The Gospel of John is known for its unique narrative. John mentions several events and places that are not referred to in Matthew, Mark or Luke. This report is devoted to a site mentioned only in John, chapter 4: “Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well” (John 4:5-6). Here Jesus met a Samaritan woman who came to draw water from the well. Jesus explained to her the spiritual meaning of the “water of life.” A crowd gathered around them, and “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him” (John 4:39). Jesus stayed two days with them, and then continued his journey to Galilee.
The two place names mentioned in this event are intriguing. “Jacob’s well” is not really an accurate translation of the Greek text, which literally reads “Jacob’s spring.” Yet apparently the water source is a well, because the Samaritan woman stated, “the well is deep” (John 4:11). Such a place is not known from the Old Testament, nor in the writings of the first century CE historian, Josephus. Nor does either these sources mention “Sychar” but two ancient Greek versions of the New Testament (Sinaiticus and Curentonian Syrian) use the word “Suchem”, instead of “Sychar”. “Suchem” is no doubt Biblical Shechem, a city that was also a Samaritan centre in antiquity. The Old Testament records that Jacob purchased a plot in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18-19), and before his death he gave the land to his son Joseph (Genesis 48:22). Later Joseph was buried there (Joshua 24:32).
This is un doubtfully the “plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph” mentioned in John 4:5.
Both Muslims and Jews venerate the traditional site of Joseph’s tomb to this day. It is located at Maqam en-Nebi Yusuf, near Tel Balatah, the site of Biblical Shechem. The fourth century historian and geographer Eusebius stated that Jacob’s well is near Shechem, and that “now a church has been built there” (Eusebius, Onomasticon 164:1-4). The Madaba mosaic map, a cartographic description of the Holy Land from the sixth century CE, depicts a red-roofed building near Shechem and it is labeled “Here is Jacob’s well.” Indeed about 500m east of Tel Balatah is a site identified to this day as Jacob’s well.
It is close to the ancient city so that the Samaritan women could indeed have come here from Shechem to draw water and return with a heavy jar. A church was constructed over the well by the fourth century CE, and it is one of the very few churches to be graphically documented by Arculf, a pilgrim who visited the Holy Landin 670 CE. His plan shows a cruciform-shaped church built over Jacob’s well. Arculf measured the depth of the well and said it was 72m deep. The well is about 40m deep today. In any case the Samaritan woman was right when she said, “The well is deep” (John 4:11).
When the crusaders ruled the Holy Land (1099-1291 CE) they built a new church at the site, but it was completely destroyed after their expulsion by the Muslims.
In 1885 the Greek Orthodox Church purchased the property of Jacob’s well and with financial backing mostly from the “white” Russian church, they began the construction of a new church over the site in 1903. The
Communist revolution of 1917 halted the work for nearly a century, but in the 1990’s work was resumed and recently construction of the church was finally completed.
The Temple on mount Gerizim
In the discussion with Jesus beside Jacob’s well, the Samaritan woman referred to an adjacent mountain, of which she said, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain” (John 4:20). The mountain that the Samaritans have venerated from antiquity is Mt Gerizim, which together with Mt Ebal forms the valley in which the city of Shechem is located. In the fourth century BCE the Samaritans built a temple on top of the mountain similar to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Hasmoneansdestroyed the Samaritan temple in the second century BCE, and in the second century CE the Romans built a temple to Jupiter near the summit of Mt Gerizim. In the fifth century CE, following a Samaritan rebellion, the Byzantines built a church on top of the ruins of the Samaritan temple, which can be seen to this day. Despite the persecutions, which continued also under Muslim rule, the Samaritans managed to retain their religious identity and worship and continue to venerate their holy mountain to this day. Every year they still perform the traditional Samaritan Passover ceremony, which includes the sacrifice of one lamb per family, in strict conformity with the Mosaic injunctions in Exodus (12:2ff).