The Ecclesiology of Wells

The association of women and wells in the Scriptures has long been noted by theologians, a symbolism closely connected to marriage which begins in Genesis and climaxes in Revelation. There is a lesson drawn in the water of wells that I’d like to explore, but before that I must trace out the shadow of the church in the form of women and wells. Cling to the ropes, as I rush through the rapids of Biblical imagery.

In the Wisdom literature, the connection is made most explicitly, for after counselling his son to avoid the strange woman, the king writes, “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well” (Proverbs 5:15). And in the Song of Songs, the beloved is described as “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon” (4:15).

This connection of women as wells, and wells as prime wife-finding locations forms the background to the story of Jesus at the well in John 4:6-26. I have no husband, said the woman. Well spoken, Jesus responds, for you have had five husbands and the one you now have is not your husband.

The woman has been with six men,1 but now Jesus, the true Bridegroom, offers her the water of everlasting life. We are to note that he is the seventh man, the one who offers Sabbath rest, but there is an overlooked detail: Jesus sits on the well.((A detail pointed out to me by Alastair Roberts in his Theopolis Lectures, “Theology of the Sexes”)) This is curious because no one sits on a well. Perhaps there is an enthronement reference, a glimpse of the marriage supper of the lamb, but there is a more obvious connection.

In the story of Jacob and Rachel, the well where they meet is covered by a stone. The stone would not be removed until all the flocks were gathered at the well. Jacob makes an odd comment, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the [miqneh] to be gathered together.” The word, miqneh, always refers to livestock and is translated thusly, but it literally means “the purchased”. It seems odd that Jacob would feel the need to tell a bunch of shepherds that it isn’t time for the cows to come home. He suggests they remove the stone and water the flock,((Interestingly, the word “flock” is used three times in Genesis 29:1-11 and the word “sheep” is used seven times.)) but he’s told that they have to wait. In the John 4 passage, Jesus, at noon and sitting on Jacob’s well, looks out and sees a field of white, he sees “the purchased” ready to be harvested. The flock is gathered.

Once Rachel arrives, Jacob rolls the stone away, as another stone2 will be rolled away in the resurrection narrative. Jacob, the supplanter, the heel-catcher,3 opens the well of living waters. This stone, like the stone Moses struck, is Jesus, the chief cornerstone, the rock of our salvation.

But Jesus is also the well, for when he is struck and lifted up between heaven and earth as mediator, from his side flows water and blood. He is a new Adam from which an Eve comes; the rites of water and blood, baptism and eucharist, form the church. He is the True Well and out of his womb4 flows Living Water (John 7:38). Forgive me for this gush of Biblical imagery, the flood of connections threaten to sweep me away at every bend, but at this point I want to tack in another direction.

The weakness of the church, the ineptitude, the callowness, the straying and worldly wantonness, has been noted by every age, by every hard-nosed reformer of Christendom. I don’t think this is wrong necessarily, for wherever there is a body of believers, there will be a multitude of sins. Thankfully, wherever two or three are gathered together in the Name, there will be an Advocate in the Father contending with those sins. Yet there is an abiding fear and suspicion that the church is largely passive in the world; she is a safeplace perhaps, but she is no cultural leader; a follower, but frequently a follower of secular trends and rebellious fads.

Despite this continual slog through sins, however, the church has prospered; advances have been made, but we still view the church as ineffectual and ever threatened. Perhaps this has to do with our view of women, seen as weaker,5 less rational and culturally malleable, in need of protection rather than the mighty fortress. There’s a host of sociological literature, that has —forgive me— poisoned the well of masculinity and femininity and, to be aligned to the Scriptures, it must be eschewed.

Historically, the view of women, particularly sexually, is that they are largely passive and the well imagery seems to affirm this. One ancient view of women was that they were physically deformed men. In the act of conception, according to Aristotle, the male plays the active role, the female a mere receptacle. This view of women seeped into Christianity. Numerous quotes from Augustine and Aquinas could be summoned here, but what I would like to explore here is how much richer the Biblical language is regarding women and well imagery.

There are several words in Hebrew translated “well.” Primarily is the word be’er (root of Beersheba((In Genesis 21, the word for “well” (be’er) is used three times, as is sheba (seven) and shaba (oath), so Beersheba is a double pun, well of seven and well of oaths.))) and the related word bowr (frequently translated “pit” or “cistern”). Occasionally maqowr is translated “well,” but more often rendered “fountain” and “spring.” Perhaps most interesting is mayan, used in Genesis for the “fountains of the great deep” that that are broken in the day of Noah, and only translated “well” a handful of times, but its relative ayin which is the same word translated “eye” or “sight,” is used for “well” numerous times in Genesis. The eye is the organ of judgment, therefore, geo-symbolically speaking, wells are the eyes of the land. This is played upon in Genesis 21, where God opens Hagar’s eyes (ayin) and she sees a well (be’er).

The next time wells are encountered in Genesis is in chapter 24, when Abraham’s servant is sent to fetch a wife for Isaac. The word be’er is used twice, but ayin is used for wells seven times. The servant noticed that Rebekah is very beautiful; eyes have once again been opened.

Proverbs 5 uses all five of these words weaving together women and wells (verses 15-18):

Drink waters from your cistern (bowr),

and the flowing out of your well (be’er).

Dispersed be your fountains (mayan) abroad,

and in the streets,

rivers of water.

Be they to you only,

and not the strangers beside.

Be your fountain (maqowr) blessed,

and rejoice in the wife of your youth.

Finally, in verse 21, the eyes (ayin) of Yahweh are on the ways of man, harkening back to the warning in verse 3, to remove our ways from the strange woman.6 Just as the strange woman is out and about in the streets, the righteous woman is also to be dispersed abroad, but rather than be a consumer (for the mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit, Proverbs 22:14), her acts are productive. Indeed, blessed is the man that is “planted by the rivers of water,” (Psalm 1:3). No doubt he prospers because of the prosperous waters.

Wells are not only eyes, but the mouth of the righteous is called a fountain (maqowr) in Proverbs 13:14. Yahweh himself is called the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9). There is an outward direction in this imagery, yet this word is first used in Leviticus in reference to the female purity laws. The word be’er, in fact, is related to ba’ar meaning engrave/declare. As Eve is the second witness to Adam, the Church, called the Mouth-House by Martin Luther, is to be the witness to the world and is to be the font to the fount of every blessing.

The wells of the Scripture break out and flow, the way water is steadily increased in every iteration of God’s house. The bronze laver of the tabernacle is enlarged in Solomon’s temple and joined by ten other water chariots, and in the vision of Ezekiel 47, there is an impassable river flowing from the temple to the sea beside which are planted fruitful trees. This water brought healing to the world. In fact, the words “living” and “water” appear twelve times in the Hebrew testament (seven times used in reference to the cleansing ritual). Women and wells, as symbol of the Church, are the font of worldly healing.

The ecclesiology of wells challenges us to see women and, in them, the church in a dynamic way. In fact, one of my guidelines in gender discussions, a guardrail really, is applying everything said about women to the church. A certain man says the husband rules over the wife, and it is clear that he will not submit to the church.7 Another who says the wife ought to follow the lead of the husband, will assume the same about the church.

The book of Revelation uses the Greek word for wells (pege) five times, each time translated “fountain.” The first four times, they are terrestrial wells or fountains, but the final time it is used in Revelation 21:6, it is singular. The voice from heaven says, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” The earthly wells all point to the heavenly well.

The ecclesiology of wells resists our efforts to diminish the power of worship, of pairing it with worldly tools, of dividing it from the “real world,” of relegating it to a spiritual sanctum. Wells are seed rivers that bridge the land, connecting heavenly waters with earthly waters. Women are seeding forth seed that bridge the future, connecting the ascendant Lord to the descendant world. This is no mean task.

The final word of the Book of Acts is akolutos a word which means “unhindered.” The book is full of hindrances and the church breaking out into the world. Here is water, says the eunuch to Philip, what hinders me from being baptized? Can any man hinder water, asks Peter, that these should not be baptized? Paul, imprisoned at the end of Acts, under many trials with more to come, is undaunted. The final verse we see Paul preaching and teaching “unhindered.” This is the lesson of wells, the promise of fountains, this is the oneness of the Bride to the Bridegroom, the Spiritual Rock from which flows living water.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.

  1. The detail of Samaria gives a clue as to the significance of the number of men. The tribe of Ephraim, from which come the Samaritans, wandered from YHWH and adopted false gods from the Egyptians (I Kings 12:25-33), Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, Avites and Sepharvites (II Kings 17:30,31). Perhaps also this is a reference to the final six evil kings of Northern Israel: Manasseh, Amon, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah. ↩︎
  2. The stone, like the stone before the tomb of Jesus, is a “great stone.” See Genesis 29:2 and Matthew 27:60 ↩︎
  3. Jacob is associated with stones, a word used twelve times in Genesis, ten of which include Jacob. As the heel-catcher I can’t help but associate him with the Seed whose heel will be bruised. ↩︎
  4. The word is koilia, a feminine noun translated “womb” half the time. ↩︎
  5. Yes, I know the Bible counsels husbands to treat their wife as the weaker vessel, but I also know that the weak things of the world confound the mighty (I Corinthians 1:25, 27). ↩︎
  6. The word for “strange woman” (zuwr) is used three other times in Proverbs 5, verses 10, 17, and 20. ↩︎
  7. For more on this see my previous article “Headship of Christ and Queens.” ↩︎
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