Introduction

In the Scripture as Story series, we have been talking about how God reveals Himself to us in a story. That is true in the sense that the Bible itself is a grand, overarching story about who God is and what He is doing in the world, and we best understand Scripture when we look at it as the ongoing story of what God is doing and how we supposed to respond to what God is doing, how we connect our story with God’s story.

But it’s also true that God reveals Himself to us in a story in the sense that God inspired humans to write Scripture as literature, and we read the Bible better and more faithfully when we read it as literature and when we pay attention to what the authors are trying to tell us. We talked about some of the specific techniques that we see biblical authors using, and we have also looked at a couple of case studies to help illustrate some of those techniques.

In this, the conclusion to the series, I want to present another case study to help us see Scripture as story, which is the repeated motif we see in multiple places in Scripture of men and women meeting at wells. That might seem like an obscure and random biblical detail, but we’re going to do is look at four different stories in the Bible, notice the repeated patterns, the differences, and then hopefully, see something significant that Scripture is trying to tell us about who Jesus is and what He came to earth to do.[1]

Isaac and Rebekah

The first story we want to look at comes from Genesis 24, which relates the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah. I am not going to include the whole chapter here because it is over 60 verses long, but will instead summarize it briefly.

Abraham is old and is concerned about what is going to happen after he is gone, and he wants to make sure that his son Isaac has a wife and specifically, not a wife from the land of Canaan, but rather, from one of his relatives from back in the old country.

So he sends his servant on a mission to travel to a distant country to find a wife for Isaac. This is a big task for the servant to do and he is feeling some pressure, and he goes to the city of Nahor (where Abraham’s family lives—the town is actually named after his brother) and he takes his camels to a well of water outside the city. It’s evening time, when women go out to draw water, and the servant prays to God for help in finding the right woman for Isaac.

I am not exactly sure what it is that makes the well the ideal place for finding a wife. As we’re going to see, it happens a lot in the Bible so I don’t think it was a coincidence. Today, there are several stereotypical places where people go to meet their spouses: church, bars (unfortunately), online dating sites…it seems like wells were kind of a dating spot of the ancient world.

Abraham’s servant prays, “Let the right woman be the one who, when I ask for a drink, she not only gives me a drink but offers to water my camels as well.” And immediately Rebekah, who is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, comes up with her water jar, and the Bible tells us that she is beautiful and unmarried, and the servant asks her for water and she gives him some and then waters his camels as well.

Of course, the servant is excited and tells Rebekah what is going on, and she invites him to stay at her family’s house, and then she rushes home to tell her family about all of this. The chapter goes on and we get a report of the family showing hospitality to the servant and he tells his story again, there is a betrothal, and eventually, Rebekah travels back with the servant and Isaac and Rebekah get married.

So what we have here is a betrothal story of two people getting engaged, and here are some of the key features:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 24; we now move on to our next story.

Jacob and Rachel

Our next story comes a few chapters later, in Genesis 29, and centers on Jacob, who is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. And Jacob is on a journey as well, because back in Genesis 28, Isaac had sent him specifically to Paddan-Aram, where Rebekah’s family lived, to find a wife there.

So Jacob travels there, and he goes to a well (perhaps his mother had informed him that this was a good place to find available bachelorettes!). There is a large stone over the mouth of this particular well, and apparently, the people would wait until all the flocks gathered there and the shepherds would get together to roll the stone away from the well so all the animals could be watered.

While Jacob is there waiting for this to happen, Rachel, the daughter of his uncle, comes up with her sheep. This is one of those places where we need to try not to read the text through our 21st-century Western eyes. For us, we realize that Rachel is Jacob’s first cousin and immediately we think that this makes her off-limits. But we have to realize that for Jacob, this actually makes Rachel a great candidate for marriage because he was specifically looking for a relative—he wasn’t supposed to marry a Canaanite girl. When Jacob sees Rachel and realizes who she is, he goes and by himself rolls away the huge stone from the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep (apparently the practice of men showing off for women in order to impress them is an ancient one!). Then Jacob kisses Rachel and weeps aloud, and tells her who he is. Rachel runs home to tell her father, Laban, and he comes out and welcomes Jacob into his home, and they make arrangements for Jacob to marry Rachel.

Of course, there is more to the story and Laban is a pretty shady character and Jacob ends up with two wives and stays with Laban for longer than he bargained for, but that is basically where we will leave off.

Let’s notice again the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well  ✓
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 29; we now move on to our next story.

Moses and Zipporah

Our next story may not be quite as well known; it comes from Exodus 2. Moses himself is famous, and the early parts of Exodus 2 are most likely very familiar: Moses is born, and in order to hide him from the wrath of Pharaoh, his mother puts him in a basket in the Nile River. Moses is eventually adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. After he grows up, Moses one day sees an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew and he gets angry and strikes him and kills him. Pharaoh finds out about this and Moses runs away, fleeing to the land of Midian, and once he is there, he sits down by a well.

At this point, if you are a Jewish person who has grown up hearing the scriptures and knows the scriptures well, or, alternatively, if you have been reading this blog post with any sort of attention, you should have some expectation of what is going to happen next, at least in a general sense.

And sure enough, while Moses is sitting there, seven young ladies, daughters of the priest of Midian, come to the well and draw water to water their father’s flocks. Some shepherds come to drive them away, but Moses stands up and saves the girls, and waters their flocks for them.

Then the girls go home and tell their father what happened. Their father tells them to go find Moses and invite him to their house so that they can feed him and show him hospitality, and Moses comes, and he becomes engaged to Zipporah, one of the man’s daughters, and she becomes his wife.

Again, let’s review the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Exodus 2; we now move on to our next story.

Jesus and a Samaritan Woman

Our final story comes from the New Testament, from John 4, and it is the famous story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well. This is a wonderful chapter and there are a lot of different parts we could examine closely, but for the focus of this post, we just want to sum up what happens and look at that in light of what we have already discussed.

John 4 begins with Jesus on a journey. Because of some trouble from the Pharisees, Jesus is traveling from Judea up to Galilee, and He passes through Samaria on the way. He comes to a town called Sychar, and he is tired, so Jesus sits down by the well.

Now, as a side note here, we need to remember that John is writing His gospel to a Jewish (Christian) audience who knew the Old Testament Scriptures. By now, the pattern that occurs with these well stories should be very familiar to us, and it would have been familiar to John’s audience as well. So we have certain expectations of what is supposed to happen next. 

Sure enough, a woman from Samaria comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. But instead of giving Him a drink, the woman responds in shock because she can’t believe that Jesus had spoken to her as a Samaritan woman, because Jews and Samaritans don’t get along at all. Jesus then begins speaking to her about this living water that He has to offer and how people who drink it will never be thirsty again, and the water will become a spring welling up to eternal life, and the woman doesn’t really know what He’s talking about but that sounds good to her and so she asks for some of it.

And this whole conversation is a little strange and not really what we were expecting based on our previous well stories. Jesus then abruptly says, “Go, call your husband, and come here,” and the woman responds, “I have no husband.” If you’re hearing this story for the first time, perhaps you think, “Aha, she is not married—she is a good candidate for marriage after all, so maybe the story will turn out as we expected.”

But then Jesus tells the woman her whole marital history: yes, you’re not married, but you have been married five times before, and the guy you are with now isn’t your husband. This blows the woman away: how can Jesus know this? He must be a prophet! Then they proceed to talk a little bit more about the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans and the woman says that she is waiting for the Messiah to come, and Jesus says that He is, in fact, that Messiah.

The woman gets excited about this and she leaves her water jar and rushes back away to the town to tell the people about this strange man at the well who might be the Christ. In the meantime, Jesus’ disciples show up and they are confused that Jesus is talking to this woman, and then they try to give Him some food, but Jesus declines it, saying that He has all the food He needs, in that He is doing the will of the Father and is accomplishing His work.

And the disciples are completely clueless about what he means. Bless their hearts.

Many of the Samaritans from the village believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, and they ask Jesus to stay with them for two days, and many more come to believe because of His words, and they tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

At this point, we should review the key characteristics of these well betrothal stories that have been talking about, and we will quickly notice that John 4 has a lot in common with the others, but that there are some key differences:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well Jesus asks for it; prompts a discussion on living water
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality Yes, but the only food that is mentioned is Jesus’ spiritual food
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows No, at least, not in the way we would expect

Jesus the Bridegroom

So what is going on here? Why is this set up like a betrothal story? What can we learn from the differences?

(1) Water: Jesus probably was thirsty, and He does ask the woman for water, but it seems that what He was actually doing was creating an opening for a spiritual conversation. He was moving the woman away from a discussion of a menial chore that she had to do day after day, and instead was addressing the deepest need of her heart: a life-giving spiritual water that only He possessed, which would lead to eternal life.

This living water was available to her. It was hers for the taking. Jesus gives rather than takes. He offers rather than receives.

(2) Food: In the other stories food is mentioned each time: the main character or protagonist is fed by the woman’s family. But in this passage, food is discussed by Jesus and His disciples. The disciples are trying to give Jesus food to eat, but He says He doesn’t need it; He has eaten already. He is satisfied, He is fed, by doing His father’s will, and by accomplishing the mission that His Father has sent Him on. So clearly, what has just happened is an example of Jesus fulfilling His mission: He has revealed who He is to the woman, and has extended His offer of living water to her.

And in that process, He has been made full.

(3) Marriage: This is the big one, and to see what is going on here, we actually need to flip back a chapter, to John 3. This is one of those instances where the chapter divisions in our Bibles (which were added much later) are not always helpful because they break up the surrounding context of what is happening.

Here we have a story of Jesus and His disciples baptizing, and John the Baptist was also baptizing. Some of John’s followers come to him to tell him that Jesus is baptizing more people than John is, and more people are beginning to follow Him, and isn’t John upset by this? But John tries to correct their thinking: 

[28] You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” 

(John 10.28-30, ESV)

Did you hear what John called Jesus? He called him a bridegroom. John refers to himself as the friend of the bridegroom—the best man—if you will, but he calls Jesus the groom. And John’s point is that at a wedding, the best man doesn’t get upset that the groom gets more attention—he celebrates! He is there to celebrate the wedding of the bride and the groom.

So just before a story that follows the pattern of the Well Betrothal story, John the Baptist explicitly says that the reason people are flocking to Jesus is because He is the bridegroom receiving His bride.

This language of Jesus as a bridegroom is based on a repeated metaphor from the Old Testament of God as the husband and Israel as the wife in their relationship. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah says:

“[1] The word of the LORD came to me, saying, [2] “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. [3] Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.” 

(Jeremiah 2.1-3, ESV)

The prophecy goes on to describe how the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God, how they had committed spiritual adultery by worshipping other gods, and as a result, the people were going to be punished. God actually describes in Jeremiah 3.6-8 how, because of the continuous unfaithfulness, God was divorcing His bride and sending them away. We call this the Exile: both the nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and the people were captured.

And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. In Jeremiah 3.14:

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.

God has not given up on His wife; even though He had sent Israel away, He will come after her and bring her back. In a literal sense, a remnant of the people are allowed to return to the Land of Israel following the Exile, but still, Jeremiah points even further to the future:

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

(Jeremiah 31.31-34, ESV)

With all of this background in the Hebrew Scriptures, we can see what John is doing as He sets up this episode from the life of Jesus as a betrothal story. Jesus is the ultimate bridegroom who has traveled into a foreign land to secure a bride for Himself—not literally, but in a figurative sense: He is identifying Himself with God’s mission to call His people back through the giving of a new covenant, written on the heart.

Jesus’ mission is to restore His bride—to reconcile God’s people back to Him.

There are other places in the New Testament that teach us the same thing. The church is referred to as the bride of Christ in the Book of Revelation; in Ephesians 5 the relationship between a husband and wife is compared to the relationship between Christ and the church. 

But here, in John 4, this same idea of Jesus as the bridegroom is told in a clever and powerful way, through the story of His meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well.[2] 

Conclusion

I hope that, throughout this series, you have come to see benefits of paying close attention to Scripture and reading it as a story, and looking for the ideas and theological claims that the biblical writers are suggesting by the way that they write.

In this final installment, we have seen the repeated use of the well betrothal stories in the Bible, and how John uses a similar story to make an astounding claim about Jesus: He is here to accomplish God’s mission of restoring His bride, as He claimed He would do hundreds of years before. As a husband, Jesus will go to extraordinary lengths to love and protect and save His bride; as a husband, Jesus expects absolute devotion and faithfulness from His bride.

The implications for us are clear: God loves us, and He pursues us because He wants a relationship with us. He wants to care for, protect, and save us. But also, He wants us to be faithful—devoted to Him exclusively.


[1]To my knowledge, the motif of well betrothal stories was first pointed out in Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

[2]When studying this initially, I saw the clear connection between John 4 and the Old Testament well betrothal stories, but I was unsure of exactly what the connection meant. Unfortunately, I have lost my notes and am unaware of which source helped point me in the right direction. So, I want to publicly state that the conclusions above are not original to me, and I regret not remembering to whom full credit belongs.