- Exodus 17:1-7 & Psalm 95
- Romans 5:1-11
- John 4:5-42
Wells as Sacred Places
Wells and springs often feature as significant places for epiphanies and other encounters in the biblical narrative. The well at Sychar (ancient Shechem) which features in this Sunday’s gospel is perhaps the most famous of them all. Presumably the wells at Beer-Sheba would have been significant to even more people over a longer period of time,
Shechem itself is first mentioned in Genesis 12 as the place where Abram builds an altar, and it was already a sacred site associated with the oak of Moreh (i.e, the oak of the oracler) which may have been near the ancient well. The well itself is not mentioned at this point in the story:
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. [Genesis 12:4-6]
Abram and Sarai return to central Palestine after their troubled sojourn in Egypt:
So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. He journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord. [Genesis 13:1-4]
The troubles between their herdsmen and those of Lot’s herdsmen presumably involved a dispute over access to the well:
Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” [Genesis 13:5-9]
As required by the deal cut with Lot, Abram and Sarai move south to Hebron where they settle by another sacred grove (the oaks, or terebrinths) of Mamre the Amorite and its well (or spring):
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring1 forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. [Genesis 13:14-18]
It would later be by a spring on the way to Shur that Hagar would have an epiphany:
The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”;
for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. [Genesis 16:7-14).
In Genesis 21 Hagar would be blessed with a second epiphany at yet another well, one whose presence went unnoticed until God opened her eyes to see it:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. [Genesis 21:15-19]
These stories of Hagar’s well-side epiphanies may have had some influence on the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Beer-sheba, where Abraham and Abimelech conclude a treaty in Genesis 21 was to feature in many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. Its seven wells made Beer-Sheba a famous location and especially suited to special events. Abraham eventually relocated there following his narrow escape from almost killing his son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba. [Genesis 22:15-19]
The well at Haran features in the story of Rebekah being chosen by Abraham’s trusted slave to be the bride for Isaac:
Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’–let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
Then the girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things. Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban; and Laban ran out to the man, to the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man; and there he was, standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?” So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” He said, “Speak on.”
So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ But he said to me, ‘The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my kindred; even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’
“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also”–let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” [Genesis 24:10-51]
Disputes over access to wells occur again in the second version of the troubles at Gerar (cf. Genesis 21 for the earlier version):
Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich; he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him. (Now the Philistines had stopped up and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham.) And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
From there he went up to Beer-sheba. And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. . [Genesis 26:12-32]
Indeed, by the end of that chapter the narrator is claiming that Isaac (or at least his servants) dug the original well that made Beer-Sheba famous:
That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug,
and said to him, “We have found water!”
He called it Shibah;
therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day [Genesis 26:32-33]
When Jacob flees after his deception of Isaac and his theft of the patriarchal blessing from his older twin, Esau, the well at Haran again features as the meeting place where God’s chosen one find his destined spouse:
Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep lying there beside it; for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well.
Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.” He said to them, “Do you know Laban son of Nahor?” They said, “We do.” He said to them, “Is it well with him?” “Yes,” they replied, “and here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.” He said, “Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”
While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.
When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month. [Genesis 29:1-14]
The tradition (found in John 4) that Jacob had owned the well at Shechem seems to arise from the following passage in Genesis 33:18-19:
Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan,
on his way from Paddan-aram; and he camped before the city.
And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father,
he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent.
There is, of course, no mention of a well in this text and it is hardly likely that the townspeople of Shechem would have sold their town water rights to a newly-arrived Hebrew. Still, as early as John’s Gospel, there was a tradition that the well had passed into Hebrew hands at the time of Jacob.
In an interesting echo of the stories of Isaac and Jacob finding their wives at the father-in-law’s ancestral well, Moses was to meet his wife at a well in Midian where his future father-in-law was the local (pagan?) priest:
Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” [Exodus 2:15b-22].
While this has not been an exhaustive survey of all the times when wells occur in the biblical narrative it has picked up the most significant epiphanies and other human encounters involving wells. These were also stories likely to have been known to the NT authors, and especially John. They provide evidence of an important traditional theme (the encounter at the well/spring) against which we can read both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading this week. Doubtless they were part of a wider genre of such stories in the ancient world, since communal water facilities would have been the natural settings for many significant encounters.
In Isaiah 12 we find this ancient sense of springs or wells as places of divine encounter expressed in poetic form:
You will say in that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
Given this ancient tradition of divine encounters taking place at wells, it is no surprise that the Church in Nazareth venerates the ancient village well as the site of the Anunication. While Luke does not mention a well, the ancient mind would naturally imagine such an event occurring at the communal well.
Moses and the miraculous rock
In the absence of wells, Moses performs a miracle by striking a rock in the desert so that water flowed from it to meet the needs of the vast multitude said to be traveling with him through the wilderness:
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” [Exodus 17:1-7]
There is also a variant of this story in another part of the Pentateuch:
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there. Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness. [Numbers 20:1-13]
In 1Cor 10:1-5 Paul was refers to a miraculous rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness like a magical water tanker, meeting their needs for forty years. That rock, says Paul, was Christ. Paul is presumably drawing on ancient Jewish midrash for this since he seems to know that his readers will have heard of this amazing rock:
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.
W.G. Plaut [The Torah. A Modern Commenatry, 513] cites the following Jewish traditions that elaborate on this story:
God said, “I will be standing there before you on the rock” (17:6).
This implies: “In every place where a man leaves his footprint., there I too will stand.” [Midrash Mechilta Vayassa 7]
“This thought found its expression also in the legend that the rock that yielded water followed Israel miraculously throughout their wanderings in the desert.”
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says on Num. 20:19:
The well that had been given as a present to them climbed up with them on the high mountains
and from the high mountains came down with them into the valleys,
surrounded the entire camp of Israel, and refreshed them, each at the door of his tent.
Jesus the true well-spring
The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the embodiment of the ancient mystery of the well/spring. Jesus is both the site where the epiphany occurs, and also the source of the living water that gushes up within a person once they believe in him.
In other discourses throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus will be represented as someone who fulfills ancient spiritual hopes:
- “the beloved Son” sent to bring life to a world in darkness (John 3)
- the bread (manna) from heaven (John 6),
- the bearer of the new Torah (John 7)
- greater than Abraham (John 8)
- the light of the world (John 9)
- the good shepherd (John 10)
- and the life that death cannot extinguish (John 11)
Jesus as the true well, the spring that refreshes from within, and the ultimate epiphany of God is celebrated in this classic story of Jesus’ own encounter with a woman at a well. Like many characters in the biblical drama, Jesus meets a female stranger at the well and they engage in intimate conversation. But he is not seeking a wife, and she has already had several husbands. Beyond the familiar characterizations of the well-known genre there is a larger story being unfolded.
Jesus is not simply meeting a woman at a well. He is the well, and what he offers is far more sustaining than the water that flows from Jacob’s ancient spring. The woman is meeting Jesus at a well, and he offers her living water although he had no bucket. None is needed when the spring flows inside us.
Ancient mythic themes converge in this familiar Gospel story.
- 351 The Samaritan Woman – (1) John 4:1-42)
Some elements within this larger story have parallels in other complexes:
- 050 Harvest Is Great – (1) GThom. 73;(2) 1Q: Luke 10:2 = Matt 9:37-38; (3) John 4:35
- 204 Living Water – (1) P. Oxy. 840. 2c; (2) John 4:14
- 214 Kingdom and Repentance – (1a) Mark 1:14-15 = Matt 4:12,17 = Luke 4:14-15 =(?) John 4:1-3; (1b) Matt 3:2
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.