We see the conversation of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at John 4: 10-12 :

"Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

There is no mention in the Old Testament regarding inheritance of the well by Israel from Jacob, as is claimed by the Samaritan woman. But then, Jesus does not question her belief, and goes on to explain the significance of the water of eternal life. My question therefore is: What does the Catholic Church teach about the significance of reference to Jacob's well at John 4:12?

  • 2
    Can you explain what you need in particular an answer from the Catholic Church?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 4:04
  • One does not need to 'inherit' a water source if one owns the land on which the feature is sited. Jesus does not dispute the woman's historical view, but that does not necessarily mean that her account is factually accurate.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 9:59

2 Answers 2


What does the Catholic Church teach about the significance of reference to Jacob's Well in John 4:12?

The Catholic Church does not place any particular significance to the reference of Jacob’s well in the Gospel of St. John. In fact we do not know for sure where the actual well existed.

Jacob’s well is only mentioned in John’s Gospel, so biblical information about it is quite limited. However, tradition and archaeology provide more detail about the well’s original owner and its location.

In chapter 4 of his Gospel, John recorded the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman. Samaria was located in the northern half of the formerly united Israel, and Jesus was passing through it on His way from Judea to Galilee. Outside the town of Sychar, “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well” (John 4:6). He asked a woman to give Him something to drink from what she drew (John 4:7), and she wondered why a Jewish man would speak to a Samaritan woman—Jesus was breaking a cultural taboo because of both race and gender (John 4:9). Jesus then offered her “living water” (John 4:10). This confused her, and she responded, “Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” (John 4:11-12). Apparently, the history of the well was common knowledge.

The traditional site of Jacob’s well cannot be located by finding Sychar, as that city is no longer in existence. However, the site thought to be the biblical Shechem, called Tel Balata by archaeologists, is near a well. This is important because the Bible says Jacob bought land from Shechem and lived at that place for a long time (Genesis 33:19). He would have required a well, and it is perfectly reasonable that he dug one. Also, the well at Tel Balata is indeed of ancient origin. These biblical and geographical facts point to the site as a good match for what the Samaritan woman called “Jacob’s well.”

Today, the well is inside the Church of St. Photina (the name traditionally given to the Samaritan woman by the Orthodox Church—the name is Svetlana in Russian). The church was originally built in A.D. 380. Through the years, the church was destroyed a number of times by natural and military forces. The current building is administrated by the Greek Orthodox Church, which obtained the site in 1893. The church and the well can be visited today in the West Bank.

The significance of Jacob’s well is that it provided an opportunity for Jesus to present Himself as the life-giving Messiah to a Samaritan woman and, later, to her whole village. The woman had asked, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” Jacob may have provided his children with physical water in an arid land, but Jesus provides His children with “living water” in a spiritual wasteland. The life Jesus gives satisfies all our needs and springs up to eternal life (John 4:14). - What is the significance of Jacob’s well?

Mouth of Jacob’s Well

Mouth of Jacob’s Well

The only minor significance with the Church could perhaps be of some pius Catholic traditions or customs that exist in a few countries, such as the following:

In Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico, a celebration of the Samaritan woman takes place on the fourth Friday of Lent. The custom of the day involves churches, schools, and businesses giving away fruit drinks to passers-by. (1) - Samaritan woman at the well


I think what Jesus might have known from traditions alive in His time would count as a Catholic answer, and this is precisely what a retired Catholic Professor of New Testament Studies at Notre Dame, Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., investigated in his article titled "Jacob Traditions and the Interpretation of John 4:10-26" published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol 41 Issue 3 (1979).

I cannot find the PDF of the journal article, but the contents is accessible in the space allocated to his username at the Notre Dame website, but it has the wrong character set so I corrected it and made a PDF out of it.

This is Prof. Neyrey's line of inquiry, which included the OT, Targum, and Midrash:

Since John's text is explicit about Jacob at this point (4:5,6) and pointedly asks if Jesus is "greater than Jacob" (4:12), a systematic inquiry into the Jewish materials concerning Jacob seems warranted. The very question of the woman presupposes that Jacob is a well-known person, such that the points of comparison between Jesus and Jacob would be evident to the audience, both from its knowledge of the biblical text and from interpretations of that text found in sources such as targum and midrash. It is precisely this material which I propose to investigate: what is presupposed by the author to make "greater than Jacob" an intelligible statement and what importance does this comparison have for the understanding of the passage?

Although many of the sources of information about Jacob come from writings transcribed considerably later than John's Gospel, it will be shown that many of the Jacob traditions in them are presupposed by the argument in John 4, which fact presents evidence that these traditions certainly existed prior to John. Even when specific traditions, such as Jacob's visions of a future, restored temple, cannot be dated as early as John, nevertheless there seems to be evidence suggesting that Jacob texts were already loci for such expansion and that such lines of expansion were well under way in the first century. John's text, therefore, may prove to be an important relay station in the development of certain Jacob traditions even as it witnesses to a frequency which will soon bear greater traffic of legendary expansion.

And this is his conclusion:

THE SYSTEMATIC examination of Jacob traditions has thrown light on several statements in John 4: 10-26.

  1. The text was shown to presuppose allusions to Jacob's miracle of automatically rising well water and to the identification of the well as God's gift. The primary Jacob allusion, however, seems to be the etymological appreciation of Jacob as "supplanter." Hence, the fundamental point of 4: 12 is to assert that Jesus supplants Jacob and all the traditions associated with Jacob, in particular Jacob's legitimation of a correct place of worship and eschatological knowledge. Being "greater" means in fact that Jesus supplants Jacob in an absolute way. He gives water such that the one who drinks it will never thirst (4:14), for the new water will well up to "eternal life."

  2. In 4:16-18 it seems that the revelation of the woman's confusing matrimonial situation is calculated to evoke echoes of courtship meetings at wells in Genesis, especially Jacob's meeting with Rachel. The point of this allusion seems to be tied to an aspect of marriage as covenant/worship. Jesus' knowledge of her confused matrimonial state leads to questions of worship and finally to the resolution of marital allegiance in 4:42 when Jesus is acknowledged as "Savior of the world" by the Samaritans.

  3. The background of 4:19-20 would seem to include allusions to Jacob both in terms of his vision (Genesis 28), and possibly in terms of his knowledge (Genesis 49). Jacob's vision, which was part of the legitimating process for both Mts. Gerizim and Zion, is supplanted by the revelations from the eschatological prophet, Jesus.

  4. In 4:21-24 there seems to be an allusion to Jacob's remark in Gen 28: 16 ("I did not know"), whereby Jesus supplants Jacob's vision and knowledge by "what we do know." The discussion of 4:23-24 showed that well and water are frequent ciphers for Torah, spirit and knowledge of worship and that these symbols are indeed tied to Jacob's well, as the midrash on Gen 29:1 indicated. Thus the two halves of the discourse are consistent in their presentation of Jesus' new water which is deciphered as the new teaching on "worshipping in spirit and truth." Even in the second half of the discourse at the well (4:19-26), the fundamental allusion to Jacob is still that of supplanter. The sectarian Johannine community is not simply claiming that Jesus is supplanting Jacob's well; rather Jesus as the supplanter is invalidating all previous cui tic places and rites and is replacing them with a worship centered in Jesus' own person (4:42). Thus it is not a question of comparision between Jesus' and Jacob's waters which is at issue (4:12-15); absolute claims are made by the Johannine community on behalf of Jesus, claims which deal with no less than "true worship" of God.

  5. Why Jacob? Of all the OT patriarchs, Jacob is most closely associated with cult, either the place of worship or knowledge about worship (Gen 28: 11-17). This association is utilized by John as he systematically asserts the superiority of Jesus to Moses, Abraham and other founding fathers of Jewish religion. In the apology for the correctness and even the superiority of Christian worship, Jacob was an apt foil to Jesus for legitimizing Christian practices in John's community.

  6. Finally, since the primary thrust of the question in 4: 12 was to present Jesus as supplanting Jacob and traditions associated with him, a summary of the worship replacement motif in the Gospel might be in order. The Jewish waters of purification are supplanted by Christian purificatory rites, only one of which seems to be baptism (see 13:5-10). Moreover, what constitutes impurity seems to be redefined in John's community; Jesus was in no way contaminated by the Samaritan woman [55] but rather became the source of purification for her and her and her fellow Samaritans, thus suggesting a supplanting of Jewish notions of what is unclean. The old well of Torah is supplanted by a new font of revelation, Jesus himself. The superiority of the new rites and the new Torah lies in their effecting satisfaction "forever" (cf. 4: 13-14). The old places of worship are invalidated and replaced with a new time, a new place, and a new mode of worship. Although Jesus is greater than Jacob, he does not replace God in the community's worship. But confession of him as prophet, Messiah, and Savior of the world and even as equal to God becomes part of the true worship of God who stands behind Jesus ("the Father seeks such to worship him" Jn 4:24). To this summary one might add the replacement of manna with the bread of life, the supplanting of Jewish feasts with Christian feasts which celebrate Jesus as the new lamb, the light, the water, etc. [56] Understanding how the Jacob allusions function invites us further to reinvestigate the worship of the Johannine community, especially in its dialectical conflict with supplanted Jewish rites.

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