A Meditation on the Meeting between Jesus and the Woman of Samaria
(An excerpt from “That your joy may be full: encountering the love of god in the gospel of john”)
After the incident with the disciples of John the Baptist and the words of John about the coming of the Bridegroom, the Evangelist notes that Jesus leaves Judea and began to make his way again to Galilee. He says that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria,” since it was midway between the land of Israel and the land of Judea. But this is really not true; because of the deep tension between Jews and Samaritans, the practice was that when a Jew needed to pass “through” Samaria, they would go around the long way, to avoid entering their territory. Why then does Jesus “have to” pass through Samaria?
He is driven by a divine necessity, by the necessity of love. He is driven into the land of Samaria by the same need that drew him from heaven to earth, that moved him to espouse himself to our humanity. This is the same necessity that will lead him through the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection, and cause him to remain always with us in the Church and in the Holy Eucharist. Yes, this necessity is the perfect freedom. We will see this much more in chapter 5: the total freedom of love, which coincides entirely with its total “necessity,” the necessity of complete dependence upon the Father and on the gift of his love. Jesus has come from the bosom of his Father, his Heart aflame with love, his being filled with the joy that he knows in the Trinity’s embrace. And he ardently yearns to seek and save us in the compassion that his intimacy with the Father has enkindled. This is what Jesus’ obedience means; this is the “divine necessity” of God’s freedom, the freedom of Love which must pour itself out; the blossoming of joy which must express itself in compassion, precisely so as to enfold the suffering beloved in its embrace and to impart to them a share in its own happiness.
God’s love, then, is a “divine thirst,” the thirst of a perfect Lover seeking out his lost beloved. We already glimpsed this in the event of the wedding at Cana and in John the Baptist’s words referring to Jesus as the Bridegroom. However, the Gospel continues still to develop this beautiful nuptial theme. The Lord comes to a town of Samaria called Sychar, and initiates a conversation with a woman. As we will see, he is slowly revealing himself to her as the Bridegroom-God who has come to seek her heart. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s pause and set the stage by looking a little at the cause of the religious hostilities between the Jews and the Samaritans. This will greatly help us to understand the meaning of the conversation between Jesus and the woman.
The peculiar history of Samaria traces itself back to the oppression of the chosen people by Assyria related in the second book of Kings. Conquered by this invading force, the Jewish people were deported, brought into a painful exile in Assyria. The land that was thus left desolate was then “peopled” by the king of Assyria. Let us read the whole relevant text:
And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria, and dwelt in its cities. And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations which you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away thence; and let him go and dwell there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD. But every nation still made gods of its own, and put them in the shrines of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they dwelt; the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. (2 Kg 17:24-31)
A lot of rather bizarre names! But through this event we can discern the animosity that would later persist between the Jews and the Samaritans. After the Jews returned from their exile in Assyria, this abnormal state of Samaria would persist. The Samaritans are not only a people of mixed-blood, but a people of mixed worship. They worship the gods of the five foreign nations that were brought in with the people whom the king of Assyria brought in. Yet they also worship the God of Israel, for the king was asked to send an Israelite priest to teach them the religion of “the god of the land.” Of course we know that this “god of the land” is really the God of the entire universe, the only true God, while the other “gods” are no gods at all. Nonetheless, the Assyrians didn’t know this, so they viewed worship of God as on a par with the other forms of worship practiced by the people of Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim.
With this history background in mind, let us return to the text of the Gospel.
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Jesus “came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (4:5-6). Immediately we are stopped again by the weight of history. This passage, of all the events recounted in the Gospel of John, is perhaps the most deeply rooted in the history of Israel. Jesus comes to a well, to “Jacob’s well,” and there he sits down. What role has this well played in history—and, indeed, what is the role of wells in the history of the chosen people in general? It shouldn’t come as a surprise: wells are the place where the patriarchs met their wives; they are the places of meeting which are preludes to a wedding.
We need only think of the story of Moses, for example. After fleeing from the land of Egypt out of fear of Pharaoh—who had learned about Moses’ act of killing an Egyptian who had been beating an Israelite—he came into the land of Midian. Here is what the text says next: “But Moses fled from Pharaoh, and stayed in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock” (Ex 2:15b-17). When they return to their father Reuel, he inquires about their quick return. So they explain to him the heroic deed of Moses. “And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him” (2:20). Thus Moses comes to Reuel, and the narrative says simply: “And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah” in marriage (2:21).
Let us pass on to the story of Jacob’s well itself. This, of course, occurs before the event regarding Moses that we just explained. Jacob, who is renamed by God as “Israel,” is one of the three oldest patriarchs, of whom Moses and the Israelites are descended. God has entered into the lives of these three men in a special way, and bound himself to them in covenant fidelity. We need only think of the name that God uses for himself when he speaks to Moses in the burning bush: “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex 3:15). This “union” that God willingly establishes with his people, binding himself inseparably to those whom he has chosen, whom he has set apart as his own, is also important for the passage from the Gospel that we are examining. Doesn’t the tension between the Jews and Samaritans take place precisely because of this—because “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22), whereas the Samaritans have corrupted their worship of the “God of your fathers” with alien gods?
It is beautiful to recognize, when we turn to the account of Jacob’s encounter with Rachel, that it occurs immediately after Jacob’s dream of the ladder upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending (cf. Gen 28:10-22). Haven’t we just recently heard Jesus referring to this event in his conversation with Nathaniel? John the Evangelist is most surely unfolding his Gospel along the lines of “a new Genesis,” the inauguration of a new creation through the coming of the Word who was in the beginning! Jacob has this dream on his way to see Laban, his father’s brother, and to seek a wife for himself from his own kindred. Let us listen to the text: “Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep lying beside it; for our of that well the flocks were watered” (Gen 29:1-2). He then encounters the shepherds and asks about Laban. They say that they know him, “and see, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep!” “While they were still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep…Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman” (cf. 29:6, 9-12).
What a beautiful and moving passage! It would be worthwhile to read and reflect on the entire story of Jacob’s path to marriage with Rachel, but we will not do so here. Let us only note that Jacob reveals himself to be a man of ardent desire, of true and deep love. It is almost surprising, perhaps, to see such a romantic account in the early pages of the Old Testament. As we know, marriage has not always been founded on the basis of romantic love—and even here in the context, this is not the intention of Jacob’s father, nor of Laban. But God knows, certainly, that he himself has impressed the ability and the longing for this kind of love on the human heart. The unfolding of the Old Testament itself bears profound witness to this—to the romantic nature of human love, with which God himself is pleased. Why is he pleased with it? Because it reflects the romantic nature of his own love for his people, his own nuptial relationship with the bride whom he has chosen for himself. Of course, this “romance” of God with his people is of an entirely higher order, but it is not less real and profound for that reason. It is, however, utterly radiant with purity and chastity, with the purity of divine light of which we have spoken so much in our words on the first three chapters of Genesis.
Jacob comes to the well to seek out his bride, and, seeing Rachel, he falls deeply in love with her. But Laban is rather resistant, and Jacob has to serve Laban for seven years before he can receive Rachel in marriage. (Indeed, because of a kind of “trick” of Laban, he actually has to serve for fourteen.) But, listen to what is said of Jacob concerning this trial: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (29:20). With all of this mind, let us return to the passage from the Gospel of John. Jesus, the true “son of Israel,” who recapitulates and perfects in himself the whole history of the chosen people, sits down beside a well. He, descendant of Jacob, that man of ardent desire, sits down and waits, while his disciples go away into the city to buy food. And a woman comes from the village to draw water. Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:7).