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Women, Wells, and Weddings

by Brant Pitre February 13, 2019 0 Comments



The first thing that any first century Jew, seeing this happen or reading this story, would recognize is that the location and the context of Jesus’ conversation matters; because if you go back to the Old Testament, you'll notice something interesting. Whenever one of the major figures in the Old Testament would meet their future wife, guess where they would do it?  At a well.  You see, in ancient Israel, if you want to meet a woman you didn’t go to a bar to get a drink, you’d go to the local well, because it was women's work to go and draw the water, and they would often gather around the wells and get the water and talk and have conversation. So if you wanted to meet somebody, you would go down to the well. In fact, look at each of these examples.  For example, Moses meets his future wife, Zipporah, at a well.  This is what the Book of Exodus says:

Moses fled from Pharaoh, and stayed in the land of Mid′ian; and he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Mid′ian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock…

And if you remember The Ten Commandments, the Charlton Heston film, this is where he shows some of his ninja moves and he drives all of these men away; he fights them and, of course, the women fall in love with him.

…When they came to their father Reu′el, he said, “How is it that you have come so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daugher Zippo′rah.

So Moses meets his future wife, where?  At a well. Now fast-forward to Abraham's servant in Genesis 24; we read these words. After Abraham sends his servant out to find a wife for Isaac, the servant prays:

Let the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Pray let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac…Before he had done speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethu′el the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar upon her shoulder. The maiden was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known…

Keep that in mind

…She went down to the spring, and filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her, and said, “Pray give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord”…When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have done drinking.”

Which, if you think about it, would've been a lot of work.  It is not easy.  Have you ever carried water around?  Water is heavy, and the work of drawing water is a lot. So when Rebecca comes up and says “I will draw it for you and the camels”, this is a woman who is sacrificial.  She is going to go out of her way for this stranger.  Abraham’s servant knows that this is the future wife of Isaac.  So a woman + a well = a wedding

Finally, though, the most important example from the Old Testament has to do with Jacob himself.  Remember, what well were they sitting at when Jesus met the Samaritan woman? It was Jacob's well. So let's go back to the story of Jacob and look at what happens here. Jacob meets his future wife, Rachel, where? At a well.

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. As he looked, he saw a well in the field, and…[t]he stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place upon the mouth of the well. Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?”…“Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” They said, “We know him.” He said to them, “Is it well with him?” They said, “It is well; and see, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep!” He said, “Behold, it is still high day [noon], it is not time for the animals to be gathered together…

Think about it for a second.  If you were going to go draw water, would you do it in the heat of the day?  No, you would wait until the end, when it is cool.  So he is a little puzzled that she is coming out.

…water the sheep, and go, pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”

In other words, the wells, which were very precous in the ancient near east, would be covered with a stone that would be too heavy to steal the water.  When all the shepherds who owned it gathered together, they would roll the stone away and then they could get the water safely and then cover it back up again so that marauders and bandits wouldn’t come and either fill the well or take the water.

…While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. 

And, of course, what happens at this point? Jacob goes on, he kisses Rachel, he goes back to her house and he falls in love with her, and they eventually get married. So the next future bride is given. So, stop there for a second. What does this show you? It shows that in a Jewish context, in the Old Testament, over and over again, whenever you have a woman and a well, you wind up with a wedding. And, in particular, the most famous story of all was the story of Jacob and Rachel at the well. Think about it.  If you were a Jew, Jacob was the man who’s name was changed to Israel. So he was like your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. So the story of Jacob meeting Rachel would be like a family story of how your grandmother met your grandfather, or how your great-grandmother met your great-grandfather.  It would've been a very well known story that they would've loved to tell. In fact, in ancient Jewish traditions that develop over time, they actually embellished it a little. According to the rabbis, they added a few extra elements to the story. Listen to what this story was retold like in the Jewish tradition outside of the Bible. This is from the rabbis. They say that:

When Jacob saw Rachel… Jacob drew near and, with one of his arms, rolled the stone from the mouth of the well…

In other words, he sees this pretty young girl coming up, so what does he do?  “Excuse me ma’am (sound of grunts)” and with one arm moves the stone away without the help of any other shepherds. He shows off his strength and, of course, she is impressed and they get married, and all of Israel comes into existence because of that encounter. In fact, the rabbis go on to say that when Jacob did that:

and the well began to flow, and the waters came up before him, and he watered the flock of Laban… and it continued to flow for twenty years.

In other words, it miraculously turned into a spring. And do you know what they called springs in the Old Testament?  Living water. So can you start to see what is going on here?  All of what's happening with Jesus and the woman at the well are like echos of the Old Testament. He meets the woman at a well, it's noontime, he promises to give miraculous, living water, and she asks him, “are you greater than Jacob?” What's the answer? Yes! Why? Because Jesus is revealing his identity as not just the Messiah, but as the Bridegroom Messiah. He’s acting like he's a bridegroom in search of a bride.  But, as we have already seen, is he an ordinary bridegroom? No, and so is she, this woman, an ordinary bride?  No!


Images used:

Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain]

Dulwich Picture Gallery [Public domain]

Stefano Erardi [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (]

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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