There is something unsettling about this story from the Gospel of John (Jn 4, the woman at the well). If we picture the scene to ourselves, we see Christ alone, weary, sitting by himself on the edge of the well. He is tired and thirsty, and asks a woman coming to the well for something to drink. Christ was tired?! Is this part of Christ experiencing what it is to be human, or is there something more? The unfolding of the conversation between this woman and Christ reveals this is not a random meeting.
In other places in the Gospel the word “tired” or “weary” comes up as a condition where Man comes to an end of his human strength. It opens the longing for rest—and then may follow an invitation for rest and renewal– in the Lord. To John the Baptist, asking from prison, “are you the one, or should we look for another?” Christ answers: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11)
We know the experience of being weary and then finding new strength in our own determination or enthusiasm for the goal or through the encouragement of others. What we may overlook is that these sources of the renewal of strength may actually be sent from Christ sending these impulses to us.
But Christ also shows the surprising means by which He himself overcomes his own weariness: and that is through thirst! Thirst leads him further, it opens the conversation with the Samaritan woman. Their conversation opens to the thirst of the spirit…
If we look in the Bible, we find some contexts which would have been familiar to contemporaries of Christ and to us, and in some contexts thirst is actually positive, the source for deepening the relationship to the divine: (Psalm 42) “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” and (Psalm 63) “O God, you are my God; I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for you…” Moses, leading the Israelites out of Egypt, had to create a new source to quench their thirst. (Isaiah 48) “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts. He made the water flow out of the rock for them. He split rock and the water gushed forth.” And most clearly, Christ’s own words, (John 7) “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”
The final unification of Christ with his human body is through thirst on the cross at the Crucifixion: “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said: ‘I am thirsty.’” (John 19) The scripture referred to was the prophecy in psalm 64: “…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
Christ speaks of a thirst that is not desperation, it is the opening of a deep creative source from which he can unite– creating with our will. The ultimate purpose of thirst is to drive us to the source that quenches thirst. And in the mystery language of the meeting with the woman at the well, where so much more is understood than the face value of the words, Christ and the Samaritan woman speak of the deepest thirst of worship. It is a thirst for communion beyond the forms of religious practice, beyond custom and place. Thirst persists until the soul opens a spring of water of life, unites with truth.
And then the spirit can drink in truth. Just as water is necessary for the life of a plant—and all life– so our inner life needs to be fed by spirit-water from the one who says: “he who believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6) The soul can unfold in the power of the spirit like plants unfold leaves—and our language even knows this secret: the word “be-lief” is more than faith; belief is literally the “leafing-out” of the soul nurtured by the water of life. Belief washes our eyes so we can recognize when “He will show us all things” (John 4) Belief taps into the water welling up to eternal life. It is the source we recognise as love.