Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour (John 4:6, ESV).
For early readers of John’s Gospel, especially those working through it for the first time, this statement might have brought up some good old-fashioned Old Testament memories.
Many an OT saint had an encounter with a woman at a well. Wells were often a common meeting place in that time, since everyone had to visit it just about once a day to survive. Wells were the watercooler of the ancient world. Typically it was the woman’s responsibility to draw water for the family, and sometimes even for the flock (Gen 29:6, 9, Ex 2:16).
Meeting a woman at a well became a reoccurring motif in the OT. Abraham’s servant waits at a well and prays to meet the right woman to bring back to Isaac (Genesis 24). Jacob meets his eventual bride Rachel at a well (Genesis 29). Moses fends off a group of bullying shepherds for the seven daughters of Reuel and through it comes to meet Zipporah, whom he marries (Exodus 2).
Are you seeing a theme here?
All you single ladies and gentlemen – if you want to find a spouse in the biblical way, find yourself a well.
Combine these well-known biblical motifs with the view of some rabbis around Jesus’ time (that a man shouldn’t speak with a woman in public, that a rabbi shouldn’t instruct a woman from the Torah, and that a Jew shouldn’t have any dealings with a Samaritan; see Morris 1995, p. 242 and Carson 1991, p. 227), and it’s no wonder the disciples reacted as they did when they came upon the scene of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman:
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” (John 4:27 ESV)
A few commentators see some sexual innuendo here (ref. in Michaels 2010, p. 258). Were the disciples wondering if there was an Old Testament-type “meeting at a well” with Jesus and the Samaritan woman?
Against these commentators, I doubt the disciples were wondering if there was any sexual impropriety going on. But I do think, against the backdrop of the societal norms of the day, that the way a “normal” rabbi treated a woman and a Samaritan, and the way Jesus was treating this woman (by just talking with her), this heightens the impact that the story has on contextually-aware readers.
Add to that the OT well motif, and a first-time reader might have been expecting a very different sort of meeting at the well with a woman. All the other women at OT wells were virgins, then brides. This woman was far from a virgin, and a bride five times over already.
Not only does Jesus turn the societal norms upside-down by speaking with this woman, but He also gives the reader something unexpected. The story is set up in such a way as to emphasize the need for evangelizing the lost, even if they are quite different people from the “norm.”