, much less request a drink. Jesus does not answer her objection, but rather says that if she really knew the gift of God and Jesus’ identity, she would be thirsting for living water. “Living water” has a profound double meaning—not only fresh, flowing water (not well water), but also water that will give life. This emerges from the further misunderstanding on the part of the woman and culminates in Jesus’ statement that those who drink his water will never thirst, and that this water will be a spring “welling up to eternal life.” The woman asks for such water “so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here.” Again the technique of misunderstanding is used; she is really asking for something much more profound.
Jesus then asks the woman to bring her husband. When she replies that she has none, he makes what appears to be a harsh comment—that she is correct, since she has had five and is not really married to the present one. Bottles of ink and now printer cartridges have been expended on this interchange, ranging from earlier views that the woman was simply an adulteress to more recent opinions that the five husbands refer to the supposedly five foreign “masters” who imposed their religion on the Samaritans (2 Kgs. 17:13-34).
Whatever the solution, the dialogue serves to evoke the woman’s first confession of faith, “You are a prophet,” and leads to a discussion of the locus of true worship, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerazim. As with the living water, Jesus transcends the discussion by saying that the hour is coming when people will worship the Father in spirit and truth, “and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.” Now, in the person of Jesus, God becomes the suitor, wooing the woman to true faith, embodied in the woman’s realization that the Messiah is coming who will tell us everything.
After an interlude, in which Jesus converses with the disciples, the narrative returns to the woman, changed from seeker to missionary, who has told what Jesus had done, with the result that many Samaritans believed in him “because of the word of the woman who testified.” Many then come to Jesus because of her testimony and believe, not because of the word of the woman alone but because they meet Jesus, hear his word and know that he is savior of the world.
This narrative overflows with different meanings. On one level it is a paradigmatic story of a woman coming to faith and becoming a missionary who brings others to Jesus. This leaves to the church a mandate to recognize the gifts and ministries of women. Coming to faith today involves immersion in the living water of baptism and rising up to bring others to Christ. It is also a narrative about God wooing the outsider or, as Paul will say, “the godless.” The Samaritans, who were considered godless, end up confessing Jesus as the savior of “the world,” not simply of his own people.
The narrative also foreshadows that other noontime of Jesus on the cross (Jn. 19:14), when he will again cry out, “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28), and a woman, his mother, will be given care of that disciple whom Jesus loved, himself a symbol of those who have heard the word of Jesus and have come to stay with him.