Jesus went to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there.
Jacob, you recall, was the good-for-nothing younger son who’d cheated his brother out of everything Esau had coming to him, and then he went on the run. Eventually, he had children by four different women: Rachel, whom he’d wanted to marry, Leah, who he’d been tricked into marrying, and Bilah and Zilpah who were slaves given to him to rape. None of those women chose to be with him. Women didn’t have a choice. Out of this arrangement he got twelve sons and also a daughter, Dinah, whom he sold to Shechem after he raped her. This particular plot of land was the place Jacob had given to Joseph, his second youngest son, who’d been trafficked into slavery by his older brothers. Joseph wound up in prison after resisting molestation by the wife of the man who owned him, but he made the best of it and was placed in charge of everything in Egypt. That was a long, long time ago.
It was about noon, when no one in a desert country wants to be outside. Everyone was indoors, hiding from the bright sun, except for the Samaritan woman and Jesus. All she wanted was water. Jesus was waiting for her.
Abraham the ancestor of Jacob, you recall, once sent someone else to wait at the well for just the right woman. Abraham’s slave waited for a nice virgin to happen along and not only answer his request for a drink but also offer to water his camels. That virgin was Rebecca, who became the wife of Isaac, the mother of Esau and terrible Jacob. This woman is not a Rebecca. She’s much older, she’s no virgin, and she’s a Samaritan.
Jesus, the descendant of Abraham and Jacob, says “Give me a drink” and this woman sasses him.
She’s not going to water his camels. She’s not even going to give this stranger a sip from her jar. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
She might well ask this. Jews have nothing in common with Samaritans and they’re right. Samaritans call themselves the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons born in Egypt to Joseph. Jesus was a descendant of David, of the tribe of Judah. Samaritans got to stay where they were and marry their new neighbors when the Jews were exiled to Babylon. They did not worship God in the temple but somewhere else. When the Jews came back to their neighbors who never had to leave and started to rebuild their temple, the bitter rivalry got worse, and it had been going on ever since.
Jesus doesn’t press his point about the drink. Instead, he offers her a drink. “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.”
Again, she sasses Him. ““Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”
It doesn’t take much to be greater than Jacob, the trickster and rapist. Jesus is indeed far greater, but again, He doesn’t press the point. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; 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.”
A spring is much better than a well. You don’t have to dig a spring; it just bubbles up, and you get the water for free. What Jesus has is much better than Jacob. Jacob worked for seven years to get a wife he didn’t even like, then another seven to get the wife he wanted, then slowly made his way back to patch things up with Esau. He wrestled with an angel and lost, dislocating his hip. He lost his favorite son– torn up by wild beasts, he thought, but in fact he was sold into slavery by his older half-brothers. Jacob didn’t see Joseph again until he was an old man, and then Jacob died in exile, in Egypt, and all his descendants became slaves. What Jesus has is living water that brings eternal life.
The Samaritan woman looks at this odd man who doesn’t even have a bucket. She calls His bluff. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And Jesus proves that He is greater than their ancestor, Jacob. He reveals to her everything that’s ever happened to her. She is a woman who was treated like property, passed back and forth between men who had choices when she didn’t have any choice at all. Five different men have owned her, and the sixth now won’t even dignify her with the title of “wife.” He sees her. He knows what she’s suffered.
This woman, and nobody else, was the one Jesus chose as His messenger. The hour is coming when she will worship the Father, neither on the mountain nor in Jerusalem. But for now, she runs and gathers the whole town, brings them outside at Noon on a hot day to see Him. She is the prophet. She’s the important one. She saw the face of God and ran to tell the others about it. She is the main character of the story instead of something the powerful appropriate and take away.
Meanwhile, the Apostles come back, and are astounded into silence. Why was He talking openly with a woman, and a Samaritan at that? All they can manage to do is offer Him something to eat, and He declines. He’s already had His fill. He’s done what He came to Jacob’s Well to do.
Jacob once traded a bowl of lentil stew for someone else’s birthright, for everything his brother had coming to him. Jesus, descendant of Jacob, sole begotten Son of the Father, firstborn superior to all creation, willingly laid aside His inheritance and took the form of a slave in order to set captives free.
Whoever has ears, let him hear.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.