Galina Stele

serves as a research assistant in the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research of the General Conference.

At the Well

Are you thirsty?

At noontime Jesus sat at Jacob’s well. Jews did not usually pass through Samaria to get to Galilee from Jerusalem; they preferred to go around it. But Jesus’ actions have their own reasons.

Jacob’s well sat at the entrance of a valley with about 80 springs of water, a pearl of the Promised Land full of grass, flowers, plums, nuts, figs, pomegranates, oranges, and grapes—a valley of beauty, history, and theological significance. Gerizim and Ebal rose from it, mountains that were the site of Israel’s covenant renewal after they crossed the Jordan river (Deut. 27:12, 13). Its cities of Sychar and Shechem were historic too.

God appeared here to Abraham—newly arrived at Shechem in response to God’s call—promising the land to him and his offspring. Abraham’s response? An altar “to the Lord, who had appeared to him” (Gen. 12:7); his first altar in the Promised Land. Jesus, the seed of Abraham, seated at the well, was God personally fulfilling His promise to make Abraham “a blessing” for “all peoples on earth” (verses 2, 3).

There was sad history too: Years after Abraham, Jacob, his flocks, and his family came to this valley and its many springs did not belong to him. But “for a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar” (Gen. 33:19, 20). Again the place of worship! He dug a well, more than 100 feet deep. Finding fresh water of the Spirit can demand as much!

Everything was good in this beautiful valley until something ugly happened to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter: a viola-
tion that sparked her brothers’ rage
and a bloody massacre (Gen. 34:25). It was a terrible night for the people of Shechem—all the male population brutally killed; trust was betrayed; good intentions to join God’s people mocked and denied by the very ones who built an altar to the true God in this valley. His name was on their lips, but their lives cried out the opposite.

What a disappointment to God! Descendants of Abraham, supposed blessing to the whole world, acting like terrorists. Instead of love, hope, and truth, they brought hatred and death to the city they were supposed to reach. Their altar stood outside, but no tabernacle was within their hearts where God could dwell. Someone says, “You can fight the devil with such frantic zeal that in the long run you look like him.” How sad it is when people around see such a discrepancy between our truth and our spirit, between our altars—places of worship—and our ways of life. The good news is that Jesus visits the places where we build our altars to Him. There He brings His living water.

No wonder Jesus decided to go through Samaria! This place meant so much to Him! Now syncretism ruled in the land of His early altars. Samaritans did not deny God; they believed in Him, even worshipped Him. But as with us today, they believed and worshipped as they pleased. God was on their lips, but their lives were far from Him. Jesus came to Samaria because He had living water for them.Illustration by Steve Creitz

From Form to Life

Jesus comes into the mess of our lives and transforms everything. He turns our places of worship into a way of life, a life of worship in spirit and truth. His stop at Jacob’s well shows a different attitude toward those who thirst and do not know the well.

Dinah’s brothers justified their righteous indignation. Jesus could have been righteously indignant with the woman at the well. Five husbands is unusual, even for the twenty-first century. Sadly, it was not unusual at all in the first century. Dinah’s brothers fought sin with swords and hatred; Jesus chose to solve it with love and living water. He could rebuke the woman, accuse her; but instead He was willing to share with her the power that would transform her life.

Jesus’ request for water surprised her. Giving water to a tired stranger was a great privilege, even an obligation for people in the East. Water was considered a gift from the Lord. To ask a woman for water was not so surprising, since women were the ones who generally drew water. But she was surprised because He asked to drink from the vessel of a Samaritan woman. Jews could buy certain dry food from Samaritans that did not convey defilement, and we know the disciples went to buy food. But water and wet food were different. Amazingly, Jesus is not afraid to use us as His vessels, imperfect as we are.

In response to her questions, Jesus directed the woman’s attention toward something more important than physical thirst—soul thirst. He confronted her sin. He touched a delicate area of her private life and pushed her out of her comfort zone to awaken her thirst for righteousness.

Unless we admit our sins, we won’t see our need for living water. We’ll always be thirsty. But whoever drinks what Jesus provides finds within themselves “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Only Jesus can give us this regenerating power of living water that will turn our hatred into love, our selfishness into agape service.

And He does it at the places of our personal altars, places symbolic of our temptations and falls, and, at the same time, the places of our victories because of Him. At those places He washes us with the transforming power of living water and turns our places of mere form and ritual into the way of vibrant life.

Spirit and Truth

The Samaritans were waiting for a Messiah. They called Him Taheb and believed He would return and restore true worship. The woman called Jesus a prophet but ended up accepting Him as Messiah.

Jesus’ conversation directed the woman’s attention to the issue of true worship, where spirit and truth are united. Only when we understand the true function of worship—to satisfy our spiritual thirst and transform us into the image of the One we worship—will there be harmonic unity between God’s Word, His truth, our message, our spirit, and our attitude toward each other. Whatever we believe about worship, we have to share Jesus’ view about worship. The time has come when“the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (verse 23). This is what God is looking for (verses 19-24).

Spirit and truth; living water and the bread of life. In our story Jesus gives the water, the disciples bring the bread. Bread and water were significant features of the sanctuary ritual. Are they together in our lives? Are nourishment and refreshing united in our worship? Our discussion of worship uses forms of the Greek word proskuneo 10 times in John 4:19-25. The word includes ideas such as “to kiss the hand” (of a superior), “to prostrate oneself,” “to bend the knees,” “to bow down,” “to adore,” “to worship.” This kind of worship can be expressed in song: “Crown Him, for He is worthy! Crown Him!” True worship admits His only and supreme authority.

The primary purpose of worship is not just to share or read some thoughts for the day, to deliver or find interesting information, to entertain our youth or newcomers, or to prepare a lecture. The primary center of true worship was, is, and should be God the Ruler of the universe, our Creator and Redeemer who should be adored, worshipped, and obeyed.

The Outcome

Jesus decided to go through Samaria because the harvest was ripe, because He wanted to reach that city. How did He do it? The secret is thirst. He awoke the woman’s thirst; He targeted her thirst. And she, who wanted to escape the crowds, brought crowds to the well herself.

When our place of formal worship becomes the way of vibrant life, then we worship in truth and in spirit. Not only are we revived, we are reformed as well. Jesus becomes visible in our lives, and we cannot hide Him any more than we can hide water in our pockets. The power of Jesus as the living water revives worshippers at the place of worship and leads them to the reformation of the life of true worship. Our lives become sermons, a revelation of living water. The change in us produces results.

In my Bible is a letter to our church, entitled “to the church in Laodicea.” I wish it said: “To the church called Victoria.” Laodicea and Samaria bear striking similarities, and differences.

First, like Samaria, Laodicea has water. Laodicea had a stone aqueduct, a sign of civilization. Water runs in Laodicea, but because of inefficient filtration—so common with our spiritual life—and distance from the source, the water becomes lukewarm and unpleasant.

Second, like Laodicea, our woman of Samaria had a long-term sin problem to which she had become accustomed. Laodicea used to be famous for its textile industry, especially for its black woolen fabric. Impressive in jackets, skirts, suits, and positions, we forget how much all these covers contrast with the “white robe” we need, and that we look naked in Jesus’ eyes.

But our third comparison brings good news. As Jesus at the well offered “living water” for free, so He offers Laodicea everything we need “without money and without price” (Rev. 3:18; Isa. 55:1).

In a fourth comparison we meet Jesus at the well at noon, now standing at the door in the evening; an evening that speaks of history’s approaching end, and of the importance of our daily communion, our evening (and morning) sacrifice. He is outside and wants to come in. He was thirsty at the well. He is hungry now, not only for a drink, but to share a feast with us. Once He sat at the well, now He wants to sit at the table (Rev. 3:20).

In the end Samaria is as much about us as it is about a woman at a well. Samaria’s well is a story about the true source of Living Water, and the power that can unite Spirit and truth in our hearts and transform  our disastrous yesterdays into glorious tomorrows. It is a story about how our lives can become a blessing for the whole world.

Lord, give us this water! 

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