In his encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed himself as the Messiah and Savior of the world. John wrote down this account so that people would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (2:30-31). Chapters 2-4 of John’s Gospel show Jesus on a mission tour from Jerusalem (2:13-3:21) to Judea (3:22-36) to Samaria (4:1-42) to Gentile territory (4:43-54). In this way, we see that the early church’s mission (Acts 1:8) was grounded in Jesus’ own mission practice.
Jesus’s Encounter with the Samaritan Woman (John 4)
As we study this passage, we need to pay attention to a matrix of historical, literary, and theological questions. The historical-cultural background most notably includes the strained relationship between Jews and Samaritans. The literary dimension of the passage reveals a story well told, complete with a setting, an extended dialogue exhibiting suspense and a remarkable climax, and a sustained comparison and contrast with the earlier narrative featuring Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, the Jewish rabbi (John 3).
A Historic Setting: Jesus Culminates Israel’s Covenantal Narrative (4:1-6)
Now when Jesus 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), he 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.
The opening of the story picks up where 3:22-24 left off, correcting the possible misperception that Jesus himself was baptizing as 3:22-24 may be interpreted to suggest. That said, the focus shifts entirely away from John the Baptist and onto Jesus. As is well known, Jews in Jesus’ day typically went around Samaria, taking the longer route from Judea to Galilee, yet Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” by divine necessity.
The mention of Jacob’s well shows that this is historic Israelite territory (see v. 12: Jesus is greater than Jacob). Jesus is “wearied” from his journey (from Judea to Samaria, perhaps 30 miles?): while divine, he is also human. “Sixth hour” means 12 o’clock noon (some say at noon it would have been hot, but it may have been December, and if so, it would not have been nearly as hot).
A Strained Relationship: Jesus Bridges Racial Divide, Reveals Himself as Messiah (4:7-26)
In the ensuing dialogue, Jesus reveals a threefold evangelistic strategy: (1) he awakens a longing (vv. 7-16); (2) he stirs a sense of sinfulness (vv. 17-18); and (3) he points to himself as the Savior (vv. 19-26).
Awakening a Longing (vv. 7-16)
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.)
Note that, unlike Nicodemus, the woman in the story has no name (also note that the name of the city, Sychar, is given). Note also the editorial asides here and in v. 9 below. The humanity of Jesus shines through, as he ask for a legitimate favor. Note also that the disciples return in v. 27 (it was typical for disciples to go 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.)
The Samaritan’s curiosity is aroused. Compare the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (which would have been an oxymoron in that day). Jews had no table fellowship with Samaritans; theirs was a history of long-standing animosity. It is not lost on the Samaritan that Jesus here breaks a major racial and ethnic barrier (later, the disciples notice the breaking of a gender barrier, v. 27).
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.”
This constitutes an instance of Johannine irony: the Samaritan expects the answer “no,” while the actual answer is “yes”: Jesus is indeed greater than Jacob. As in the case of Nicodemus, Jesus uses physical realities (water, a well) to teach spiritual truths (Jesus quenches spiritual thirst), and uses water as an emblem of eternal life.
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.”
The woman responds and says, yes, she wants what Jesus has offered her! Then, an interesting twist: as with Nicodemus, there is a surprising change of topic, indicating Jesus’s supernatural knowledge of a person’s real need (cf. 2:23-25; 3:1-3). This kind of change in topic is typical for a spiritual conversation.
Stirring a Sense of Sinfulness (vv. 17-18)
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 men, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Why does Jesus change the topic here? It’s hard to know, but perhaps it is to stir in the woman a sense of her own sinfulness, in order to help her sense her need for a Savior. This is getting up close and personal, however, and the woman soon changes the topic to a (safer) religious topic (see below).
Pointing to the Savior (vv. 19-26)
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.”
Note that this was a sensitive issue; the Jews under John Hyrcanus had come in a century before Christ and had destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mt. Gerizim.
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.”
As so often, Jesus evades an either-or dilemma. Jews say worship in the Jerusalem Temple, Samaritans say worship on Mount Gerizim: who is right? Jesus says they’re both wrong! Of course, in the interim between this conversation and the writing of this Gospel, the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed, in keeping with Jesus’s prediction! He truly was a prophet.
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.”
The Samaritans expected a teaching Messiah, the Taheb. The woman didn’t understand what Jesus told her about true worship, so she simply says the Messiah will explain everything when he comes. This is another instance of Johannine irony, because the Messiah – Jesus – has just explained everything to her!
Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
This is the climax of the dialogue. What started with a simple request for a drink of water (v. 7) culminates in Jesus dropping a bombshell. He himself is the Messiah! This is a story well told. Also, notice the suspense introduced by the sudden interruption (see below).
A Spiritual Harvest: Jesus Trains Community for Mission (4:27-38)
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did [slight exaggeration]. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.
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 said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?”
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, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
But wait! The story is not over yet. The whole encounter now turns out to be an object lesson in evangelism. Jesus thinks past the immediate encounter to the future messianic mission. His is a much broader vision!
Epilogue: Mission Accomplished (4:39-42)
Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 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 indeed the Savior of the world.”
Jesus sparked a fire. The Samaritan woman bears witness, and many others believe! You, too, can emulate Jesus’s evangelistic strategy: awaken a longing, stir a sense of sinfulness, and point people to the Savior!
- Have you seen God heal any strained relationships in your life?
- Which barriers did Jesus cross in engaging the Samaritan woman in conversation?
- In what ways can Jesus serve as an example for us as we engage others with the gospel?