The Woman at the Well

In preparation for a gripe about the use of the phrase “objective situation of sin” in Amoris Laetitia, I looked over the story of “the woman at the well” and realized immediately that I had absolutely no idea what it was about. I’ve read and heard sermons interpreting it, of course, and I’ve even given some thought to the task of “identifying with” what Benedict XVI calls the “existential dissatisfaction” of the Samaritan woman as she approaches Jesus. (Doubtless on one of Walker Percy’s “ordinary Wednesday afternoons.” I would have avoided the encounter altogether. I am the sort of person who drives to a different grocery store when I notice Girl Scouts or Boys’ Choir sales-children marauding at the entrance to the Safeway closest to my house. Here, I would simply have made a small show of having forgotten something and gone home. The solution begins with listening to Fulton Sheen recite “When Jesus Came to Birmingham.” But I had never noticed that the well at which Jesus is resting is Jacob’s well, and that the woman spends most of the encounter arguing with Jesus—even after she recognizes him as a “prophet”—about the nature and site of true worship.

According to John, Jesus is “obliged to go by way of Samaria” as he withdraws from Judaea into Galilee: “Thus he came to a Samaritan city called Sichar, close by the plot of ground which Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and there was a well there called Jacob’s well. There, then, Jesus sat down, tired after his journey, by the well; it was about noon.” (John 4:5-6). The Samaritan woman had immediately recognized Jesus as a Jew and responds to his request for a drink with a remark that could indicate surprise, mockery, or bitterness: “How is it that thou, a Jew, dost ask me, a Samaritan, to give you drink?” I am myself surprised that Jesus even needs a drink, and that he gets tired. His response, that upon her request he “would have given [her] living water,” provokes her to challenge (angrily? good-humoredly?) him as to whether he is “greater than our father Jacob . . . who gave us this well.”

The first striking thing about her response is that Jesus’ appearance seems to be ordinary; there is nothing, as it were, to the naked eye that marks him out as greater than Jacob. He even says, “if thou knewest . . . who this is,” as if it’s not meant to be obvious. Why does he insist on appearing in that subjunctive way? (Even on the road to Emmaus.) The second striking thing is that this particular well-water isn’t just any well-water; it comes from the same source as the water that Jacob and Joseph drank. (Does that make it Promised Land water? I guess I don’t know, but it’s something like that.) The third thing, finally, is that the name of Jacob is so readily on the woman’s lips. She has had five husbands and is living with a man who is not her husband, but the tradition of the place is familiar to her and she appreciates its meaning enough to weigh it in the balance with the words of a prophet.

I will not comment on the fact that she has had five husbands, because its revelation serves only (in this context!) to establish that Jesus is the sort of person who knows things without having to learn about them in the usual way, that he is a prophet. And yet the woman immediately challenges this prophet regarding the site of true worship, opposing “our fathers’ way” to the way that leads to Jerusalem. Whether or not she is in, as we might say, an “objective situation of sin,” she isn’t wrong that there is a certain objectivity to the holiness of the place where she habitually goes to draw water. Somewhere Heidegger says, “Where so many have prayed, the holy is most present.” (And it does seem that—at the risk of Christologizing everything—for the space of Jesus’ tarrying there, “this mountain” truly is the holy of holies.) What is the relevance of this sort of thing in the time that “is coming, nay, has already come, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”?

Jose Granados has written that Paul’s experience of Jesus is “the most similar to our own” because “he neither saw nor touched Jesus, as others had done during his earthly life.” But I wonder whether the experience of a two-millennia-old institutional Church, and the ability to spend any amount of time in eucharistic adoration, makes our situation more similar to the Samaritan woman’s before she believes. Are we any closer to worshipping the Father “in spirit and in truth” than the one who walks again and again, carrying all of her sins, to Jacob’s well? Why is it still necessary for us to be drawn to the Lord in anno domini nostri Iesu Christi, when “the time has already come”?

Tony Sifert