The Woman at the Well

“This is indeed the Saviour of the world.” John 4:42

Fools miss the sublime truths of Holy Scripture. While the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman is one of the most well known episodes in Holy Scripture, few are they that understand its teachings.

Outside the Catholic Church, there are none who understand it properly. Inside the Church, there are precious few that see in it a deep and strong assertion of the truths of the Faith they profess. Still fewer are those who live the lessons disclosed in it. This article, which relies heavily on the commentaries of insightful Catholics – members of the Church Militant or Triumphant — is an attempt to bring those outside the Church in, and those inside to a fuller appreciation of how and to what depth this account is an affirmation of their Faith.

This article is organized according to the following outline. We choose this method to show how the account can be read and meditated on at many different levels and from different angles. The two Apologetics sections will show how these verses in St. John’s Gospel can be used to defend Catholic truth against — or refute the beliefs of — the two groups named.

  • * Simple telling of the story.
  • * Some helpful background.
  • * Apologetics I: For Protestants.
  • * Apologetics II: For Liberal “Catholics.”
  • * More Doctrine.
  • * Moral Lessons.
  • * The Big Secret: Who was she, anyway?

The Story

A Byzantine priest standing next to Jacob’s Well, now enclosed in a shrine church. Our Lord and the Samaritan woman had their conversation, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel, on this very spot.

Early in Jesus’ public life, still in its first year and before the Apostles were all with Him, He passed through Samaria with some disciples. He was on the way from Judea to His “home base” in Galilee. The reason for this journey was to avoid the Pharisees, whose suspicions were aroused by the fact that His disciples were baptizing and attracting many followers — even more than St. John the Baptist had. At about noon one day, He arrived wearily at a well in a town called Sichar. There He found a woman whom He asked for some water. Since the disciples had gone off to buy something to eat, Jesus was alone with the woman. She expressed surprise that a Jew — for apparently she could tell He was a Jew — would dare speak with her, a Samaritan woman. Aside from the fact that private conversations between unwed men and women were not considered proper at that time and in that place (nor should they be), there was the additional fact that Samaritans and Jews rather despised each other. (It would be as if an Armenian asked a Turk for a drink, or an Arab an Israeli.)

Then Our Lord says something puzzling, telling the woman that, if she knew who He was, she would ask Him for living water, and He would give it to her. When she noted that He had nothing for taking water from the very deep well, He simply affirmed the excellence of His water and how those who drink it never thirst again. She expressed an interest, for such a thing would save her the drudgery of coming to the well daily to draw. Thus sold on the endless water supply, she asked Him for it, not yet realizing that the “living water” was a metaphor for something supernatural: divine grace.

Before agreeing to give her the water, Jesus told her to get her husband, ostensibly so that He might give it to both of them. The woman, who was an adulteress, confessed that she had no husband. At this admission, Jesus told her that she had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not even her husband. Stunned at the stranger’s knowledge of her shameful life, she took Him to be a prophet and proceeded to probe Him for His thoughts on the religious issue which most divided the Jews and the Samaritans: whether to worship in the Jewish temple on Mount Moriah or the rival Samaritan one on Mount Garizim.

In response, Jesus addressed not only the issue of which was the true Faith — the Jewish or Samaritan — but showed how the entire ancient alliance was to be superseded. In so doing, He revealed Himself openly: “Jesus saith to her: Woman, believe me, that the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father. You adore that which you know not: we adore that which we know; for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. God is a spirit; and they that adore him, must adore him in spirit and in truth. The woman saith to him: I know that the Messias cometh (who is called Christ); therefore, when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith to her: I am he, who am speaking with thee” (Jn. 4:21-26).

At that moment the disciples arrived with the food. The woman, probably still reeling at the profundity of the revelations just given her, left her waterpot behind and went to tell the townspeople about Jesus. Surprised somewhat at their Master for speaking to such a woman, the disciples dared not question Him, but instead invited Him to eat. To this request He replied with a lesson on doing the will of God. He then taught them that the harvest of souls — which is the will of God — was about to begin, at which point a crowd of Samaritans arrived on the scene. They begged Him to stay with them, which He did, preaching to them for two days. So great was the success of the mission, that the townspeople said to the woman: “We now believe, not for thy saying: for we ourselves have heard him, and know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

Some Helpful Background

In order to appreciate the episode of the woman at the well, it helps to know some history. To begin with, the Samaritans were utterly despised by the Jews. This is relatively common knowledge, and is easily gleaned by even a surface glance at the Gospels. During Our Lord’s most blistering reprimand of the Jews recorded by St. John, they hurled this insult at him: “Do we not say well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil” (Jn. 8:48)? In the episode of the cure of the ten lepers recorded by St. Luke, Jesus Himself refers to the grateful Samaritan by the not-so-warm appellation, “this stranger” (Lk. 17:18). The particular city of Jacob’s well had the distinction of being Samaria’s capital and the location of the most odious Samaritan thing: the schismatic and idolatrous temple of Mount Garizim. The city’s name, Sichar, was a corruption of Sichem, which was its ancient title as recorded in the Old Testament.

Samaria itself was the capital of the schismatic Northern Kingdom. Known as Israel, or the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes, this was the kingdom which, around 900 BC, followed Jeroboam in his rebellion against Roboam, Solomon’s son. The schism was in punishment of Solomon’s idolatry and had been foretold by the prophet Ahias. Its history is recorded in 3 Kings, Chapters eleven and twelve. In order to keep his people from departing him and frequenting the true temple in Jerusalem, Jeroboam set up an alternative religion in his kingdom: a blasphemous cult of idol worship. Despite the infidelity of Jeroboam and others, there were still true believers who lived in the Northern Kingdom, and even authentic prophets. In about 721, the Assyrians invaded the homeland of the ten tribes and scattered them among their other conquered peoples. (So as to keep their conquered provinces subject, the Assyrians would move the inhabitants of one nation to another.) Thus, with the removal of most of the people of the ten tribes, came an influx of Chanaanites, Syrians, Cutheans, Arabs, and other gentiles, who brought with them their idols and their contemptible religious cults, some of which included child sacrifice. But these mongrels — the product of Assyrian social engineering — also included the God of Israel as a subject of their worship. The general region of the Northern Kingdom eventually came to be known by the name of one of its chief cities: Samaria.

To the Jew, the Samaritans represented the two worst abominations: schism and idolatry.

If the Jews detested the Samaritans, the feeling was mutual. When the Jews returned from the exile of Babylon in 538 BC, God, through the prophet Aggeus, instructed Zorobabel the Prince of Juda and Jesus the High Priest to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. The Samaritans — “the enemies of Juda and Benjamin” (1 Esdras 4:1) — offered to help in the building of the Temple, but Zorababel spurned their offer. After that, the Samaritans, by intrigue, attempted to stop the building of the Temple.

We get a taste of Samaritan bigotry in an incident recorded in the Gospels (Lk. 9:51ff). It’s the famous episode in which James and John, the “sons of thunder,” sought Our Lord’s permission to command fire to consume His scoffers, who were Samaritans. They would not receive Our Lord simply because He was traveling to Jerusalem. Like the Moslems, the Samaritans considered themselves the true heirs to the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Though they violated many of its precepts, they reverenced the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, as Holy Scripture. In fact, they justified their temple on Mount Garizim by the fact that this mount was the mount of blessings mentioned at the time of Moses and Josue (Dt. 11 and 27; and Jos. 8).

As for the city of Jacob’s well, Sichar, or Sichem: It was a Sichemite who had violated Dina, Jacob’s daughter, in the violent Chapter 34 of Genesis. Sichem was also the land that Jacob willed to Joseph, whose last will it was that his bones be carried there from Egypt. Because of the history of Jacob in that region, they considered him their “father,” hence the woman’s reference to him as such in verse twelve.

Apologetics I: For Protestants

There are several passages here that prove Catholic claims over Protestant objections. The first has to do with the silly notion of Sola Scriptura. In verse four we are told, “And he [Jesus] was of necessity to pass through Samaria.” It seems plain, does it not? To get to Galilee from Judea, Samaria was unavoidable.[1] Simple. But the reader should ask himself, “Was anything unavoidable for Jesus? Did Jesus have to do things ‘by necessity’? Is it impossible for God to make Himself disappear from one place and reappear in another?” Of course, the answer to these three questions is No. Yet there are places where Scripture contains equally plain statements that Protestants interpret to refute Catholic practices or beliefs:

“Call none your father upon earth” (Mt. 23:9) is supposed to condemn our practice of calling priests “Father.”

St. Matthew’s Gospel (13:57) is said to refute the Perpetual Virginity of God’s Mother.

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man may glory” (Eph. 2:8-9) is taken as a proof text against the Catholic teaching on good works.

But if this Book, the Bible, can say of God Himself that He was “of necessity” to pass through Samaria to get to Galilee — something which is clearly not true in its absolute sense — it can be in similar need of interpretation in the above cited passages. Certainly Protestants do not claim the charism of infallibility to interpret these passages without any possibility of the slightest error; therefore, they must admit that they could be wrong in asserting such passages as proofs against Catholicism. And if they could be wrong in their Biblical objections to Catholicism, then Sola Scriptura is hogwash.

The next argument we come to is a bit deeper, yet it is nonetheless a valid support for certain Catholic truths over Protestant errors. It comes from verse thirty-four: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, that I may perfect His work.” The King James Bible has, “finish His work.” The meaning is essentially the same. The work of the Father (He who sent Jesus) is to be finished, perfected, or brought to completion by Jesus. Let the reader stop here to appreciate two things. First, a logical implication of this statement is that the Father, Who is God, left something “unfinished,” “imperfect” or “incomplete.” The second implication is that Jesus can finish (perfect, complete) that work. Now, the Father is God. Jesus, being the “Word made flesh” is God and Man. So what Our Lord teaches us here is that He — the God Man — is completing some work of the Father — God.

So the finished work of Christ is <God + Man> finishing what <God> left undone. Said another way, it is man’s work being added to God’s work to perfect God’s work. This is a refutation of the objection that “man can add nothing to the work of God,” something certain Protestants will scream and holler in objection to such Catholic beliefs and practices as: the priesthood, devotion to the saints, the sacraments, good works, purgatory, and indulgences.

Clearly, as the sacred Humanity of Jesus is true humanity, and not a lying phantom, then His work as Redeemer was at the same time the work of God and Man.

“But…” the Protestant may object, “you can’t claim for other humans the status of Jesus. As the God-Man He had certain abilities we don’t. We non-divine humans cannot possibly add to the work of God.” And to that objection, the Catholic apologist may reply, “Read on!” In the subsequent verses we have a confirmation of the Catholic position of human action adding to God’s work:

Jeroboam offering idolatrous worship.

Jeroboam offering idolatrous worship.

“Do you not say, There are yet four months, and then the harvest cometh? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and see the countries; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life everlasting: that both he that soweth, and he that reapeth, may rejoice together. For in this is the saying true: That it is one man that soweth, and it is another that reapeth. I have sent you to reap that in which you did not labour: others have laboured, and you have entered into their labours. Now of that city many of the Samaritans believed in him, for the word of the woman giving testimony: He told me all things whatsoever I have done” (Jn. 4:35-39).

Our Lord, likening the salvation of souls — His work — to the work of the harvest, tells the Apostles that they are soon to enter into the labors of others. (Those others were, in the common opinion, the prophets, priests, teachers, and the other just of the Old Testament, who prepared the Jews for the coming of Jesus.) They will reap — this is work. The Apostles “have entered into their labors“; again, another word for work. And to complete the teaching by an example, St. John shows how one can “work” with Jesus by adding to His work. For the Samaritans believed in Him “for the word of the woman giving testimony: He told me all things whatsoever I have done.” Now, since belief in Jesus is a work of God,[2] and the Samaritan woman’s testimony was a cause of their belief, then she worked with God, thus adding to God’s own work. What’s more, this work is the gathering of “fruit unto life everlasting”: salvation. So man’s works have a direct correlation to salvation.

It fits in a pattern that we may observe elsewhere in Scripture, especially in the Gospel of St. John: The Father sends the Son to work, and the Son sends His followers to participate in that work. In participating, they both work out their own salvation and help others to achieve salvation.

This obliterates the absurd notion of some Protestants that believers have no active role in their salvation.

Apologetics II: For Liberal “Catholics.”

To the Liberal Catholic, the Faith is not unique; it is one way among many to achieve salvation. The heresy of the Liberal manifests itself in many ways, one of them being an effeminate type of compromise with false religion. Rather than criticize false religion as a twisting of God’s revelations and as something wicked, the Liberal will praise false religions as authentic paths to God. This sinful attitude cannot be backed up by one word of Scripture. In His dealings with a woman of a false religion, Jesus shows Himself to be kind and loving; and also, without any contradiction, condemning of false religion.

In verse twelve, the woman asks, “Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?” The reader should recall that the Samaritans regarded themselves as the true believers and heirs of Jacob. Our Lord proceeds to tell her that He is indeed greater than Jacob: “Whosoever drinketh of this [Jacob’s] water, shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him shall not thirst for ever: But the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.” In other words, “Jesus’ water is greater than Jacob’s water” or “Jesus is greater than Jacob.”

Of course, this statement would be offensive to the Jews, too. Our Lord told them in many ways how much greater He was than the saints of the Old Testament (cf. Mt. 12:41-42). The following chapter of St. John records the incident of the paralytic at the pool of Probatica, showing that Jesus is better than the “Old Testament water” of Bethsaida. This “slight” to Jacob which Our Lord utters to the Samaritan woman is only one of many times when Christ clearly shows the superiority of the New Testament over the Old. But the difference between the Old and New Testaments, while great, is chiefly that the one was a preparation and the other its fulfillment. They formed two different dispensations of the same one true religion. However inferior the Old Law was to the New, it was still God’s Law. The same could not be said of the religion of the Samaritans: Jesus clearly regards it as a false religion.

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (ca. 668-627 B.C.).

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (ca. 668-627 B.C.).

When the woman realizes that Jesus is a prophet, she broaches the subject of the two temples, the “sore spot” between the Samaritans and Jews. Rather than reply that this difference did not matter, especially since He was here to call everyone into the Church of the New Testament, Jesus insults the woman’s religion: “You adore that which you know not: we adore that which we know; for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. God is a spirit; and they that adore him, must adore him in spirit and in truth. ” One can only know what really exists. The Samaritans have made up a god of their own design by accommodating the God of Israel to their false worship. This god does not really exist, hence they do not “know” him. The Jews, those of the true religion, adore God, because they “know” Him. He has revealed Himself to them, while the Samaritans reject His authentic revelations. Further, to offer acceptable adoration, those who adore must do so in spirit and in truth. Each man must believe the truth (i.e., what God has revealed) in its totality and integrity, if his worship is to be acceptable to God.

This is all the more condemning of Liberalism when one takes into account the fact that the Samaritans did not completely reject the Old Testament. As we said earlier in the article, they accepted the five books of Moses as authentic. Further, they had explicit faith in the coming of the Messias. The woman herself professes it: “I know that the Messias cometh (who is called Christ); therefore, when he is come, he will tell us all things.” They did not, then, reject everything God had revealed. Therefore, they were like the Protestants of the Old Testament, picking and choosing which of God’s revelations they would believe, and rejecting His appointed leaders.[3] So, when modern ecumenical Catholics praise the Protestants for their “fundamental agreement” on certain central truths of religion, we have here the example of Our Lord showing us that, in the matter of accepting God’s truth, it’s all or nothing.

Further, Our Lord teaches us that salvation is a commodity offered exclusively by the true religion. After affirming the truth of Judaism by saying, “we adore that which we know,” He adds, “for salvation is of the Jews.” In other words, truth and salvation are intimately bound up. Salvation cannot come from error. Thus, we can paraphrase Our Lord’s words as follows: “The Jewish religion is the true religion, and salvation comes from it exclusively, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In the Old Dispensation, even for gentiles, belief in the supernatural revelation of the one true God and the promised Redeemer are necessary for salvation; while in the New, the one True Church in which salvation will be found will be the religion of the Jewish Savior. Therefore, for all times, salvation is of the Jews.”

The clear assertion that Jesus was claiming a monopoly on truth in His new and better religion leads us to another sacred cow which we seek to immolate. It is the attitude among many that the Jewish religion, as it presently exists, is a religion pleasing to almighty God. Ignoring the glaring reality that the modern religions of Judaism — for there are many religions which go by that name — are not in conformity to the Old Testament, we will show that Our Lord clearly teaches us that the Old Testament is about to be supplanted with the New. Today, this doctrine — the Catholic teaching on the true status of the Jewish religion — is pejoratively labeled “replacement theology” or “supersessionism.” Fitting labels, in all fairness: Yes, the Catholic religion “replaced” the Jewish one; yes, the New Testament “superseded” the Old.

“Jesus saith to her: Woman, believe me, that the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father.” Ever since the times of Moses, the social worship of God in the Old Testament was the sacrifice offered to Him through the Aaronic priesthood, and was allowed only in one place: first the tabernacle, and then, from the days of Solomon, the Temple on Mount Moriah (“in Jerusalem”). Of course, people could pray or worship anywhere, but the official public sacrifice was centralized. To state as plainly as Our Lord did that this worship would come to an end was explicitly to mark the death of the Aaronic priesthood and therefore the whole Mosaic Law. Further, to contrast the Aaronic worship with worship “in spirit and in truth” is to put it in a lower place.

So, while defending the truth of Judaism over the Samaritan religion as the authentic “BC religion,” Our Lord affirms that even it will be superseded by His new and better “AD religion.” If such an assertion is anti-Semitic, then Jesus was the first anti-Semite.

More Doctrine

There are some beautiful utterances in this account of St. John’s which teach a great deal of theology. In the first two verses, we have this apparent contradiction: “When Jesus therefore understood that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus maketh more disciples, and baptizeth more than John, though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples…” In his controversies with the Donatists, St. Augustine used this passage to show that Christ is the principal minister of every sacrament. The Donatists advanced the notion that orthodoxy and moral rectitude were necessary in the minister of a sacrament if that sacrament was to be valid. Hence, to them, a heretic could not baptize or say Mass validly. Neither could an immoral priest forgive sins or administer any other valid sacrament. Needless to say, this puts the recipient of the sacraments in the terrible bind of discerning if his priest believes properly and is in the state of grace. As this heresy was in North Africa, where St. Augustine lived and worked, he was the Church’s chief defender against it. Pointing to this verse as a proof text, St. Augustine took advantage of the fact that St. John both affirmed and denied that Jesus was baptizing. His solution to the apparent contradiction was that, since Jesus is the “sole mediator,” and the Apostles are only acting by His power, He baptizes through them. The one act is both Peter’s and Christ’s. St. Augustine went further and claimed that if when Peter baptizes, so does Christ, then when Judas baptizes, so does Christ. Thus is defended the Church’s teaching that even sinners and heretics can administer valid sacraments.

Another truth of the Faith that stands out sharply is the reality of Our Lord’s sacred Humanity. In the fifth century, there were heretics called Monophysites who denied that Humanity. They either openly claimed that Our Lord had no human nature, or they mutilated it so much as to make it a shadow. If Christ could not suffer and die, then we were not redeemed by His death on the Cross. That He could truly suffer and had really taken upon Himself our infirmity is obvious from verse six, which says Our Lord was “being wearied with his journey.”

Moral Lessons

There are several moral lessons that can be derived from this account of St. John’s. We can admire and strive to imitate the zeal of Jesus, who put Himself in an awkward situation with this strange woman (even “scandalizing” the Apostles). In spite of the fact that He was “wearied” — and probably never got that water He asked for! — His first business was the conversion of a sinner. Even when the Apostles came back with food and besought Him to eat (possibly because they themselves could not eat until He had blessed the food), He made it obvious what was more important: God’s will. This teaches us to put the interests of God above our own interests, even if they are as basic as food and drink.

We can also see the virtue of the Samaritan woman herself. Despite the fact that Jesus has attacked her false religion, she responds to His words and believes. Further, she imitates His zeal by leaving her waterpot and going instead to evangelize. She thus becomes a model of apostolic zeal to the very Apostles.

Our Lord teaches the woman an important lesson in the test that He put her through. He told her to bring her husband, if she was to have His water. She was honest and admitted she had no husband. He confronted her with her immoral life in order to show that repentance is a precondition to the infusion of grace. How many times in the Gospel are we told to “repent,” or “do penance”? Some commentators note that it was strange for a woman to draw water at the hottest part of the day, noon. The fact that the Samaritan woman did so was most likely because she was avoiding the crowds of other women who went earlier in the morning to draw. This is taken as an indication of her shame. Our Lord turned this fruitless shame into fruitful repentance. This lesson should come home to each one of us when we seek the “water” of Christ. When we ask for God’s grace, we must approach Him with repentance, because we are sinners. We can also take to heart the example of Our Lord in “admonishing the sinner,” one of the seven spiritual works of mercy.

The Big Secret: Who Was She, Anyway?

The woman at the well has a name. We will let the great exegete, Cornelius à Lapide, reveal it in his words from the Great Commentary: “Her proper name was Photina, who is reckoned among the Saints in the Roman Martyrology on the twentieth of March, in the words following: ‘On the same day St. Photina, the Samaritan woman, her sons, Joseph and Victor: also Sebastian, a general, Anatolius, Photius, &c., brothers, who all confessed Christ and obtained martyrdom.’ On which Baronius says, ‘The Greek Menology assigns this day for her commemoration.’ Her head is religiously preserved at Rome, in the basilica of S. Paul, where I have seen it amongst other relics of the saints.”

St. Photina, pray for us!

[1] Actually, this statement is not completely true. It was only unavoidable if you wanted to take the most direct route. One can cross the Jordan from Galilee, go south and then cross back over the Jordan into Jerusalem. There are times when Our Lord did take this long way.

[2] “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he hath sent” (Jn. 6:29).

[3] Note that Roboam, the divinely appointed leader whose stupidity was the immediate cause of the schism of the Ten Tribes, was imprudent and evil. His actions were the result of a curse God put upon his father, who was also the divinely appointed leader, yet who was also quite evil. Thus, no matter how “corrupt” the leaders of the Church were at the time of the Protestant Revolt, the even-more-corrupt Luther, like Jeroboam, was in no way justified in his rebellion.