Jesus came to the well of Jacob, his ancient ancestor. It was high noon, the heat of the day; he was tired and thirsty. There he would have a conversation with a Samaritan woman about living water (John 4:5-24).
John introduces this story in his account of the Gospel with a reference to baptism, another image of water. In the story that came before this one, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of both water and Spirit. And in the story before that, John’s Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding banquet.
Toward the end of this gospel, John’s Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and while he hangs from a cross, both blood and water pour from his pierced side. At the very end of this gospel, the risen Jesus stands on a beach, cooking breakfast next to a lake, where his disciples are fishing.
Clearly, these are not just random or accidental references to water. For John, water functions as a symbol in his account of the Gospel. For John, water might even be as symbolically significant as bread: water and blood, bread and body.
That word, symbol, has fallen into disrepair. Most people seem to think of symbols as merely pointing toward something else. “It’s just a symbol,” they will sometimes say, as if our focus belongs elsewhere.
To the contrary, genuine symbols always focus our attention on the symbolic moment itself; they always involve meaningful encounter and also depth, that thick engagement with what lies beneath the surface of things.
Notice how John constructs the story we heard this morning: Jesus approaches a well of water at high noon, when he’s likely to be alone; a woman approaches, and we can surmise later in this story why she would be there alone, to avoid scandalous chatter about her so-called “lifestyle” among other villagers. The stage is set, in other words, for encounter.
Barely half a dozen sentences into their conversation, this woman notes that “the well is deep.”
John gives us that little detail as a signal: this is no random meeting between strangers; these two figures are engaged in a timeless quest for insight, for meaning, and rather simply and profoundly for love.
The well is deep.
For some, John’s symbolic storytelling places him firmly in the long and rich tradition of both Jewish and Christian mysticism—traditions that invite not mere meeting but the depth of encounter. Some biblical scholars have also suggested that every story in John’s gospel—every single one—is in some way about the Eucharist because each of these stories is about loving encounter and the mystical union between Christ and his Church.
The well is deep.
That word “mystical” needs some attention, too. It’s not reserved for spiritual heroes. It shouldn’t feel exotic, elitist, or roped off from our ordinary, daily lives.
The word comes from the same root as the word mystery—not the kind of mystery Sherlock Holmes tries to solve with his sidekick Watson, but rather the kind of mystery so many of us know in our intimate friendships, our marriages, and our communities of care; it’s the inexplicable and inexhaustible mystery of love.
That’s the heart of mysticism: love, and intimacy, and union.
Concerning this morning’s story, some early Christian commentators suggested that this woman at the well is the Church, the “Bride of Christ.” Reading the story in that frame, Jesus asks about her husband not for moral reasons but for spiritual ones—to invite her into intimate union with God.
Consider the story just before this one, about Jesus and Nicodemus. That encounter was under the cover of night, when no one else would be there. Urgent matters of the soul are usually the most intimate; you don’t discuss them in crowded restaurants or public squares but in a place where you can be alone.
Recall the story that comes before both of these: the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding banquet—John says that was the “first sign” Jesus offered. It sets the tone for his whole account of the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love for us—not tolerance, or forbearance, or mere patience, but that love which yearns for intimacy and union.
The well is deep.
Here’s how deep: John’s mysticism is not for the sake of escape, of somehow leaving Earth for Heaven; John’s mysticism instead plants us more firmly in Earth.
John draws us into this earthy mysticism by using earthy symbols: a dove, grapes, wine, wheat, bread, trees, vines, sheep, shepherds, gardens, spices, beaches, and fish! Earth, in other words, is where we encounter God, and that makes our work today of ecological healing and renewal a spiritual discipline.
I’m guessing this is why John put water at the center of his mystical vision of the world. Water, after all, is fluid—it seeps, leaks, overflows, runs, and can’t be contained, not for long, and certainly not forever.
This is why John refers to living water in this story, something this woman already knew quite a lot about. For every society on earth, water is “living” when it is connected to its source, like a spring, and when it moves—in creeks, streams, and rivers.
That woman, that Samaritan woman, that foreign woman knew all of this. And she was tired of living with the water that stands still; the water that is fenced off, segregated, and isolated from every other community of life—like the Samaritans from the Judeans.
That can’t be what God is like, she says to Jesus. Say it isn’t so!
Pause for a moment and consider the courage and the tenacity of this woman. She was apparently shunned and shamed by her own community; that’s why she was at that well at high noon. And still, she pushes Jesus on their behalf; she asks of him, demands from him, why her people should be excluded from proper worship—that’s not fair!
She asked from Jesus what her community needed: living water—the water that cannot be contained, roped off, or restricted.
Living water is like love: it wants to flow, and spread, and carve channels of life into the arid landscapes of hate and violence.
This streaming presence is what Christian traditions have called the Spirit of God—living water.
Pause again and consider that this ostracized and nameless woman knew exactly what all of this means—much better than Nicodemus, actually, whose name we know.
So let’s live like mystics this Lenten season: opening ourselves to the flowing presence of God’s Spirit; reaching out to help others tap into the deep well of God’s love; recommitting ourselves to clean, fresh, living water for all—from the faucets in our homes and from the pulpits in our sanctuaries.
This brave and nameless Samaritan woman can be our guide.