facebook  youtube Instagram logotiktok w30  give button

John 4:1-44 - Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

Background:  Chapter four brings us to a major turning point in Jesus ministry.  With this sign Jesus moves from being one who baptizes, much as John the Baptist was doing, to one who delegates that work to his disciples. Now he moves into phase two of his mission: teaching and proclamation. This story, as is typical to John, is rich in symbolism. John preserves it with such detail in order to make several theological points.  Also, as usual, John uses this story to answer questions that are arising in his early community, particularly the problems arising around the presence of a sizeable Christian community among the Samaritans, Israel’s historic enemies.

The Samaritan problem:  Samaria was a beautiful and fertile land north of Jerusalem in what came to be known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel (as opposed to the Southern Kingdom of Judah). At one time, Samaria (the land and the city) was occupied by the ten tribes of Israel. The two tribes of Judah occupied the south. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE, those Jews that were not deported or killed, intermarried with their captors. The Jews of the south saw this as flagrant unfaithfulness. Things got worse after the southern kingdom fell to Babylon and most of the conquered Jewish people were deported. When they were allowed to return, the people of Jewish descent in Samaria claimed that they were the only true remnant of the chosen people. The Samaritans differed with the Jews on a number of theological points.  One principal disagreement centered on the place for appropriate worship. The Jews said that worship must take place in Jerusalem at the Temple. The Samaritans believed that worship should take place on Mt. Gerizim, not Mt. Zion. They refused to worship at the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Further, the Samaritans did not believe that Messiah would be a Davidic king who would come to initiate the final age. They talked of Messiah as “the Restorer” who would restore people to right worship as in the time of Moses. The Samaritans held tightly to the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) as the only Holy Scripture. They did not acknowledge the prophets, the histories or the wisdom books in the same way as the Jews. In short, Jews considered Samaritans unclean and worse than animals. They had nothing to do with each other, never spoke in public and would never dream of sharing utensils such as buckets or dippers for water.

John 4:1-6

4:1) Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2) –although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—3) he left Judea and started back to Galilee.  Jesus is not yet ready to take on the religious establishment directly. He has much to teach his followers first. Remember that the authorities are more concerned with order and control than they are with doctrine, at least they are more fearful about the lack of order and the loss of control than they are of ideas. But it is ideas that sway people, so Jesus has to be investigated. Jesus decides not to cause trouble and to go back to his home base for a while.

4:4 But he had to go through Samaria.  5) So, he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6) Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  Why did Jesus HAVE to go through Samaria? There was nothing in the geography of the place that would have necessitated it. Remember, Jesus is always about theology and not simply traveling ease. He goes through Samaria to make the point that Messiah has come for all of humanity even as he comes from the undiluted stock of Judah. Sychar was probably the ancient city of Shechem. By this time is was a small village to the southeast of the city of Samaria and 41 miles north of Jerusalem. It was very near Jacob’s well. Shechem was a city of great religious importance. It was the first city that Abraham visited as he migrated south (Gn. 12:6). Joseph was buried there (Joshua 24:32). Jacob gave land to Joseph there (Gen. 48:22). Joshua renewed the covenant there (Joshua 24).  Rehoboam was crowned king there (1 Kings 12:1). When the northern tribes revolted, it became their capital and a symbol for northern rebellion. Jacob’s well was a good place for water. It was a deep hole, probably 100 feet deep, covered by a stone. It was not easy to draw water from that deep a well. Jesus would have been sitting on the ground nearby or on the stone covering itself. Jesus was TIRED OUT. This is a very important note for John. Up until now in the gospel, Jesus’ other worldly divinity has been emphasized.  Now we must see that he was also fully human and humanly exhausted. Noon is an important symbol in John. It was the hour of crucifixion when Jesus asked for water from the cross. Here he also asks for water.

 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  8) (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9) 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.) It is theologically significant to John that Jesus initiates the conversation. He wanted to emphasize that we are not responsible for initiating relationship with Jesus. He comes to us. He reaches out to us.  He does that in the midst of the ordinary experiences of our lives. The woman is startled.  Not only was it unheard of for Jews to speak to Samaritans, men did not speak to women in public either. The phrase “share things in common” referred to the sharing of the bucket that she had brought to draw water. She must have been afraid. Here was a man for whom the rules did not apply. He could do anything.

4:10) 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 gift of God” has several layers of meaning. First, it refers to the gift of life that Jesus’ brings. Second, it refers to the graciousness of that gift, to grace itself.  And finally, it refers to Jesus himself as that incredible gift from God that changes everything and makes real life possible. This verse is also a reference to prayer. Ask and Give describes the prayer relationship. Does that mean that we get everything and anything we ask for? No. Prayer is answered according to the good. What it does mean, though, is that prayer through Christ is never empty or fruitless. It is never without meaning. Water is a potent symbol in any culture, but for desert peoples even more so. It is the essential stuff of life. Without it there is no life. In abundance, it brings bounty and blessing. On the literal level, “living water” refers to fresh or running water.

4:11) The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  12) Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  She is thinking quite literally and is very suspicious of this man who flaunts societies norms. 

4:13) Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.  14) but those that 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.”  Jesus here contrasts two levels of life. There is the concrete, earthly and physical, and there is the heavenly and spiritual. One will satisfy only the body and that satisfaction will not last. The other provides deep and eternal satisfaction, a satisfaction so deep that once tasted it becomes an ever-renewing inner spring. Once Christ puts us right with God there is an inner spring of life in us that produces the life-giving water we need. The importance of the renewing inner spring is that no one can take it away. It is a continual work.

4:15) 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.”  The woman is probably still thinking literally, although the larger truth is beginning to dawn on her.  It is important to John that the woman asks for the water. For him that is the real beginning of the spiritual journey. Some ancient commentators, however, suggest that a part of her being mired in literalism was a result of her self-centeredness. She wanted Jesus to do her some good, to ease her life. While she was only concerned with what he could do for her she would not be able to see the whole truth. I think that is a bit of a stretch from this text, but nevertheless an important spiritual truth.  John Sanford in commenting on this passage in his book Mystical Christianity (p.113) says “As long as we approach the inner world from a purely egocentric point of view, we cannot imbibe its essence, nor understand its mysteries.” 

4:16) Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  17) The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18) for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  The spiritual biography of this woman has led to much speculation. In Jesus’ day, women had little control over whom they married. Marriages were ordinarily arranged by parents or kinsmen and were largely economic unions. A woman’s value was based on her productivity in producing items for trade and in producing heirs to work the land. A man could divorce a woman for any reason, even reasons as simple as burning the bread or as complex as adultery. (Adultery, remember was considered a theft of property crime). She is not named as an adulterer here, so we don’t know what really happened. If a woman’s husband died prematurely, it was the responsibility of the husband’s male kinsmen to take the woman as a wife and to produce heirs in their dead kinsman’s name. It is possible that she has gone through a whole household of brothers until there are none left, or until there are none left willing to risk taking responsibility for her. Without the protection of a husband, women were often taken into homes as concubines or house servants. Hardship like this woman faced, losing 5 husbands either to death or to divorce would have been considered judgment from God on her for sin. On its most basic level the Samaritan woman functions as a symbol for unfaithfulness. She is Samaritan. She is female. And she is judged as sinful by God. For Jews of Jesus’ day, she also represented false worship and consorting with the enemies of God. She was a symbol of her whole people. It is to this whole people, as well as one woman’s need, that this story is addressed. Dr. Gerard Slyoyan in his commentary on John makes an interesting observation. He suggests that the 5 husbands represent the five idolatrous peoples of the east mentioned in II Kings 30-21. He further suggests that her current partner represented the idolatrous cult that offered sacrifice on Mt. Gerizim. We can never know for sure how John and his community understood the symbolism of this woman. What is clear, whether taken literally, figuratively, or both, the woman represents those who have missed the mark of the calling of God and lived with consequences of broken and unresolved relationships, helplessness, vulnerability and dashed hopes. The point is this: Jesus has special powers to recognize and know what is going on in the human heart. This is as profound for us today as it was for the early community. With complete knowledge this woman, these people, are accepted, confronted, and engaged in relationship with Jesus. Nothing is forgotten, yet all is forgiven. Jesus is not interested in her past continuing to claim her present.  He is interested in her present with him transforming her future. This was also important for John as he and his community of believers struggled to heal in the church the ancient divisions between peoples. It was this model of Jesus’ dealing with the Samaritan woman that gave them their understanding of how to deal with each other. 

4:19) The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20) Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21) Jesus said, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22) You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23) 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.  24) God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  25) 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.”  26) Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  Perhaps she is still mired in literal thinking. Or perhaps his uncanny perceptions and her own embarrassment led her to want to change the subject. Whatever the case, she tries to distance herself from him by bringing up a controversial subject: the major differences between Jews and Samaritans. The word she uses for “prophet” indicates one with special divine knowledge. Jesus introduces several interesting and, for his moment, radical concepts about himself, about God and about worship in these verses. First of all, he connects worship with knowledge of God. It is only those who know intimately something of who God is who can worship with any integrity. Knowing God transforms worship.  “Salvation” (literally ‘the salvation’) refers not to salvation in its general sense but rather to a specific way of salvation that his been brought to earth through the history of God with the Jewish people culminating in Jesus himself. “Is now here” tells us that this new way of worship, this new way of being, is already present and possible when people worship God in spirit and truth. “Truth” is the word for that which is morally true, genuine or real. John Sanford says of the meaning of this verse that “One can worship God only in a state of moral integrity, genuinness of character, and reality of self-perception.” (p.116)  It is the orientation of the heart and not the where and how that is crucial for living worship. The “hour” refers to the time of God’s glory.  The word “Father” is a personal and familiar name like “Daddy”. Remember that Jews and Samaritans had very different understandings of who Messiah would be and what Messiah would do. She acknowledges that she knows the Restorer will come and, astoundingly, Jesus replies by saying that he is that one. The phrase “Ego eimi” is one of the most important in all of Scripture. It literally means “I am”, just like the divine name of God revealed in Genesis (YHWH). By saying “ego eimi”, Jesus is using the sacred name of God in reference to himself. The fact that God would be present and speaking into the lives of sinners in their ordinary experience must have completely dumbfounded this woman….and, as we now see, Jesus’ disciples.

4:27) Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?”  At this point, in the midst of the longest conversation between Jesus and a any person recorded in the Bible, Jesus’ friends return from town with the provisions for supper. They are utterly astounded to find Jesus speaking to a woman and to a Samaritan. They must have been especially astounded if they had heard any of the conversation! Their beloved rabbi was breaking every rule in the book and discussing fine points of theology with a woman who represented to them all that was most sinful and degrading. It is no wonder that they were struck dumb.

4:28) Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, 29) “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can not be the Messiah, can he?” 30) They left the city and were on their way to him.   Why did she leave her jar? Was she so undone that she forgot all about it?  Was that little detail important because it reminded John’s hearers that once one has met Jesus all of the old purposes of life and behavior are left behind? Was she afraid of the disciples? Perhaps all of that is implied. At any rate, the conversation with Jesus ends and she runs to her home to tell others what she has experienced.  She becomes an early evangelist, and an effective one, too. Many drop everything to come to see Jesus as a result of her testimony.

4:31) Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32) But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33) So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34) Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35) Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then comes the harvest’?  But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36) The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  37) For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows, and another reaps.’  38) I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.  Others have labored and you have entered into their labor.”  Meanwhile Jesus is conversing with his friends. In these verses we see once more that Jesus is trying to take the conversation beyond the literal level. But his friends are not yet able. They are stuck and confused that someone else has brought in food.  Jesus is constantly trying to teach them to see below the surface of life.  What truly sustains human life is intimate relationship with the Father. They do not yet know what this is. They have not yet grasped the degree to which intimacy is born from by obedience. What feeds the soul is obeying and doing God’s work. Jesus uses an old proverb here in a new and allegorical way.  John understood the reapers to symbolize the church or the disciples of Jesus. The wages were the blessings that come from companionship with God. The sowers were the Old Testament ancestors that planted the seeds of true faith. Christ himself was the seed that produces that which will sustain life. Typically farmers had to wait four months for a harvest, but Jesus is telling them that the harvest of the kingdom is ready at once. “Others have labored” reminds us that spiritual progress is not simply a matter of personal effort.  Ideas blossom on a framework of the faith and ideas of others. God has been at work in history and in individual lives even when that work has been unknown or unnoticed.

4:39) Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40) So, when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41) And many more believed because of his word.   42) 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.”  With the conclusion of this episode, John makes several points about the nature of faith.  Believing (trust) comes as a result of hearing the word. First the Samaritan woman gave her witness, then the Samaritans came to Jesus to make the truth their own and personal. They recognized that faith grows from relationship with Christ and therefore they asked him to stay with them and teach them. It is fellowship over time that makes for a great faith harvest.

A Few Conclusions

This text reveals the radical nature of the person and work of Jesus. He is different.  He flaunts social conventions with regard to talking with women, teaching women, and dealing with ancient enemies. A woman, whose words would not be allowed as testimony in court, became his first evangelist. He is unconcerned about the ancient traditions of worship and moves true worship to an inner plane. He takes the sacred name “ego eimi” for himself. God is named as spirit and therefore located everywhere.

Questions for Personal Reflection

  1. Who are those who are treated as outsiders, despised or lower in your community? Do you fall into those categories? Do you more often find yourself in positions of power in which you judge others’ worthiness? Imagine Jesus coming to you and initiating a conversation about these things. What does he say?
  2. Are there any worship habits or traditions that would be very hard for you to release? What do they mean to you? Why?
  3. In what was do you experience Jesus nourishing you with inner springs of life-giving sustenance? How do you access your well?
  4. How did you come to believe in Jesus? Who told you about him? How did you move from hearing that testimony to making the relationship personal?
  5. Who are the ones who have gone before you and cleared a path for you to grow in Christ?
  6. Can you think of ways in which Jesus reframed your identity? Do you sometimes see yourself through the lens of your failures or hardships? If so, stop for a moment and ask Jesus to help you see yourself through his eyes only.