Encounters at the Well
Recently I had reason to engage a biblical text that I have not read for a while. It is a very familiar story to me, so I was glad to hear it again. The story comes from John’s Gospel and it narrates an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. Since I used to teach a seminar on John’s Gospel, I have thought about this rather long passage and read a fair number of commentaries to gain a deeper understanding.
The passage is far too long to give consideration to all its aspects. So we can pick off a few salient features that have something to do with our spiritual life today. In the first place, a little historical background might be useful. I almost always want to laugh when I begin to share some of the historical background. I laugh because Jesus really should not be at that well at that hour with that woman!
Going to the well to fetch water is a standard thing that must have happened in those ancient times. However, because of the heat of the day, the normal time to go would be morning or evening. And going to the well typically would have been a woman’s role. Water clearly is a powerful spiritual symbol, as it is a necessity for life itself. In fact, this sets up the central teaching of this story. That teaching comes toward the end of the story when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is a Source of life.
We also know this story is meant to stretch us (and the people of his time) when we realize Jesus is talking to someone with whom he should not be associated. The Jews and the Samaritans where like the Hatfields and McCoys in their day. In fact, the Samaritan woman probably had gone to the well at noon because she was not supposed to be there when the regulars went in the morning or evening to fetch water.
Even at this level, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was spiritually loaded. Jesus asks her for a drink. Only a couple lines later, the revelation is happening. Jesus tells her that if she really knew what was going on, he could give her the “living water.” As it so typically happens, the woman misunderstands and scoffs, “you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep.” I imagine her really saying, “Yeah, sure!”
When I read this story, I have much more in common with the woman than I do with Jesus. She is an outsider. She has to be careful because she could get in trouble. She is a woman, so that means she needs to be extra cautious in a place with strange guys. It is safe to assume that she went to the well to get water, not to get saved! And to presume that is what Jesus was doing is to miss the point.
What Jesus wanted was to give her some sense and some participation in the very Source of Life that Jesus intimately knew, namely, the Divinity Itself. Jesus wanted to share, to be sure. He would share water. More importantly, he was willing to share something about the Living Water. He would share his connection to the Water that would never leave her thirsting again.
His invitation to the Samaritan woman was an invitation to convert. As a lad growing up in Indiana, I sometimes would hear “conversion” language and it almost always meant an altar call and much drama. I don’t discount this kind of experience, but it has never been my experience. Then I learned the classical languages. In Greek the word for “conversion” literally means, “to turn around.” It also means to “get a new mind.” I push that to mean, “start living with a new outlook, a new commitment, a purposeful life.”
That is what I believe Jesus was offering the Samaritan woman on the hot, dusty day at noon when she came to draw water. When you view the story in this fashion, you can see that it was literally a transforming encounter at the well. In that sense I think it becomes instructive of the possibility for each and every one of us. The question is what or whom will we encounter when we go to the well?
As the story unfolds, the well represents the place and occasion where we encounter the life transforming word and work of the Spirit. In most instances it likely will be in the midst of our ordinariness, rather than some special occasion. It is in this sense that I think this kind of “well’ turns out to be our altar-in-the-moment. We will be invited to convert: to turn our lives around and live with more purpose, depth and love.
This kind of well encounter probably will not be a one-time deal. Instead, we will go often to the well and repeatedly be asked to convert---again and again. As we begin to get it, we may be asked to be part of a community of converted ones---people like us who have turned full time to love-work and the bringing of justice to a world sorely in need of being saved.
We will not be asked to be saviors. But we will be asked to be servants---servants of the One who is present at every well in the world. We will be servants ready to assist that One in whatever encounter awaits the next Samaritan coming to the well.