By Walker Haynes
The connection between water and life is more or less self-evident. Drinking water is essential for life, and all farms need the water of rain or irrigation to grow food. Bodies of water on Earth are teaming with life, from the largest whale to the smallest plankton. Very rarely, however, is the water itself described as living. But “living water” is a term that the Bible uses on multiple occasions. I’d like to focus on perhaps the most well-known use of the term: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:7-26.
To understand this interaction, we really need to understand the context of Jewish-Samaritan relationships in the first century AD. The Samaritans were a people with mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. At this time, they inhabited the hilly region between Galilee and Jerusalem and practiced a distorted version of the Jewish faith, rejecting all Scripture but the first five books of the Bible and worshiping God in a way derived from their non-Jewish ancestors rather than God’s law.
Meanwhile, the Jewish people inhabited the flat lands surrounding Samaria to the north, west and south. They were God’s chosen people and generally attempted to follow God’s revealed word. However, several groups were trying to add more to God’s law, either emphasizing syncretizing with nearby Greek culture (Sadducees) or setting purity laws to exceed that of God’s own law (Pharisees). This latter group often fell into conflict with the Samaritans. Not only did both groups claim to be the true chosen people of God, the excessive purity of Pharisees led to the popular idea that Jews were bound to avoid all contact with the unclean Samaritans. Both groups, therefore, held each other in great disdain.
Knowing this context, we understand why the Samaritan woman responded the way she did when Jesus asked her for a drink. Her initial response could be considered one of shock or of rebuke, but certainly she would have had no positive feelings towards Jesus. Knowing this, we can dismiss the idea of the simple woman at the well who does not understand Jesus’s figurative language. When Jesus tells her that she should be the one asking Him for a drink of “living water,” her question,“Are you greater than our father Jacob?” is not sincere, but instead rhetorical. Jacob was the common ancestor of both the Jews and the Samaritans; in the eyes of Samaria, no one could be greater than he.
However, Jesus claims to be exactly so by saying that His living water is greater than the water from the well dug by Jacob. The woman’s request to be given a drink of this water can then be interpreted as an invitation for Jesus to prove His claim by producing water apart from the well. She fully expects Jesus to fail this challenge. After all, why would He ask for water from the well if He had easy access to water from another source all along?
Jesus then demonstrates His authority over that of Jacob in an unexpected way. Rather than fulfill the woman’s challenge of producing water, He demonstrates His supreme knowledge by pointing out the woman’s past history of marital failures. This follows a trend of salvation through conviction in the Bible: people typically are not convinced of Jesus’s authority by demonstrations of His glory, but through the revelation of the truth of our own shortcomings. This leads the woman to admit Jesus’s authority.
She then does exactly what we ought to do when we recognize the authority of Jesus: she asks about the proper way of worship, contrasting what Jesus has to say with the ways of “our fathers.” Jesus responds by saying that instead of worshiping in the way of her fathers, ascribing to them higher authority than to God Himself, she ought to worship how the Father tells her, in spirit and truth. What was ultimately a worship of “our fathers” must become a worship of “the Father.”
In verse 25, the woman finally tells Jesus that she looks forward to the coming Messiah, a belief for the most part exclusive to Jews. Clearly the woman, through her experience with Jesus, has grown in faith. Jesus then gives the woman the best news of all: that He is the very Messiah whose coming she awaits. How very blessed the woman must have felt at this moment! The Messiah had come to her of all people, a woman from an errant tradition that rejected the very notion of Him, a woman of ritually unclean origin, a woman scandalous and sinful not only from the perspective of the teachings of the one true God, but even of her own people. Why would the Messiah come to her? It is because of what Jesus says in verse 10, that what God has to offer is a gift, not a reward.
But since Jesus is not on earth physically to bring us to this faith, what hope do we have? We find an answer in the “living water” mentioned by Christ early in the dialogue. Jesus says that the water He gives to someone “will become in him springs of water welling up to eternal life.” This living water is what convicts us and enables our life of faith to grow. It tells us that we are thirsty, yet also provides satisfaction. It guides us on the path to eternal life. So, what is this living water?
To answer, I will quote two passages from the prophets. Jeremiah 2:13 reads, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” This passage remarkably fits the situation that the Samaritan woman was in. She and her people had abandoned the true word of God in favor of human tradition. They had traded the fountain of God for man-made cisterns. Likewise, Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” Finally, we get the answer of what the “living water” is. Living water is the Holy Spirit, a gift from God the Father and Jesus the Son that lives the hearts of believers, guiding and satisfying them to reach eternal life in the presence of the Trinity. Just like literal water, we find the living water offered by Jesus is absolutely necessary for our own life.
I pray that you take the time to invite the Holy Spirit into your life to become that source of conviction and fountain of living water. Do not rely on the broken cisterns of man to collect rain, for they will fail us when the rain does not come. Worship the Father in spirit and truth: convicted of your sin, knowing Jesus as Redeemer and guided by the Holy Spirit, which is living water for a thirsty life.