7.13 The Woman at the Well

Critical Response to
The Woman at the Well

By Adrian van Kaam


Contribution to my understanding of spiritual direction

In this book van Kaam provides an extensive model or an illustration of what formative reading of the Bible looks like. In his epilogue, he explains the “technique” of formative reading but the main text are his own reflections on the text as it was read formatively.


Formative reading (as opposed to informative reading) is probably the most difficult and yet the most “eye-opening” aspect of spiritual formation that people from my Bible Church background experience. It requires that people let go of the need for control. An insight from a formative reading of the text comes through the work of the Spirit. It requires a “quiet heart and mind” (130), waiting in docility on the Spirit (131), dwelling “on the text leisurely” (132) and a surrender in thinking that we can make things happen. Van Kaam notes that the more we read formatively, the easier it becomes. (134) He offers helpful question we can ask as we read formationally, questions that are not analytical or asked out of curiosity. (135-136) He provides various ways a person who reads formatively can check to make sure he/she is not coming to false conclusions or distorting the text (checking doctrine, meeting with a spiritual director and asking if we can communicate our insight in a clear way to others). Van Kaam also suggests using a journal (scripture note book) which can deepen the formative reading experience and which can serve as a “log-book” of our journey. 149


We resist receiving and giving the love of God for various reasons. Sometimes, we fear and are anxious to receive lest we become dependent on someone else or we are taken advantage of in a co-dependent way. We seek to selfishly receive so we can get as much as we can for ourselves (“more interested in his presents than in his person” 39). We may not want to give to others because of various excuses, prejudices or hatreds in our hearts. When we refuse to give, we are unable to receive. And yet, as van Kaam points out, “True generosity sets me free.” 26


Impact on my present call and commitment to shepherd others

The lesson I learned from this book is as follows: “I cannot give if I do not receive. In giving, I am also able to receive.” Although Jesus initiates the discussion with, “Give me a drink”, he knows that the woman needs a drink from him even more. She had to discover her own neediness before she could give a drink to others. I have too often tried to help others with a drink when I myself have not allowed Jesus to fill me with His living water. So many people in the world are thirsty and hungry and yet they are not aware of their thirst. Activities, busyness and self-medication (alcohol, drugs, sports, etc) serve to mask the thirst that exists there. People refuse to admit of their restless desire for God and “repress the awareness of it” because they are “unable to bear the terrible craving for God that eats away at their hearts.” 48 I need to “be attentive to that kind of thirst of Jesus in my fellow men that I can relieve best because of the person I am.” 27 I need not pretend or try to be someone that I am not. Too often I do not see people in need and am lacking in compassion. This is because I have been unable to receive from Jesus. Unless I receive from Him, I have nothing to give.


Only in recent years have I been able to notice my own thirst. Drinking deeply of Jesus has been challenge has been and continues to be often today. There are various attachments and affections that I hold onto and these prevent me from receiving His love. It is only when I give these attachments to Jesus that I am able to give my whole self to Him and receive His love. Van Kaam says, “To live a spiritual life is to excel in the art of receiving without fear or withholding.” 40


I am comforted that the Lord did not give up on the woman and He has not given up on me. This is grace. In the same way, His grace enable me to must persevere with those who initially reject or are hardened or fearful of that which I am offering to give to them—new life in Jesus. In talking with a friend of mine, he said, “I earned everything I have.” Van Kaam helps me to understand this and gives me hope in the future when he says, “The lie of self reliance never covers up the hollowness that gnaws at the core of our existence.” 53 It requires the work of the grace of God to enable a person to see in their own blindness. “God provides the grace of recognition of human emptiness and the grace of recognition of Jesus’ fullness and forgiveness.” 67


Jesus is very gentle with the woman in pointing out the futility of her past and yet he does so firmly. Van Kaam beautifully describes, “There is no reproach, no threat, no sign of repulsion or rejection, only a quiet remembrance of the facts of her life, leaving it up to her to come to a final conclusion. How respectful of her freedom Jesus is!” 69 Van Kaam describes various kinds of shakings that come from God in order to make us aware of our need for Him. 73 And, he points out that once we become aware of our neediness and emptiness, we can never be satisfied with the way life once was.


I know the only way I will stay in this ministry of spiritual direction is by continuing to receive love from the heart of God. As I have received and seen, I am now able to move others people to come and see for themselves this beautiful one that I have met. Thank you God for the awakening and continual awakening you do in my life.


Strengths and weaknesses

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether I was to learn from Jesus or from the woman at the well. I got hung up in the first couple of chapters. I finally discovered that the lesson was about learning from both but primarily about learning from the woman.


The prayers in the middle of the chapters and the poems at the end of each chapter expressed the emotions that I was feeling as I read the book. They allowed me to appreciate in a deeper way what the author and what God wanted to do in me.


It seems that Van Kaam may be reading something into the text when he says that the abandonment of the water jar “is a symbol of her readiness to abandon anything that would interfere with the call she experiences.” 100

Scriptural and use of the masters

Well, this book is basically a reflective study on John 4 and that is the exclusive Scriptural passage to which it refers. The masters are not consulted except for a few comments in the epilogue.

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  1. February 9, 2007 at 9:10 pm

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