Jacob’s well is only mentioned in John’s Gospel, so biblical information about it is quite limited. However, tradition and archaeology provide more detail about the well’s original owner and its location.
In chapter 4 of his Gospel, John recorded the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman. Samaria was located in the northern half of the formerly united Israel, and Jesus was passing through it on His way from Judea to Galilee. Outside the town of Sychar, “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well” (John 4:6). He asked a woman to give Him something to drink from what she drew (John 4:7), and she wondered why a Jewish man would speak to a Samaritan woman—Jesus was breaking a cultural taboo because of both race and gender (John 4:9). Jesus then offered her “living water” (John 4:10). This confused her, and she responded, “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 flocks and herds?” (John 4:11-12). Apparently, the history of the well was common knowledge.
The traditional site of Jacob’s well cannot be located by finding Sychar, as that city is no longer in existence. However, the site thought to be the biblical Shechem, called Tel Balata by archaeologists, is near a well. This is important because the Bible says Jacob bought land from Shechem and lived at that place for a long time (Genesis 33:19). He would have required a well, and it is perfectly reasonable that he dug one. Also, the well at Tel Balata is indeed of ancient origin. These biblical and geographical facts point to the site as a good match for what the Samaritan woman called “Jacob’s well.”
Today, the well is inside the Church of St. Photina (the name traditionally given to the Samaritan woman by the Orthodox Church—the name is Svetlana in Russian). The church was originally built in A.D. 380. Through the years, the church was destroyed a number of times by natural and military forces. The current building is administrated by the Greek Orthodox Church, which obtained the site in 1893. The church and the well can be visited today in the West Bank.
The significance of Jacob’s well is that it provided an opportunity for Jesus to present Himself as the life-giving Messiah to a Samaritan woman and, later, to her whole village. The woman had asked, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” Jacob may have provided his children with physical water in an arid land, but Jesus provides His children with “living water” in a spiritual wasteland. The life Jesus gives satisfies all our needs and springs up to eternal life (John 4:14).