Only John’s Gospel tells the story of the woman at the well. It is one of three momentous conversations that Jesus has with women in this Gospel. He first reveals himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman. A few chapters later he tells Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (John 11:25 NRSV). Then he appears, resurrected, to Mary Magdalene, telling her to go and share the news: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17 NRSV).
John was the disciple who would be entrusted to care for the Mother of God (John 19:26–27). The Gospel that bears his name seems to perceive a grand plan for women in God’s design.
The encounter with the woman at the well is one of Jesus’s numerous unexpected interactions, in which he catches not only his interlocutor but his disciples, and his contemporary society, off guard. He becomes a bridge of healing across peoples (for the Samaritans and the Jews had no dealings with each other), between men and women (for his frank and forward conversation with the woman), and between God and sinners (in that Jesus does not shun her on account of what would have been regarded by many of her contemporaries as her sinful state of life).
All three artists in this exhibition chose to focus their attention closely on Jesus and the woman, reflecting the intense intimacy of their dialogue. The disciples are reduced to one, two, or none, and they do not distract from the momentous encounter.
In each artwork there is an emphasis on the importance of the woman that parallels that in the text. The Ravenna mosaic achieves this through the use of vivid colour; Lavinia Fontana’s painting through the woman’s eye-catching finery and her dominant position as she looks down at Jesus from above; and Diego Rivera through his use of bold curving lines to bestow figurative definition on her amid the dislocations and abstraction of the composition as a whole.
Jesus’s treatment of women has been a source of inspiration for artists for centuries: the numerous early depictions of the woman with the issue of blood, the myriad Noli Me Tangeres in which Mary Magdalene is made apostle to the apostles and, of course, the woman at the well, who—though a very rare subject in the Christian funerary art of the pre-Constantinian period (Wilpert 1932: 306)—would be reproduced countless times in the centuries that followed. The Samaritan woman’s appearance may change—modest, bold, or sensual—but she is always a forceful presence in the work.
In the Ravenna mosaic, Jesus gestures with his right hand towards the woman. In early Christian chironomia (the rhetorical art of hand gesture) the movement is charged with symbolism, signifying speech and / or blessing. It suggests Jesus’s transformative revelation to the woman as she asks about the Messiah—‘I am he,[a] the one who is speaking to you’ (John 4:26 NRSV)—but perhaps also his commissioning of her. The woman, her sins forgiven, is being given a mandate to bring others to Christ. She is being made an evangelist.
Fontana’s work highlights the redemptive element of the story, alongside the surprise of Jesus’s respectful engagement with this woman. Jesus confronts her with the messy truth of her life (John 4:18), but nonetheless calls her to service. Her encounter with Christ changes her life, her past no longer defines her, and now she may go forward to bring others to Christ.
Rivera’s fractured image effectively reflects the modern era, struggling to relate past and present, and divided between beliefs and ideas. The sensuality of his use of line speaks to our age of desires, while the Samaritan woman’s earthenware jug signals the burden of work on the world’s poor. The work’s superimposed shapes and lines seem to evoke the chaotic currents of modern life.
In this context, the hiddenness of Christ may perhaps signal the receding of religion in the public square. Nevertheless, his presence is suggested. He does not impose an objective order on the tumult of the work. Yet, towards the left of the composition, and balancing the figure of the woman, we can discern an upside-down scythe. It is as though the symbol of death has been overturned by living water. The water of the well is green as are the swirls around the base of the canvas; it is the colour of new life. Less a story of evangelizing mission, this work speaks to the hope for universal liberation, moving beyond the confines of people of faith to all those who labour and toil.
4 Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. 4He had to pass through Samarʹia. 5So he came to a city of Samarʹia, called Syʹchar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7 There came a woman of Samarʹia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samarʹia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” 13Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” 26Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30They went out of the city and were coming to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. 35Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. 36He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”