The Samaritan Women: give me a drink

SamaritanWomanAtTheWellConversations between Jesus and the Sa­maritan woman (Jn 4:7-26). The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman consists of thirteen exchanges, one of the longest dialogues in the Gospel. It divides into two sections, each section introduced by a request/command by Jesus: (I ) vv.7-15 (“Give me a drink”); (2) vv.16-26 (“Go, call your husband”).

7 A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 (The woman) said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” 13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; 14 but 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.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Give me a drink. Verse 7 is filled with OT images that figure prominently in the rest of the narrative. First, Jesus’ request for water recalls the story of Elijah and the widow of Sidon (1 Kgs 17:10-11). In both stories a man interrupts a woman engaged in household work to request a gesture of hospi­tality. The parallels between Elijah and Jesus sug­gest the image of Jesus as prophet, a theme that will occupy a pivotal place in Jesus’ conversation with the woman (4:19).

Second, the scene of a man and a woman at a well recalls the betrothal stories of Isaac (Gen 24:10­-61), Jacob (Gen 29:1-20), and Moses (Ex 2:15b 21). John 4:4-42 evokes these betrothal stories in order to rework their imagery, however. The story of the wedding feast (2:1-11) and John the Baptist’s parable (3:29) have already introduced wedding imagery into the Fourth Gospel as images of eschato­logical joy and fulfillment. John 4:4-42 also raises the issues of eschatological fulfillment (vv.21-26), but it transforms the messianic/bridal symbolism. In John 4:4-42, the Messiah comes not only to Israel, but also to those whom Israel marginalizes and despises. Unlike the OT well scenes, Jesus does not come to the well looking for a woman to be his bride, but for a witness who will recognize the Messiah and bring the despised people to him (vv.34-38). What is most shocking about John 4:4-42 is the fact that a Samaritan woman becomes that witness (vv.28-30, 39-42).

The Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ request with amazement because it violates two societal conventions. First, a Jewish man did not initiate conversation with an unknown woman. Moreover, a Jewish teacher did not engage in public conversation with a woman (“Hence the sages have said: He that talks much with woman­kind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” p.’Abot 1:5) Second, Jews did not invite contact with Samaritans. The Fourth Evangelist’s aside in v.9c underscores the seriousness of the breach between Jews and Samaritans. A fear of ritual contamination developed into a prohibition of all social interaction.

Instead of answering the woman’s ques­tion directly, Jesus invites her to answer her question herself (“If you knew…”). If the woman could recognize the identity of the person with whom she speaks, a dramatic role reversal will take place. The woman would be the one who requests water. “Living water” (hydor zon) has two possible meanings. It can mean fresh, running water (spring water as opposed to water from a cistern), or it can mean living/life-giving water. Once again, Jesus intentionally uses a word with a double meaning (cf. 3:3, 7 and the expression “born again”/”from above” (anōthen)).

The Samaritan woman hears only the meaning “running water” in Jesus’ words and so responds to his offer of living water with protests of logical and material impossibility (cf. Nicodemus, 3:4). It is not credible to her that a man who has just asked her for water because he was unable to acquire any for himself should now offer her fresh running water (v.11 a). Her protest leads to a question, “Where then can you get that living water?” (v.11b). This question, like other questions about the origins of Jesus’ gifts (1:29; 2:9; 3:8; 6:5), is ironically charged. The question operates on two levels simultane­ously—it makes sense to ask a man with no bucket where he will get water, but the ques­tion can also be asked of Jesus’ gift of living water. The irony arises because the reader knows the appropriateness of the question on both levels, but the woman is wary – still clinging to the practical (bucket/deep), but perhaps possessing a sense of the greater things in play (living water).

The woman’s question in v.12 is a universally recognized instance of Johannine irony. The immediate source of its irony is clear: for the Fourth Evangelist and most of his readers, Jesus is greater than Jacob, while the woman seems to assume the opposite. (The question is introduced by the interrogative in the Greek text, a construction that anticipates a negative reply: “You are not greater than Jacob, are you?” (cf. 8:53)). Since Jesus has no visible means with which to draw water, the woman’s question seems to imply that only a miracle similar to the one tradition attributed to Jacob at Haran could produce the water. The woman response to Jesus is a challenge to match the gift of one of the great forebears of the faith.

Jesus responds to the woman’s chal­lenge by focusing on the permanent effect of the two waters on thirst. Jacob’s gift may have been miraculous and its abundance legendary, but it could not assuage thirst permanently (v.13). Jesus’ gift of living water will, however (v.14). The contrast between the two waters recalls Isa 55:1-2 (“everyone who thirsts,/ come to the waters”). Jesus’ description of his gift of water in v.14 clarifies the meaning of the expression “living water”: Jesus offers water that gives life. Those who drink from Jesus’ water “will never thirst” (lit., “will not be thirsty forever”), because his water will become “in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v.14). In John 7:37-39 Jesus’ gift of living water is associ­ated with the gift of the Spirit, and it is possible to see that connection in v.14 as well.

The Samaritan woman responds enthusiastically to Jesus’ words (v.15a), but her enthu­siasm misses the point. The motivation for her request—that she would no longer have to come back to the well (v.15b)—shows that she has not yet grasped the radical nature of Jesus’ gifts. She continues to see Jesus through her categories of physical thirst and miraculous springs, and so she does not understand the meaning of his “liv­ing water.” Her request is ironic to the reader, because it is the right request for the wrong reasons (cf. 6:34).

On the one hand, then, v.15 sounds a note of failure. Although by her request for water the Samaritan woman is seemingly doing what Jesus had earlier said she should do (v.10) – yet she does not know for what she is asking or of whom she is asking it. She thinks that Jesus is a miracle worker who can provide her with extraordinary water. Her misperception is the source of the irony of her response for the reader, because the conversation has led the reader to see that some­thing more is at stake in these verses.

On the other hand, v.15 sounds a note of hope, however embryonic. The woman has gained considerable ground in this conversation. She has moved from seeing Jesus as a thirsty Jew who knowingly violates social convention to seeing him as someone whose gifts she needs. At the beginning of the conversation, Jesus’ words about living water seemed preposterous to her, empty boasts by a man without a bucket (v.11), but in v.15, she believes that Jesus can give water that will assuage her thirst. The woman’s openness to Jesus and her willingness to engage him in con­versation stand in marked contrast to Nicodemus, who only greeted Jesus with amazement and resistance (3:4, 9). The Samaritan woman recog­nizes neither Jesus’ true identity nor the fullness of his gifts, but in v.15, she is willing to receive what she thinks he is offering and hence to acknowledge her need of him.

Notes

John 4:6 It was about noon: lit. “it was about the sixth hour.” There is no a clear agreement about the meaning There is no a clear agreement about the meaning of hṓra ḗn hōs hektē. Culpepper argues that using the Roman reckoning the scene at the well occurred at 6 pm. However, the expression is used seven places in Scripture for the time of the day. In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard workers are enlisted at equal intervals between the first and the last hours, including the middle of the workday (Matt 20:5), but the workers all receive the same pay. In Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; and Luke 23:44 darkness falls at the sixth hour; according to Mark this took place from the midpoint of the time during which Jesus hung upon the cross until his death. According to John 19:14 Pilate undertook a last attempt to save Jesus at the sixth hour. It seems “it was about noon” is the best translation.

John 4:6 sat down there at the well: ekethezeto houtōs epi tē pēgē expresses a sense of duration and truly settling down for a rest indicating that Jesus was indeed tired from the journey.

John 4:7 Give me a drink: Many hear an echo of OT well scenes, e.g., Isaac’s servant and Rebecca (Gen 24:10-19), Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:1-14), Moses and Zipporah (Ex 2:15-21).

John 4:9 use…in common: synchrōntai is generally translated as “to have dealings with.”

John 4:10 living water: hydōr zōn – the expression is open to two meanings. On the one hand it can mean “flowing water” from a stream or a spring, as opposed to the still water of a cistern, well or pond. But the expression has a long history in biblical and other religious traditions that point beyond the physical realities of water, hence “living water.” It should be noted that in the Samaritans’ own liturgy it is said regarding the Ta’heb (the Samaritan equivalent to the Messiah) that “water shall flow from his buckets” (cf. Num. 24:7).

John 4:14 will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life: The phrase is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of people joyfully “drawing … water from the wells of salvation” in the last days (Isa. 12:3). In the future age envisioned by the prophet, people “will neither hunger nor thirst” (Isa. 49:10; cf. 44:3), and Yahweh will make “an everlasting covenant” with all those—Jews as well as believing representatives of “the nations who do not know you” (Isa. 55:4–5)—who follow his invitation, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters … that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1–3a; cf. Sir. 24:21). welling: hallomenou is a word normally describing a human being leaping.

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