Deep Well, No Bucket? Reflections on John 4:5-42
"Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep," says the woman at the well (Jn. 4:11).
With Nicodemus, Jesus is talking about new birth of the inner person through the Holy Spirit.
With the invalid by the pool, Jesus is talking about healing that comes from God, not the sporadic bubbling of a hot spring that legend attributes to angelic activity.
With the woman at the well, Jesus is talking about spiritual sustenance, the living water that you don't need a bucket to receive.
That sustenance is available on any occasion when we stand next to a deep well with no bucket.
This woman is entangled in a situation, personally and in relation to the community, which she cannot solve or harmonize. She has no means to gain dignity or community. Such a task is too large for her. If it had ever been possible, that chance was a thing of the past. She is reduced to seeking her sustenance, drawing water, at the hottest time of day to avoid the derision of others who might be at the well. She has three strikes against her with regard to being spoken to, much less respected, by a Jewish male. She is female; she has a sketchy relationship history; and she is a Samaritan. Still Jesus speaks to her and offers her living water—a relationship with God through him that restores her to dignity and community. Jesus recognizes her limitations and weaknesses and still gives her living water.
Jesus always stands beside us. He sits by the deepest well. He places himself at our side in the most monumental tasks and the most hopeless situations. He is, throughout the Gospel of John, the living water, the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, and the true vine. And he is right next to us, in the heat of the day and at the height of our fatigue. As we stand beside a deep well with no bucket, our spiritual sustenance is not a far-off prize to be earned, but a close resource, around us and within us and available in each passing moment.
African-American educator Booker T. Washington was fond of telling a story about how a vessel in the South Atlantic Ocean signaled for help from another vessel not far off: "Help! Save us, or we perish for lack of water!" The captain of the other vessel's reply was "Cast down your buckets where you are." Supposing that the second captain had not gotten the message accurately, the troubled ship signaled yet again. "Help! Save us, or we perish for lack of water!" Again the nearby ship signaled back, "Cast down your buckets where you are!" This exchange went on until the first ship, in desperation, decided it had nothing to lose by following this outlandish advice. When crew members cast down their buckets, they drew them up filled with clear, cool, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon. They had not realized that the powerful current of the Amazon River carried fresh water from the South American rain forests many miles out in to the South Atlantic.
The woman's prayer is our prayer: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water"(4:15). It is a prayer that has been answered before it is even uttered.
As you stand at your deep well with no bucket, remember the words Jesus uttered at the very beginning of this encounter:
"If you knew who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (4:10).
R. Alan Culpepper, "The Plot of John's Story of Jesus," Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, October 1995, 353.
Alyce M. McKenzie, Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self Help Society (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.