Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
Any storyteller would wish to have been the author of this story; it is one of the best-loved passages in the New Testament. The way in which the woman is led from incomprehension to dawning awareness at a deeper level is splendid. The setting and the imagery (well and water) hold the story together and lead the reader, along with the Samaritan woman, to that deeper level.
The image in the second part is bread. These two images then – bread and water – hold the entire scene together. Bread and water are simple realities in themselves, but how essential! Hunger and thirst are able to command our full attention. Every reader of the story soon realises that Jesus is speaking of a deeper hunger and thirst. The emptiness of the heart is an even more painful condition than physical hunger.
We know all about this today, despite (or because of) the many things we fill our lives with. We can imagine – but sometimes scarcely – what a deeply satisfied heart would feel like. The great 19th-century preacher C.H. Spurgeon let loose a torrent of eloquence on this subject. The disciple of Christ, he wrote, “finds in religion such a spring of joy, such a fountain of consolation, that he is content and happy. Put him in a dungeon and he will find good company; place him in a barren wilderness, he will eat the bread of heaven; drive him away from friendship, he will meet the ‘friend that sticketh closer than a brother….’ Sap the foundation of his earthly hopes, but his heart will still be fixed, trusting in the Lord. The heart is as insatiable as the grave till Jesus enters it, and then it is a cup full to overflowing. There is such a fulness in Christ that He alone is the believer’s all.”
Hunger and thirst will bring even enemies together. “Samaritans came to him and they asked him to stay with them.” This is just the opposite of what one would expect; Jews were not welcome in Samaria. When religions divide and make enemies of people, we can be certain that they are not seeking God but only division and enmity. The mind is expert at distinction and division; but a heart seeking God is able to overcome division.
The mind is even able to make an enemy of God, driving him out of the heart, leaving it empty and dried up, choosing to dwell on thoughts of condemnation and guilt. Food in a cupboard only mocks my hunger; it has to become mine by eating. Faith too has to become mine. “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe,” said the other Samaritans to the woman, “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” We could become experts on the contents of the cupboard – and die of hunger and thirst.