52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #31. Meeting God at a Well
by Travis Bookout
Jesus VS the Patriarchs:
Is Jesus greater than Jacob? As a Christian well-versed in a robust Biblical theology, hopefully you answer “Yes.” But hopefully you also recognize how inconceivable or even scandalous this idea this would have been to a Jew, or Samaritan, in the first century. Jacob is one of the great Patriarchs. Jacob, aka Israel, is the Patriarch from whom God’s people are named. The names “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” just kind of roll off the tongue when you think of the fathers of Judaism. Even Samaritans revered Jacob. This question is asked by a Samaritan woman standing right by Jacob’s Well (John 4:12). Jesus didn’t have a well. He wasn’t a father of Judaism. He wasn’t revered by the Samaritans. He was just a thirsty guy who met a woman at a well.
Yet, while there, He offered this woman something of much more valuable than Jacob ever could. Jacob offered water for a day or two or however long it took for her water pot to run out. Jesus offered water from which she would never thirst again. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Working with a church, you get a lot of requests. We’ve helped give people water and food. We’ve filled cars with gas. We’ve given people a place to stay. We’ve paid bills. But after a short time, they are hungry and thirsty again. They run out of gas. Their nights at the hotel run out. The bill is due again next month. It’s not that those things aren’t important, but that frustratingly, they do not last. Jesus is offering something that Jacob cannot. Jesus offers life. “Living water” that will make Jacob’s well obsolete.
“You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You?”
This question gets at the heart of an important issue explored in the Gospel of John: is Jesus greater even than the Hebrew Patriarchs? This question is asked again a few chapters later about Abraham: “Surely you are not greater than our father Abraham…?” (John 8:53). Even if you don’t know Greek, just look at these two sentences and compare what the words look like:
- μὴ σὺ μείζων εἶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἰακώβ (John 4:12).
- μὴ σὺ μείζων εἶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ (John 8:53).
It’s the exact same question, asked the exact same way, except the names Jacob and Abraham are switched. And the answer is the same for both. Jesus can offer life which the deceased Jacob and Abraham cannot (John 8:51-59). An important detail in John 4 is that the woman brings a water-pot to Jacob’s Well, but after meeting Jesus, she leaves her water-pot behind (John 4:28-29). She came for the water Jacob offers, but found greater value in the water Jesus offers. Yes, Jesus is greater than Jacob. Jesus’ water leads to eternal life. Jesus is eternal life.
God, Women, and Wells:
By the way, it’s no accident that this whole conversation takes place with a woman at “Jacob’s Well.” A woman at a well is an ancient and important biblical image, especially as it relates to the Patriarchs. Remember it was at a well that Jacob met Rachel, the love of his life (Genesis 29:1-12). It was at a well that Jacob’s mom, Rebekah was found before she married Isaac (Genesis 24). Even after the Patriarchs, it was at a well that Moses met his wife Zipporah (Exodus 2).
Perhaps most relevant of all, however, it was at a well that a desperate woman, mistreated and cast out of her master’s household, met God. And in a fascinating and ironic twist, gave God a name. Hagar, after being used by Abraham and Sarah, was then discarded (on two separate occasions), and found herself at a well. The first time, she was still pregnant and the Angel of the Lord rescued her, promising that her child would survive and even become a great nation. When everyone else had turned away from her, God looked directly to her. Hagar then “called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’, for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’” (Genesis 16:13). Hagar, the abused foreign slave, gave God the name El-Roi (You are a God who sees). Similarly, in John 4 it was a foreign woman at a well who was seen by God, saw God, and went and told others to “come and see” also (John 4:29)
In the second scene where Hagar is cast away, she already has her child. And now again, she knows that they will die, abandoned and alone. This child with her master was her only shot at having value in this world. It was her only chance to matter, perhaps to be more than just a foreign servant to a beautiful, wealthy, woman who seemed to have it all (Sarah). Hagar’s only advantage over Sarah was that she could produce a child. But once Sarah did the same, Hagar no longer had any use, she was sent away. She carries her child out, alone, in the heat, with no shelter, no hope, and very quickly no water. She recognizes that her child, her only son, her only companion, her only love, is going to die. I cannot imagine what it felt like to be in this state, but she does the only thing she can bear. She lays her child down in the bushes to die and she walks away. Far enough away so she can die without hearing his screams. She has no hope. She is alone. Everything is crumbling. But the God who sees is also the God who hears. He hears the child’s cries. God again meets Hagar and tells her to pick up a child. Then the God who sees opens her eyes so that she can see also. She sees a fresh well of water, a place of hope, a place of life, a place of salvation where God gives exactly what she needs. She and her son are saved by God at a well.
Meeting God at the Well:
These Genesis accounts provides some striking similarities to what the Samaritan woman experiences at Jacob’s well. A woman in desperate need. A woman who needs water, but also needs life. Life that only Jesus can provide. Just like God saw Hagar when no one else did, Jesus saw this woman. Hagar and the Samaritan woman, both outsiders, both insignificant in the world’s eyes, both mistreated and abused, both met God at a well. A God who sees. A God who hears. A God who gives life.
Is Jesus greater than Jacob? Jacob built a well of water, but Jesus gives living water, from which one will never thirst again. Jacob met a woman at a well and took her for a wife. Jesus meets a woman at a well, and offers her eternal life. God in the person of Jesus, is far greater than Jacob, Abraham (John 8:58), or anyone else you can think of. But He is not too great to see a desperate woman. A Samaritan. A sinner. A person. When God meets you at the well salvation is near.