The Woman at the Well
We are continuing our study of the gospel of John and focusing on the three themes John pursues in his gospel narrative: Jesus showing both His human and divine natures, and people either accepting or rejecting His witness.
In chapter 4 we see Jesus leaving the populated areas of Jerusalem and Judea to return northward to His hometown and area around the Sea of Galilee. On this particular journey John recounts Jesus' encounter with a certain woman at a well and in so doing will touch each theme contained in his gospel.
Vs. 1-4 – Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria.
We saw in the last chapter the idea that Jesus did not want to confront the Pharisees so early in His ministry (to avoid public strife and guarantee future safe access to the city). When He sees that they are tracking Him, He leaves the capital city area to return to the friendlier and more remote area of Galilee.
In order to make the journey, He had to pass through what used to be the Northern Kingdom but was now called the region of Samaria.
The Samaritans were the half-breed or mixed race descendants of the Jews who had originally inhabited the Northern Kingdom. They had been defeated in 722 BC by the Assyrians and scattered among pagan nations. Eventually they had drifted back to populate the areas where the old Northern Kingdom once stood. They were no longer full-blooded Jews having intermarried with foreign nations, but still claimed Abraham as their ancestor as the Jews did. Because they lived in the old region of the Northern Kingdom with Samaria as its capital, they and their region were referred to as Samaritans and Samaria.
Vs. 5-6 – So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob's well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
Samaria was once the capital of the Northern Kingdom, but by this time had been reduced considerably. The well is still there today, still providing water; one can visit it (inside a church building built over it). It was located near the place where Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was said to have had his bones buried after the Jews left Egypt and carried his remains with them.
Note that John describes Jesus as being tired from the journey He was on. He was hot, tired, dusty and thirsty. Doesn't that sound like a human being's response to a long walk in the hot sun? This place was about 31 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem. Jesus was probably on the second day of His journey north. It was noon, the hottest time in a very warm climate. He arrives at this cool spot and sits to rest before moving on.
In order to understand more fully the amazing encounter Jesus has with the woman he meets here, it is helpful to know how the Jews felt about the Samaritans. In a word, they hated them because they were of mixed blood and therefore considered an impure race. They hated them because the Samaritans worshipped at Bethel, a place of worship in the North, established by the northern king Jeroboam long before, in order to keep the people from going to Jerusalem to worship and thus eroding his power base in the North. In addition to this, they accepted only the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures as authentic and rejected the prophets.
Of course, the hatred was mutual because the Jews had rejected the Samaritans' offer of help to rebuild the temple after the southern Jews returned from their exile in Babylon. For this rejection and their superior attitude, the Jews had earned the reciprocal hatred of the Samaritans.
And so Jesus ventures into this town and meets a Samaritan woman who herself was coming to draw water on that hot noon day.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman
Note that the woman is drawing water at noon, an unusual time because the normal time for this would be at evening. Note also that she was alone, a fact that will have meaning as we learn more about her.
Vs. 7-8 – There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink." For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.
It would be normal for a human being in this situation to ask for a drink. The amazing and ironic thing is that the fountain of life Himself asks for mere water. He was traveling with His followers who had left Him there to buy food in the nearby town.
Vs. 9 – Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
She rebuffs Him because of the social barriers that separate them: man/woman barrier and Jew/Samaritan barrier.
Vs. 10 – Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."
Jesus responds now as the Son of God, not the weary and thirsty traveler. He answers her by telling her that what He asks for is very small in comparison to what He (as the Son of God) is able to give her.
He offers "living water" a concept that goes far beyond social custom or old rivalries; a spiritual gift described by using spiritual words. Actually the term was used by Jeremiah in the Old Testament in warning the Southern Kingdom of its imminent destruction because of their sinful idolatry (Jeremiah 2:13). Jeremiah referred to God, who was the source of life, truth and light: the living water who would punish them for their sins.
Jesus tells her that if she knew who He was, He would give her the "living water" the spiritual life she needed. Of course, Jesus is saying that knowing Him and knowing the Truth, and obtaining the "living water" were all one and the same and wrapped around Himself.
Vs. 11-12 – She said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?"
Note how she responds, how her response is similar to Nicodemus. When confronted with the reality of Jesus' person Nicodemus questioned the "literalness" or "meaning" of Jesus' spiritual words, "born again." He thought in literal terms, actually returning to the womb to be born a second time!
The Samaritan woman examines Jesus' words in the same literal way was well. For example, I do not think you are referring to this water in the well because you have no pot to use, and it is deep. So what do you mean by "living water"? Are you even greater than Jacob, the one who originally gave us the well itself? In other words he gave us the well that sustains our lives and animals; can you give us something greater than this?
Vs. 13-14 – Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life."
Jesus now points out the difference between natural water and the living water that He is offering her.
- Natural water satisfies temporarily, it is earthly, natural, and temporal.
- Living water satisfies completely and without end.
- Whoever drinks natural water will eventually die, it only keeps him alive for so long. Whoever drinks the spiritual living water will never die.
We know, of course, that Jesus Himself is that living water and that we drink Him in by believing and obeying His Word.
Vs. 15 – The woman said to Him, "Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw."
The woman has shifted from disbelief and doubt to curiosity, so she asks Him two questions:
- Could she have this water?
- If she could, would it mean that she would not have to come out each day at this time to fetch water? (I will explain the significance of this in a minute.)
Vs. 16-18 – He said to her, "Go, call your husband and come here." The woman answered and said, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You have correctly said, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly."
Jesus responds to her changed attitude by delving into her personal life. She responds honestly and Jesus reacts to her openness by revealing more of His own true nature and showing His intimate knowledge of her past, especially her sinful past. This may be why she was alone at noon to draw water; she may have been shunned by the other women of the village because of her background.
Note that Jesus offers her the "living water" or "new birth," but like all others she needs to begin with faith and repentance.
Vs. 19-20 – The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship."
The woman goes from curiosity to a preliminary faith; she sees Jesus as a prophet of sorts (not fully correct but moving in the right direction). Based on what Jesus has demonstrated, she goes on to ask Him a question concerning a major dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews: where is the right place to worship, Bethel or Jerusalem?
Her thinking is that she has been revealed to be a sinner, where then should she go to be cleansed? People would go to the temple to be cleansed of sin, to offer sacrifice for their offenses. She wants to know where is the right place, Bethel or Jerusalem. Her conscience has been moved and it is now important for her to know; there is a hunger for righteousness. Her meeting with Jesus has sparked this. She has drunk the living water and it already is having an effect on her.
Vs. 21-24 – Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
Jesus responds directly to her question and elaborates on the whole issue of worship that speaks not only to the dispute between the Jews and Samaritans, but our own problems with this issue today.
He says 3 things about worship:
- The time is coming when it will not be important where the physical temple will be located. We know this is true today because we are the temple in which God dwells (not a building) and it is unimportant where the meeting places are located (I Corinthians 3:16).
- As far as the present day dispute between the Jews and Samaritans was concerned, Jesus tells her that the correct place to worship (at that time) would be Jerusalem. The Messiah was to come from one of the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), not from the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom.
- It is not where you worship that counts. A person could be in the temple in Jerusalem but not worship properly if his heart was wrong.
If God were physical then the material would be very important (place, time, things used). But God is Spirit and it is the spiritual elements represented by the physical things that are important:
- Singing is physical. A joyful heart, an understanding heart is spiritual.
- Bread and wine are physical. Remembering Jesus in loving unity is spiritual and true.
- Money is physical. Giving generously and joyfully is spiritual and true.
- Words are physical. Preaching, teaching Jesus' words, this is spiritual and true.
We can do the right things, use the right words, but without the right and true spirit our worship is in vain and untrue as well as unspiritual.
Vs. 25-26 – The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."
The woman is on the verge of realizing the truth about Jesus and confesses her belief and hope concerning the Savior to come. The Samaritans believed that the Savior would be a prophet and an earthly ruler (like David was). Their name for him was the "Restorer" or TAHEB. She does not use this term, however, referring to the Savior with the Jewish term, MESSIAH.
Note also how she has gone from rejecting Jesus to voicing her hope in the Savior. She is not far from the truth.
Jesus helps her make the connection by declaring to her that He in fact is the Messiah. This is the climax of this dialogue and very unusual for Jesus to make this direct and dramatic declaration to a single person, let alone a woman from Samaria.
And in His answer He is making her take note that all the things that they hoped the Messiah would do, He has done for her:
- He has offered spiritual life, what the Messiah was supposed to bring.
- He has revealed where the true temple should be, what the Messiah would do.
- He reveals the heart of men, what the prophets said the Messiah would do.
- He knows and reveals what God really wants, true worship, what the Messiah would do.
- He reveals Himself as the Messiah, what the Messiah would do.
Dialogue with the Apostles
By now the Apostles return and comment on the strange scene before them, Jesus actually speaking to a Samaritan woman.
Vs. 27-30 – At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, "What do You seek?" or, "Why do You speak with her?" So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, "Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?" They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.
They voice their surprise at the scene before them. The woman, seeing the others arrive, leaves everything behind and, losing her shame, tells others who she believes Jesus to be. On the strength of her witness, the town gathers to see Jesus.
Vs. 31-38 – Meanwhile the disciples were urging Him, saying, "Rabbi, eat." But He said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples were saying to one another, "No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this case the saying is true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor."
In the meantime the Apostles want Jesus to focus on eating, missing the significance of the moment. The Lord uses the moment to teach them a lesson based on what has happened. Again He speaks to them on a spiritual plane and says the following:
- His satisfaction (and theirs as well) comes from doing God's will, not from physical things. I.e. living water, bread from heaven, not well water and food.
- They have to open their eyes and see how hungry and thirsty the people are for the spiritual food only they have to offer.
- Doing God's will in giving the "living water" to others also brings great satisfaction.
- Joy comes from doing God's will (whatever that is). Some sow, some reap, but both are rewarded for doing God's will.
Of course this is a preview and preparation for the Great Commission He will give them after His resurrection and before His ascension into heaven.
Go into all the world and preach the good news to everyone.
- Mark 16:15
The woman's witness
We do not see the woman again, but the living water springing up in her has now given a thirst to those with whom she has shared the story of her encounter with Jesus.
Vs. 39 – From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all the things that I have done."
Many believed her account and pursued the Lord because of it. Her witness, not her knowledge, works or teaching ability is what affected others.
Vs. 40-42 – So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world."
Her witness affected others in particular ways:
- They came to see Jesus for themselves.
- They were prepared to listen.
- They believed what she said about Him after hearing Him for themselves.
- They also acknowledged their faith in Him.