They say, “Seeing is believing.” If that’s the case, we’re at a disadvantage when it comes to meeting Jesus in the Scriptures. We use our ears to hear stories of his life. As we listen to Scriptures read aloud, we must engage our imaginations to picture those scenes.
But visual learning can help us connect with the story if we use our eyes to augment the Biblical witness. So why not enlist a couple of great artists to help us as we explore the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well? The first artist painted about a century ago. The second, a sculptor, is more contemporary.
Neither one of these artworks is completely realistic. They’re more than mere illustrations like the old Sunday school pictures a lot of us remember. These two artists use their interpretative gifts to approach the story from a surprising – even startling – angle.
“Christ and the Samaritan Woman” is by the modern Polish artist, Jacek Malczewski (YAHT-sek mal-CHEV-ski). It was one of several the artist did, based on that same story.
The painting is anachronistic: the two figures look like early 20th-century Polish people. The face of Jesus is actually a self-portrait of the artist. Malczewski was fond of painting himself into his pictures. Here he’s wearing an artist’s smock and carrying an umbrella and straw hat. As for the Samaritan woman, she looks much like a Polish peasant, dressed as though she was going to the well to draw water.
There’s something unusual about those two people. Jesus is facing away from the woman. She appears to be taking the initiative in talking with him, and he appears to be listening, but they’re not making eye contact.
This reflects an important detail of the story. Culturally speaking, these two people are very different. You can see this difference in a line from the story that the woman speaks to Jesus as soon as they meet. Jesus has just asked the woman to give him a drink of water, and she responds with astonishment: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
John provides a helpful little footnote as he explains: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other at all. Ostensibly, the two nations worshiped the same God, but apart from that, they were from two completely different tribes.
Of course, there’s a better-known story of a Samaritan: Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. An essential detail of that story – as with this one, the story of the other Samaritan – is the historic hatred between these two peoples. Who were these Samaritans, and where did they come from? They’re the remnant of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Remember how, in the days after the kingdom of David and his son, Solomon, the nation split into two, under two different kings? The Northern Kingdom was called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah. A few generations later, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Northern Kingdom, defeating its armies, sacking its principal cities and hauling the nation’s leaders off into exile. They set up a puppet kingdom, a colony, and made the people who lived there pay heavy “tribute” – we’d call them taxes today – to the Assyrian king.
The Southern Kingdom managed to fend off the Assyrians, but in doing so they failed to come to the aid of their cousins in the north. You can only imagine what resentment that caused! It planted seeds of hatred that continued centuries later in Jesus’ day.
A few generations after the fall of Samaria, it was the Judeans’ turn to suffer. A new empire, Babylon, defeated the Assyrians. This time, the Judeans went down to defeat. Their national leaders were carted off to exile in Babylon.
The Babylonian captivity of the Jews lasted only a few generations. The Persian King Cyrus swept in and defeated the Babylonians. He allowed the exiles in Babylon – those who wanted to go, and many stayed – to return home. They came back to a ruined nation. Their new king, Ezra, set out to rebuild the temple, restoring Judah’s ancient worship practices.
By this time, the religion of the Samaritans had evolved in a very different direction. The temple in Jerusalem – rebuilt or not – held no attraction for them. They worshiped God on the top of Mount Gerizim. That’s what the woman is referring to when she speaks this line: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She’s emphasizing the differences between them.
Back to the painting … the two are communicating, just not face-to-face. It’s an awkward encounter, because of the great cultural differences between them.
Of the two people in the painting, Jesus seems the most hesitant. There’s an expression of warm interest on the woman’s face. It’s Jesus who’s standoffish.
That’s true to the biblical story. True, Jesus speaks first, asking her to give him a drink. But after that, it’s the woman who takes the initiative.
This is so very different from another encounter Jesus had that John has just finished telling us about in chapter 3. It’s the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus, the man to whom he famously says, “You must be born from above” (sometimes translated, “born again”).
In that story, it’s pretty much a one-sided exchange: Nicodemus seeks Jesus out, asks him a question or two, then Jesus does most of the talking. The greater part of Chapter 3 is a long discourse Jesus gives in response to Nicodemus’ questions. In fact, John never does wrap up the story. He gets all caught up in reporting that long speech, then the next thing we know, Jesus is on his way to Samaria, where he meets the woman at the well.
John’s placement of the two stories – one right after the other – is deliberate. He wants us to hold one up against the other, to compare them. On the one hand is an encounter between Jesus and a learned leader of the Jewish people. On the other is His encounter with a woman, a foreigner, a nobody.
The exchange between the Samaritan woman and Jesus is entirely different from the way he talks to the Pharisee. There’s a real give-and-take between them: a fully developed conversation rather than a one-sided lecture. It speaks of the high regard Jesus has for this woman. He’s more than happy to give her the time of day, even though the traditions of both of their cultures dictated that they should avoid each other. You can see that at the end of the story when John tells us how Jesus’ disciples were “astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”
The way Malczewski uses light in this painting is important. The whole scene is bathed in golden sunlight. This woman is curious about Jesus and seems more than able to engage Him in a theological discussion in the full light of the sun. Jesus, for His part, credits her as an honest spiritual inquirer. He spends a lot more time talking with her than he does with his night-time visitor, Nicodemus.
The fact that this meeting happens at high noon symbolizes exactly that. The themes of light and darkness are very important to John. Throughout his gospel he portrays Jesus as light pushing back darkness. Pharisees like Nicodemus are in darkness. They must come into the light.
This Samaritan woman – smiling back at Jesus in the golden light of midday – is already a person who knows something of the light of God. Jesus credits her with that. There’s a warmth and brightness about this painting that shows how any truth-seeker who honestly and openly comes to Jesus will receive the light He offers.
Another interesting detail is that John tells us how the woman – once she fully realizes who Jesus is – leaves her water jar beside the well and goes off to tell all her neighbors: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Remember, this is a Samaritan, and a woman. Her witness to Jesus is far more certain, far more bold, than anything Nicodemus says in the previous chapter. The fact that she leaves her water jar behind is a powerful symbol. Who in the Bible leaves the tools of their trade behind to go and preach? It’s apostles who do that: Peter, James and John who leave their nets, Matthew who abandons his tax-collector books, Paul who no longer wears the distinctive hat and robe of the Pharisee. This Samaritan woman is an apostle! She proclaims Jesus as the Messiah long before any of his other disciples do.
Our second work of art is a contemporary sculpture called “The Water of Life.” It’s a fountain created by the English sculptor Stephen Broadbent in 1994. The artist cast it in bronze for a courtyard in the ancient monastic cloister of Chester Cathedral, and the fountain is located on the exact site that served for centuries as the monastery well.
The following words from verse 14 are carved around the bottom of the sculpture: “Jesus said ‘the water that I shall give will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life.’” In exchange for the water the Samaritan woman offers him, the Lord promises her “living water.”
It’s the prospect of living water that draws her in, questioning Jesus further: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Think of how hard this woman’s life was. She’s had five different husbands. We don’t know if she had so many because she was widowed or because some of the men divorced her. Maybe both of those things happened to her, with different husbands. And, before you judge her too harshly, remember that she could not have divorced them; only a husband could seek divorce – and for any reason. And if she had left, it is unlikely in this small town that any other man would have married her.
Far from being a disreputable person, this woman is strong. She’s a survivor. She has triumphed over difficult circumstances. If the man she’s now living with is not her husband, Jesus doesn’t seem to judge her for that. He’s far more interested in healing her pain. He seems to trust that she will repent and do the right thing if she can get her heart right and confess to Him as Lord.
You can see it in this sculpture. The two look directly at each other. The posture of their bodies is equal, but she’s higher than he is. If anything, he’s declined to claim the superior role of teacher.
Between them is a bowl of water, from which – because this sculpture is a working fountain – gushes a constant stream.
Look at the position of the bowl. Both she and Jesus are holding it. Is she offering him a drink of water from the well, or is He offering her the gift of living water? It’s impossible to say. That’s so true-to-life, because the two are so closely tied together. We promise to serve Jesus as disciples, and He offers us living water in return. Or is it the other way around? Maybe he offers us living water first, and we serve him in gratitude. It doesn’t matter, because it’s really two sides of the same coin. There’s a constant give-and-take, a flow, between disciple and master, between each of us and the one we claim to serve.
The entire sculpture is a circle. You can sense this dynamic exchange, this holy giving and receiving, going on forever. In the Celtic tradition, the circle – that prominent feature of every Celtic cross – is a symbol of eternity. When we enter a relationship with Jesus Christ, we do so for eternity. It’s that “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
One of the great things about visual art is that it offers us so many perspectives. We can come back to it, time and time again, and often discover something new.
The same is true of our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. Living water continues to flow at the heart of that dynamic relationship, refreshing, restoring and reviving.
Have you been feeling that your spiritual life is a little dry lately? If that’s the case, Jesus’ invitation to the Samaritan woman holds for us, as well. He continues to welcome the thirsty who are seeking the living water only he can give. Offer Him, in your outstretched hands, the bowl of your servant heart. He will supply you, in exchange, with an endless supply of living water!