Wells are places where eligible Israelite bachelors go to meet women. It’s in Genesis. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends a slave back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac. The slave stops at a well. A pretty woman appears. He puts out a feeler question: “Who’s your dad?” If she’s married, she’ll mention a husband, but she only mentions a dad, and that her name is Rebecca. The slave goes home with her, explains his mission to her family, dresses her with some hot jewelry, and takes her back to marry Isaac. Their son is the Patriarch Jacob. In Genesis 28, Jacob comes to a well, and the folks nearby point out Rachel, Laban’s daughter. Again, dad, not husband. She’s single, and Jacob waters her flock for her, introduces himself, and she invites him home. They eventually marry, and their son is the Patriarch Joseph.
This is a formula or “type scene” in the Bible: man meets woman at well, man asks a feeler question to confirm she is single, they get together and, ah, “Make a Patriarch.” Jesus goes to a well, Jesus meets a woman, Jesus asks a feeler question—“Go, get your man.” “Oh, I have no man.” “All right, Jesus. Play it cool!”—And if you’re starting to get nervous about where this is going, aren’t sure we should be talking about this in church, don’t like the idea of Jesus acting this way, then you probably feel the way John wants us to feel when reading the story. This is a racy and dangerous gospel. When we see how racy it is we can appreciate how wildly unexpected a turn it takes, and how powerfully it ends.
Let’s walk through this attuned to what’s going on. Jesus comes to a well. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water. I am going to venture that every time this woman comes to the well she, like every woman, gets to deal with the catcallers and the guys hitting on her. Jesus asks for a drink. She IDs him as Jewish, and says, “Oh, I didn’t think Jews talked to Samaritans.” It’s not aggressive; it’s not demurring. It is a survival strategy: talk to the guy. He says that he can provide “living water.” Living water is the Greek phrase for spring water or river water. Not surprisingly, the Samaritan woman assumes this is what Jesus means. “Really? Jacob only managed well-water. You’re better than Jacob?” Jesus must elaborate, “No, I meant literally living water, like, it gives you eternal life.” He’s piqued her interest. She says, “I’m listening.” And he drops that all-important feeler, lets him see if she is available while always giving him cover if she is married: “Go, get your man and I’ll tell you.” “Oh, I don’t have a man.” This is supposed to end with them… “making a patriarch,” right? Instead, without any hint of condemnation, Jesus reveals her own life to her. “Well, technically you are telling the truth when you say you have no man, because you have had five, and the one you’re with now isn’t your man.”
So imagine: Jesus has just stopped everything in its tracks. This is not going where the Samaritan woman thought it was going, maybe even hoped it was going. But Jesus isn’t calling her names or condemning her life. She’s waiting for the hammer to fall and it doesn’t and she realizes it isn’t going to. He has revealed detailed knowledge of her life, and left it at that. “You’re a prophet,” she says. “Okay. Wow. A prophet, a Hebrew, who is talking to me, who isn’t being a jerk. I have to ask you, Why is it that Hebrews say the only place you can worship is Jerusalem?” Jesus replies, “True, it is the God of Israel who is God of all, but the hour is coming and in fact is here when all people will worship God in spirit and in truth.” This is language that the Samaritan woman knows is about God coming at the end of time, and Jesus just suggested everyone is invited. And now it is the Samaritan woman’s turn to ask the feeler question: “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” It’s the theological version of “Go, get your man.” There’s cover for her if her guess is wrong, but she is asking, “Please, please, please tell me you are the Messiah.” And he says: “I am.”
The great I AM. In Greek, it’s just an affirmative. Like, you hear a noise in the kitchen, call out, “Sweetie?” and they say, “I am!” Also it’s the way God identifies Godself to Moses. (“When the Egyptians ask, who do I say sent me?” “Tell them I AM sent you.”) Jesus uses both meanings: Yep, I am the Messiah, I AM God. It is the name of revelation. This is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus reveals his true identity. He tells a Samaritan woman. And she mostly gets it. She runs and tells everyone, “I think I just met the Messiah!”
That’s Living Water at work. How is it the Samaritan woman knows, when last week Nicodemus—the “Teacher of Israel”—did not? She knows because the Living Water has started flowing. Just what is this stuff? Jesus mentions it again in John 7, where Jesus will say, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Just as Scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of Living Water.’” And then John explains for us, “Jesus said this about the Spirit.” Living Water is the Spirit in Jesus. It’s inextricable from Jesus, yet Jesus gives it freely. Living Water is the Revealer revealing that he is the Revealer. It’s the Revelation—I AM—and the Spirit Jesus pours out so we can believe it. Jesus gets that Living Water flowing and the Samaritan woman believes.
That Living Water, that Revelation, is potent. We’ve seen how wildly unexpected a turn the story takes. It is still racy and dangerous, because of how Jesus handles the woman’s complicated past which he has revealed. He does not call her any of the slurs subsequent generations have. He does not burden her with that much-abused line, “Go and sin no more.” None of that. Jesus reveals who you are. He tells the truth. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. He isn’t a jerk about it. He just reveals the truth: you’ve had five men, and the one you’re with now is not your man. He leaves it at that. He leaves it at that because she knows what it means. She lives it every day. Women in that world marry because they have to for legal protection. She’s had five protectors, five sets of rules, five ways he wants dinner prepared. And “the one you’re with now is not your man”? That could mean several things, none of which sound secure. Her life’s a mess. She knows this, and Jesus knows this, so he says to her, “Would you like some grace in your life?”
That’s the other side of the Revelation: the grace Jesus offers. Just as he says, “I see who you are,” he says, “I would like to give you life.” His offer that she can worship in Spirit and truth is an offer for real life. Yes, you, with your baggage and your current complicated lodging situation and your being part of a hated religious minority—you can worship in Spirit and truth, because I AM inviting you to do it. She can turn it down. Many do. In our daily lives, people turn it down. Sometimes we do. But when we accept it, Jesus opens possibility. Our job as Christians is likewise to tell the truth and offer life, so that Jesus can open possibilities. That’s making disciples.
The woman becomes a disciple. Jesus sits down with the rest of his disciples. This is the part of the typical well story where the family gets the explanation, and Jesus explains to the Twelve, “You’re about to see what Living Water can do.” The woman runs and tells everyone, and the whole village follows her out to the well. The woman’s words got the Living Water moving in them, and now these villagers are receiving truth and life. Disciples offer Living Water. Living Water reveals who we are. It doesn’t sugarcoat it or rub it in. It reveals plain truth, and it offers life. Christianity that is authentic Christianity offers life.
Disciples offer Living Water, life, to everyone, even, no, especially to those who get the slurs applied to them. Those who live on the margins of society. Those who find themselves in today’s version of forced into five marriages. Isn’t that lovely? Make her have to get married for protection, and then call her names because she’s had more husbands than you think is appropriate. Living Water finds her first. And it finds us. Because there’s stuff in our lives we pretend isn’t there, but we know it’s there. Living water tells the truth. I see that life is hard. I see your situation. I see that thing you’re ashamed of. I want you to have life. I’m not gonna make that life contingent upon some weird rules I came up with because they sounded good to me, what with my life not being the mess yours is. That life is on offer. The water of baptism is always ready to welcome the old Adam and give birth to a new Christ. The bread and wine are always free. The gospel is always proclaimed. The community is always open to you. The Church is always with those who suffer. Because the Living Water is flowing in us. And we feel compelled to tell everyone in town, “I think we’ve met the Messiah!”