Ancient Well, Eternal Water
In time for the first Sunday of Lent, a visit to Jacob’s Well, located in what is now the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. This is the site at which Jesus began his long march toward Calvary by confirming to a Samaritan woman — and thus the world — that he was indeed the Messiah. By Stephen Bugno.
Nablus, West Bank
Heading north from Jerusalem, an hour’s drive through hill roads surrounded by olive trees lands you in the city of Nablus. It was here, in what is currently the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, that Jesus confirmed for the world that he is, was and always will be the Messiah.
He told us by speaking with a humble Samaritan woman as she was drawing water from a well. Today, thanks to the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, we know this place as Jacob’s Well.
As the first Sunday of Lent arrives, it’s worth noting that this is the site at which Jesus effectively began his three-year march toward Calvary. For it was here that he publicly confirmed his identity as the Messiah.
In the Holy Land, of course, there is no shortage of sacred places and shrines worthy of a day trip, if not an extended pilgrimage. For personal reasons, Jacob’s Well was high on my list.
Despite the tension between Jews and Samaritans in first-century Palestine, Jesus chose to travel from Judea to Galilee by way of Samaria. This was the shortest route.
Tired from his journey, he sat by the well that Jacob had dug by hand on “the plot of ground … he bought for a hundred pieces of bullion from the descendants of Hamor, the founder of Shechem” (Genesis 33:19).
Resting, Jesus requested a drink of water and spoke to the Samaritan woman.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
Two years earlier, I had been walking on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in northern Spain when this passage of John’s Gospel struck a chord. There I was with blistered feet, sunburned forearms and constant thirst — and Jesus’ assurance that all I needed was his water.
I never doubted it for a second and my faith guided me through another four weeks of walking side by side other pilgrims all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
At the time I did not know that Jacob’s Well was a place I could visit. And now here I was, peering 125 feet toward the source of the water that had slaked Jesus’ thirst.
As I gazed downward, I thought back to how powerful Jesus’ simple words were. No matter how much water I drank for my physical needs on the road to Santiago, I would always become thirsty again.
Today the well is in the crypt of a former Crusader church, 19 feet below the altar of the new church that stands inside the walled complex of a Greek Orthodox monastery. The caretaker, Father Ioustinos Mamalos, led me through the bright, open upper church. This has finally been completed after numerous interruptions during the last century.
I took in the freshly painted biblical scenes adorning the walls. The delicate canvases reflect the long years the priest spent studying and practicing in Crete before he came to the Holy Land.
Father Mamalos told me that, during the worst of the fighting of the First Intifada uprising (1987-1993), he completed much of the work while seeking refuge from Israeli incursions.
He pointed out the scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman; it’s to the left of the altar. Then he led me down into the crypt.
Only here can you get a sense of the history and religious significance, where the well that Jacob carved out 4,000 years ago still stands. It is surrounded by ancient icons, lit candles and incense burners hanging from the ceiling.
I watched as the priest carefully lowered a rickety bucket to draw some fresh spring water and let me drink from the cup.
I learned that, around 380, a cruciform church was built over the well — only to be destroyed in the Samaritan revolt of 529. The Crusaders rebuilt it in the 12th century but, from the 15th century onward, it fell into ruin.
In 1885 the Greek Orthodox acquired the site and, in 1903, began restorations. Their efforts were curtailed by financial reasons soon after and then again by a vicious earthquake in 1927.
In 1999, donations from Greece and Cyprus helped improve the church for millennium celebrations. When I visited, I had to ring the bell from outside the main gate to be let in. Since the Second Intifada, there haven’t been many visitors coming to the site.
But Father Mamalos has remained here, steadfast through times of war and peace for the past 24 years.
Modern Nablus, or Shechem, its Old Testament name, is 37 miles north of Jerusalem in the beautiful hills of biblical Judea and Samaria.
Today, as the daily news reminds us, travel in and out of the West Bank is tightly controlled by the Israeli military. Still, pilgrims with valid passports are able to travel the region.
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.”
Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”
He speaks to us at this spot still, if we let him.
Stephen Bugno is based in
The monastery church (Greek Orthodox) is open from 8 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m. daily. Photography is not allowed in the crypt. Entry to the church and well is free, but donations are accepted.
Planning Your Visit
Traveling from Jerusalem, you will probably have to pass through one or two checkpoints before arriving at the site. Last July the U.S. Department of State issued a warning for visitors to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Updates on the warning are posted at travel.state.gov.
- February 10-16, 2008