[Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 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.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on 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 the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:3-26).
When talking to people, Jesus had two distinct habits. First, He constantly used earthly things as a means of opening doors to discuss spiritual matters. Second (and related), He refused to keep the discussions above the waterline, insisting that people needed to examine the real heart issues
The conversation Jesus had with the woman of Samaria (the woman at the well) in John 4 is no different. This conversation is one of several that Jesus had with Gentiles during His earthly ministry, and emphasizes His mission to be the Savior of all–including the Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews.
The text tells us that Jesus left Judea and was returning to Galilee. The reason for this is that he “learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)” (vv. 1-2). He did not want to be in the midst of a popularity contest, an wanted no unnecessary friction. So, He withdrew Himself.
The direct path to Galilee would take Jesus and the disciples through Samaria, but observant Jews universally avoided that area in order to avoid being defiled. Jesus, however, “had to” pass through Samaria. He “had to” in the sense that He was to be the Savior of the world (John 3:16), not just the Jews. It would have been during the hottest part of the day (the sixth hour, v. 6, equates to noon), and Jesus was tired, so He sat down beside the well while the disciples went to buy food. It was most likely late spring or summer, and Jesus would have been thirsty.
We know little about the Samaritan woman who came to draw water. Midday would have been an odd time to draw water, being the hottest part of the day. She either came at this time of the day because she needed more water, or because she did not want to meet the other women of the village. Based on what Jesus reveals about her, it is likely she was shunned because of her lifestyle. It was unheard of in that day for Jesus to be talking to her. It was also socially improper for Him to have done so without her husband present (one reason for His statement, “Go, call your husband” in v. 16).
Water Seen an Unseen
Unlike in the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus begins this conversation. he does so by politely asking for a drink of water–not an altogether uncommon request in those days. The woman, however, exhibits a bit of sarcasm in her reply–by the time of Christ there was deep animosity between the Jews and the people of Samaria (who the Jews considered half-bred and idolaters). The woman’s reply almost says, “You Jews stay away from us Samaritans–until you need something” (v. 9). It wasn’t His need that drew Jesus here, though. It was hers.
Jesus refuses to respond in kind, but instead moves to the spiritual. It is almost as though He may have smiled and said, “Ma’am, if you only knew….” If she only knew Who was speaking to her (“the gift of God”), she would ask and would receive not just physical water but living water–a phrase to be repeated later, just before another well-known encounter involving a woman (John 7:37-38, but that’s for a future post).
Like Nicodemus, the woman is focused on the physical–and as He did in the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus insists on lifting the conversation higher, to the realm of the spiritual. The woman pointedly asks, “Just how are you going to get this living water? If you can do that, give me some too so I won’t have to come here anymore” (vv. 11-12, 15). The woman is still caught up in the physical need, though her desire to no longer have to visit the well may also be linked to the very reason she is here at noon.
The Real Issue Exposed
Before answering the question, Jesus tells the woman to go and get her husband. Not only was it socially improper at the time for Jesus to be speaking with her without her husband present (see above), but the statement is designed to lead to the real issue of her heart. She tells Him, “I have no husband,” sort of in a dismissive way. He responds by exposing what she has tried to keep hidden:
You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true (vv. 17-18).
One can almost hear the woman gasp as the contrast between the truth of her soul and the living water He offers her is exposed. She was seeking something that only He can provide. And because she never found what she truly needed, the cycle continued over and over, through five husbands and her current “non-husband.” It is important to note here that Christ does not reveal her character in order to judge her. Rather, He does so to help her confront the real need of her soul–Himself.
Avoiding the Issue
The woman is suddenly uncomfortable (understandably so). So, she does what many do in the situation–change the subject. In her case, she switches to religion. She says, in effect, “Since you seem to be a prophet, answer this for me. Where is the right place to worship God? Here, or in Jerusalem as you Jews assert” (vv. 19-20). Religious discussions of this nature are always easier than dealing with the emptiness inside the human soul.
Jesus, however, refuses to engage in the debate, though He does seem to vindicate the Jews, at least to some extent. He sees Samaritan worship as, at best, confused (“you worship what you do not know”), but in the same breath says that all humankind–including Samaritans–will be able to worship God, as long as they do so in “spirit and truth” (vv. 23, 24).
What does this phrase mean? In the larger context of John’s Gospel, it implies two things: First, that true worship of God is more than just outward appearance, but springs from inside (i.e., the spirit). Second, that true worship is “in truth,” i.e., without hypocrisy or falsehood. In direct application to the woman, it also means the worshipper deals honestly with God, not evading or skirting the issues, as she had done earlier.
The woman’s answer comes across as a bit flippant, as though to say, “Whatever. When Messiah [the Christ] comes, He will explain everything to us” (v. 25). Jesus isn’t offended by her dismissive statement but gives the first public confession of His identity to her: “I am [he] that speaks to you” (v. 26). Since he is not present in the original Greek, the phrase could rightly be rendered “I am that speaks to you.” Christ spoke the same construction (Greek ego eimi, “I am”) to the Pharisees, and it is clear they understood His meaning enough to pick up stones (see 8:58-59).
The woman must have pondered that for a bit, as the disciples arrived. She does finally make the connection between her assertion that Jesus is a prophet and His self-confessed identity. So, she takes off for town–and incidentally leaves her physical burden (the water jug) behind. She returned to the village, and she told the people, “There’s a man at the well who told me everything I’ve done” (v. 29). The implication seems to be “. . . and He still associated with me!” Though not a ringing endorsement, she tentatively asks, “Could this be the Christ?” It seems that the people who once shunned the woman did not hesitate to act on her information, for they immediately left the village and headed for Jesus.
This is Jesus’ method of evangelism. No hellfire and brimstone. Simply exposing the hidden needs of the human soul and offering Himself as the means of fulfillment. All human sin, while repulsive to God, is even more heartbreaking to Him, because it springs from needs and longings in the soul that He desires to meet. As we minister to those around us, let us remember that they are not just sinners; they are needy sinners. And we have the answer in Christ.
[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]
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