Living water – enabling eternal life

In John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples travel from Jerusalem towards Galilee through Samaria. Technically they didn’t need to – they could have gone up the Jordan Valley but John often uses this imperative as something God-driven. Jesus comes to a village called Sychar in the area which is now Nablus; Jacob’s Well is a short distance away underneath Mount Gerizim. This mountain was sacred to Samaritans who considered that this was where Joshua built an altar to commemorate victory against the town of Ai.

Desert village well

Village well

Most biblical scholars consider that John’s gospel was the last one that was written, some decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and after the events described in the Acts of the Apostles. Commentators also think that the gospel showed understanding of Samaria and Samaritan culture. There had been over 900 years of ‘history’ between the Judahites and Israelites-Samaritans. When Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 723 BC, many were exiled to that empire, and some Samaritans in Jesus’ time would have been descended from those left behind and from the influx of colonists brought in by the Assyrians to provide wealth to the empire. As a result there were similarities and differences, making association of Jews and Samaritans fraught. Samaritans held to their Pentateuch as sacred, but did not revere the books of the prophets, most of whom were Jerusalem oriented.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

John 4:7,9 (NIV)


Jesus is by himself when he meets a Samaritan woman at the well, and she is really surprised when a Jewish man asks her for a drink. Jesus introduces the option of living water and she really likes the idea of having living, or flowing, water ‘on tap’ so to speak. And we can clearly see why that should be, given the effort needed to acquire it. This seemed to be better water; it is flowing, not the flat water from a cistern.

But John is showing the misunderstanding of the word ‘water’. What did Jesus really mean by ‘living water’? This water was something that Jesus can provide: to John, living water is, on one hand, the revelation or teaching that Jesus can bring, and, on the other, the Spirit. Through that people can worship in Spirit and in Truth and so can walk humbly with God.

We see a realisation come to the woman as Jesus ‘reads’  her. She recognises this is a sign of something special. Jesus would know that Samaritans did not expect a Davidic king to be their Messiah. As fits their reliance on their Pentateuch, they looked for a prophet, a Moses figure, who would interpret the Law for them, and would show them the way. There is evidence from the Dead Sea scrolls showing that ‘living water’ was a phrase used to describe the Law. Here, her prophet could be showing the way of the living water, and she goes back to the town to tell people about it.

Sowing and reaping

Once the disciples return, the imagery moves from water to food, and to the growing of the harvest. So Jesus says to the disciples;

I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.

John 4:35,36 (NIV)

When the Gospel was written the living water had been brought to Samaria after persecution in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 8. The sower of the seed of the gospel then was Philip, who, successfully,  took the message from Jerusalem to Samaria, but the reapers were Peter and John. Both were needed for the mission. This story describes an earlier occasion in which the Samaritans responded to the living water. At the end of this sequence, townspeople, having heard the testimony of the woman, came out asking Jesus and the disciples to stay a while. The water and the sowing resulted in a harvest to reap.

They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

John 4:42 (NIV)

At the conclusion of this section, the writer of the Anchor Yale commentary, Raymond Brown, says this: Nicodemus, the rabbi of Jerusalem, could not understand Jesus’ message that God had sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17); yet the peasants of Samaria readily come to know that Jesus is really the Saviour of the world.

Water to harvest to food

This living water, Jesus’ teaching and Spirit, enables the sowing of these seeds of truth. In turn that can spark realisation of what that truth is – in ourselves and others. That was true in Samaria 2000 years ago and it is to us now.  This is not a single-stranded timeline, planting and harvesting seasons can run in parallel; and in sequence – summer crops, autumn crops, and parsnips, which are always better after a frost. Different gifts and often different people are needed to team up to inspire, to spread and to gather. In our various worship and teaching activities, we endeavour to source and use the living water. We seek to:

  • Worship in Spirit and in Truth in the light of Jesus’ teaching and Spirit,
  • Walk humbly with God by behaving in the right way with unfailing love.

It is a constant quest to connect with Jesus’ living water and find an appropriate channel for it. Very likely over the coming days and weeks we will have to find a new set of mechanisms. On-line worship material that engages with people can not only be means of extending the range of our services to those who don’t make it here. It can reach out to people with little or no connection to church. The very difficult times ahead might give us the impetus to develop some new, useful ways to connect to people that will outlast this virus wave. We may also need to find new ways of behaving rightly with unfailing love.