The Great I AM: At the Well

The Great I AM: At the Well

The Great I AM: At the Well.

“Then Jesus told her, ‘I AM who speaks to you.’” (John 4:26).

Jesus and His disciples were walking in the Judean countryside to return to their home territory in Galilee. Jesus decided to go straight through the central district of Samaria, which was directly in their path between Judea and Galilee. Most Jews made a point of walking around Samaria so they didn’t have to associate with their enemy the Samaritans.

While in Samaria they came to Jacob’s well, near a village called Sychar. Jesus was hot, tired and thirsty, so they decided to stop at the well for a while. While the disciples were away getting some food, a Samaritan woman approached the well during the noon hour. She needed to fill her big jar with water. She came at noon to avoid meeting up with other women who tended to come early in the morning or later in the evening. She was aware of her reputation, and wanted to avoid any judgment or confrontation.

Samaritans. Jews considered the Samaritans to be their enemy because the people in Samaria were a mixed race, half-breeds. The Jews prided themselves on being pure and unmixed. Samaritans however were once Jews who intermarried with the gentiles of Assyria. The Jews thought the Samaritans had betrayed their faith and their nation to mix in with foreigners. Samaritans indeed seemed to be half-Jewish in many ways: They only believed in the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Also, they had built their worship Temple on Mt. Gerazim nearby, not Mt. Zion in Jerusalem like the Jews. The Samaritans only had a shrine at this time instead of a Temple, because the Jews had destroyed their Temple in 128 B.C. Samaritans did celebrate Passover and other Feasts of the Law, and it appeared they did worship the God of Israel. They were also expecting a messiah, a Moses-like prophet who would be the Restorer, the True Teacher, described clearly in Deuteronomy 18:15-19“Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him… Then Yahweh said to me, ‘What they have said is right. I will raise up a prophet like you. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.”

When the village of Sychar accepted Jesus as Messiah, they considered Him the fulfillment of that passage in Deuteronomy. And when Jesus told the woman that He was I AM, she knew exactly what He was talking about, the Great I AM of Exodus 3:14. They stuck to the Pentateuch, the first five Books, and it seemed to serve them well if not completely. John gives us a powerful picture of what can happen in a Christ-centered cross-cultural encounter.

Reputation. Jesus loved to have private conversations with individuals, not limiting Himself to talking in front of large groups. This is the third conversation He has had in John, the first with Nathanael in chapter 1, and the second with Nicodemus in chapter 3. There will be several more private interactions before the Gospel is finished. In this private encounter, Jesus is taking a decided risk to His reputation. This woman at the well is a Samaritan, for one thing. Then, she is a woman. Third, she is living in sin. Three strikes and you’re out. But this didn’t bother Jesus, even though no respectable Jewish man would find himself in this situation. Jesus risked a lot of misunderstanding, since she was known as a loose woman, a serial adulteress. She may have been untouchable by others’ standards, but she was merely too-touchable in the eyes of Jesus. To add to this uncommon situation, any encounter of a man and a woman at a well denoted courtship in the people’s mind. He was bound to be judged by all this. Jesus didn’t seem to mind, even though He was meeting privately with a sinful woman in a context that suggested romance between the two of them. Evidently Jesus wasn’t worried about His reputation. Reaching this woman was more important to Jesus than risking His reputation.

Living Water. Jesus starts things off by asking the woman for some water. Then He hints at the Hebrew Bible idea that she is probably not familiar with, since it’s not in the Pentateuch… the idea of God being a fountain of living water. Jesus starts slowly by hinting at living water. He could have quoted from Jeremiah 2:13 or 17:13 where that idea is mentioned. Or He could have quoted from Psalm 36:8-9, where David talks about drinking from God’s delicious streams since God is “the fountain of life.” Or Jesus could have told her about Isaiah 55:1: “O, Come to the water all you who are thirsty.” Jesus didn’t start too heavy-handed by quoting unfamiliar passages like Isaiah 12:3: “And you shall draw water with rejoicing from the spring of salvation.”

But then soon enough, after she got off track by taking Him literally, Jesus began to teach her about the spiritual water of His Holy Spirit. Jesus said that indeed He Himself is the living fountain that will satisfy her spiritual yearning for God. Only He can provide a never-ending stream of living water so that she will never be thirsty again. Only He can quench her spiritual thirst.

This isn’t the last time Jesus talks about spiritual water. Later in His ministry Jesus spoke about water once again in the Temple, shouting out to the assembled crowd, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to Me! Anyone who believes in Me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare that ‘Rivers of living water will flow from His heart.’” (John 7:37-39). The Holy Spirit will provide the eternal life for which all people thirst. And much later St. Paul referred to some biblical history that the woman at the well would have found more familiar, in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Paul referred to the miraculous rock struck by Moses that provided water for the people. He said that Christ is the spiritual rock out of which flows spiritual water, a rock that will always accompany us wherever we go. Finally, the water theme in Scripture concludes with a closing comment in Revelation 22:17, “Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires, drink freely from the water of life.” And that is what Jesus is offering this woman at the well, the living water of eternal life.

God is Spirit. After providing some on-point sexual background information of the woman’s life, Jesus soon convinces her that He indeed is the Prophet. She immediately dives into the question of worship, perhaps in order to get away from the topic of her marital history. She wondered with Jesus about the fact that they worshiped on a different mountain than the Jews. What does He think about that? Jesus directly addresses her question, and says that God is a Spirit. He is not limited by time or physical space. He is not in just one place. So it’s not where you worship, but how and why. Since God is Spirit, we must worship Him in spirit and truth, worship the True and Ultimate Reality with our very own true self. Or as Eugene Peterson once put it, “engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth.” Salvation will come through the very Jewish Jesus, who in fact is the Truth, and Christ’s salvation will include the Samaritans and the rest of the world.

I AM. Jesus gradually revealed more and more about Himself until he reached His mountaintop declaration. Everything He has said so far with the woman has led to this claim… “I AM who speaks to you.” Other translations put it, “I am the I AM who speaks to you,” or “I who speak to you AM He.” And there it is, the bombshell revelation. The grand pronouncement, and she connects the dots for sure now. She knew He was claiming to be the Son of God, the divine Messiah, the Great I AM, the Incarnate One, not merely a super prophet or Master Teacher. She immediately dropped her water jar at the well and rushed to town to tell everyone of her discovery. His I AM claim may have been scandalous to the Jews, but it was nothing but good news to those Samaritans.

Ears to Hear. After telling everyone she could find in town, the town came out to the well to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. Jesus then proclaims the good news to these people who were thirsting for the truth, and they asked Him to stay in town for a couple of days so they could hear more. Jesus was happy to remain with them, and they all exclaimed, “We have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.”

Photini. Because of her encounter with Jesus at the well, the woman turned her life around. She is known in church history as the first evangelist, leading an entire village to recognize Jesus as the Savior of the world. Her name is traditionally known as Photini, which was her baptismal name when she was baptized after the Resurrection. She eventually took her family of two sons and five daughters to Carthage in order to spread the gospel, the good news of Jesus. They were arrested there and taken to Rome under Nero, who first imprisoned them and then martyred them. Tradition states that Photini was thrown into a well and died, a tragic irony. Photini is an official saint in the Orthodox Church, and has even been referred to as an apostle because of her early evangelistic efforts. And it all started because Jesus was thirsty at a village well.