In the book of John, Chapter 4:4-42, we hear of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her to draw some water for him, then offers her the gift of “living water” and begins to tell her about herself. She goes back to her townsfolk and tells them of his prophesying, and Jesus stays with them and preaches to them for two days. They proclaim, “We know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
Geographical and Religious Context
At the start of the Chapter, we are told “[Jesus] left Judea and returned to Galilee.” Judea is below Samaria, and Galilee is above Samaria. Verse 4 tells us: “He [Jesus] had to pass through Samaria.” While geographically it would make the most sense to you and I to pass through Samaria, this was not customary for a Jew to do. The footnote of Verse 4 tells us: “geographically, Jews often bypassed Samaria by taking a route across the Jordan.” The Jordan River is on the located on the right-hand border of these three cities. While this route may have taken slightly longer, it was the Jewish way of avoiding interaction with the city of Samaria and its inhabitants, for reasons I will address shortly. Really then, Jesus did not have to pass through Samaria, according to Jewish tradition. In fact, it was shocking that He did. The author of John makes a point of saying that Jesus had to pass through Samaria because it was a “theological necessity.” Jesus thought it necessary to minister to the people of Samaria, to bring the message of the Kingdom of God to them. Additionally, his encounter with the Samaritan woman was one we apparently needed to read and study. The author of John clearly thought this event was important enough to record for future readers and Christians.
Before we dissect Jesus’s interaction with the Samaritan woman, we must first address the enmity between Jews and Samaritans at the time. Though Samaritans worshipped only one God, Yahweh, like the Jews, their ancestry also partially lies in paganism. Additionally, they only looked to the first five books of the Bible, and their temple was on Mount Gerazim instead of in Jerusalem. Samaritans were strongly disliked by the Jews, and the Samaritans were equally as unfriendly toward the Jews. Biblical authors certainly do not shy away from this hostility. In Sirach we read, “My whole being loathes two nations, the third is not even a people [the Samaritans]: The inhabitants of Seir and Philistia, and the foolish people who dwell in Shechem [a city in Samaria].” The author of John even tells us “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.” Thus it makes sense that the Jews would go out of their way to avoid Samaria on their way to Galilee from Judea.
Not only does Jesus break down this barrier by entering Samaria, but he has a bold interaction with a Samaritan, a woman no less, at the well. When Jesus asks her for a drink, she asks in him shock, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Jesus also makes a bold mention of Samaritans in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, found in the Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and Mark. The difference here is that the Good Samaritan is a parable, not a real event or encounter like this account at the well. Regardless of which of the four Gospels you read, we will find an instance of Jesus attempting to remove the stigma around Samaritans and inviting them into the Kingdom of God.
I should also note the theory that “the author of John was a Samaritan, or employed Samaritan sources and theology, or directed the Gospel to a Samaritan audience.” While this theory is still unproven to an extent, it would make sense then that the author of John wants the reader, whether Jewish or Samaritan, to see the worth and goodness of Samaria. John could have also been using this story as a tool for evangelization among the Samaritan community. No other Gospel writer records this account between Jesus and the woman at the well because of the stigma around Samaritans. In fact, the author of Matthew makes a point of noting that Jesus instructed his Apostles at the time of their commission, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” Were it not for John’s willingness to include this passage, we would miss this important witness of Jesus’s character: his mercy, courage, and ministry.
The Well: The Location for Courtship
In her article “Wells, Women, and Faith,” Joan E. Cook draws a connection between the three Old Testament occurrences of betrothal at a well and this passage from John. Each story is a story of courtship and has five major components: 1. a man travels to a foreign land, 2. he meets a woman, 3. water is drawn, 4. the woman quickly goes home and announces the man’s arrival, and 5. the man is invited to a meal. The obvious sixth component would be a union between the man and woman. The Old Testament stories that follow this pattern are the courtships between Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah (and Rachel), and Moses and Zipporah.
While each of these courtships follows the 5-part pattern, they are unique depending on the characters and context. For example, Abraham sends his servant to find his son Isaac a wife, instead of Isaac going out and finding a wife for himself. This passivity on Isaac’s part is echoed throughout his narrative. On the other hand, we have Jacob, who we see throughout his narrative is a determined hard worker. Just as Jacob fought for the birthright, he fights 14 years for Rachel, 7 for her hand and then 7 more after he is tricked into marrying Leah.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman follows this 5-step pattern: 1. Jesus travels to a foreign land (Samaria, which was usually avoided by Jews), 2. he meets the Samaritan woman, 3. he draws the water of eternal life for her, 4. the woman abandons her jar and announces her encounter with Jesus to the townspeople, and 5. the Samaritans invite Jesus to stay and eat with them, and he does for two days. It is Jesus’s acceptance of this invitation that “led to their acceptance of Him as savior of the world.” The additional sixth step would be the union. We see that the well has a Biblical track record as being the hotspot for finding a future spouse, and while that is not the literal outcome of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman, the marital/spousal themes are essential to Christ’s message in this passage. Jesus is the first to bring up the topic of marriage when he asks the woman where her husband is. The conversation that follows, the mention of salvation, true worship, and Jesus naming Himself as the Messiah, flows directly from Jesus’s request, “Go call your husband and come back.” This encounter “focuses on the matrimonial aspect of faith [and] relates it to the divine promise of the ancient Israelite ancestors...like the other betrothal stories, it characterizes Jesus and the woman according to their importance in the story.” Jesus is our teacher, our Messiah, and the woman is the converted student who now brings the message to her people. The woman here represents the Church, the bride of Christ, who believes in Him as her salvation and enters into union with Him in the Eucharist and becomes part of His family at Baptism, where she is marked with the water of life.
It is important to note that this event does not occur at just any old well. “[Jesus] came to a town of Samaria called Sychar [Schechem], near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there.” Jesus sits to rest on the well of Jacob. Perhaps the significance of resting on Jacob’s well as opposed to just any well would be the pro-active nature and relentlessness of both Jacob and Jesus. Jesus fights, bleeds, and dies for his Bride, the Church, similar to how Jacob fights tirelessly for his bride Rachel.
While most people don’t find their spouses at wells nowadays, the message of Jesus courting His bride is timeless. This Gospel is proof of Jesus’s relentless pursuit of His Church. Jesus comes to meet the woman where she is; he comes out of his way to minister to her. So too Jesus comes to meet us where we are. Jesus reaches out to all of humanity, regardless of grudges, political labels, or cultural disputes. This passage also encourages us to reach out to those with different religious beliefs than us and break down barriers of enmity.
The most essential part of this Gospel is what Jesus offers to the woman: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” This promise is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy: “They shall not hunger or thirst; nor shall scorching wind or sun strike them; For he who pities them leads them and guides them beside springs of water.” Jesus offers to the woman, to all Samaritans, to all the world, a well that will never run dry.
 John 4:3 New American Standard Bible.
 John 4:4 NASB.
 John 4:4* NASB.
 John 4:4* NASB.
 “Who Were the Samaritans and why were they important?” Catholic Answers, www.catholic.com/quickquestions/who-were-the-samaritans-and-why-were-they-important.
 Sirach 50:25-26 NASB.
 John 4:9 NASB.
 Brobert Gordon Maccini, “A Reassessment ofthe Woman at the Well in John 4 in the Light of the Samaritan Context,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 53, (1994): 37.
 Matthew 10:5 NASB.
 Joan E. Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” Proceedings 17, (1997): 11.
 Genesis 24:10-61 NASB.
 Genesis 29:1-21 NASB.
 Exodus 2:15-22 NASB.
 Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” 12.
 Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” 12.
 Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” 17.
 Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” 13.
 John 4:16 NASB.
 Cook, “Wells, Women, and Faith,” 14.
 John 4:5 NASB.
 John 4:14 NASB.
 Isaiah 49:10 NASB.