Jacob’s Well in biblical Shechem (near present day Nablus) is the setting for the Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5-42). Actually John identifies the location as Sychar where Jacob, in Genesis 33:19, bought a piece of land when he arrived in Canaan from Paddan-aram. Jacob dug a well there and, before he died, gave that plot of land to his favorite son, Joseph (Genesis 48:22).
Actually these events took place in the region still known as Samaria today – Shomron in Hebrew – which sits between Judea (or Yehuda in Hebrew) in the south and Galilee in the north. Samaria today is part of the West Bank or the occupied territories, and its inhabitants are predominantly Arabs or Palestinians. As in the time of Jesus, travel between Judea and Galilee takes a route along the JordanValley to avoid going through Samaria.
You can still see Jacob’s Well today in ancient Shechem – I have been there several times. It is the only well in the area, and quite deep actually, and in the control of a Greek Orthodox church. And yes, you can draw water from the well using a bucket.
While at the site, the Samaritan woman’s words to Jesus will sound quite fresh:: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”.
This geography and history leads us to the eternal message in the readings for this Sunday. The First Reading from Exodus 17:1-7 is also about this basic human need, one of the essentials for life – water. During their sojourn in the desert, the Israelites, faced with this essential need forgot the great act of liberation from bondage and turned against Moses (and God).”Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” they clamored.
Indeed in Numbers 21:5 they even complained “… there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (the manna) and in Numbers 11:4-6 they craved other food saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up; and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at”. Essentially they found it easier to cherish the memories of the “goodies of slavery” as they faced their current hardships.
Life does present some challenges, and changes – including liberation – come with emotional, mental and physical pains. People in recovery are familiar with this reality when they struggle with the discipline of a new life in opposition to the familiarity of addiction and dependency.
The Samaritan woman in the Gospel Reading, like her ancestors (by the way, Samaritans descended from a mixed remnant of the Northern Kingdom) had the same physical needs we all share. She needed water, as we do, and may be she was at the well in search of other needs – that we are not told. She had had men in her life who undoubtedly provided for her.
What Jesus is offering is that foundation upon which everything in life finds security and satisfaction. Indeed, in the Epistle Reading from Romans 5:1-11, Paul points out that in Jesus there is peace of mind and joy. There is perseverance and hope. These are life-savers in the hectic frenzy of everyday living. Water can be compared to a good life. We all seek it. The basis and the foundation for the good life is Jesus Christ.