“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-15
As we read this story I think we need to get over something very obvious: this woman can be forgiven for thinking Jesus means literal water. In the course of the conversation Jesus leads her to understand that he is talking about supernatural spiritual sustenance, rather than special drinking water that won’t need collecting from the well. We are reading it as scripture, knowing that John must have included this episode in Jesus’s life because it reveals something important. We know something else must be going on. Jesus is purposely drawing out her curiosity. She is also probably hot, thirsty, and aside from his shocking lack of knowledge of local etiquette, she has no reason to believe he is not talking about magic replenishing water at this point.
Living water was also another way of saying ‘running water’. Throughout the Bible, water is used as an analogy of God’s provision for his people, as an image of the presence of God with his cleansing and life-giving properties.
What is Jesus really talking about? He clearly states that he can offer to meet an appetite or basic need in a way that will be satisfying. Yet this does beg a question, to my mind. In church meetings we often talk about being filled with the Spirit, and we acknowledge St Paul’s guidance to ‘go on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Is that because we haven’t received Jesus’s water that will become in us a spring?
I think Jesus must be talking about the bigger picture here. Once we ask Jesus to be Lord in our lives, we can trust that his spirit will be the spring in our lives: it, or rather he, will now be permanently at work in us. That’s not to say the disciples didn’t need refilling with God; we need the same. But once he is at work, we will no longer need to consider God as being located far away.
The Samaritans and Jews were locked in an ideological battle over where God was located, and hence where worship should take place.
“The animosity toward the Samaritans was greatly intensified about twenty years before Jesus’ ministry when some Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard during Passover (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.30). This conflict at the temple highlights one of the fundamental differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, namely, the question of where God has centered his worship.” – IVP New Testament Commentary Series
Jesus would soon promise his disciples that whoever believed in him as being God from God, that God himself would come and dwell in them (John 14) and that they would have eternal life, i.e. that believers would not die in a spiritual sense. That is a radical departure from a world in which you might be excluded from the location of God because it was in territory where you were not welcome. Jesus makes himself available to a gentile woman as much as to his disciple. He also makes the grace of God available to all who would accept it.