We all desire something.
Sometimes we can describe it in great detail, as when we hunger or thirst; a lemonade would hit the spot, or probably an ice cream cone. (Actually, always an ice cream cone!) But other times our desires are more nebulous, and perhaps there is some interior aching that no one else can see but is yet felt deep within. This incessant longing for some unknown good can be maddening, like an itch that can’t be scratched or a thirst that can never be quenched.
Our appetites cry to be sated, but too often they can overpower the reason, turning ugly by becoming a misdirected or disproportionate love. What naturally longs for good can propel us headlong into abject wickedness, and St. John states the danger in no uncertain terms:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17 NIV)
The pull of our lower appetite, what in traditional moral theology is called concupiscence, brings us face to face with the curse of our race. For while we were made to have our reason stand over our desires and guide and control them, the deprivation of grace which finds its home in us by default inverts the order, and we fall into step with St. Paul:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18b-19 NIV)
In such a state we discover that sin has an unrelenting grip on us, and much as we might wish to do the good that we desire, we too often settle for a love that is upside down.
St. John relates a case of Jesus coming face to face with this war zone of desire. Having left Judea, he returns to Galilee by means of an unlikely route- through Samaria. In this familiar passage, Jesus bucks the cultural taboos of passing through half-breed heterodox territory and even drags the disciples along with him. Perhaps in an effort to help them feel better about the journey he sends them into town to get some food, while he himself continues on.
The desert is hot and the noonday sun makes it even hotter, and John indicates that Jesus was tired from the heat. He stops and sits by a well, notably that which was dug by Jacob. This setting will be important as we shall see.
The next scene has a local woman coming to draw water from the well. Commentators have noticed that the timing and spacing is odd, for it would not have been normal for a woman to come alone in the middle of the hottest part of the day. Well, not unless she had something to hide.
This clandestine chore would turn out to be more than she bargained for.
Jesus cuts right to the chase and asks the woman to get him a drink. In most circumstances this wouldn’t be that unheard of (she, after all, has a water pot), but the sticking point is that Samaritans simply do not get water for Jews, nor do Jews ask such a thing.
It is remarkably easy to get caught up on the cultural details, which are admittedly interesting in and of themselves (and John provides a parenthetical to emphasize this). But St. John has more than just breaking cultural mores in mind; what Jesus is doing here is nothing short of salvation, as St. Augustine makes an interesting note about the theological interpretation of this scene:
Which is true indeed both of material water, and of that of which it is the type. For the water in the well is the pleasure of the world, that abode of darkness. Men draw it with the waterpot of their lusts; pleasure is not relished, except it be preceded by lust. (St. Augustine, found in St. Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, John 4)
The continual returning to the well day in and day out it a type of the way in which our desires and appetites long for the good, yet try to fill up on lesser loves. The pleasures of the world which promise satiation bring about momentary delight but a deeper and more enduring emptiness. The more one tries to fill the hole, the wider the chasm becomes. A truly Sisyphean movement, but one which characterizes the human condition.
As Jesus thus asks for a drink, he is not interested in water alone. After all, he is the one who has stated that “man does not live be bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” The cravings and lusts of the concupiscence cannot be ameliorated by indulging them, but rather by subsuming them to something greater. Lesser goods cannot suffice, but only the Good from which all goods spring forth.
The woman at the well has her mind on earthly concerns, as might be expected of anyone coming to draw water. Jesus’ question catches her off-guard because of the cultural taboos, but even more so his response:
If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. (John 4:10 NIV)
The one who is the Good itself is before her, and offers her the most incredible gift: water which will finally quench her thirst. At first she is skeptical; after all, this is Jacob’s Well, a source of water provided by the father of her people going back into the farthest reaches of their history. This water which is blessed by one who was chosen by God still requires these midday trips; how could Jesus do any better? Is he saying that he is better than Jacob?
Further, she astutely notices that even if he did have some stash of special water, he has nothing with which to draw it. We find a fascinating aside here in her insight: if the well represents the pleasure of the world and the water pot represents the lusts of the flesh, she has admitted that she finds in Jesus none of the disorder that marks our race. He is not driven to quench his thirst day after day, nor to indulge the concupiscence when it rages. In him reason is master of the body, and the body a willing servant.
Jesus provides a theological clarification as to what he is really getting at- he has little interest in a cool beverage. Rather, his meaning is that his water is made of sterner stuff, for it can set a heart at rest and cool the fire of lust forever. The one who is Being itself is sitting by Jacob’s well, and offers better water than the father of Israel, for he is actually Israel’s true Father. He is the one who wrestled with this well’s namesake and gave him a glimpse into eternity. The rungs of the ladder set down on earth in Jacob’s day now reach all the way to heaven, for heaven has come down and rests by the well. She is on the cusp of the Beatific Vision, if only she will embrace Love himself rather than settle for lukewarm libations.
The Lust of the Flesh
When brought face to face with the one who brought creation into being, flinging galaxies forth into their great cosmic dance, the woman at the well is still thinking about water. Jesus’ gift of unending delight and love is met with a gaze still firmly fixed upon the earth, a heart still aching after tepid loves. She responds:
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15 NIV)
Jesus knows the thoughts of her heart, and in his infinite mercy knows that her spirit longs to shake sin’s grip on her. But, as he will later chastise his disciples, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Thus, instead of correcting her and clarifying that he really means unending life and love and joy and peace, he makes a request which is designed to strip her of all final pretensions and pride, to open up the darkest place where misdirected love has its stranglehold:
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” (John 4:16 NIV)
As we are to find out, she doesn’t actually have a husband. Rather, she has somehow managed to burn through five and is now living with a man who isn’t her husband. Jesus understands that this is the sticking point of her life, and this is going to be the place where conversion can occur.
When met with this unexpected request, she is perhaps so surprised that she doesn’t have time to concoct a story or try to explain, so she opts for the tactic of last resort: she tells the truth:
“I have no husband,” she replied. (John 4:17 NIV)
Jesus cuts to the chase and agrees with her. He then breaks her remaining defense of the truth and tells her what perhaps only she knows about her life. Her coming to the well at noon was a sign of her shame, but also a sign of her pride, for when faced with the truth which she knows and feels all too well she does what our first parents in the garden did- she changes the subject.
A confrontation with the ugly truth of our lusts and desires is never a comfortable experience, and our usual unwillingness to face it is what allows it to grip our lives. Her lusts in regards to relationships are mirrored by her hidden journeys to the well; in both cases she keeps going back for more, always thirsty, always drinking, always wanting more and more, never finding satisfaction. She has had a glimpse of someone who will not let her escape the fiery gaze of the truth she knows and who offers her the coolness and relief of living water.
Everything hangs in the balance, and either she will give up on her lusts and lesser loves and come into the friendship of Life itself or hang onto the dregs of what concupiscence screams to obtain.
In contrast to the husbands whom she has left or who have left her, Jesus stands before her as the true bridegroom. His offer is a marriage proposal of sorts, for how could the delight of human love compare to the union promised by this living water? It is interesting to note that she is not married and thus not bound to any other love, while Love himself holds out a hand, if only she will take it.
Water in the Mountains
Instead she changes the subject, trying to start up a theological argument; anything to get away from the rather uncomfortable truths that this strange water peddler is declaring. She recognizes he must be a prophet to know what she has done, and perhaps in a mixtures of obfuscation and genuine curiosity wants to know where the correct place to worship is. Jesus chooses not to take sides in the inter-religious argument, but rather wants to bring her back to place where her heart can be changed. The one who offers living water discards the idea of place and offers her the first draught:
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24 NIV)
It is clear that she has an intense religious curiosity, and Jesus’ words here seem to effectively answer the argument, even if obliquely. She seems to understand that he is right; rather, she more than likely longs for him to be right. Her own experience of coming back and forth to the well no doubt mirror her experience in worship, always having to go to a certain place to find God. Jesus’ statement here is a profound truth- God can and will be found everywhere.
In fact, he is hinting at a deeper truth- God is already here, in this place, in this moment. Heaven has violently collided with earth, the ladder has swung down yet again, and the woman is incredibly experiencing in full lucidity what her great ancestor Jacob was only able to see in a dream!
Even though she does not fully understand his words (and who could!), it is enough to bring her out of herself and out of her previous fixation on earthly things. Now, instead of trying to hide from the truth of her sins or to argue about theology, she expresses her hope in the coming of the Messiah, the one whom she fully believes will explain all of this to her. In this pivotal moment she has managed to leap over the wall of herself, to calm the raging of concupiscent desires.
And in this moment, at just the right time, the bridegroom extends his hand one more time:
“I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25 NIV)
Leave the Pot Behind
We may never know what exactly this statement meant to her, or what must have gone surging through her mind. It’s almost a narrative cliche, but it is right then that the disciples manage to finally catch up with Jesus. We’ve all seen the movies where the couple who have always loved each other but never declared it finally come to point of admitting the truth. As they prepare to proclaim their affection, an interruption occurs and awkward silence ensues. In the better movies the scene is left open-ended, and only the truly brave story-tellers will never bring it to resolution, opting instead to end on a bittersweet note, as love is knowingly acknowledged in death’s embrace. (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example.)
One can sense the awkwardness as the disciples bumble into the scene, breaking the suspense of the narrative flow. No one says a word, no one moves. One can almost feel the tension in the air, for the climax was almost reached. Conversion was so close; she was on the verge of crossing over into eternal love.
Concupiscence will settle for lesser loves, even if a greater love is within reach. One final time it must rear its ugly head, as pride might claim its rights instead of letting go. After all, it was bad enough to have one Jew asking for water; now there are more. What if Jesus tells them what he knows, exposing her to even greater shame? Will her humiliation know no end? And how could she ever bring herself to let go of it all anyway? It might be better to slink back to her lusts and come back to the well tomorrow.
But Jesus’ love is so powerful, and his mercy so boundless, that there can be no going back for her. From the moment she acknowledged the truth about herself she couldn’t bear to let go of it. But now that Jesus has told her the truth about himself, she cannot bear to go back to it, for she has found within herself something new: life. The thirst she had for so long and that drew her back to her lusts day after day has been quenched in the presence of Jesus. She realizes that what he says about himself is true because she has tasted of the water he offered her.
Thus, in the midst of the awkward interruption, the face of her shame and the shrieking of her appetites, she crosses the threshold of heaven forever:
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:28-29 NIV)
The water pot- representing the lusts of the flesh- is left out in the hot desert sun, forgotten in the brilliance of the light of the Light of Life. For all of her life she had lugged around her lusts and desires, seeking to satisfy them with the pleasures of the world and the lesser loves it offers so willingly. But none of this could satisfy her. But now she has found someone who did satisfy her, and can do nothing but throw the pot away:
The circumstance of the woman’s leaving her waterpot on going away, must not be overlooked. For the waterpot signifies the love of this world,) concupiscence, by which men from the dark depth, of which the well is the image, i.e. from an earthly conversation, draw up pleasure. It was right then for one who believed in Christ to renounce the world, and, by leaving her waterpot, to show that she had parted with worldly desires. (St. Augustine, found in St. Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, John 4)
Our desires can tear us away from life, leaving us chasing after dismal drinks. But Jesus offers us living water, as the One who is Being itself beckons us to lay aside our pots and drink from deeper waters. Satisfaction and unending joy await in his outstretched hand, the bridegroom who wishes to lead us into the consummation of union with God.
She cast away therefore concupiscence, and hastened to proclaim the truth. Let those who wish to preach the Gospel, learn, that they should first leave their waterpots at the well. (St. Augustine, found in St. Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, John 4)