Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, one of the longest dialogues in all Scripture, is full of Johannine symbolism and hidden layers of meaning.
The setting, Jacob’s well, provides an initial clue to the meaning of the story. As ancient Jews steeped in the Old Testament would recognize, a well is the place where, in a seemingly chance encounter, bridegroom meets bride. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all found their brides-to-be at a well (Gen 24; 29; Exod 2:15-21). These parallels suggest that so too, Jesus’ meeting with the woman of Samaria is a divinely appointed encounter, a meeting of love.
Jesus, thirsty from his long journey, asks the woman for a drink—thereby breaking the powerful social barriers that stood between men and women, Jews and Samaritans.
When the woman expresses her surprise, he answers:
“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.”
This makes clear that the real purpose of Jesus’ request was that he might quench her thirst with “living water.” Living water (or flowing water) is a biblical image for the divine life for which human beings yearn, as in Ps 42:1-2:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
The Samaritan woman is intrigued.
“Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”
She thinks Jesus is referring to flowing spring water in contrast to stagnant water. Like Nicodemus (3:4) and later the disciples (11:11-12), the woman misconstrues Jesus’ words about a spiritual reality in a literalistic way. But this gives Jesus an opportunity to explain further:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Later in the Gospel, John explicitly identifies the “living water” as the Holy Spirit.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (John 7:37-39).
The feast mentioned here is Tabernacles, when the Jews commemorated the water that miraculously came forth from the rock that Moses struck (Exod 17:1-6). Jesus, then, is himself the life-giving Rock (cf. 1 Cor 10:3-4), the source of the Holy Spirit, and the way we drink his living water is by believing in him. The passion narrative portrays how this Rock is “struck”: after Jesus had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). From Jesus’ wounded heart flows divine life, the Holy Spirit, given to us in the sacraments of baptism (signified by the water) and the Eucharist (signified by the blood). As Paul expressed it, “God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).
Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that his water will not only quench her thirst but become “a spring welling up” within her. This suggests that to the degree we drink from the inexhaustible fountain of God’s love, we become a fountain of life for others.
At this point the woman is finally ready to ask for the gift Jesus longs to give her:
“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
She still does not understand; she is glad at the prospect of never again having to trek out to the well. Yet her request, like that of the Jews for the bread of life (John 6:34), is sincere. On a symbolic level, without knowing it she is asking for baptism (cf. John 3:5).
But Jesus’ reply is unexpected.
“Go, call your husband, and come here.”
Why this apparent digression? Now that her request has provided an opening, Jesus probes this woman’s heart, uncovering the place where she is wounded. Only the truly thirsty, who are willing to acknowledge what is parched and lifeless within them, are able to drink the living water. This woman’s brokenness, like that of so many others, is in the area of love. In fact, her life is a history of broken relationships.
Her reply, “I have no husband,” is somewhat evasive, but Jesus brings to light her true moral state.
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
Although this revelation is painful, the woman recognizes Jesus’ total lack of condemnation (cf. 4:39). He exposes sin not for the sake of condemnation but forgiveness and freedom.
At this point it is becoming clear that the dialogue is not merely personal. The woman’s life story, in fact, embodies the history of the people of Israel. According to 2 Kings, when the Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel they planted precisely five foreign nations there, each with its god (2 Kg 17:24-31; cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 9.288). Through the prophets, God had revealed himself as the bridegroom of Israel, the true God whose love for his chosen people was passionate and utterly faithful. Yet instead of being reciprocated, his love had met with continuous betrayal in the form of idolatry, the worship of alien gods. The gentile nations imported into Samaria had only intensified the infidelity.
Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer 3:20).
But God had promised that he would use even the national calamity of conquest and exile to eventually bring about the healing of Israel’s adultery.
In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day…. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2:16-20)
Against this biblical background the deeper significance of the story comes to light: Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the divine Bridegroom proposing marriage to Samaritan people! He is inviting this woman, and her whole nation, to return to their first and true husband, the living God.
At the end of the dialogue, after discovering that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, the woman hurries back into town bursting with the news of what has happened to her. Her encounter with Jesus has overflowed in a desire to share with others what she has experienced. The narrative thus portrays the movement from personal encounter to evangelization, a pattern that remains foundational to the Church’s mission today. By making ourselves present to this story, we too can be drawn into the same movement, experiencing more deeply the “gift of God” and being empowered to proclaim it with a new dynamism.