The story of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the Well appears only in John’s Gospel and is, as is much of John’s Gospel, rich in theology about who Jesus was and is. But what is missing from most Biblical commentaries and resources is the actual water in the well. How deep was it? How was it fed? Was it the only well in the neighborhood or were there others around? How far did the woman have to walk to get there? How many times a day did she have to go? How many people depended on her for their water?
John probably didn’t care about any of that. In his Gospel actual water is of no more interested than actual bread, actual light, actual shepherds, or actual vines. John is interested in the metaphors, not the literal realities. It is the bread of heaven that he cares about, the light of the world.
John does provide one clue that this is not a generic well, an incidental prop for a story starring Jesus as living water. Jesus is in the Samaritan city of Sychar, John says, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there and it was on the lip of that well that Jesus was sitting when the Samaritan woman came to draw water. This particular well never shows up in the first testament. Though plenty of others do. People dig them and fight over them. Soldiers hide in them. God produces them in the wilderness when all looks like it is lost. Most famously, men meet their future wives at them. Like Jacob, who first saw and kissed Rachel, at a well where she had come to water her father’s sheep. The well in this story is not that well. But it helps make it real. Especially for those of us who have never seen, dug, fought over, or kissed anyone at a well. That’s because most of us live in an aquatic paradise where water simply appears when we turn a knob, where we can afford to flush 5.7 billion gallons of water a day down our toilets and take 30 minute showers and let the faucet run while we rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. And yet we know there are places in the world where this is not the case. On almost every continent there are dry places where women and girls make 2 or 3 trips a day to the nearest well carrying half their weight in water on their heads. Knowing this is what women do instead of going to school or working for an actual wage. In India 32 million households depend on water that someone has to fetch and carry all the way home. If you want to get a feel for it then buy three 24- pack flats of half liter bottled water and tell the cashier thanks for the offer of help but you’ll carry them to the car on your head. Then go back twice more that day. And lest we think it is just about convenience, 3.4 million people globally die each year from waterborne diseases. In our own country, the people of Flint, Michigan, still do not have clean drinking water and with a nonfunctional EPA such as we have with our current administration, the number of people without access to clean water in the USA is only going to increase. I have to believe that all of this grieves the heart of God, and that we who have much, have a responsibility to address the suffering of our siblings in Christ—all of Creation.
I don’t have to carry my water, and most of the time my water just appears at the faucet, but I do get water from a well at my house on the river in Maryland. That makes me one of only 14% of Americans who rely on a well for water. Ours was already dug when we bought the house, but I have learned how complicated the process of putting a well in is, how many people and heavy machinery it takes to find water and how much more attention you need to pay to water when you are managing it yourself. I confess that, while I had vague knowledge of where water in the city or suburbs came from, if asked about it my first response would have been, from the spigot. From pipes in the basement that connected to pipes in the street that somehow carried fresh clean water to the spigot in my house when I needed it, as much as I needed, whenever I needed it, at a ridiculously low cost. Most of us spend more on coffee in a month than we do on water.
One of the ironies of having immediately available fresh water is that you don’t think about it very much. The truth is most of us don’t think about it all until it is not there. Most Americans are not fans of wells because they tend to ONLY produce about 1,000 gallons a day, so not an unlimited supply. And when there is a severe drought, or a power outage, the well is dry or you can’t get water from it. Because part of the time I depend on a well, my mind has been wandering to what I would do in the event of lack of water. Much of it I can figure out, but the one that bugs me is laundry—that ever present job. And, while I have been privileged enough to rarely have to use one, I started thinking about having to go to a laundromat. Part of me shuddered in horror, but part of me remembered my experience of being at a laundromat in college, or the time I spent an afternoon in one in Oban, Scotland. I got to thinking about the fascinating people I met—how quickly a sense of community and camaraderie developed. There were children playing around. People catching up with each other and curious to know what I was doing there. I learned from an older woman that Coca-Cola is effective at getting tough stains out of the wash. I got advice, solicited and otherwise, about what clothes I should wash separately. I watched people share their coins, bring cookies to share with everyone while they waited. It was an experience, I would imagine, like being at the village well. A place where lives intertwined, friendships blossomed or ended, and life happened.
Perhaps, for all the good our private wells and spigots do for us, they can keep us from having neighbors. They keep us from the village well, where you have to wait your turn and find ways to share things with people whose language you don’t speak. And dodge kids on laundry carts, and open the doors for people whose arms are full and hope they will do the same thing for you. Not because you know them, or like them, but because their lives, like yours, depend on this water. That draws you out of your houses and brings you together so you never forget there is no such thing as my water and your water but only our water. Just think about it. If Jesus had a bottle of Fiji water in his backpack, he would never have met the woman at the well. And if she had a working spigot, she might never have met him. But since neither of them had another place to go to get a drink of water they met at Jacob’s well, in the city of Sychar, where they had a conversation that we are still talking about today. Fabulous.
To get back to John and his story of this encounter at the well, it is possible that the whole point of this conversation really was Christological i.e., John needed a story that pointed to the life giving nature of Jesus Christ and this was the one he chose. But I think it is entirely possible, when looking at the book of Creation alongside the Book of Scripture, that the living water is also the actual stuff in the well. The deep of Creation welling up right there. The living water of the one true God. The universal solvent that brought a Jewish stranger to sit on the lip of a well where a Samaritan woman came to fetch water for her family and dissolve their differences long enough for them to have a life changing conversation about things that really mattered. Living water can do the same thing for us today. Even if the reason we are talking about it is because we are afraid of running out of it. It is a reasonable fear. Better than that, it can be a creative fear. One that can bring us together, because if we had enough water, we might never talk about it. We might chose to stay invisible to one another never thinking about where our water comes from. Never hearing the faucet say psssssstttt as it runs dry. Never going to the village well at all, where we might run into someone with power to change our lives. Whether he is the teacher form Galilee asking for a drink of water, or a woman trying to balance 60 pounds of water on her head. Jacob’s well, like every well, is a place of Communion between the human and the divine. Reminding us that God can use anything, including scarcity and drought and fear to bring us back to life by bringing us back into the relationships that give us life. Some days it is God we are thirsty for. And some days it is just plain old water. As far as John is concerned these things are so close together, that Jesus speaks of himself as the giver of living water, gushing up to eternal life.
But as you perhaps noticed, he does not grant the Samaritan woman’s request when she hears this self-identification. Sir, give me this water, she says so that I may never be thirsty, or have to keep coming here to draw water. Jesus changes the subject when she says that. He can’t do that. Or if he can, he won’t do that. Because it was her thirst that brought her to the village well. The same ways his thirst brought him. Without their thirst, the two of them might never have met or had anything to talk about. That is the first reason he won’t do it. The second reason is because Jesus is not in the business of installing private spigots. He is a well guy all the way. As the woman will soon discover, those who want living water will find it together or not at all. For there is only one water, the same way there is only one God, neither yours nor mine but ours. A spring gushing up to life in this world and the next. Let those who are thirsty, drink.
With gratitude to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts influenced this sermon.