“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10
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The Samaritan woman at the well is no angel. Mixed up with a wrong crowd, this poor woman from Samaria has quite a reputation. She had been married five times and was living in sin with a man who wasn’t her husband.
Through her story comes the lesson that people shouldn’t live by carnal pleasure. The story also shows that a well of grace is ready to refresh the soul parched by sin and suffering and that Jesus comes to save the sick and to serve those who still need both physical and spiritual healing — not only the converted.
Her story is also relevant because it becomes an antecedent of Christian practices — that one may seek God’s forgiveness for wrongdoing.
In some Christian religions, including Catholicism and Orthodox, seeking forgiveness is the basis for the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). Every faith has a teaching and belief that God forgives sin and that repentance is always possible. The Jewish feast of Yom Kippur and Islam’s Ramadan are also examples of seeking forgiveness and showing atonement for sin.
The woman at the well had her sins “washed away” by Jesus. The story shows that Jesus offers divine mercy in the living water of grace, which washes away sins and cleanses souls. The woman went to the well to get a jug of water. Instead, she got much more, including a cleansed and refreshed spiritual life.
Going to the well
Because of her lowly status, the Samaritan woman goes to the well during the hottest point of the day to avoid the wagging tongues of her fellow townspeople. Most other people were taking siestas at this time; nobody in his or her right mind is out in the noonday sun. The woman of Samaria knows this and seizes the opportunity to get water for her home without being bothered.
Jews didn’t normally travel on a Samaritan road, but Jesus chose to walk this way anyway. He comes upon the well, where he meets the Samaritan woman and asks her for a drink of water. The woman, who understands her low social status in the eyes of a Jew, is astonished that this pious Jew requests water from her.
Experiencing renewed spirit
Jesus uses the water as a metaphor to teach this woman. He speaks about the living water, which gives eternal life, divine grace, or God’s life within the soul. The woman craves this type of water, because she wants to have eternal life. But first Jesus has a lengthy but candid dialogue with her. He makes her understand that she needs to confess her sins and change her life before she can obtain this life-giving water — grace. Jesus shows her that he already knows she is living with a man who is not her husband.
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, “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.”
The Samaritan woman’s spirit is enlightened, accelerated, and illuminated by Jesus. She now realizes what it means to take freely of the water of life, which is the spiritual refreshment that comes into her soul after her encounter and confession with Jesus. Not only was she impressed that Jesus knew all her sins, but she was also given the opportunity to have those sins forgiven. She believes he is truly the Messiah, the Anointed One. She repents of her past misdeeds and goes back to tell her family, friends, and neighbors how she met Jesus and how he revealed his knowledge of her sins and his offer of live-giving water, which brings eternal life. She went on to lead many conversions in this area through her zeal and love for God (John 4:39–42).
The Samaritan woman doesn’t appear again in scripture, but for centuries afterward, numerous spiritual writers, theologians, and scholars retold and pondered her encounter with Jesus. Augustine (AD 354–430), for instance, uses the example of the woman at the well to describe the spiritual thirst the human heart has for goodness and truth and that thirst is never quenched until people are in the presence of God forever (after they die and leave this earth).