Jesus Offers Living Water and… Marriage?
Where does one go to find a life partner? In our modern world, social events, dating apps, coffee shops, and bars top the list. But the authors of the Hebrew Bible have a particular setting that indicates someone in the story is about to get hitched. When the authors want to portray a man meeting his future bride, the setting is often a well.
One of the more interesting man-meets-woman-at-well stories is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, where he offers her a different kind of water––living water (John 4). How is the author asking the readers to envision Jesus by placing him in this well-meeting scene? And what does his offer of living water mean? Let’s first take a look at how the well-meeting scene is used throughout the Hebrew Bible and then how the author of John may be using it to communicate a new message.
Isaac and Rebekah at the Well
Isaac and Rebekah are the first couple in the Bible whose love story begins at a well (Genesis 24). In that story, God promises Isaac’s father Abraham that he will make Abraham’s family into a great nation and that this will come about through Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19). So the story of a wife for Isaac is not just a crucial moment in his personal life but also in the story of God’s promise coming about through him.
The story goes like this: An older Abraham sends his servant on a journey back to the land of his ancestors to find the woman who will become part of this family of promise. When he arrives at a well, the servant prays that God would make his journey successful. Before he even finishes speaking, he encounters Rebekah. She draws water for him, and when she learns who he is, she hurries back to her family to tell them the news of the visitor. The servant shares a meal with Rebekah’s family and stays with them for a few days. When they return to Isaac’s family, Rebekah and Isaac are joined together.
Jacob and Rachel at the Well
Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob follows in the footsteps of his parents and finds his wife at a well just one generation later (Genesis 29). Jacob’s story, though distinct in meaningful ways from that of his father, bears a striking resemblance to the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s meeting. As he journeys, Jacob comes upon a well. He learns from some shepherds that this is the land of his ancestors. Before he finishes speaking with them, he encounters Rachel. As soon as he sees her, he rolls the stone from the mouth of the well and draws water for her. When he tells her he is her father’s relative, she hurries back to her family to tell them the news. Jacob stays with her family. When the time for joining in marriage comes, Rachel’s father throws a marriage feast and (in an odd turn of events) both Leah and Rachel become Jacob’s wives.
The Well-Meeting Pattern
You may have noticed that these stories are incredibly similar! In fact, both of them include the following elements:
Journey: Someone journeys to a foreign country
Woman at the well: The man encounters a woman at a well
Draws water: Someone draws water from the well
News: The woman hurries home to bring news of the visitor
Hospitality: The visitor stays with the woman’s family and there is mention of a meal
Joining: The two parties are joined as one
Moses and Zipporah at the Well
If you still think this could be coincidental, let’s look at the next character in the Hebrew Bible who happens upon a well and a woman: Moses (Exodus 2:15-21). This is the shortest well-meeting story in the Bible, yet it still contains all of the elements of the pattern we noticed above.
Journey: Moses journeys to the foreign country of Midian
Woman at the well: He encounters a woman at a well (well, seven actually)
Draws water: Moses defends them and then draws water for them from the well
News: The women go “quickly” home and tell their father about Moses
Hospitality: Moses is invited to dinner and stays with them
Joining: One of the women, Zipporah, is given to Moses as his wife
The Meaning of the Well-Meetings
These stories of women at the well are so similar that their resemblance cannot be chalked up to mere coincidence. Rather, it seems that the authors have carefully crafted these stories to follow a certain pattern.
What should we make of this pattern? It’s helpful to recognize that ancient authors did specific things to help readers understand what they were communicating. The same thing happens in media genres today. For example, in a scary movie, the moment that the characters decide to separate, you know it’s not going to go well for one or both of them. And in old western films, the sheriff is always able to draw his weapon before the other guys. In the same way, ancient authors could communicate that someone was about to meet their wife simply by portraying a man encountering a woman at a well. Readers would recognize right away what was about to happen. Technically, this kind of patterning has been called a “type-scene” by Robert Alter in his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative.
So, at a basic level, the well-meeting pattern tells the story of an interaction, a bond, between two parties. It is a dramatic telling of the coming together of two parties who don’t know each other. And not only that, but these well-meeting stories focus on the nation’s leaders. Through their similarities, these stories connect the figures to one another by the same historical and theological thread. In other words, like Isaac and Rebekah, so also Jacob and then Moses will lead the nation in their covenant relationship with Yahweh.
Jesus’ Offer of Living Water at the Well
Once a pattern like this one is established, authors can use it in surprising ways to subvert the readers expectations. This is exactly what happens in the Gospel of John, with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). So how is the author of John asking readers to envision Jesus when he comes upon a woman at a well?
The story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well begins by following the same pattern as the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses:
Journey: Jesus journeys toward his hometown but passes through Samaria first
Woman at the well: He encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. The author says that it was “Jacob’s well” (v. 6), further linking this story with the meeting of Jacob and Rachel.
Draws water: The woman comes to “draw water,” following the typical well-meeting pattern
But there’s a twist. Jesus says that he came to offer her “living water” instead of well water. Jesus’ offer of living water is an allusion to the Eden paradigm, where water flowed from the middle of the garden to sustain the whole earth (Genesis 2:10-14). So Jesus is offering life in connection with himself. But as we’ve seen, the story has begun in the typical pattern of a marriage story. What is the significance of that? And does it continue to follow the pattern?
By this point, readers may be wondering what kind of marriage story this will be. It certainly can’t be a typical one because the dialogue that follows highlights the relational distance between these two parties. When Jesus asks the woman for a drink, she herself says that, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” The mention of five husbands also subverts the possibility of what we typically expect from this well-meeting pattern. What she says next to Jesus, that Jews and Samaritans disagree about where to worship, seems out of place until we realize that its purpose also may be to highlight the relational distance between her people and Jesus. In other words, these verses seem to indicate that there's no way this woman or her people are fit to be Jesus’ bride.
But what happens next is surprising: Jesus describes an incredible future bond between Jews, Samaritans, and all true worshipers with the Father.
This is a different kind of marriage bond than we expected.
The woman continues, saying that when the Messiah comes, he will explain all these things. And Jesus responds, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.” In the book of John, this foreign, outcast woman is the first to whom Jesus reveals his identity. And she immediately leaves her water jar and shares the good news about who Jesus is with her people.
So the author has incorporated the fourth step of the well-meeting pattern, bringing news of a visitor, but with a significant change. The news is not of the arrival of a person who will be united with one woman; it’s the good news of the Messiah’s arrival, and his uniting involves all who would come to him for life.
The next element readers expect in the pattern is hospitality. And the author goes there, saying that Jesus “stayed” with the Samaritans for two days (John 4:39-40). There is even a mention of food in the chapter. The disciples keep urging him to eat something, and Jesus replies that his food is to do his Father’s work (John 4:31-34). Rather than feasting, Jesus says that the harvest is ready. And placed right beside this description of harvest, we learn that many Samaritans believed because of the news of the woman. So the meal element of the pattern is changed by the author to communicate that Jesus’ purpose is to unite many people to himself.
A Different Kind of Marriage
So when Jesus meets a woman at a well, readers are expecting some kind of marriage bond to result. But rather than one woman becoming married, she convinces many people in her community to follow her and join themselves with Jesus. This joining is the final element of the well-meeting pattern and is framed as a bond between two parties. In fact, Jesus is referred to as the “groom” in the chapter just before (John 3:27-30). However, this is a different kind of bond than a marriage between two people. Jesus’ message to the woman and her people is that he, the Messiah, is offering true life, living water, to anyone who would join themselves with him. Just like the waters that flowed out of Eden from the tree of life, so Jesus is offering life to all who would unite themselves with him in a symbolic and everlasting union.