John 4:4-42, Water for Our Thirst

[February 13, 2011] We come now to the story of Jacob’s well and the woman of Samaria. At the end of chapter 1 Jesus referred to the story of Jacob’s dream in which Jacob saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven, and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it; and there was YHWH, standing above it,” and “Jacob called the name of the place Beth-El”—House of God (Genesis 28:12-13a, 19). Jesus said, “You shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51), and in the following chapter referred to His Body as “My Father’s house” (2:21; see 2:16, 19; 14:2)—the House of God. Between these was a nuptial scene, the wedding in Cana, where the wine ran out and Jesus turned water into “the good wine.” Now we come to another scene, one that notably takes place at Jacob’s well, recalling us to the scene in Genesis 29 where Jacob met his beloved Rachel at a well. This scene follows immediately on the story of Jacob’s dream.

 As the story of Jesus and His mother Mary at the wedding in Cana corresponds to the story of Jesus and Mary of Magdala at the tomb in the garden, so this story finds a peculiar correspondence in the story of Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus in John 12:1-11. These four stories are placed on the arms of the cruciform of the Gospel according to John, each corresponding in a circle to the sixth day of creation when God created the man and the woman, and each gathering us from the four directions to the center which is the revelation of Christ, the Bridegroom, and out again as His bride.

We also move towards a contrast. The woman who has had five husbands and is now with someone to whom she is not married is in striking contrast to what was celebrated at the wedding of Cana. There is also this striking contrast between this woman with whom Jesus speaks and the man at the heart of Judaism, Nicodemus, with whom Jesus spoke in the previous chapter. Jesus asks him (rhetorically), “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?” (3:10), for “we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (4:22). But this woman is not only in Samaria where they worship what they do not know, but she is on the outside of this society, a “fallen” woman in its eyes.

Yet the motif of water is persistent. In chapter 1 John speaks of the water of baptism; in chapter 2 the water is turned to wine; in chapter 3 Jesus says we must be born of water and Spirit; and at the end of chapter 3 we come again to John baptizing where there was “much water” (3:23). In this last scene John brings us back to the nuptial imagery we left at the wedding in Cana: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom,” he says, and just as the wine at Cana represented the joy of the marital union, so John also speaks of joy: “This my joy therefore is made full.” This is the joy of love made full, of the Bridegroom having the bride, for “the Father loves the Son and has given all into His hand.”

Living Water (John 4:4-14)

Water: On the cross Jesus cried out “I thirst” (John 19:28) after uniting His mother and His beloved disciple. Mary of Magdala was also there alongside His mother’s sister and Mary the wife of Clopas. His thirst was a taste of death. Water and blood poured out from His ribs when He died, in a striking comparison to the rib being taken out of the side of the adam when he slept. When Adam awoke he beheld his bride whom God built from his rib while he slept. Christ’s thirst for a companion was also satisfied when He awoke from death and found the Magdalene looking for Him, she being a picture of all of Christ’s beloved who arise in the morning longing for His presence.

Jesus is a thirsty Savior and to satisfy His thirst “has to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). He sat by Jacob’s well as evening began, “wearied from the journey” (4:6). There He met a thirsty woman, thirsty for water but inwardly thirsty for companionship, wayward and unsatisfied, representing the Samaritans themselves and even those “other sheep” (10:16), the Gentiles, who know nothing at all of the God of Israel, but who like Justin Martyr (who was also a Samaritan) wander from one philosophy to another, one religion to another, always thirsty. He says to her, “Give Me something to drink” (4:7).

In Genesis 29:1-14 Jacob came to a well looking for a bride. When Rachel came, Jacob saw her “and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well” and watered her flock. He kissed her and lifted up his voice and wept. She ran and told her father and he ran to meet Jacob. “He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house.” So in John 4 Jesus rolls the stone from the mouth of the well spiritually to satisfy this woman’s thirst and she ran and told the townspeople and they in turn came to meet Him. They believed into Him and invited Him to stay, and He remained with them (for two days). It is difficult to ignore the connection between these two stories.

The well, aside from satisfying thirst in a dry land, is often associated with the coming together of a man and a woman (see Genesis 24:42-67 and Exodus 2:15-21). This being Jacob’s well makes the connection to Genesis 29 hard to miss. Jesus too was thirsty for a bride and to win her He will satisfy her thirst.

There is a peculiar intimacy in this scene, one that would ordinarily make people uncomfortable if it did not also take place on another level. We sense the struggle of this woman of Samaria as she tries to understand the level at which this intimacy in which she has found herself with this Man is taking place.

She too is thirsty, and keeps coming here to draw (4:15), as she kept going to different men to draw for a different satisfaction (4:18), the satisfaction of a home, a home for her heart. But Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again” (4:13), and He was not only referring to physical water. Just as one’s satisfaction for water can never be permanently satisfied, so nothing that this life has to offer—men for instance—can satisfy the thirst in our hearts, our thirst for a home where we can abide, our thirst for love. Ultimately we all long for someone to love and to be loved by the same. How much we all long for this! As infants we come into the world with this longing, and a taste of its satisfaction, but before much time has passed we know its loss and throughout our adult lives we find ourselves looking for the object of our hearts and to be loved by others (even if we bury this longing in grief or cynicism). Happy are the persons who come to the end of their days with this longing satisfied! But the tale for most of us is that this world does not satisfy our thirst. When it does, that satisfaction is temporary and must be replenished again and again.

The soul, I suppose, can find a great measure of satisfaction in those whom it loves and who love the soul in return. And perhaps simple souls who do not ask for much—whose thirst is shallower—may find this satisfaction easier. There is, however, a deeper thirst to which Jesus is referring, a thirst at the core of our being, a thirst that we ultimately are intent on ignoring but that refuses to go away. We try to satisfy this thirst with substitutes, with philosophy and ideology and religion, but only so we can ignore its aching cry. We are, in fact, aching for God. It is not only the obsessive-compulsives who are trying to fill a hole inside with substitutes. This hole is part of the human condition. We all, inasmuch as we have eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—inasmuch as we are part of the “world,” and we all are—have this emptiness inside and the craving to fill it. The world—the collective realm of our mental space—is alienated from God because it deliberately seeks to keep God outside, and our identification with it (and even our dis-identification since we cannot extricate ourselves from it) leaves us so existentially thirsty, no matter how stubbornly we attempt to stuff ourselves. We are bloated and tell ourselves that we are satisfied, but inwardly we know we are not. We are thirsty, if we would recognize ourselves: thirsty for God, though we know it not.

Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The gift of God is the living water that would satisfy our thirst, and the gift is identical with the One who gives it. The gift is the Giver, the same One who says to us, “Give Me a drink,” that is, who thirsts for us. He is the living water: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink” (7:36).

“Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall by no means thirst forever, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water gushing up into eternal life” (4:14). “He who believes into Me, as the Scripture said, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38).

He is the living water Himself, yet the author of the gospel tells us that “He said this concerning the Spirit, whom those who believed into Him were about to receive; for the Spirit was not yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified” (7:39). He is indeed the living water, but when He imparts the Holy Spirit to His disciples on the evening of His resurrection, He imparts Himself to them. Through the Holy Spirit entering them as their breath, their life, He Himself comes to abide in them. He and the Holy Spirit abide in each other (together with the Father). When we receive the Holy Spirit we receive both the Father and the Son. But we only can receive the Holy Spirit after Jesus Himself passes through death and suffers the judgment of God on the cross. Apart from the judgment of God, we are entirely unfit to receive the Spirit of God. Unless Christ bore our judgment, He would not be able to abide in us. Because He did, He has become palatable and digestible, and thus communicable. He has become the Tree of Life for us, by eating from which we may live forever (Genesis 3:22). Dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit, He has become eternal life in us (1 John 5:20), the life of God.

Not only that, but this life within us becomes a fountain of water gushing up into eternal life (4:14); out of our innermost being flows rivers of living water (7:38). So this life is not a substance or “thing” that we possess, but is a source of life in God that wells up from our own innermost being as a fountain. This life is not in our soul, our “me”—as if it were identical with our new persuasions—but is in our spirit, that “I” which cannot be objectified but is the source of our life. But it is not identical with our human spirit either, as if our spirit were or could become self-sufficient with it. The Holy Spirit remains in God and yet becomes one with our spirit so that out of our own spirit the Holy Spirit flows as living water, gushing up with the life of God. Our innermost being—not our soul, our ego, our self-identifications, but own spirit—is where we will find the Holy Spirit, the living water, once we have believed into Jesus.

We find this living water within us, however, not by turning to ourselves (for then we only turn to our own soul) but by turning to Jesus, by beholding Him. He becomes our true Self, but we find Him only by denying the false self of the soul (that which the alienated soul has constructed as a self). When we find ourselves in Him, however, this begins the transformation—and eventual salvation—of our soul. We thus find our soul by losing it, when we lose it for His sake—we might even be able to say, when we lose it “in Him.” When the soul is saved, it too enjoys participation in and becomes permeable to—and thus inherits—eternal life.

The Revelation of Christ (4:15-26)

Jesus now removes the cover of the well. He tells her to call her husband and to return. This simple request, and Jesus’ follow-up to her disclosure that she has no husband, reveals to her—whether she wants to face it or not—the loneliness and alienation of her soul. Her history reveals her thirst, as we saw, but also the disruption of the unity for which we are all meant. Not that we are all meant for human marriage, but none of us are meant to be alone. Yet in the world, as the post-modernist critique of the human experience exposes, we are all isolated from one another. Our personhood (that in which we stand face-to-face with one another) is denied by the world and we suffer as a result of its deprivation. We become mere individuals within a social matrix, relating to each other as affects of the system, each of us the locus of descriptors, experiencing each other but never really touching. As painful as this isolation is, it is merely symptomatic of our alienation from God, the source of personhood. Alienated from the Person of God, the “I am” who calls us into being and stands us on our feet face-to-face with Himself, we cannot find ourselves in relation to each other.

This is too painful to bear, and so the woman tries to avoid the subject. She would rather talk about their differences—He is a Jew, she a Samaritan. Perhaps this attempt to change the subject is also an attempt to connect with Him. “I want to get closer to you but here is this wall between us. What  do you say about it?” There are these two mountains, Gerizim and Jerusalem, competing centers. The Samaritans still celebrate Passover on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank to this day. But Jesus will not be sidetracked into a theological discussion (the conflict is there—see verse 22—but He will not dwell on it). Instead He chooses to get at what matters between them. He is what matters to her, and what matters between them is her recognizing who He is.

“An hour is coming, and it is now …” As she correctly perceives, this “hour” is the coming of the Messiah. It is now in that the Messiah has already come and in fact is speaking to her. It is coming because the hour will not be fulfilled until He goes to the cross.

“When the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truthfulness.” The problem of our thirst cannot be satisfied by our religious environments or even in our soul and its beliefs and identifications. God is Spirit—this refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the nature of the Triune God—and we must worship Him in kind, that is, with our spirit. (As the Holy Spirit is the hypostasis of the love of God, so is She also the hypostasis of God’s nature as Spirit.) To worship God in spirit is to “drink” of God and to let God “drink” us. Worship satisfies our mutual thirst. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represents God’s habitation on earth, the place where heaven and earth commune. That place, however, that is represented, is the human spirit. The Ark of the Covenant represents the indwelling of Christ in our spirit. The offerings that are offered to God in the Temple all represent Christ. It is He whom we offer to the Father when we worship. This is the One with whom God is well-pleased. We can only do this spiritually, when we know Him—and thus dwell in Him—and He dwells in us. “Truthfulness” speaks not only of a lack of falsehood but also of reality. Christ is the reality of all spiritual things even as He is the hidden reality—the mystery—of all created things, “the firstborn of all creation” by virtue of His resurrection (He is the beginning of the divinization of creation as creation). He is the reality of what we offer to the Father. To truly worship God we must worship Him in our spirit with Christ.

 The woman expresses her desire for the truthfulness of which Jesus speaks. “When the Messiah comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus chooses this moment to reveal Himself to her. He says to her, “I AM, the One who is speaking to you.” Many translations say, “I am He,” referring to the Messiah, but while egō eimi can have this sense in Greek, in the Gospel according to John it is reserved for this special use, occurring in the mouth of Jesus seven times without a predicate, seven times with a predicate, and once in the mouth of the man born blind. The two-word phrase resonates with its use in Isaiah where it refers to the exclusive identity of God, an identity that God shares with no other. Moreover, for Jesus to say it is not simply an objective statement concerning God and Jesus’ identification with the only God, but also that this God is speaking to the woman as Jesus’ own “I am.” If the woman hears this, then it is unmistakable. Jesus is revealing Himself as God: God who is speaking directly to her, so that her own presence in the presence of God is also unavoidable. Jesus’ address as the Person of God makes her a person face-to-face with Him. No longer can she be isolated in herself as an individual. By Jesus’ words, she is set in relationship to Him.

Come and See” (4:27-42)

The woman is at once filled, and she forgets about her other thirst. She leaves the waterpot by the well. Her response to Jesus—whether or not she yet understood cognitively what happened—is to run to others and bring them to Jesus, as Philip did in 1:46. “Come, see a man who told me all that I have done. Is this not the Christ?” (4:29). Surely it was not simply verse 18 that convinced her but the direct address of verse 26. Indeed, it is verse 26 (Jesus’ revelation of Himself) that suddenly brought out the significance of the earlier uncovering in verse 18, for earlier she only thought Jesus must be a prophet (4:19). The earlier self-disclosure becomes not only a disclosure of facts, but the disclosure of her inner emptiness and isolation and thirst. She did not know how thirsty she had been until she drank of the living water! (So it is with all of us.)

Jesus is sustained by the food of doing God’s will, for doing God’s will is nourishment to our spirit which can at times revive our bodies, for our spirit is the source of the body’s life (though of course, until the resurrection, our bodies still require physical nourishment). Jesus’ revealing Himself to the woman satisfied His hunger; her belief in Him satisfied His thirst. 

 Jesus speaks of the harvest, and this is a much used illustration in the gospels. The seed is the Word and the crops are those in whom the Word has sprung up. The coming to Jesus of “many of the Samaritans from that city” in response to the word of the woman, and their believing into Jesus, is an example of what Jesus means by reaping the harvest. The word of the woman came on top of the words of Moses and brought them to Jesus. But the harvest was not ready to be reaped until secondhand knowledge became firsthand. “It is no longer because of your speaking that we believe, for we ourselves have heard and know that this One is truly the Savior of the world” (4:42).

There is a division of labor then. On the one hand there is the reading and teaching and proclaiming of the Word and our own testimony. Others receive this secondhand. This is how we sow. The purpose of this secondhand knowledge is to lead people to seek firsthand knowledge. It is not enough to know indirectly, to know what others have known, but only from their accounts. We need to seek to know Christ directly and to come to Him. We are not ready to be harvested until we ourselves believe into Him. To be reaped then is to be gathered into the church once we have obtained this firsthand faith. For others to reap us is for them to gather us as believers into the church. There is another reaping at the end of the age. That is not a reaping that humans can do. Here, however, Jesus is speaking of the reaping that the disciples perform. “I sent you to reap … He who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit unto eternal life” (4:38, 36). Let us not wait to gather the harvest. “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, for they are already white for harvest” (4:35). Let us gather the believers now.

This gathering of the believers, as Jesus gathered the woman at the well, is our food that satisfies “unto eternal life.”

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