Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
Behind the Scenes Footage from John 4
Doing Old Testament studies, sometimes you discover something wonderful about the New Testament. Not too long ago I discovered something magical about John 4 where Jesus meets the woman at the well.
It turns out that John wrote the story of the woman at the well using, if you’ll pardon the pun, a well-known romantic story pattern called, “Foreigner at the Well.” As a well story, the ancient reader expects to find a blossoming marriage, leading to famous children, and a changing world. In John 4, they get more than they bargained for.
Right, so a little background.
Back in Bible times, it was the woman’s job to draw water for her family, much as it was the man’s job in my growing years to mow the lawn and take out the garbage. The time of young women back then tended to be carefully administered by those who loved her and looked out for her best interests, so it is easy to imagine that the one place for single young men and single young women to meet-n-greet in a somewhat freer environment would be at the popular hangout spot… the well. One dude I know called wells the “singles bars” of the ancient near east, and he wasn’t too far off.
The Story Pattern
So, the foreigner at the well story pattern goes like this.
- First, an unmarried male foreigner travels to another country, usually driven there by troubles at home.
- Second, as one would expect, he goes to a local well.
- Third, while there he meets the woman who will be his wife.
In Scripture, what makes this story pattern special is the very notion of divine appointment. Two strangers from different regions have a “chance” encounter at that magical place of chance encounters. Yes, but in truth, they are two strangers destined by Yahweh to meet and change the world together. It’s romantic; it’s theological; it’s epic. As one of Israel’s favorite stories to tell around the communal campfire, it’s part of Israel’s origin story… the tellers of the tale. It tells how Israel came about by divine design working in chance encounters.
Macho, Macho, Men
Each instance of this story pattern in Scripture gives us elements to compare and contrast with John 4. As you read John 4, take special notice of how John plays off them.
The most basic versions of the story are found with Jacob & Rachel and Moses & Zipporah.
Jacob flees his father’s house in the face of his brother’s murderous intentions. He travels to his mother’s country. He goes to the well where shepherds are gathered for watering and asks about his family. The shepherds say, “Well, what do you know, here comes that guy’s daughter right now!” Rachel draws near with her father’s sheep and Jacob uncaps the well and waters her flocks. She takes him home to Daddy and the two live happily ever after… sort of.
This is the catalyst for the birth of the twelve tribal fathers of Israel.
Similarly, Moses flees Egypt to escape Pharaoh and travels into another country. He goes to a well where shepherds are mistreating some woman trying to water their father’s sheep. Moses fights off the bad guys, then draws water for the ladies’ flocks. They take him home to Daddy and he lives happily ever after with one of them… sort of.
Together Moses and Zipporah lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and fashion them into a nation.
I’ll Take Foreigner at the Well with a Twist
In Genesis 24, with the story of Isaac & Rebekah, we get the ‘foreigner at the well’ love story with a proxy. Abraham commissions his servant to solve a serious problem for him by going to a foreign land to find a wife for Isaac. The scene plays out much the same as with Jacob and Moses, save for two things. The providence of God is made overt and the servant, testing the will of God, watches in awe as Rebekah, a woman of obvious substance, draws more than a little water to quench both his own thirst and that of some ten camels. She brings him home to Daddy, and she and his master live happily ever after… sort of.
Rebekah bears Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
What’s Good for the Gander is Good for the Goose
We find another well story in the Book of Ruth. Trouble sends Ruth the Moabitess into the foreign lands of Israel with her Hebrew mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth goes out to do a pauper’s gleaning and happens upon the fields of Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer, Boaz. He too leaves his home to check on his laborers and they cross paths during her short break by the well. He gives her water from that which was drawn by his men and the rest is history.
Ruth gives birth to King David’s grandfather.
A Spiritual Foreigner at a Spiritual Well Finds a Spiritual Bride
The first thing we notice when we turn this lens upon John 4, is that Jesus, like the others, departs amid trouble into foreign territory when the Pharisees first take notice of Him. He avoids them on this return to Galilee by taking the more arduous route through Samaria. (John 4:1-4)
Jesus, having grown weary, swings by a famous well reputed to have belonged to Jacob. You may recall Jacob’s own well story. Being fed by underground springs, Jacob’s well is called “Living Waters”—Cool and clean and refreshing.
Jesus, the consummate bachelor, meets an unmarried woman there, creating our story pattern and building anticipations of love, divine appointment, and a transformed world….oooo la la.
Jesus asks her for water, like the servant in Genesis 24:13-17. She does not, however, demonstrate the character of Rebekah.
He tells her that if she knew who He was she’d ask him for a drink of “Living Water,” and He would give it. Recall that Jacob, Moses, and Boaz provide water for their loves.
She is confused. He has nothing to draw these living waters with. Here, Jesus overtly raises the discussion to the spiritual level for her. He intends not physical water but a spiritual spring leading to eternal life.
The elevation of the story pattern to the spiritual is established in several other places as well. In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In 4:32, Jesus declares, “I have food to eat that you do not know about,” and in 4:34 says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Not done yet, Jesus says in 4:35-36, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life.”
Jesus does not find here a physical bride. What he finds is a sinner who comes under conviction before his disclosure of her sin, who crumples before his prophetic power as he preaches of Himself. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Jesus says, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26)
Indeed Jesus finds a spiritual bride. She is a spiritual bride because she plays that role in the type-scene, but is also a spiritual bride because she becomes a functioning and replicating part of THE spiritual Bride—the Church. She goes out and bears witness to Him, saying, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:34) Her witness bears spiritual children, for, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (John 4:39)
So, as we read John 4, we find that John both subverts the romantic connections in the Well Story by spiritualizing love and devotion and accentuating the elements of divine appointment and world transformation through the same. Beginning with the woman at the well, Jesus is winning a spiritual bride to produce spiritual children transforming the world spiritually. Through John’s telling of the tale, Jesus continues to bear spiritual children… children like you and me, called to transform the world around us through our witness to Jesus our Lord.
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