Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (John 4:1-42)

Having read through the first three chapters of the Fourth Gospel now, are you picking up on our writer's style? Has John's technique become familiar enough by now that you can anticipate him?

John is writing about my Savior, and he has selected a wonderful series of stories about his life and teachings. Especially appealing to me is the fact that he tells his stories in terms of personal encounters. I've enjoyed the stories so far about John the Baptist and three of his disciples - Andrew, his brother Peter, and their friend John. I've been taken aback both by Philip's eagerness (i.e., a simple "Follow me" and he did!) and Nathanael's narrow-mindedness (i.e., "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). The nighttime encounter with Nicodemus is a classic - a teacher needing to be a student again, an insider being challenged to follow an outsider, a man in the darkness of night being invited into the light of noonday, a man of flesh challenged to be a man of the Spirit. I think I see a writing-style here: the obvious and earthly narrative reveals a subtler, heavenly meaning.

If you haven't become accustomed to John's way of telling these wonderful Jesus-accounts by now, today's story can help fix it in your mind.

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common 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 no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water" (John 4:5-15).
Did you catch the thinly veiled hints from the reading? It isn't night, but "about noon." The conversation takes place beside a well - a place for water that can refresh, cleanse, give life. And the physical water here precipitated a conversation about "living water" - water that gushes up to eternal life and takes away one's thirst forever! These are so obvious that it is practically impossible to miss them. And there are still more clues and insights waiting to be discovered.

A Woman of Samaria

The first thing we need to grasp about John 4 is the dramatic setting for all that will follow. The opening lines of the chapter tell about a crisis of sorts that prompted Jesus to leave his successful ministry in Judea and to head north to Galilee. The religious officials of Jerusalem had taken note of John the Baptist and probably felt relieved when Herod Antipas arrested him. Jesus didn't need that sort of public confrontation yet, so he went from the southernmost part of the Jewish territory to the northernmost region.

When our writer reports that Jesus "had to go through Samaria" (v.4) to get from Judea to Galilee, we get our first couple of hints about what is to follow. For one, he is leaving the temple and its trappings for the countryside. He is willing to move away from the institutions of religion in order to find the people who both need and want to hear a word from God. He isn't interested only in the muckety-mucks like Nicodemus, and he certainly isn't waiting for them to credential him for his ministry; he is here for everybody, and he is operating on the authority of his own identity as one who has come directly from God - no, on the authority of his identity as God-tabernacled-in-flesh.

And what is this business that "he had to go through Samaria"? Really? Most any self-respecting, devout Jew of that period would make it a point not to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee or vice versa. Samaria was an unclean place populated by people guilty of religious heresy and ethnic sacrilege.

Going back eight centuries before this conversation, the Assyrians conquered Israel in 721 B.C. They took many of the people of the Northern Kingdom into captivity and repopulated the territory with their own kind - Gentiles, pagans, and idol-worshippers (cf. 2 Kings 17). To make a long story very short here, Israelites still in the land eventually intermarried with the new Gentile population and compromised both their racial and religious identities. When the people of the Southern Kingdom (i.e., Judah) returned from their own exile in Babylon and rebuilt the Jerusalem temple under Zerubbabel, assistance for that project was offered by the Samaritans but adamantly rejected (cf. Ezra 4:2-3).

This tension only escalated over time. Jews hated Samaritans and would not share the temple and its worship events with them. So the Samaritans created their own syncretistic version of the Abrahamic faith - editing the Torah to legitimate themselves, creating their own worship center on Mount Gerizim, and rejecting the prophetic and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. The term "Samaritan" was used only derisively by the Jews. In a period of Jewish ascendancy under John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C., they attacked and destroyed an alternate temple that had been built on Mount Gerizim.

Why, then, did Jesus find it necessary to travel through Samaria? He had come to save not only the Jews but the rest of humankind as well. This was not a geographical necessity but a theological one.

There is more here, however, that might pass over the heads of modern readers. The person Jesus met at this well was not simply Samaritan but female as well. And the women of Jesus' day and time - whether Jewish, Samaritan, or full-fledged Gentile - were often deemed unworthy of respect, education, and religious training. In particular, Jewish rabbis were noteworthy for not speaking with women in public settings during this era. They even debated the appropriateness of a rabbi speaking to his own mother or sister in settings outside the family circle.

So what we have here is a conversation most unlikely to take place! Jews and Samaritans didn't talk to one another. Rabbis don't speak to women. "She is a woman bearing the history, language, religion, and attitudes of people on the far margin of Judaism," observes Burge. "A first-century reader would barely expect Jesus and the woman to acknowledge each other's presence, much less speak."[1]

John is signaling that something important is at stake in this unlikely conversation. Indeed, there are two conversations here. One has Jesus explaining the meaning of "living water," and the other is about true worship. Will this woman be as wooden in her thinking and as slow to faith as Nicodemus? Or will she receive the gift being offered to her?

Living Water

The first conversation begins when the divine Jesus is seen in his vulnerable humanity. As he came near the Samaritan village of Sychar, he was "tired out by his journey" and sat down by Jacob's well. With the disciples gone to buy food in the village, he was alone when the woman came to draw water. He must have startled her when he asked for a drink: "The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' " In a parenthetical note, John acknowledged everything to his original readers that I have explained in the past several minutes of setting the background for this text: "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans."

That unexpected request and response became the springboard for all that follows. "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' " Jesus said, "you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." At this point, we have come to the same impasse as Nicodemus and Jesus about being born "again" or "from above." In chapter 3, Nicodemus is thinking "flesh-event" or "second chance to get things right down here"; Jesus is talking about "Spirit-event" or "one-and-only chance to experience life from above." In chapter 4, the woman is thinking "cold water from a deep well" or "my gift to Jesus"; Jesus is talking about "spiritual refreshment from above" or "God's gift to a woman of Samaria."

Have you ever noticed the Bible verse engraved on the baptistery platform in the foyer of this building? The original suggestion someone made was to put Mark 16:16 on it - "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved." But the verse eventually imprinted was from this text - "The water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." This is not the first time in John that water has been used to symbolize the fullness of life that comes to human beings as the "gift" (Gk, dorea) of God. John is hardly the only New Testament writer to make this same connection between the gift of God's Spirit and heavenly renewal.

Do you know the promise of Acts 2:38? "Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' " Do you recall the parallel statement from the same apostle at Acts 3:19? "Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus."

Repentance does not lead to baptism. It leads to the gift of the Holy Spirit, to times of refreshing from God's presence, to a personal relationship with Jesus Messiah! Baptism is significant along the path that leads from repentance to new life, but baptism is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Baptismal regeneration is a doctrine nobody in our tradition ever set out to teach, I am sure. Yet teach it we did by offering baptism as the end of a conversion process.

Digging a well, tying a bucket to a rope, and drawing out water is a human process I can achieve; living water that would eliminate the thirst of my heart for God and gush up to eternal life is something God alone can provide. Baptism in water is something I can teach, arrange, and administer; the gift of God's Spirit that refreshes a sinner's heart and links that heart to the dynamic power of Jesus is something only God can provide.

Centuries before that day, Jeremiah had spoken to Israel for Yahweh: "My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13). And Ezekiel had prophesied of a time when Yahweh would heal his people: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ezek. 36:25-27). Finally John the Baptist had come to baptize with water but pointed beyond himself to one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:29-34).

We need more than water baptism. While it is commanded of God, water baptism speaks more about cleansing from the past. While the New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian, water baptism testifies to the washing away of one's previous sins. Saul of Tarsus, for example, was ordered to "be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16). Baptism is a beautiful gift of grace that testifies to the cleansing that comes to believers by the power of the blood of Christ. It is, after all, blood rather than water that brings about the washing away of sins (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21). But what about tomorrow? Even if I am assured by the bath waters of baptism that Christ's blood has made me clean from my past sins, how will my life be renewed? How will I find the strength to be different tomorrow than I was yesterday? Where do I go to get the power to be holy, to be joyous, to be Christ-like? That, my friend, is God's Spirit-gift that bubbles up to supply your need for daily grace to sustain you. You don't "find" it or "learn how" to do it; it is a gift he provides.

This woman of Samaria knew that Jesus was talking about something that would be wonderful to possess. So she cried out: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." She neither understood the nature of the gift nor grasped the identity of its giver. But her eagerness led Jesus to offer to pursue the matter further and to explain his meaning to her. And that transitions us to the second part of this text.

True Worship

Jesus indicated his willingness to tell her more, but he said, "Go, call your husband, and come back" (4:16). That was a reasonable suggestion. A young Jewish rabbi and an unaccompanied Samaritan woman shouldn't go too far with any conversation without bringing her husband into it.

John has already told us that Jesus "needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone" (2:25). It was his knowledge of that woman's true depth of spiritual need rather than social propriety that prompted his suggestion about her husband.

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 have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 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 seeks such as these 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" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you" (4:17-26).
When Jesus got to the nitty-gritty of this woman's life situation with his question about a husband, she got terribly uncomfortable. Of course, she did! Her life was a mess. She'd never had a stable relationship with a man in her adult life - as proved by five failed marriages in her past and a live-in lover at the moment. So why did Jesus put her on the spot about her horrible situation? Here is the answer: It was to see whether she would retreat into the darkness or step into the light.

When I've sinned and my life is in a mess, I have two basic options. One is the deny, cover up, fight for more time to fix things, and - more likely than not - dig a deeper hole for myself. The other is to confess, come clean, be honest about how helpless I am in the situation, and to ask for someone to show me a way out.

That woman's instinctive reaction to her dilemma before Jesus was typical of lots of people I have known. She tried to dodge the issue of her real need by distracting Jesus with the old Jerusalem-Gerizim debate. Rather than face the painful truth, her first impulse was to act as if the important thing in her life was a generations-old religious fight. She pretended to need to get straight about some controversial issue that was irrelevant to her real need. She was trying to avoid the painful truth about herself, but Jesus let her know that God was searching for people who would worship in spirit and truth.

Have you ever seen that sort of thing happen? I once referred a young woman to a therapist in this city to help her deal with the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father. He was a preacher, a defender of orthodoxy, a hair-splitting legalist of the first order. I cannot help believing that his religion was a shelter from spirituality, that his angry indictments of so many of us were nothing more than distractions from the personal evils he could not bring into the light of Christ's presence.

True worship arises from a humble, seeking spirit, not a special location. Even so, it must be offered in truth (i.e., integrity, openness) and not from behind a mask of religious make-believe. We haven't left the discussion of living water here. Jesus is just going back to it by another route. The secret to true worship is not a mountain, human structure, or ritual. It is the empowering presence of "the Spirit of truth" (cf. 14:17) who renews not just the worship experience but the worshipper herself. "This is worship not tied to holy places but impacted by a holy Person who thorugh his cross will inaugurate the era in which the Holy Spirit will change everything."[2]


For that woman, the spiritual renewal she had needed for so long apparently began at that moment. Even as the blind disciples returned, saw the woman, and thought only in terms of rejecting rather than including her, she ran back to her village. There this woman with a soiled reputation had no credibility for bearing witness to Jesus and repeating his word to her about being the Christ. So she simply used a version of the come-and-see approach to sharing Jesus we have already seen in the Fourth Gospel (cf. 1:39, 46). "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!" she said breathlessly. "He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (4:29). The people went to see for themselves - and were brought to faith in significant numbers.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world" (4:39-42).
I think John chose to include this story in his Gospel in order to affirm the Samaritans and Gentiles he knew as his sisters and brothers in Christ at the end of the first century. It is still a powerful anecdote from the life of our Savior to affirm the value of people we tend to marginalize, to challenge our racism, to rebuke us for our attachment to tradition over truth, to help us see our propensity for playing church and splitting hairs over learning to worship the Father in spirit and truth, to remind us of the simple come-and-see strategy for evangelizing.

You may have been "hit between the eyes" by a different one of these points of emphasis than sobered me or the person seated closest to you. The common point for us all is the necessity for honesty before Christ. Don't retreat to some safe place of dark concealment you have created for yourself. Nothing is hidden from God! And it is far better to deal with that issue now in the painful light of his holy presence than to live in self-judgment until it is exposed at the end. The path to faith is marked by honesty at every step along the way.

[1] Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p.141.
[2] Burge, John, p.147.


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