Water From a Well and a Rock

SCRIPTURES & ART: The first words of Jesus’ public ministry are “repent and believe the Gospel!” We do ourselves no good when we forget this.

Angelica Kauffman, “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well,” 1796
Angelica Kauffman, “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well,” 1796 (photo: Public Domain)

Disclaimer: The Gospel described below may or may not be the Gospel you heard this Sunday at Mass. The reason is that, on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent this year (Year B), the priest has a choice of two different Gospels. In Year B of its three year Sunday Lectionary (the set of readings), the Church assigns as today’s Gospel John’s account (2:13-25) of how Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple. But because Lent is also when the Church prepares catechumens for baptism at Easter, she always allows the use of “scrutiny” readings on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The “scrutiny” reading for today (on which I will comment) is the account of Jesus’ meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42). 

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) was a Swiss painter who initially learned how to paint from her muralist father but later made her own way in 18th-century landscape, portraiture, and historical painting — not typical successes for women of that time. Much of her career was spent in Italy and in England, where she was among the artists who petitioned for establishment of the Royal Academy. 

“Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” dates from 1796. It features the dialogue’s two participants: Jesus on the left, the Samaritan Woman on the right, both aside Jacob’s Well. The canvas is otherwise relatively empty. Two biblical elements lie in the background. The town of Sychar squats in front of Mount Gerazim. John (4:5) tells us that Jesus “came to a town of Samaria called Sychar.” The area lies about 30 miles due north of Jerusalem, near today’s city of Nablus. According to the Samaritans, the place for offering sacrifice to Yahweh was not Temple Mount in Jerusalem but Mount Gerazim, a dispute alluded to in the Gospel (4:20-24). 

Kauffman’s Jesus clearly teaches, as his upraised left hand indicates. But while Jesus initiates the conversation, the Samaritan not only answers but even pushes back. Look at the eyes of the woman in the painting: she is clearly listening, clearly engaged, clearly thinking about what she is hearing. At the same time, she does not hesitate to pose counterarguments, as her own left hand indicates. She’s no pushover: between her arguments and her equivocations, she can almost be as hard as a rock. She’s no shrinking violet.

Speaking of colors, both Jesus’ red robe and “the woman in red” fix our eyes on them, in contrast to the brown landscape and the blue hues of the distant city and hill (to which Jesus’ curling blue cloak leads the eye and connects the characters to the countryside before which they sit). Kauffman’s landscape talents deserve credit here: the countryside corresponds to the biblical environment rather than situating the protagonists against some European backdrop. Kauffman also complements the major splashes of red in both character’s clothing with each one’s reddish-brown hair as well as her bucket. The relevant prominence of the bucket between the two of them also keeps our attention focused on the “Living Water” dialogue underway. Can we ask whether the Samaritan’s red also suggests her passion, about which Jesus will speak with her?

As the Gospels remind us, the Samaritan woman is not without her moral faults. Although the conversation between Jesus and her begins with the request for a simple drink of water, runs through the competing claims of Samaritans and Jews as to who was properly worshipping God where, and reaches its high point in Jesus’ promise of living water that forever slakes one’s thirst — which the Samaritan woman sees as a labor-saving opportunity — the conversation ends on a moral note. Jesus tells her to come back to him with her husband. She equivocates, not wanting to admit the brutal truth but not wanting to lie, either: “I do not have a husband.” Jesus accompanies her to the truth, affirming that in fact she has gone through five and her likely current concubine “is not your husband.” What convinces her is not Jesus’ theology but his truthful assessment of her moral situation (he “told me everything I have done”). It causes her to ask whether he could possibly be the Messiah. 

What made Judaism and Christianity distinct from all the “religions” it encountered in the ancient world was precisely its moral message: God was supremely Good and wanted man to be, too. Contrast that to the pagan religions, where the “gods” were bigger but not necessarily better. At the same time, God recognized that man was broken, not by the Creator’s design but by his own free will — a Humpty Dumpty who could not put himself back together. The first words of Jesus’ public ministry are not a riff on Thomas Harris: “I’m OK — You’re OK” with a splash of holy water. They are “repent and believe the Gospel!” We do the faithful no good when we mix those two things up.

There are only two figures in this painting: Jesus and the Samaritan woman. One explanation is that the painting literally tracks the Gospel. On the other hand, the Gospel points out that their dialogue began “around noon.” I remember a friend, Father Warren Kinne, point out that high noon in hot Israel would hardly have been the hour most women would have been out to perform the chore of drawing water. So is this woman out now because her “reputation preceded her” in a way that would have made her prefer avoiding public encounter, just like she avoided a direct answer to Jesus? 

Whatever her moral failings, she still clings in some way to her religion and her faith, and it is that “widow’s mite” that opens the way for a productive dialogue that lets Jesus enter her heart. 

Jesus meets the Samaritan woman “where she’s at,” but does not leave her there. He, too, is unafraid to push and does so, right past her equivocations and evasions to those parts of her still open to God — and wins. 

The Samaritan Woman has been depicted by various artists, but I find Kauffman’s particularly interesting and appealing, perhaps because she is a woman painted by a woman. The Samaritan is attractive without necessarily being somewhat provocative as, for example, in Jacek Malczewski’s version. She is intellectually active, not passive, more explicitly a partner in the dialogue than, e.g., Waldmüller’s Samaritan might suggest. 

Jesus’ raised hand also reminds us we are “to seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1). St. Paul reminds us our sights should be set “on things above, not earthly things,” (v. 2) precisely because we have “died and been raised with Christ.” That is the whole focus of both our Lenten and life’s journeys. “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature …” (v. 5). 

This is how the Polish-Jewish poet Roman Brandstaetter summarizes the Samaritan Woman’s encounter with Jesus (translation mine):

“The woman, upon returning home
Lay down upon her bed
Still warm from a sleepless night.
But she no longer felt desire.
She was a stream of pure angels
Gushing forth from her stony body.”

She had encountered and received the God who promises “a spring of water welling up [within them] to eternal life” (John 14:4b). After all, he already showed himself a God who can draw water out of a rock (Exodus 17:1-7; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:14).