Monday, March 9, 2020

Well Well Well

The Power of Companion Stories

What do you call three holes in the ground?

Well Well Well

Favorite joke of a (former) second grader.

The Bible tells lots of stories, beginning in the Old Testament with creation, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. In the New Testament, we read of many events from Jesus' life, and the other apostles. Each story can be read and understood as a standalone description of events, but the stories can sometimes tell us more if read in pairs.

For example, Noah's ark is translated from the Hebrew word tevah, and the only other place tevah occurs is in the story of the baby Moses. The basket that Moses' mother put him in was called a tevah, for more detail, see The Ark Of Moses [1]. It's like the Bible is telling us to read these two passages together. There are other pairs of stories that share an unusual word or phrase. They comment on each other. By the way, the word for the Ark of the Covenant is aron, not tevah.

Or perhaps two stories might have the same themes.  Consider how dreams are a constant theme in the lives of Joseph and Daniel. In music, we would call these themes motifs, they keep recurring. One theme that I want to look at here is what happens when men meet women at wells.  We first see this motif in Gen 24 when Abraham's servant goes to find a wife for Isaac and he meets Rebecca at a well. We see it again with Jacob and Rachel in Gen 29, and again with Moses and Zipporah in Ex 2. And this motif makes an appearance in the New Testament in the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. I'm saying that all the stories should be considered together.

Hebrew Scroll
Another literary device that links two stories is simple proximity, aka juxtaposition. For example, the banishment of Ishmael and the near sacrifice of Isaac are Gen 21 and Gen 22. Read together, one gets a picture of the Day of Atonement - one sent away, and one sacrificed.

We see juxtaposition in the account of the Samaritan woman at the well as well... Preceding it is Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus. As if the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan isn't interesting enough all by itself, we can gain more from the story by considering the similarities and contrasts with other stories, both OT and NT.  The story of the Samaritan woman is an example of both kinds of companion stories. It is the intersection of two Biblical literary devices - patterns and juxtaposition.  We will be using the Bible to dig deeper into the Bible.

If you like this (or not), check out my other articles at the
Between The Ears BLOG INDEX, with titles and summaries.

I will quote the Samaritan woman story, give a little historical background, then compare Samaritan woman story to Nicodemus and then OT stories. If you skip the reading, just note the highlighted words and phrases.

JOHN 4 Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), 3 He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. 4 And He had to pass through Samaria. 5 So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; 6 and Jacob's well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

7 There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink." 8 For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water." 11 She said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? 12 You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?" 13 Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." 15 The woman said to Him, "Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw." 16 He said to her, "Go, call your husband and come here." 17 The woman answered and said, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You have correctly said, 'I have no husband'; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly." 19 The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." 21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." 25 The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us." 26 Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."
27 At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, "What do You seek?" or, "Why do You speak with her?" 28 So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, 29 "Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?" 30 They went out of the city, and were coming to Him. 
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging Him, saying, "Rabbi, eat." 32 But He said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33 So the disciples were saying to one another, "No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?" 34 Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. 35 Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. 36 Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. 37 For in this case the saying is true, 'One sows and another reaps.' 38 I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor." 
39 From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all the things that I have done." 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of His word; 42 and they were saying to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world."
43 After the two days He went forth from there into Galilee. 44 For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country. 45 So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast.

History and Cultural Background

Who were the Samaritans? I had always thought the Samaritans were Gentiles. We do know from this and other references in the Bible and in history that many Jews did not like the Samaritans. To the point where Jews traveling to Galilee would avoid traveling through Samaria, taking instead a 3 day detour to go across the Jordan, north, and then back. Jesus apparently wasn't in a hurry to get to Galilee because He spent two extra days with the Samaritans.

Some Jews regarded the Samaritans as foreigners and their attitude was often hostile, although they shared most beliefs, while many other Jews accepted Samaritans as either fellow Jews or as Samaritan Israelites. - Wikipedia(Samaritan_woman)  [2]

But that's not how the Samaritans viewed themselves. They believed they were descendants of northern tribes of Israel. Note that the woman referred to the well being given by "our father Jacob". They didn't think they were Gentiles. They also thought they were the keepers of the true religion of Israel. In fact, Samaritan is from the Hebrew Shomrim, which means keeper. But they only accepted the five books of Moses. And as the story records, they thought Mt Gerazim was the holy mountain. There were Gentiles living in Samaria as well - the history of Samaria after the Assyrian deportation is messy, with lots of foreigners coming and going. And according to Britannica(Samaritan) [3], a small group of about 500 Samaritans exists to this day. For more history of Samaria, read the note below.

Standard Interpretation

The standard interpretation of the Samaritan woman is that she was an immoral woman because she had five husbands. And because of this she was going to the well at midday to avoid contact with others. The Bible doesn't say either of those things. She went to the well at the same time Jacob and Rachel met at the well. The idea that she was an immoral woman dates to the Protestant Reformation - Ethics Daily [4].

Here are a couple counterarguments to her being an immoral woman. If she were an immoral woman, is it likely she would have been willing to go into town and tell everyone she met the Christ? And would they have listened to her? - (Reconsidering the Woman at the Well [5], Reconsidering The Samaritan Woman [6]) And looking at her conversation with Jesus, one can see that she knew the Torah, not the kind of thing you would expect from an immoral woman.

Dt 27:11 When you cross the Jordan,
 these shall stand on Mount Gerizim
to bless the people
When she perceives that Jesus is a prophet, she asks about Mt Gerizim vs Jerusalem. We might think she is deflecting after He just told her about her five husbands, but actually she got straight to one of the core theological differences between Samaritans and Jews. It is a matter pretty unimportant to 21st century readers, but important to the Samaritan/Jew conflict. 'When it came to the Samaritan/Jew conflict, Jesus clearly sided with the Jews. He says plainly "Salvation is from the Jews"' - The Jewish Gospel of John p 55  [7].

And when she mentions the Messiah who will teach us all things, Jesus makes another incredible statement, "I who speak to you am He". Who else does He speak so plainly to? Certainly not Nicodemus.


It's time to compare this conversation with the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 quoted below, where Nicodemus gets hung up on the meaning of "born again". Remember, comparing adjacent stories is the literary technique of juxtaposition.

These are two lengthy conversations that Jesus has with individuals, next to each other in John's Gospel. When we compare the two stories, we find lots of contrast. Highlighting the contrast, Nicodemus is contrasted with a woman who is not even named in the account. If  a first century audience considered her immoral, it would heighten the contrast between her and Nicodemus even more. In the Eastern orthodox tradition, she was later christened Photina, and she is celebrated as a saint of renown - Wikipedia(Samaritan Woman)[8].

Table Taken From Three Narrative Parallels [9]
Nicodemus Samaritan Woman
Man Woman
Ruler of the Jews Unnamed Samaritan Woman
Jerusalem Sychar
Comes at night Comes at midday
Knows who Jesus is Does not know who Jesus is
Misunderstands ambiguous words "born again" Misunderstands ambiguous words "living water"
Asks about spiritual; fixates on physical Asks about natural; receives spiritual
Says little Says much
Wonders if Jesus is Messiah Learns directly that Jesus is Messiah
Rebuked by Jesus; no response given Favorable response; proclaims Jesus as Messiah

Nicodemus and Photina reacted to Jesus in quite different ways. On the one hand, they were both believers, Torah observant as they understood it. On the other, she was somehow free to begin proclaiming that she had met the Messiah.  Whereas Nicodemus seemed unable at that time to see Jesus as the Messiah. The scribes and Pharisees knew from the prophecies of Daniel that the Messiah was due. They expected him to be one of them, where Jesus came from outside their authority. Nicodemus believed Jesus was at least a prophet, but maybe his position as a member of the Sanhedrin prevented him from seeing Jesus as more than a prophet, or from acting on what he knew. He was bound by his peers. When Nicodemus tried to defend Jesus (Jn 7:50), his peers rebuked him. But after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus was there helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body for burial. A Pharisee believer had to be a secret believer, so maybe he did all he could.

A first century reader would expect a different outcome though. The contrast between a Pharisee and an unnamed Samaritan woman couldn't be missed. So when the Samaritan woman "gets it", but the Pharisee doesn't, it would have been a shocking story to them, much like the good Samaritan story would have shocked them.

The unnamed, troubled woman from Samaria is not only more engaged and more receptive to Jesus's words than the esteemed teacher of the Jews, but she also becomes Jesus's emissary leading the way for the disciples in the evangelization of the Samaritans, while Nicodemus lies silent under Jesus's criticism for being spiritually dull - Three Narrative Parallels [9]

Note that the Samaritan women left her waterpot at the well. This is symbolic that she went for the living water over the physical water.

Woman/Well Motif

Every reader of John's Gospel in the first century, whether from Judea or Samaria would have been VERY familiar with the three stories in Genesis and Exodus where men meet women at wells. The Torah was read in the synagogues every Sabbath, such that the whole Torah was read aloud in a year's time.

Let's look at some common threads in the three stories, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Tsipporah.

1. The future bridegroom (or surrogate) journeys to a foreign land. Jacob and Moses had to "get out of town", as did Jesus.
2. There he meets a girl at a well.
3. Someone, the man or maiden, draws water from the well. The Samaritan woman does not immediately comply. She left her waterpot, so it's not clear if anyone drew water.
4. The maiden rushes home to bring news of the stranger, Photina goes and tells the village.
5. A betrothal is arranged, usually after the prospective groom has been invited to a betrothal meal. Jesus meets the town's folk and stays two days, but no betrothal.

List taken from When Men Meet Women By Wells [10]

The big expectation of a first century reader is that this encounter will lead to a wedding. John likens Jesus to a bridegroom in the verses before this story - (Jn 3:25-30), maybe to make sure the reader doesn't miss the pattern coming up in chapter 4. "It's clear though that John wants his readers to see Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman like an engagement." - [10]. It's like setting up a joke where a pattern is established two or three times, and then the punch line takes the story in a different direction.

Jesus Christ IS a bridegroom. And the church IS the bride. He is not proposing a physical marriage here between Himself and the Samaritan woman, but a spiritual union between Himself and the church. Many Samaritans became part of the early church, part of the bride. That's the punch line, taking the pattern from the physical to the spiritual.


The Bible is deeper than its individual stories. Overlaying companion stories is one technique for digging deeper into a story, using the Bible to interpret the Bible. We have used two different methods of finding companion stories - looking for patterns, and juxtaposed stories to bring more meaning out of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

The meeting appeared like previous meetings at wells, but took a different turn,  a beginning of the Gospel going into the world, a spiritual marriage proposal by Christ to His church.

And we saw the contrast between Nicodemus and "Photina". The Establishment refused to accept Jesus, and even though Nicodemus believed, there was little he could do. Photina was free of Establishment constraints and became a valuable evangelist in Samaria.

Parting thoughts

Other companion stories are hinted at in the text. Here are some to be explored.

Consider how Joseph suffered (mostly) unjustly. How is the Samaritan woman like Joseph?

She believed herself to be descended from Jacob. Trace the history of the northern kingdom through the deportation and return.

Sychar is near Shechem, the site of Dinah's woes, Joshua made a covenant with Israel at Shechem, and it is also a sanctuary city of Israel. Does any of Shechem's history help us understand this story better?

The Samaritan woman seems to parallel Rebecca more than Rachel or Tsipporah. What can be learned by focusing on comparing just those two?

Final thought: If you met Jesus at your favorite watering hole, what question would you ask?


A Brief History of Samaria

Israel left Egypt, wandered in the desert for forty years, then took possession of the promised land. The region known as Samaria was assigned it to the Tribe of Joseph. After the death of King Solomon (c. 931 BC), the northern tribes, known collectively as Israel or Ephraim, separated from the southern tribes known as Judah. King Omri (c.884 BC) made the city of Shomron his capital.

Israel lived there for centuries, but was eventually taken captive by the king of Assyria, 2Kings 17:6. Assyria then moved five Gentile tribes in to live in Samaria (17:24). God sent lions to attack the Gentile tribes (17:25) . So the Assyrian king sent an Israelite priest to the five tribes to teach them about the customs of the "god of the land" (17:27-28).

But some of the original Israelites manged to stay in Samaria. During a revival led by King Hezekiah of the kingdom of Judah, Hezekiah sent a letter to all Israel inviting them to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. The letter went out from "Beersheba to Dan", which included Samaria. Note the last phrase, that some had escaped the kings of Assyria. They no doubt intermarried with the Gentile tribes.

2 Chr 30: 6 So the posts went with the letters from the king and his princes throughout all Israel and Judah, and according to the commandment of the king, saying, Ye children of Israel, turn again unto the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and he will return to the remnant of you, that are escaped out of the hand of the kings of Assyria.
And to make their lineage more confusing, when the Temple was rebuilt, Israel expelled the foreigners from the land. But what about the ones that intermarried Israelites?  Maybe the Samaritans kept themselves racially pure, maybe they were part Gentile.

Neh 13:1 On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.

Here are some selected quotes on Samaria and Samaritans.

Jews vs Samaritans: The Origin of Conflict

So, when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in 724 B.C., the inhabitants of Judah were not sympathetic. The Assyrians took their captives home and sent their own pagan people to occupy the land of Samaria. Still, some Samaritans remained in their homeland and continued to practice the faith of Moses while intermarrying with the pagan settlers.


Samaritan, member of a community of Jews, now nearly extinct, that claims to be related by blood to those Jews of ancient Samaria who were not deported by the Assyrian conquerors of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The Samaritans call themselves Bene-Yisrael ("Children of Israel"), or Shamerim ("Observant Ones")

The Jewish Gospel of John (p. 64).

The Samaritan Israelites defined their own existence in exclusively Israelite terms. The Samaritans called themselves - "the sons of Israel" and "the keepers" (shomrim).

The Samaritan Israelites were the faithful remnant of the Northern tribes - the keepers of the ancient faith.

Clueless Preaching About Samaritan Woman Misses Point

While Jesus at first affirms the woman's reply that she has no husband, he then enigmatically implies that she does have one. But before branding her as a harlot or adulteress, we would be wise to remember that Roman marriage laws stipulated only the freeborn could marry, and then only to another freeborn person. This excluded from legal marriage the millions of freed persons (former slaves) who populated the empire. Living as a concubine could have been the Samaritan woman's only option if she and her "husband" were both freed persons, or if one was freeborn and the other freed.

Text of Nicodemus's encounter with Jesus, John 3:1-21

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." 3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

4 Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" 5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

9 Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God."