The symbolism in this Sunday’s gospel is dense, its meanings rich and multi-layered. This comes as no surprise to the readers, knowing that the scriptural passage is selected from the Gospel of John, whose author is widely acclaimed by all exegetes, both ancient and contemporary, for his artistry of allegorical expression and imagery. The scene depicting Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well immediately brings to mind three classic marital arrangements in the Pentateuch that took place in similar settings: the encounter of Abraham’s servant with Rebekah at a spring that ended with her marriage to Isaac; Jacob’s encounter with Rachel at a well, whom he eventually married; Moses’ encounter with his future wife, Zipporah, at a well in Midian (Gen 24:10-67, Gen 29:1-30, Ex 2:15-21; Ignatius Catholic Study Bible Jn 4:6).
Drawing on the nuptial meaning of these ancient marital encounters and using the special backdrop of the well – the place of courtship in the Pentateuch - as the common denominator, John sees in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the Jacob’s well a romance leading to a new and everlasting marital relationship. The God who throughout the Old Testament scriptures has been persistent in wanting to win over the heart of his beloved people, Israel, reveals his Trinitarian Self in his Son, the incarnate Jesus, in the New Testament. At the Jacob’s well, Jesus, the divine Bridegroom in search of believers to be his covenant bride, speaks prophetically in the sweet and irresistible language of love to court his beloved bride as embodied by the Samaritan woman.
The courtship is apparently a fruitful one. The love story continues to unfold with the woman departing in a hurry. In her rush to leave, she abandons even her water jar – an important tool for her livelihood. She can’t wait to tell her people about this charming Lover that she has just encountered: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” (John 4:29). She calls Jesus “Christ” or “Messiah”! A stone-cold conversation that began with the Samaritan woman calling Jesus “a Jew” and “sir” has turned into an affable, heart-melting, life-changing dialogue of the lovers. She has fallen in love with the divine Bridegroom head over heels. She can’t wait to proclaim the good news to her community and to the world, if necessary.
The Samaritan woman is in fact an image of infidelity and faithlessness. The fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in the 8th century and the resettlement of foreign peoples in the region had forced the remaining Israelites to intermarry with the pagans. Over time they gradually adopted the pagan way of worship and religious practices. They became the Samaritans who were considered “defiled” by the Jews. The enmity between the two peoples remained even in Jesus’ day. The “five husbands” that the Samaritan woman had refers to the pagan deities and idols of Samaria.
But the Samaritan woman is an image not only of Samaria, but also of Israel, Judah, and indeed you and me. The divine Bridegroom’s courtship is not reserved for the Samaritan woman alone. It’s also extended to you and me. Let’s retrace the myriad footsteps of our lives. When was it that Jesus met you at the well for the first time? What was it like? Can you recall the sweet dialogue of love and how it touched your heart? Did you proclaim the good news to your neighbors the way the Samaritan woman did? If yes, how? The author of this reflection, for one, is doing just that!