On a very-first visit to the Palestinian city of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, our most-celebrated stop was Jacob’s Well, located near the ancient Tel Balata, or Shechem (“Sychar” in John). Here is an extraordinary site, in that it has been qualified by most archaeologists and biblical historians as indisputably authentic.
Of Jesus and the Samaritan woman-at-the-well, we read, “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep'” (John 4.11).
A modern, colorful Greek Orthodox church stands atop the actual site today, with steps going down beneath the altar to a crypt, which displays the well. On the day we visited, an old, bearded monk was on duty selling souvenirs–a man credited with producing many of the beautiful icons (“holy pictures”) that are displayed throughout the nave of the church.
Among the icons was a representation of an earlier monk, who was murdered at the site in late 1979, allegedly by an axe-wielding Jewish settler. The assailant is depicted in the icon as Jews often are–a fierce, black-bearded man in black trousers and broad-brimmed hat. To the right of the altar, atop a glass-enclosed catafalque, rests the body of the murdered monk, the face concealed by a cloth painted with his visage.
Because the site exists today in the vicinity of towns like Nablus and Jenin, which were hotbeds of Palestinian resistance during the Second Intifada of 2000-05, the story of a Zionist murdering a priest, so compellingly retold by the icon and the catafalque, is to many the most intriguing thing about the church.
But not for our group, and certainly not for me. Descending the steep steps to the crypt, and coming face-to-face with the reality that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed here–here in this very nine square feet of space surrounding the well–was by far the most compelling thing.
When I asked how deep was the well, the old monk said 40 meters (about 13 stories of a skyscraper). Then he dutifully rose from his desk and walked over to the well-head, took up a tin cup and dipped it into a bucket of water. Holding his index finger aloft, he asked us to begin counting, as he dumped the water into the well. One . . . two . . . three . . . four seconds we counted before we heard the “splosh” far below.
“Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep.”
To be sure, that same Jesus would care deeply that violence would later be committed at this place. But the significance of his encounter with the woman beside the well was the very possibility of discovering the “living water,” the presence of God in Christ, who alone makes it possible for swords to be made over into plowshares, and for conflicts to cease.
From Jerusalem, Shabbat Shalom to all of our friends in Greensboro!