Translation Sara MacVane
In the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, it is often said that Jesus’ words are symbolic. When he says that he can give us water, we don’t take this literally to mean that Jesus is offering us running water on all floors for the material comfort of our households.
Water is a symbol of God’s grace. A rainfall or a source of water in the dessert can save a thirsty traveler and transform an inhospitable and arid place into a green and pleasant land. Surely God’s grace is offered as a benefit: it is life; it makes what is good to flower and renders the world abundantly beautiful.
We should understand Jesus’ promise then as symbolic, like the other promises in the Gospel, his light for instance, which is not measured in kilowatt hours, and his healings which are more spiritual than medical.
As for the Samaritan woman, commentators generally say that she doesn’t understand anything, that she takes everything Jesus says literally, and this evaluation reduces their dialogue into a sort of back-and-forth banter. This interpretation is questionable however. Surely a Gospel as profound as John’s must rest on something more than a stupid joke, however amusing. Otherwise any remarks therein become plain nonsense.
Instead, let’s consider the Samaritan woman in another light. Perhaps from the beginning she understands Jesus’ gist very well, perhaps she too has a symbolic significance. In that case, her discussion with Jesus is not a misunderstanding at all, but a lively discussion about the origin of grace.
The proof of this is in what she says: if Jesus gives her water to slake her thirst, she will no longer need to draw water. This is absurd in fact, because drinking water is only about 10% of the water we need. So even if she doesn’t need water to drink, she still needs water for cooking and washing and other things. Then again the name “Jacob’s Well” is strange. There is no mention in the Old Testament of a well in Samaria in connection with Jacob.
All of this has a spiritual meaning though. The Samaritan woman is following a traditional Jewish logic. She believes that the Spirit moved from the time of the patriarchs up until Moses, and that to have grace therefore it is necessary to tap into the ancient sources. Her logic is the religion of observance: that it is necessary to struggle and work in order to receive grace by the sweat of her brow. Jesus proposes another idea: that grace is a gift, that there is no need to win it, it is enough to ask for it.
She says: “the well is deep and you have nothing to lower down into it”. She finds it hard to believe Jesus, for if grace is far from us, how can he imagine that he can offer it without any “means of grace”, without religious rites or other obligations? “Are you greater than Jacob?” she asks. And Jesus affirms: “Those who drink of the water that I give will never be thirsty”, for he is far greater than the ancient patriarchs; he is a new source of revelation, spirit and grace.
Jesus himself is a source much better than any Jewish or Samaritan water wells. For a well is, in effect, a cistern full of still or even stagnant water, while a water source offers us fresh and living water. Jesus offers a totally different definition of religion, which does not seek vitality in any of its ancient traces, but finds spiritual grace at its very origin, that is to say in Christ himself.
Jesus promises that each of us can become in turn a source, for ourselves and for others. The Samaritan woman understands this full well; she understands what Jesus said to her: she had five husbands (the five books of the Torah, that is, the whole of the Samaritans’ Bible), while right now in fact she has no living faith at all, no husband, but just a cohabitation with purely human traditions. She realizes that her real husband (the 7th) is there in front of her, that he has fulfilled all prophesy, that he is the Christ, the Messiah, who offers the fullness of God’s living presence.
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