Scholars have noted that women play a prominent role in John’s Gospel. The mother of Jesus figures in the first miracle account, and she is present at the foot of the cross, where she is commended to the care of John, and Jesus says to the beloved disciple, “this is your mother.” Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles” is the first to witness and speak to Jesus after his death and burial, as she encounters him outside the tomb on the Sunday morning of his resurrection. Martha is one of only a handful of disciples to testify that Jesus is “the Christ,” the “one coming into the world.” In John chapter four, Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well becomes an opportunity to explain baptism, Trinitarian theology, faith and conversion.
In the account in John 4, Jesus initiates the conversation with the command, “give me a drink.” In so doing he breaks a social taboo to the effect that, in first century Semitic society, a stranger would typically avoid conversing with an unaccompanied woman in public. The Samaritan woman, in turn, violates the same social taboo, and talks to this assertive stranger from Galilee. The Samaritan woman also points out that the faithful of Jerusalem usually avoid eating and drinking with foreigners, although her comment is more ironic or dry than necessarily literal.
But Jesus uses this opportunity to preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and it is no accident that he talks to a foreigner. John’s Gospel conveys a message identical to that in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel: the proclamation of the good news is not limited strictly to the people of Jerusalem. John goes even further, as he informs us that women are important recipients and messengers of the good news. The woman remarks that they are in the presence of Jacob’s Well, an historic place where the patriarch, his clan and flock watered. But Jesus redirects the conversation towards a different type of water. In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel predicted that living waters would flow from the side of the Temple when the House of Israel was to be restored (Ez 47:7-12). These living waters become the waters of which Jesus speaks, and he equates himself with these waters – whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.
As I was reading the passage it occurred to me that in the baptism rite, the waters of creation, the waters of the great flood, and the waters that parted at Moses’ command are cited during the blessing of the baptismal water. And indeed, each of these events is associated with a wind – a Spirit (ruah) – in Hebrew Scripture. As I was reading John chapter four, I asked myself, “is Jesus going to mention the Spirit?” And then God answered my question. Here is what Jesus says:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.
The symbols of water and spirit are preserved in this story of the woman and the well. And then Jesus tells us that “God is Spirit.” Here John’s Gospel offers a mini-course in Trinitarian Theology. The woman says that the Christ is coming, and Jesus volunteers, “I am he” (Jn 4:26). He identifies himself as Christ. He then tells us that God is Spirit. Of the Father, Jesus says, he “seeks those who worship in Spirit and truth.” His Trinitarian theology is certainly not complete. One has to read the bread of life discourse, the long discourse at the Last Supper, and consider John chapters twenty and twenty-one to complete the Johannine course.
The author of John’s Gospel is a very sophisticated writer. His seemingly innocuous conversation with a woman – a foreigner – is used to teach the community something about the faith. We see Jesus deftly integrate baptism, the work of the Spirit, the Trinity, and the fact that our conversion and salvation originate with our own participation in these “waters of life” – both baptism in particular and faith in the saving work of Christ in general.