There is a pattern in the Bible of the bride of a patriarch being discovered at a well in a far country. Abraham sent his faithful servant to the east where he found a bride for Isaac. The lovely and virginal Rebekah came out of the city of Nahor to the well, where Abraham’s servant met her (Gen. 24:10–16). Moses met his bride, Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, as he fled to Midian and sat down by a well (Ex. 2:15). Jacob, too, first saw and fell in love with the beautiful Rachel after he had fled to Paddan-aram and was waiting by the well. Now the account of Jacob’s encounter with Rachel is especially instructive. Let’s retrace the story from its beginning.
Jacob suffered the rejection of his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him (Gen. 27:42). But Jacob was destined to have twelve sons who would constitute the tribes of Israel and through whom blessing was to come to all the earth. So Jacob left his father’s house and fled to a far country in order to find a bride (vv. 43–46). As he set out, he came to Bethel. But having no place to lay his head at night, he used a stone for a pillow and dreamed of a stairway connecting heaven and earth. The angels of God were ascending and descending upon this stairway. At the top of the “ladder” stood the Lord, the God of the fathers (28:10–13). Jacob awoke from his dream and anointed the stone, thereby setting forth the site as sacred (28:11, 18). Afterwards Jacob came to the well of Haran. As he waited, the hour being high noon, out of the city came the maiden Rachel (29:7–12). Jacob saw the beautiful Rachel and gave her all his heart. He informed her that he was a near relative, whereupon Rachel left Jacob at the well and ran into the city to announce that he had come. Afterwards Laban, his near kinsman, came out of the city to greet Jacob, and to invite him to receive his hospitality. Then Jacob covenanted with him to have Rachel as his bride (v. 18).
In light of the narrative of Jacob’s encounter with Rachel at the well of Haran, John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar becomes quite poignant. The evangelist invites us to recall the Jacob narrative of Genesis by reporting that Jacob’s well, where Jesus was sitting, was given to Joseph, who was Rachel’s son (John 4:5–6). Moreover, John tells us that the Samaritan woman asked the Lord: “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (John 4:12). In other words, the evangelist is inviting us to compare Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar with Jacob’s meeting Rachel at the well of Haran. Let’s consider how John has framed this story, found in John 4.
In the first chapter of John, Jesus, like Jacob, left His Father’s house to go to a far country (John 1:1, 14). He was rejected by His own brethren (v. 11), although He was to call forth twelve disciples through whom He would create a new Israel, bringing blessing to all the earth (vv. 35–51). Having no place to lay his head (vv. 38–39, see Matt. 8:20), Jesus spoke to Simon about a rock (v. 42) and to Nathaniel about a stairway upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending (v. 51). Now Jesus, like Jacob, was a Bridegroom who had come in search of His bride (3:29). And so Jesus left Judea and came to a far country, to the well of Jacob, and He sat upon the well (John 4:3–6).
We can well imagine all of heaven would have known the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Surely even the angels would have been looking down from heaven’s stairway, gazing upon that well in Samaria and wondering who she would be? Who will be the lovely one the Father has chosen to represent the new Rachel, the one worthy of the new Jacob? How could anyone ever excel Rachel for beauty and purity as much as Jesus excelled Jacob in guilelessness and grace? And so all of heaven waits to behold her, waiting for high noon — the very hour Rachel had come forth to the well. And then the hour strikes, and out of the city she comes. But she is not beautiful. To the astonished wonder of heaven and earth, the Father has chosen one to represent the bride who is neither beautiful nor a virgin (John 4:16–18).
Nonetheless Jesus gives her all His heart, promising her living water (John 4:10). In her surprise she asks the Lord, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (v. 12). But having heard the Lord, she runs back into the city to tell them that a near relative of Jacob has come. So the men come forth from the city to the well to greet Jesus and to invite Him to receive their hospitality (vv. 28–30).
And so what is the answer to the Samaritan’s question? Is Jesus greater than Jacob? Jacob could only love one who was beautiful, one who was pure. But Jesus can love the unlovely into beauty. He can love the unholy into holiness. Surely Jesus is greater than Jacob!