Fleur looks at a symbolist painting to understand this well-known story with fresh eyes. She shows us how Jesus breaks through the barriers of gender, ethnicity, and holiness to have the longest conversation with anyone throughout John’s Gospel.
The encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is one of the best-known stories from John’s Gospel and takes place in chapter 4: 4-30 before Jesus’ return to Galilee. Although never named, her encounter with Jesus is the longest between him and any other person in John’s Gospel. In speaking with her, Jesus breaks through the barriers of gender, ethnicity, and holiness. To be a female in a society where women are both demeaned and disregarded, and of a race traditionally despised by neighbouring Jews is bad enough but having had five husbands and now living with another man makes her a social outcast. But her extraordinary encounter with Christ, her opening of mind and heart to his message of salvation enables her, to in turn, to bear witness to him among the people who had despised her and who know hear him through her preaching.
This painting by the Spanish symbolist – Julio Romero de Torres, offers us a unique perspective on this famous story since, unlike most other artists, this interpretation focuses directly on the woman’s gaze which draws us immediately into her transformed mind. One of Spain’s most notable artists famed for being the master of Andalusian symbolism, de Torres often fused Spanish folklore with other cultural narratives here in a woman both Mediterranean and mystical.
In the story we have a two-part dialogue that changes this woman’s life: the knowledge of the gift of God as ‘living water’ and the recognition of who Jesus is, so as to ask for that gift. This stands in direct contrast to the disciples’ hesitation in grasping Jesus as the Messiah or indeed as to why he is greeting her in the first place. Yet this woman has nothing to lose either in her free encounter with Jesus, or in her open enquiry.
We know, from the cultural and historical traditions of Ancient Israel, that women typically drew water in groups in the morning, and it provided a social opportunity. The Samaritan woman was drawing water at midday during the hottest time, since with her ‘moral record’ she would have been unwelcome to the local women and shunned by them.
The fetching of water echoes back to Jacob’s well in the Old Testament and probably alludes to the demand for water in the desert in Exodus 17:2 and for the gift of water at Beer in Numbers 21:16. The water motif provides the Samaritans with a tradition and biblical identity that transcends contempt from their Jewish neighbours. Nevertheless, while co-existence is sought, suspicion is maintained, and it takes Jesus’ prophetic insight of knowing the woman’s private life for her to respect his authority in this serendipitous event. The artist symbolises this with Jesus standing behind the woman as he recounts her past, then to her present with his right hand pointing to the physical water she is collecting, and then to her future with his left hand pointing to heaven, to God.
The Samaritan woman was deeply curious and here our artist shows her staring intently towards us the viewers, and beyond. She sees further now and understands more deeply than ever. She is thinking a lot of thoughts as she rests her hands on the colossal water carrier. Her curiosity helped her to feel comfortable enough in front of Jesus. Not only was she able to talk with him but also to ask him specific questions. Her posture is relaxed, her body language at peace, Jesus is not threatening but liberating.
In John 4:9-12, her questions from our modern perspective, without understanding the tone of voice, any expressions or gestures, can appear stark and pointed. She asks Jesus:
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
‘Where can you get this living water?’
‘Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself,
as did also his sons and his livestock?
Jesus’ responses were just as stark and pointed as are his fingers in this depiction. His answers are the turning point of salvation for this woman and to so many others along the way. What is fascinating is how this story slowly unfolds. The way the Samaritan woman begins to see into Jesus’ parables to perceive the truth behind them when so many others, including the disciples and the Jewish experts and scholars, could not. She is both spiritual and practical since the interplay between what the water is and how to drink it shape the ultimate revelation of Jesus as the Messiah (4:26). He is and has what she needs, and she wants it, but changed she also wants to share it with her village.
Jesus takes the conversation even further by explaining not just the difference between spirit and matter but of the significance of worship in one’s heart rather than in a particular place. This reverses the Old Testament concept of holiness connected to a defined place and the orientation of a believer as more important than their location. To worship in spirit means to worship God at anytime and anywhere. When we have the Holy Spirit within us, God’s very presence, then worship isn’t confined to buildings. Our artist stresses this by having minimal background imagery, this is the original heart-to-heart and anything else would be a distraction.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in (the) Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in (the) Spirit and in truth” (John 4: 21-24).
Before the exile the Samaritans were part of the greater Israel and indeed theirs is the oldest version of the Pentateuch. But the identities of the exiled community and of those left behind drifted apart, and while both communities shared the Pentateuch, the Samaritans located their cult on the holy mountain at Mount Gerazim and not at Mount Zion and the Jerusalem Temple. This is the ongoing debate in John 4: 20.
John, like Luke, is favourable towards the Samaritans throughout, and, while Matthew quotes Jesus early in his ministry as telling his followers not to evangelize any of the cities of the Samaritans in Matthew 10:5, this prohibition had been reversed by the time of Matthew’s rallying call in 28:19.
The Samaritan woman was quick to spread the news of her meeting with Jesus, and through her testimony many came to believe in him. The extraordinary conversion of such an ‘unreliable witness’ perhaps explains her remarkable success in bringing so many people to faith. As such, she could be described as the first of the Apostles!
Julio Romero de Torres was born and died in Cordoba, Spain where he lived most of his life. From the many influences of his travels, he combined styles as different as realism, impressionism and symbolism. In 1914 he moved to Madrid and fought for the allies as a pilot when war broke out. After the war he became a professor of clothing and design in the School of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1916.
Unlike so many paintings of the Samaritan Woman, this interpretation emphasises the strength and the grace of both Jesus and the woman seen here in their powerful and complementary positioning. And in the subtle colours of their clothes with their soft folds echoing the unfolding revelation. Neither figure is phased by the seemingly impossible, because life, for all its complexity, can draw on deep sources available to those who are open to them. Just as the woman draws on the water so now she will draw on the spirit.
With her hands gently guarding the water in its hammered and lilac-shimmering container, this Samaritan woman has seen it all: love, grief, rejection and despair. Woven together in the mystery of living, these experiences have found new meaning which no amount of hostility can diminish. And faith is for sharing when it’s this good. So she forgets her jar of water in her haste to spread the good news. Jesus is greater than her ancestor Jacob, his teaching and wisdom replace the law’s limitations. Like the spring of water which is continually flowing so also, God’s spirit and grace through Christ, quench the soul’s thirst. Once again, it is the seemingly unlikely people in Scripture who recognise Jesus and model missionary faithfulness beautifully.
In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions the Samaritan woman is venerated as a saint with the Greek name Photine or Luminous one.
Well of Living Water: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by Magdalen Lawler SND.
Messenger Publications, 2020.