It has long been noted that this scene of the woman at the well of Samaria shares many characteristics with the OT stories of a man finding a wife at a well, such as in the narratives of Isaac (Gen 24:10-61), Jacob (Gen 29:1-30) and Moses (Ex 2:15-22). Robert Alter referred to this form as a “repeated biblical type-scene” with five typical elements: 1) a future bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land; 2) he encounters a girl or a group of girls at a well; 3) one of these characters draws water from the well; 4) the girl or the group goes home to tell about the encounter with the stranger; and finally 5) a betrothal is arranged and concluded, usually following an invitation to a meal. All except the last of these are present in John 4:5-42.
Other areas of similarity with OT passages include: Jesus’ invitation to stay with the Samaritan people in their city, just as the OT patriarchs (or their agents) were welcomed by the family of the girls met at the well (cf. Gen 24:24ff; 29:13ff; Exodus 2:20-21); his request for a drink of water (cf. Gen 24:17); and his refusal to eat until his mission was accomplished (Gen 24:33; cf. John 4:31-34). Two details of place and time also would remind the readers of earlier OT passages: Jesus sits on the edge of the well, just as Moses does (Exodus 2:15); and Jesus meets the woman at noon (“the sixth hour”—4:6) around the same time of day that Jacob meets Rachel (Gen 29:7).
Despite these similarities, however, this is not a betrothal narrative. Instead, John elaborates much more significantly and specifically on the meaning of the water in the well at the centre of this scene than any previous story of its kind in Scripture. The connection of water and identity in this passage begins with the woman’s response to Jesus’ request for water: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (v. 9). The request for a drink in the preceding verse now becomes the thing that brings up the question of identity. It is the drink of water which connects Jesus, a Jew, with the woman, a Samaritan, both verbally and physically. The request for water, a natural one given the context of the meeting, is both the conversation starter and the vehicle for bringing Jesus and the woman into relationship with each other.
But water at the same time represents everything which separates these two characters: he is a pious Jewish male; she is a Samaritan female who, perhaps, has not always lived in a religiously devout way (cf. 4:17-18). The obstacles to communication between these two were numerous and nearly insurmountable. But Jesus, by the simple act of asking for a drink of water, cuts through these accumulated social, religious and cultural conventions to build a relationship with this woman.
After the woman’s quizzical question of why he is even associating with her, Jesus responds: “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” (v. 10). This introduces the topic of Jesus’ identity. The “living water,” the “gift of God,” and Jesus’ identity all seem to be related. In this verse Jesus implies that knowing the gift itself is not good enough—one also must know the giver because the identity of the giver impacts the significance of the gift in some way. Recognizing Jesus’ identity is the crucial element in the recognition of the water’s importance.
Only God can give the spirit; therefore, when Jesus offers the woman living water, a common symbol for the coming of the spirit, he makes a profound statement about who he is. The woman didn’t ask him for literal water because Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common. However, Jesus is more interested in why she does not ask him for spiritual “water” and concludes that it is because she does not know who he is. If she had, she would have asked and he would have given it to her (v. 10). The implication, then, is that if she knew that he was special, she would also have known that the water he gave was special. She doesn’t recognize the unique qualities of the water because she does not recognize the unique person of Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, the properties of this spiritual “water” result from its association with Jesus and, by extension, the Father. It has no particular significance on its own.
As Jesus predicted in v. 10, the woman only understands him on a physical level, for she responds to his remark with: “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”(v. 11). The woman clearly demonstrates that she neither recognizes Jesus nor catches the double meaning of “living water.” Understanding this play on words is crucial to recognizing Jesus’ identity, and the woman does neither. Instead, she is fixated on the physical difficulties presented by his statement—how Jesus is going to draw water from a well without a bucket. She then seemingly switches subjects abruptly asking, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and flocks drank from it?” (v. 11)
Jesus does not directly answer the question about Jacob, but instead returns to the issues of water and identity: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (vv. 13-14). It is significant that here the spiritual or “living” water is qualified and described by its relationship to the person of Christ: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of living water. . . .” This is in contrast to the water of the well (“this water”), which will leave people perpetually thirsty. The distinction between the two is the fact that the “living” water originates from Jesus himself. This relationship is what gives the water both its significance and its efficacy.
The woman responds, enthusiastically one assumes: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (v. 15). The woman now thinks she understands Jesus’ identity; she at least comprehends that this source of perpetual water will come from him. However, it is clear she is still thinking in earthly terms, which means she still does not know who Jesus truly is. At this point she believes him only to be someone who may be able to provide her with an everlasting source of fresh water which will save her the dreary daily task of hauling water from the well to her house. She has not yet got the point that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But she should not be expected to be able to do this yet, as she has not yet fully grasped Jesus’ identity. It is only when she does this that she can understand what the water he is offering her represents.
In verses 16-18 Jesus turns the conversation from tentative questioning about who he is to a discussion of the woman’s identity. This may not seem to modern eyes like a conversation about identity, but in a patriarchal society where a woman was largely identified by her husband and/or his standing in the community, the question of whether she was married and to whom was significant. Jesus asking her to call her husband could imply that he wants to meet him in order to know more about her. It likewise could be an instance of Jesus observing the niceties of proper social interaction; he really should not be talking to a woman alone, especially not a married woman–her husband should be present before their conversation progresses any further. However, since this conversation has operated on two different levels throughout, it seems that Jesus probably had another more “spiritual” intention as well: that of revealing a bit more of his identity to the woman by revealing his knowledge of her.
By subtly implying that he knows all about her marital situation, despite the fact that they met only moments before, Jesus reveals his omniscience. This brings the woman one step further down the path to understanding who Jesus is when she identifies him as a prophet (v. 19). She reinforces this understanding of him by quizzing him on a major point of contention between the Jews and Samaritans—the proper place for worship. Something in Jesus’ speech to her about worship (vv. 21-24) causes her to bring up the topic of the coming Messiah (the taheb in Samaritan belief) who will “proclaim all things to us” (v. 25). Jesus then, finally, directly identifies himself as this coming Messiah in v. 26.
What is the role of the water imagery in all this? In the early part of the Gospel water imagery is closely linked with the identity of Jesus, as only the “one who is from above” is capable of providing the living water that is associated with the spirit. If Jesus has not come from God, then the water he provides would be no more potent than that in Jacob’s well; but the fact that he does come from God is what makes his water unique. For one to recognize the water as special, one must also acknowledge the unique identity of the giver. Conversely, if one knows who the giver is, then one must assume that what he gives is more than just ordinary water. Therefore, the nature of the water and the identity of the giver are intimately intertwined. Just as Jacob’s well was set apart as special because of its association with one of Israel’s great forefathers (cf. vv. 6, 12), so also is the water Jesus gives distinct from all around it by virtue of its relationship to his person.
The leaving behind of the water jar in v. 28 has been interpreted in various ways. This detail could have been included simply to show the woman’s excitement and haste to get back to her village and spread the word about the man she had met. But it might have more symbolic significance: since she has now found the spiritual “living water” she has no need for the physical water or, by extension, for a jar to carry it in. It also could be an indication of her permanent change of mind about the identity of Jesus. Since his identity and the nature of water are so linked in this passage, the leaving of the jar could also represent the leaving behind of the previous misunderstandings of Jesus’ identity as a Jewish rabbi, a miracle worker, and a prophet. Now that she has grasped his true identity, she has left behind the lesser conceptions of who he is. Now that she has acknowledged his true identity, she also recognizes the potency of the spiritual “water” that he offers.
 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981), 51-52.