This story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well comes to us from St John (John 4.5-42), the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who took the Mother of God to live in his own house, where she became a mother to him too. St John is also the disciple who outlived the other disciples, and whose gospel is the product of a life of meditation on the words of Christ offered to his ears only, and the account of incidents that few others saw, or few others saw as significant. This is why we have not one but four Gospels – five, if you piece together the comments and intuitions that St Paul received, direct to the heart and thence to his mind, from the Risen Christ after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Thus we see that the Holy Spirit does not give us one way alone, but numerous paths alongside each other in the same direction, as likewise we walk in the company of Christ together, whether it is on the road to Damascus, to Emmaus, by way of Samaria to Jerusalem, or to this Cathedral today. So it was that the Church in its very early years received all these accounts of the Kingdom of God from Christ and His first followers and it blessed them as, together, the Gospel of Salvation.
Here we have not one view of Christ as He lived the very presence of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, but several. All of them loved, embraced and taken to heart, they are not four – or five – rival accounts to choose between, but one garment for the celestial Wedding Feast which we are constantly attending, in earthly life and in Divine Liturgy alike. We feel it fitting closer to our bodies than our skin, not as cloths sewn together like our other clothes, but woven together like the seamless robe that Christ shed before He revealed His unclothed human glory before He went forward to mount the Cross. The Gospel is the clothing around our redemption, the covering that uncovers our transfiguration into beings of Heaven’s Light; it is the adornment of our form - the Christ we put on when He gives us the Resurrection.
To tell us of our redemption, our transfiguration and our resurrection, we have, then, the story of the woman at the well, with her matter of fact conversation, and her surprise at Jesus’ answers, still not realising Who on earth is talking to her. This is the reason St John tells this story that he had from Jesus Himself. In the words and reaction of this ordinary human being, not an insider to the telling of the story, someone with no vested interest in telling one side or another, he is putting us in touch with an honest witness. You can almost hear Jesus laughing, as he says to St John, “She had no idea! It was only when her own people went back to tell her that the penny dropped”. You can almost hear the lady saying to herself, “Well, I never.” But, even though she never goes back to Jesus as far as we can tell, those she tells immediately see that this Jewish visitor is not like the others. He represents the Hebrew religion whose origin they share with the Temple religion and the Pharisees’ religion in the synagogues from which they are excluded. Here is a seer as of old, a prophet who has come – as they always hoped – not just to one group but to all the children of Abraham. He is not just a prophet, but Saviour. He is not just Saviour for the Jews, but salvation for all.
Let us look at the icon of the feast, to understand why St John alone of all the Evangelists has told us this story of a Saviour Who has come not just to one people but to the whole world. Observe that the well is in the form of a Cross. You can see wells like this to this day, also some fonts in ancient basilicas. Practically speaking, the shape is to ensure that as many people as possible can get to draw water without making the opening too large, lest people or livestock fall in and drown or pollute it. But to us, aware of the iconographer’s art, we immediately think of the words of St Paul, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6.3) In other words, in the mind of the Church, Our Lord comes before the Samaritan Woman, showing her the Cross. He demonstrates that the water she is drawing is the life of salvation that the Cross will begin to pour, and into which she will one day come through her own baptism in Christ.
Other icons show the well as a fairly narrow upright tube, down which you might only pass one bucket. Here the reference is to the Wedding at Cana in Galilee, another story that only St John knew to tell. The well appears as a large jar, like those that we know Jesus at Mary’s behest commanded to be filled with water. When that water was drawn out, it was found to have been changed into the finest wine. In other words, St John is hinting that the Samaritan woman is drawing water, without at first realising that she is acting out the movements of drawing out the new wine of the Kingdom that Jesus said He would drink only from after His Cross and Resurrection.
Realising, then, that this story is not just about an inconsequential incident whose significance escaped the other Apostles, but a reminder of the meaning of the first of Our Lord’s miracles and a foretelling of the Cross and Resurrection, let us look at what else is going on.
See that He is sitting down by the well. Recall that when He goes later on to the Temple - in another story that only St John tells - they bring a woman caught in adultery to Him for judgement, while He is sitting down teaching. In the same way, the Samaritan woman approaches Jesus, even if she does not realise this, as Teacher first and then Non-Condemning Judge. He does not upbraid her about her multiple marriages, but simply reflects the light on her, so that all she tells is the truth in His presence. At first it is half a truth, and then acceptance of the whole truth. Finally she embraces the whole truth in the Person of Jesus, when she sees to be the Prophet Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
That phrase we know only from St John too, and here it is encapsulated in this story – the Lord resting on His way in order to cross the way that others have taken and redirect them; the Lord bringing a wandering soul to an encounter with their own truth and His; the Lord showing the waters of the Life that will flow from the Cross and then His Resurrection.
Thus He says to her, “Give me something to drink.“ This is not so abrupt as it sounds; for He is saying something to the Samaritan woman that He will need to say again in a very short time ahead in the future. Think forward to the moment of Crucifixion. Each of the Gospels tells of how Jesus is given vinegar to drink; some appear to imply that it is to take the edge off the suffering; St Luke says it is mock Him. Only St John recalls, from his vantage point at the foot of the Cross, that Jesus had said, “I thirst”, reminding him of the encounter at the well in Samaria. Jesus is telling St John from the Cross that His thirst on the Cross is for the water of life, the water of His own baptism, the water He once changed into wine at the Wedding at Cana, the water signifying the Way, the Truth and the Life to the Woman of Samaria, the water that was about to flow from His pierced Body mingled with His blood.
When in the story the disciples return, they urge Him to eat something. But, in a phrase reminiscent of His saying that he would not taste wine until he drank it new in the Kingdom, he declines and says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about. My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to complete His work”. So He points forward to the supper they will share on the night before He dies, when He will give them not just bread and wine, but His own Body about to be broken on the Cross and His Blood to be shed in death, so that salvation may be unstopped and the Resurrection begun. He points, too, to the food He will eat when He is risen: the fish by the shore that He does not need for sustenance but for fellowship with His disciples, and the bread that He will break at Emmaus to make Himself known in His Resurrection and its incessant Presence in the Eucharist.
Here in this short story of what appears a chance encounter between an impressive Jewish teacher and a second class citizen at Jacob’s Well, the direct heir of Jacob, the direct heir of Isaac and Abraham too, the heir of Jacob who is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel who escaped as refugees to Egypt when the waters in the Holy Land had dried up, Jesus shows how He will supply water that will be spring of eternal life. This Spring is He Himself, upon His Cross and in His unending, inexhaustible Resurrection. So, in this story that is really a foretelling of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, what does the Samaritan Woman do? She encounters Him without recognising Him. Then she sees Him for Who He truly is, recognises His Truth, and goes on her way to tell the world what she has seen as heard. We have seen this story before, in another incident that only St John describes. The woman at the well sees Jesus as a tired traveller; Mary Magdalen will one day think Him merely the gardener. The Samaritan realises the Truth and calls Him the Prophet; Mary will call Him Rabboni, her Teacher above all. St Mary Magdalen will run to tell the disciples, as the first Apostle and Herald of the Resurrection on account of whom the Disciples believe that He is truly risen from the dead; in the same way the Samaritan woman went to her people and spoke of a Prophet who knows the Truth, on account of which they declare that He is truly the Saviour of the World.
For us, the story is not just food for thought and meditation, as we try to understand the meaning of the Scriptures and what they meant when they were written down. For St John is telling us what he heard from the Lord: that our way through life is to live here and now in the next. He is telling us that we have been baptised into His death, as the only way for us to live life truly as – we ourselves - the living appearance of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world into this very day of ours. He is telling us that we have been shown the Truth about ourselves by a Teacher Whose judgment is that we are to face it and come to terms with being forgiven. He is telling us that the life that springs up in us is none other than water mingled with His own life-blood. He is telling us that the food that sustains us on the Way is none other than the broken Bread of Life. He is telling us that the pattern of our life is a constant entering into the mystery of the Passion and the Resurrection, taking up the Cross to follow Him, if we are simultaneously to wear the Wedding garment for the Celestial Banquet, the covering that uncovers our transfiguration into beings of Heaven’s Light, the divine adornment of our human form - the crucified and risen Christ we put on when He gives us His Resurrection.