Time and again, the people Jesus meets along the road seem to take his metaphorical words literally, meaning they often miss the point. We can learn from their errors and grasp the deeper meaning of the cosmic Christ for all of us.
As we think about the words Jesus says in John’s gospel to a Samaritan woman at what still today is called “Jacob’s well,” let’s remember this: All words are metaphors.
That is, words always point beyond themselves to some object, place or idea. Words are road signs, even words in sacred scripture. In fact, they are road signs maybe especially in scripture, given that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, then reports of his words eventually were translated and recorded in Greek and then finally were transmitted to us in one of several dozen English translations, not all of which agree with each other.
So inevitably words express metaphor, myth and allegory. That’s certainly not to say that words don’t witness to truth. But it is to remind ourselves that in Christianity, truth is not a doctrine or a dogma or any confession of faith, whether that means the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed or any of the statements of faith produced at the time of the Protestant Reformation. All such words may contain truth or at least point to truth, but none of them fully embodies truth in the way that Jesus Christ does. So, in Christianity, truth is a person: Christ Jesus. And that reality can be very liberating.
Let’s think about a few of the words Jesus is reported as saying in the long passage we read today from John. And let’s see if we can discern what, some 2,000 years after they were spoken, they might mean for us.
But first a few words about context. In the time after the death of King Solomon, when the Holy Land was divided into two kingdoms — Israel in the north and Judah in the south — Samaria became the capital of Israel. The Hebrew Bible, in such books as Second Kings and Ezra, tells us that when the people of Israel were exiled, foreigners moved into that northern land, becoming neighbors with the remaining Israelite residents and mixing their own ideas about God or gods with the Hebrews’ idea of the one God. It became, frankly, kind of a theological mess.
By the time of Jesus, Jews from Judah in the south and from Galilee, which was north of Samaria, viewed Samaritans as theologically inept and hostile to core Jewish thinking. And we must add to all that the social custom that Jewish men simply did not engage in public conversation with women, especially Samaritans.
So, as John describes it, Jesus was traveling through Samaria, which was the shortest route between Judea and Galilee. He was tired and thirsty, and because his disciples had gone into town to find food, he asked a lone Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well for a drink of water.
Let’s mostly skip past the interesting conversation about whether she was married and how many husbands she had. Let’s focus instead on what Jesus says about “living water.” When he asks her for a drink, she in turn asks him why a Jew is asking a favor from a Samaritan woman. What’s up with that? she wants to know.
She then misunderstands the metaphorical, but truthful, answer Jesus gives her. Her reaction is not unusual, given how many other people in John’s gospel misunderstand the imagery Jesus uses. That includes Nicodemus, who just one chapter earlier was told by Jesus that he needed to be born again. Say what? Nicodemus asks. Well, these are the words he used to ask that question: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”1
You can almost see Jesus slapping his own forehead with the palm of his hand, wondering why people can’t understand his beautiful, clear, simple, but rich metaphorical language.
At any rate, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that if she understood who was asking her for a drink, she in turn would have asked him for water and he would have given her living water. He would have guided her, in other words, to the abundant life, the flourishing life, the kind of life of gratitude and generosity and love that all of us are meant to live throughout eternity.
Sometimes people of Jesus’ time used the phrase “living water” to mean water that moves in a stream or river, water with a flow to it, as opposed to water sitting unrippled in a well or a small pool. What Jesus seems to mean here is that he can point anyone — even Samaritan women — to the kind of life God wants for everyone. He can give her the water of life, the way to live in deep harmony with God’s purposes for all people.
But the woman asks him to give her the kind of water that means she’ll never again have to drag her tired body to this well to draw out water and lug it home. She just doesn’t get it — at least not immediately. It’s not until she realizes that Jesus knows all about her life, including how many husbands she’s had, that she figures out she’s dealing with a man of God, a prophet, someone on a divine mission.
Her five husbands were not metaphorical. They were flesh and blood, and she could understand what Jesus meant by referring to them. But the phrase “living water” was poetry; it was allegorical. And yet it contained deep truth, sort of in the way that some of the best fiction can reveal things that seem even more true than nonfiction.
Is the Samaritan woman the only person in this story who doesn’t grasp metaphorical language? Not at all. What about Jesus’ own disciples? They come back from a run to the supermarket and say to him, “Rabbi, eat something.” What they mean, of course, is that he should dig into their grocery bags and pick out something that looks good.
Instead, Jesus jumps right to more metaphorical language: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” When they misunderstand him and think someone else has brought him a sandwich or some pizza, he tries to straighten them out with these words: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
The only thing to be said in favor of these disciples is that, upon hearing those words from Jesus, they don’t ask him, “Do you want fries with that?”
Friends, to be sure, some of the Bible is meant to be taken literally, but when we take all the language of the Bible that way, we are likely to miss the point and are much more likely not to take the Bible seriously.
Yes, there is actual history in the Bible, quite a bit of which has been verified by modern archaeology. And, yes, the Bible contains stories about real people who really lived on Earth and weren’t simply mythical characters in a grand story.
But the Bible communicates most deeply through metaphor, myth and allegory, through poetry and sometimes even by indirection — not misdirection, but through indirect speech. If we get bogged down in arguments about whether God created the world in six 24-hour days, for instance, we will miss the fact that the two creation stories in Genesis want us to know that the impulse behind creation was God’s love for us and God’s desire to give us abundant, beautiful life.
We can spend time arguing about whether Adam and Eve were historical figures and, thus, whether Adam did or did not have a belly button. But that kind of literalism can cause us to miss what those ancient stories have to say about how we are to live in relationship to the God of creation and to each other.
The marvelous thing about the Samaritan woman at the well is that not only did she finally get the points Jesus was making but she was willing to become an evangelist, willing to go to her village and tell others about this amazing rabbi who read her heart so fully and so accurately.
In the end, in fact, not only does she get it exactly right but so do many of the other Samaritans in her village. The New Revised Standard Version quotes them as describing Jesus as “truly the Savior of the world.” But in his 2017 translation of the New Testament, David Bentley Hart uses a word that seems more powerful. This is what the villagers say about Jesus in Hart’s translation: “This man is truly the savior of the cosmos.”2
Friends in Christ, we follow not just a literal human being who once walked the Earth as flesh and blood. We follow a cosmic Christ, one who has come to rescue and redeem every one of us. So, let’s drink deeply from the living water he offers us today.
1 John 3:4.
2 David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 177.