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At the end of Jesus' conversation with the woman by the well, John records

28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

Does John intend his audience to see the water jar as more than a literal physical object? How do we know?

This is a specific issue arising from the more general question How can we determine when an image is a symbol?

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I assumed he included it to show that she made haste -- ceramic water jugs aren't exactly light-weight (so they slow you down), yet this would probably be valuable enough that you normally wouldn't want to leave it behind. –  Gone Quiet May 21 '13 at 17:53

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I would say yes. Earlier in verses 11-14, John records this exchange:

“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?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

In other words, the contrast is already set up between the water that can be drawn with a jug and the water that Jesus gives. The woman is clearly depicted as one in John's gospel who believes, and so she is one who receives the living water that Jesus offers. Leaving the water jug behind shows that her life has been changed from one where she has to keep coming to the same well over and over again (five husbands and a sixth man) to one where she has found an endless wellspring of life.

Probably the symbolism could be pressed further as well. The link that the woman makes in the exchange above is with the well that Jacob provided, and the woman asks, "Are you greater than he?" One of the early themes in John is Jesus' relative (and absolute) greatness. He's the one, though after John, who surpasses him. He tells Nathanael he will see "greater things than these." He offers "the best wine" out of ceremonial washing jars. He is the greater temple. And John offers, "He must become greater, I must become less."

All of these things compare Jesus with the ministry that has gone before him - that of the prophets, the temple, etc... So it should be no surprise that there is a comparison here also to the patriarch Jacob, represented by the great well, with Jesus, representing the greater well of the Spirit. This accords with Jesus' statement that, "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem." In leaving behind the water jug to testify that Jesus is the Christ, John is symbolizing that the Samaritan woman has left behind the old way of worship to pursue a new worship that is by the Spirit.

(We see a similar pattern later in John 9, when the blind man only after leaving the synagogue finds Jesus and worships him.)


With symbolism like this there isn't always a definitive way to "know" that you have understood the symbols. Sometimes the author kindly spells it out for you (e.g. Rev. 19:8). But often times, as they say, "the proof of the pudding is in the tasting." Symbols are best established through repeat usage and patterns. Whether a pattern is actually established, though, isn't always clear; and that's where some people might feel more/less bold in their exegesis.

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I will present the "no" perspective.

Short Answer: John expected his readers to see the water jar as an actual, literal, physical water jar. With that said, John had a reason for mentioning the water jar, and it was probably to show the woman's sudden change in priorities.

Symbols in Scripture

It is true that throughout Scripture there are times when an image is used symbolically. Here are some of the most common instances where this occurs:

  • When the speaker is using a figure of speech, such as a metaphor. Example:

I am the vine, you are the branches -John 15:5

Note that in these cases the symbol is not to be taken literally. Jesus is not claiming to be an actual, literal, physical vine.

  • When the speaker is telling a "this = that" allegory. Example:

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one -Matthew 13:37-38

Note that most parables are not "this = that" allegories. These are very rare in Scripture. Also note that these symbols are not to be taken literally. The sons of the evil one are not actual, literal, physical tares.

  • When God is communicating something unfamiliar (e.g. future or spiritual) in a dream or vision. Example:

As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. -Revelation 1:20

Note that in these cases the symbol is not to be taken literally. Jesus is not claiming to have seven actual, literal, physical stars in His right hand.

To summarize the use of symbols in Scripture: They are not to be taken literally.

Themes in Scripture

In contrast with symbols, we also see "themes" in Scripture. For instance, a quick read through the book of 1 John will make it evident why many regard this as "the book of love": The author talks a lot about love! That does not imply that "love" is a symbol of some sort... it merely suggests that this is a central topic throughout the letter.

The water jar

Now, to address the specific instance of the water jar in John 4.

  • Is it a metaphor? No.

  • Is it a "this = that" allegory? No.

  • Is it a dream or vision from God about things unfamiliar? No.

What is it? It is a story about a woman at a well who left her water jar behind as she left to proclaim her experiences with Jesus to her kinsmen.

  • Is it related to a theme in the Gospel of John? Yes: water.

  • Does that mean it is a symbol? No.

So why did John include the detail about her leaving her water jar behind? Probably to highlight her drastic shift in focus. Throughout the story she was fixated on the actual, literal, physical water as Jesus attempted to point her attention toward the true water which He came to bring. After much discussion, Jesus finally got through to her and she left her water jar to go tell everyone what had happened to her. Suddenly something more important than her water had come up in her life, and she left promptly to go share it with others.

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I guess I assumed the standard definition of a symbol as something that stands in for or represents something else. What definition do you consider the OP to be using? –  Soldarnal May 25 '13 at 4:52
    
@Soldarnal When I had asked for clarification on the OP's definition of "symbol" I proposed several common uses of the word, including a prefigurement of something future. My impression from the clarifying edit was that this was not what the OP meant. This is why I left out typology, for instance. I think it would be easy to show that God does temporal things in order to communicate spiritual / eschatological truths (as I indicated here), but I'm not sure that is relevant to John 4. –  Jas 3.1 May 25 '13 at 5:05
    
Where would something like the twelve stones on the high priest's robe fit in? Do they symbolize anything in your view? Or do the number of stones match the number of tribes by coincidence? Or is there some eschatological truth behind them? –  Soldarnal May 25 '13 at 5:11
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@Soldarnal I think any time we see God giving instructions about something earthly and temporal (such as Ezekiel's brick, or the stones on the high priest's robe) we should expect that He meant something meaningful (spiritual / eschatological) by it. So without going into detail, yes I see great significance in the 12 stones on the high priest's robe. But again, God gave explicit instruction about these details, and took great care in explaining them and equipping natural-minded people to craft them, and pointing to their significance throughout Scripture. The water jar is a different story. –  Jas 3.1 May 25 '13 at 5:22
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@Jas3.1 I also think "John expected his readers to see the water jar as an actual, literal, physical water jar." But that does not rule out symbolism. I asked did John intend his audience to see it as more than literal NOT less. As I stated in my original question, "a symbol is a tangiable representation of an intangiable idea." That definition says nothing about the literalness or historical fact of the symbolic object, action, charachter, or image. –  Matthew Miller May 25 '13 at 7:13

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