As the woman of Samaria approaches the well, she discovers a Jewish man there. They quickly enter into a conversation about water, although “water” has a different meaning for each of them.
The well has great significance for her, since Jacob originally established it and gave it to the people. Daily, she comes to the well to draw water to quench her thirst. Jesus uses “water” to explain what He wants to offer the woman.
Jesus tells her that if she only recognized the gift that God wants to give her and who it is who is before her, she would have asked for this “gift,” which is “living water.”
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the gifts of God require that we desire them and ask for them:
Grace is not given to anyone without their asking and desiring it… in the justification of a sinner an act of free will is necessary to detest sin, and to desire grace, according to Matthew 7:7: ‘Ask and you will receive.’ Therefore, no one who resists grace receives it, unless he first desires it; this is clear in the case of Paul who, before he received grace, desired it, saying ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ (Acts 9:16). (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 578).
Thomas shows what leads a person to ask:
There are two things which lead a person to desire and ask for grace: a knowledge of the good to be desired and a knowledge of the giver… He says, ‘If you knew the gift of God,’ which is every desirable good that comes from the Holy Spirit. And this is a gift of God, and so forth. Secondly, He mentions the giver, and He says, ‘and realized who it is who says to you,’ i.e. if you knew the one who can give it, namely, that it is I (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 579).
As we recognize our concerns about ourselves and others, desires from within us. We bring those desires before the Lord and ask for them.
The woman knows that she needs water and daily she comes to the well for water to quench her thirst. St. Augustine observes: “We must recognize ourselves in her words and in her person…” (Treatise on John).
“Water” is one the basic physical needs that keeps reoccurring, similar to the need for food. We continually seek ways to find satisfactions in our lives but Thomas notices that we are often disappointed: “Before temporal things are possessed, they are highly regarded and thought satisfying; but after they are possessed, they are found to be neither so great as thought nor sufficient to satisfy our desires, and so our desires are not satisfied but move on to something else” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 586).
Relationships with others are important for us but even the closest relationships cannot satisfy all our needs. The woman has had five husbands and is living with another man. Ultimately, there is something else for which she and we are looking.
Thomas reflects that water is called “living” when it continually comes from its source, as a fountain does. Thomas proposes that the “living water” that Jesus gives is “the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).
Similar to water, grace “cleanses,” and brings “refreshing relief” and “satisfies our desires, in contrast to our thirst for earthly things, and all temporal things whatever: ‘Come to the waters, all you who thirst’ (Is 55:1)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).
Grace is never separated from its source:
The grace of the holy Spirit is correctly called living water, because the grace of the Holy Spirit is given to man in such a way that the source itself of the grace is also given, that is, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, grace is given by the Holy Spirit: ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). For the Holy Spirit is the unfailing fountain from whom all gifts of grace flow (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).
Because the Spirit is within us, the graces flow like living waters within us: “Spiritual water has an eternal cause, that is, the Holy Spirit, who is an unfailing fountain of life. accordingly, he who drinks of this will never thirst; just as someone who has within himself a fountain of living water would never thirst” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 586).
Jesus says that we will worship the Father in spirit and in truth:
And so when we pray, we ought to be such as God seeks. But God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth, in the fervor of love and in the truth of faith: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God want from you, but that you fear the Lord your God and walk in His ways, and love Him and serve the Lord your God with all your heart’ (Dt 10:12).
The breakthrough is when Jesus tells the woman that He knows her history and she concludes that He must be a prophet: “For it is characteristic of prophets to reveal what is not present and hidden: ‘’He who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer’ (1 Sm 9:9)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 596).
The woman now sets aside her water jar, in other words, living for temporal things: “The water jar is a symbol of worldly desires, by which men draw out pleasures from the depths of darkness – symbolized by the well – i.e. from a worldly manner of life. Accordingly, those who abandon worldly desires for the sake of God leave their water jars” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 625).
Jesus’ thirst and hunger for us:
According to Thomas, this Gospel tells us about Jesus’ thirst, which is for us: ““He asks for a drink both because He was thirsty for water on account of the heat of the day, and because He thirsted for the salvation of man on account of His love. Accordingly, while hanging on the cross, He cried out: ‘I thirst’” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 569).
The reason for the Incarnation was to bring us to God. We forget that it was and is about us, as the Nicene Creed affirms: “For us and for our salvation.”
When the disciples return with food, Jesus doesn’t eat and explains to the disciples: “Doing the will of Him who sent Me and bringing His work to completion is My food.”
Thomas reflects upon these words:
The food that Christ had to eat is the salvation of men: this was what He desired. When He says that He has food to eat, He shows how great a desire He has for our salvation. For just as we desire to eat when we are hungry, so He desires to save us: ‘My delight is to be with the children of men’ (Prv 8:31). So He says, I have food to eat, i.e. the conversion of the nations, ‘of which you do not know’; for they had no way of knowing beforehand about his conversion of the nations (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 634).
Thomas further elaborates: “The sense is this: My food is, i.e., in this is my strength and nourishment, to do the will of Him who sent Me; according to ‘My God, I desired to do Your will, and Your law is within My heart’ (Ps 39:9), and ‘I came down from heaven not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me’ (Jn 6:38).”
Thomas draws upon Paul’s Letter to the Romans, to describe the extent to which Jesus went to draw us to the Father:
This work of the Lord needed to be repaired in order to become right again; and this was accomplished by Christ, for ‘Just as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many will be made just’ (Rom 5:19). Thus Christ says, to accomplish His work, to bring men back to what is perfect” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 643).
Thomas also recognizes that the woman comes to share in Jesus’ thirst: “The woman left her water jar and went off to the town, to tell of the wonderful things Christ had done; and she was not now concerned for her own bodily comfort but for the welfare of others. In this respect, she was like the apostles, who ‘leaving their nets, followed the Lord’ (Mt 4:20)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 625).
Next we see her manner of preaching (v. 29). She first invites them to see Christ, saying, ‘Come and see the man…’ Neither did she say, ‘believe,’ but ‘Come and see; for she was convinced that if they were to taste from the well by seeing Him, they would be affected in the same way she was: ‘Come and I will tell you the great things He has done for me’ (Ps 65:16). In this she is imitating the example of a true preacher, not calling men to himself, but to Christ: ‘What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4:5) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 626).
Thomas remarks on the effect of her witness:
Many Samaritans of that town, to which the woman had returned, believed in Him, and this, on the testimony of the woman from whom Christ asked for a drink of water, who said, ‘He told me everything I ever did’: for this testimony was sufficient inducement to believe Christ. For since Christ had disclosed her failures, she would not have mentioned them if she had not been brought to believe. And so the Samaritans believed as soon as they heard her. This indicates that faith comes by hearing (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 657).
Secondly, the fruit of her witness is shown in their coming to Christ: for faith gives rise to a desire for the thing believed. Accordingly, after they believed, they came to Christ, to be perfected by Him. So he says, ‘When the Samaritans came to Him.
Thirdly, the fruit of her witness is shown in their desire: for a believer must not only come to Christ, but desire that Christ remain with him. So he says, ‘They begged Him to stay with them awhile. So He stayed there two days.
They came to realize that Jesus was their savior: “…this woman was a symbol of the Church of the Gentiles; and Christ sought the Gentiles, for He came ‘to seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk 19:10)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 622).
The people proclaim Jesus as Savior of the world: “They affirm that He is the universal Savior, because he is not just for some, i.e. for the Jews alone, but is the ‘Savior of the world.’ “God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him’ (Jn 3:17) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 663).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations are from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, trans. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1980, pp. 229-267.