Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” John 4.3-11 NRSV.
On one level there is nothing surprising about the scenario presented to us here. Jesus and his disciples have travelled at least 20 miles since they left Judea at daybreak and, heading north for Galilee, they have now reached Sychar in Samaria. It is about midday and the disciples have gone off into the nearby village to buy some food, leaving Jesus on his own. He is very hot, very tired and very thirsty. There is water available. He is sitting by a well and he can hear the spring bubbling away in its depths, 75 feet below; but, as the woman who is about to arrive at the well will point out, he cannot get at it because he hasn’t got a bucket or a rope. That can surely only have made his thirst worse. Who wouldn’t be desperate for a drink in those circumstances?
Well … God wouldn’t and neither would God’s Son. Or so we might imagine. I mean, this man who is sitting here thirsty has already, not long before at a wedding in Cana, turned about 50 gallons of water into wine (John 2.6-9). He has the power to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4.3). So why has he not used a little of that power to get some water out of the well and into his cupped hands and from there into his mouth? When Samson was thirsty, he called on the Lord and the Lord opened up a hollow place in the ground and waters came from it (Judges 15.18-19). When the children of Israel were thirsty, God caused water to flow from a rock (Exodus 17.3-6). Now someone far greater than Samson is here – Israel’s own Messiah. Why did he wait until this woman turned up and then ask her for a drink?
Because he knows that he himself is a Well too with the Water of Life bubbling within him (John 4.10) and he thirsts for others to thirst for that living water. He thirsts for this needy, shunned, rejected woman who is even now on her way to the well at an hour when no one else will be around, to thirst for that living water. But to arouse and then satisfy her spiritual thirst he must keep his own physical thirst unsatisfied so that she will be enabled to engage with him by giving him a drink.
John, who loves to create echoes and reflections throughout his gospel, places this story close to the start so that we will remember it close to the end when, again at about noon, again alone and exhausted, Jesus says “I thirst” (John 19.28) … but says it from the cross on which he will die and where, by dying, he will free the Spirit to be given in all his fulness to all who are thirsty enough to drink (John 7.39.)
Am I thirsty enough to drink today? Am I willing to come to Jesus as the source of the living water? In The Silver Chair, one of C S Lewis’s Narnia books, Jill (who is very thirsty) finds a stream but to get to the water she must approach the lion (Aslan) who is lying by the stream.
“If you thirst you may drink,” says Aslan.
“I daren’t come and drink,” says Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” says the Lion.
“Oh dear!” says Jill.”I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.”