Oh the Places You’ll Go: Jacob’s Well  

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Although I have been to Israel a couple of dozen times, only once have I made it to Jacob’s Well. It’s underneath an Eastern Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of the politically perilous city of Nablus on the West Bank. It’s hard to get there – for security reasons, but also the rocky terrain. Little skinny, narrow, winding roads test a driver’s mettle.

Weary once we’d arrived, I thought of the little-noticed itinerary mentioned in John 4:4. Making his way from Judea to Galilee, it says “Jesus had to pass through Samaria.” We skate past that, thinking it’s like saying to get from Charlotte to Knoxville you have to go through Asheville. But ancient people would shudder or chuckle. There were many way easier ways from Judea to Galilee, avoiding all those narrow rocky roads. Samaria was the long way, the exhausting way, and the dangerous way. I’ve never taken a group back, so arduous, time-consuming and wearying is the way in and out. Jesus “had to go” that way because he was on a mission, directed by God. The way God calls us to follow is rarely the smooth, easy way.

The well in that monastery, nearly 3,000 years later, still functions as a well. The muscular caretaker lowers the bucket with a winch some 135 deep, finally pulls it all the way up, and pours the chilly, perfectly clear and tasty water into a cup for you to drink – from the same well Jacob, and then Jesus, and a holy host of others have drunk. I didn’t get a great photo, but now you have it.

John 4 narrates a riveting, telling encounter Jesus has at this very well with a woman of Samaria. I’m not sure how best to characterize how Jews and Samaritans felt about one another. So close in their beliefs and practices! – and yet they held one another in utter disdain, precisely because they were so close, and yet so far apart because of small matters of belief. Maybe current day Methodists are similar?

So much in this story would have raised eyebrows in the ancient world. A man talking with a woman, alone! Oh my. And at noon. Most women went to retrieve water from the well to haul to their homes early in the morning, or late afternoon. Did she come at noon to avoid other women, who might judge or snicker at her? She’d had 5 husbands (above Judaism’s strict limit of 3) and now lived with a man without being married. In ancient times, this would cause considerable tittering…

Understandably, she didn’t volunteer this information – but how startled was she when, once she acknowledged her story to this holy rabbi, he didn’t jump up and flee, or scold her. He simply stayed, kept listening to her, showing her immense mercy she’d probably never experienced, ever.

Read John 4! Notice he didn’t do the manly thing and draw the heavy bucket of water up for her. He asks her to do it. He trusts her. It’s empowering, isn’t it? – when we don’t do things for others, but watch and notice the beauty (and encourage!) when they do for themselves, and do for others too!

Then their conversation goes symbolic, mystical. He trusts her to understand his profound reflection. There’s water, but then he hints at “living water.” He wryly points to the way you can drink now but you’ll just be thirsty again in a while. “But whoever drinks of the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Thirst she knows – and we know. Jesus plays on that, and invites us to imagine, even daring to dream of not feeling so parched inside, of always having a rich resource, a flowing spring within, especially when times of agonizing thirst of the soul come to us.

Jacob’s well is near two other pivotal spots in the Bible story. Jacob is on the run from his bitterly angry brother and betrayed father. He pulls up a rock, manages some sleep, and dreams of angels on a ladder. When he wakes up, he says “The Lord was in this place, but I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16) – which is the rock solid truth about most places we find ourselves! And then after the Israelites managed to infiltrate the promised land, Joshua summoned the tribes to Shechem, later Sychar, right at the well. Pointing out there were so many other gods to be worshipped in this alien place, he declares “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Maybe, next time I take you guys to Israel, we’ll return to Jacob’s well, and we’ll “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).