John (Part 11): Woman at the Well (Ch 4:1 – 4:42)
Jesus asks for a drink. The Samaritan woman replies, “How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” John, it would appear, believes some explanation is in order for his audience. Perhaps the Gentile readers in the Asia, Greece, and Rome are not familiar with the fact that Jews and Samaritans didn’t really get along. So, we have an explanatory note at the end off verse 9: “For Jews do not associate [have dealings (KJV)] with Samaritans.” (Some early manuscripts do not include this statement. Perhaps it was a scribe rather than John who wanted to offer the explanation.)
But this explanatory note must give us pause. At first glance, it may serve to explain the woman’s surprise that Jesus speaks to her, but if we back up a verse, we run into a problem. Verse 8 told us that the disciples had gone into town to buy food. The disciples were Jews. They were going into Sychar, a Samaritan town, to buy food (have dealings with / associate with) Samaritans. Why, then, is this woman surprised that Jesus, a Jew, asks for a drink from a Samaritan when his disciples, Jews, ask for food from Samaritans?
The Greek here translated associate (or dealings) is sygchraomai. The prefix syg is a modification of the more familiar syn, and therefore we quickly recognize the meaning as with. The rest of the word means to make use of. So, then, to make use of with someone is to share—which is a somewhat more specific meaning than associate or have dealings. The woman’s point was not that Jesus was talking to her or asking for something but rather that he was suggesting that he would share her water pot or ladle from which to drink. That is what Jews would normally not do. Sharing utensils or vessels with which to eat or drink with a Gentile or a half-breed Samaritan would automatically render the Jews ceremonially unclean. So it is this seeming disregard for becoming ceremonially unclean that the woman questions.
But is she seriously dumbfounded in wonder at his request, or may there be some other reason for her question? The reason that this question comes to mind is because of Jesus’ response to her in verse 10. Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would ask Him, and He would give you living water.” We all understand the theological import of what Jesus is saying; however, why is he saying it at this point? What was it about her question that elicits this kind of reply? It is not that Jesus is turning the tables on her, for Samaritans did not consider themselves unclean for sharing vessels with Jews. Something must be going on in the background that we have yet to determine.
Jesus’ almost unrelated answer may remind us of his discussion with Nathanael in chapter 1 or Mary in chapter 2. In both those situations, Jesus says something to the other that is directed to some unseen and unsaid thought or attitude. I think it is the same in this case. Let’s back up yet again to consider the scene.
Earlier I proposed that the “Give me a drink” request from Jesus was not the beginning of their conversation. I suggested that the woman knew Jesus was a Jew because she perceived him as a stranger and asked where he was from or what he was doing there. Jesus’ response then probably told her he was a Jew before the water request.
But why would a woman of this time question a man like that? Women in both Jewish society and Samaritan society were at best second-class citizens. It would not have been proper for a woman to question a man at all, much less speak first. Only a loose woman who cared little for propriety would dare to do something like that! But wait one moment … who is this woman? From the context we learn that this woman is exactly the kind who would speak first.
We find later that this woman has been married five times previously and that she is currently living with another man. Her status in the community is so lowered that the rest of the women who come to draw water in the evening don’t want her around. That is the reason she is there at the well alone at this time. But would the shunning by the other women necessarily make this woman more brazen to speak to a strange man as she had? Not necessarily. Many women might have been impelled to feelings of unworthiness (as the shunning was intended to do) so that she would have withdrawn further from society into her own thoughts. But we have clues that she did not have that kind of introverted personality. She had been married five times.
Divorce for a woman in Samaritan society was as harmful to her social status as it would have been in Jewish society. So her first divorce would have dropped her several notches. But she found someone else to marry her despite this social stigma. But after a while, he too grew tired of her. Now doubly rejected, her fall in society was notable, and yet she finds a third man to marry her. What could these men have been thinking? That third man eventually wants out. Surely now this woman’s standing in society is abhorrent. Yet again she attracts a fourth man. By now we ought to recognize a couple of things about this woman. She no doubt is good looking. And she no doubt has a flirtatious ability to attract men despite her station in life. She attracts a fifth husband, who, like the others, probably eventually realizes that her flirtations are not confined to him alone. So, this fifth husband divorces her. In our story we find that she has attracted yet a sixth man in this relatively small town. The women find her shocking and immoral and will have nothing to do with her. But the men? Well, one thing she learns about men is that they all want her.
So, it is this brazen, not-concerned-with-propriety, attractive, flirtatious vixen that arrives at the well when Jesus does, worn from his journey. Hmm, a stranger. She has no qualms about speaking up and asking who he is—where he’s from. But she learns he’s a Jew. I would imagine that she may at this point dismiss him. If he’s like other Jews, she may think, he’ll be too uptight and uppity to be of any interest. So, perhaps, she is turning to leave with her drawn water when this man stops her and asks for a drink.
What would be her immediate thought? Perhaps he’s not as uptight as straight-laced as other Jews. He wants her; she’s sure of it. After all, don’t all men want her? And this coquette turns back with a smile on her face to bring the water to him as she, possibly, playfully wonders, “Ah, so how come you, a Jew, are asking water from little ole me, a Samaritan?” She’s sure she knows the answer, but she’s playing with him, letting him know she knows exactly what he wants, and he may get lucky.
But this is Jesus. And I imagine Jesus sees her attitude, knows her heart, and already physically tired, he is probably worn in spirit. I imagine he looks at her, feeling exactly as he did when he stood in the temple in Matthew 23:37 and said in desolate lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!” Jesus, sad in spirit for this woman steeped in her sin, slowly shakes his head, and responds to her attitude, “If you only knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would ask Him, and He would give you living water.” Now Jesus response in verse 10 makes sense. He’s not responding to her words; he’s responding to her attitude. If she would recognize him as the true Lord he’d give her true life in exchange for the miserable existence she’s lived and the horrid future in store.
But the woman doesn’t understand. In his statement, she hears a rebuff. Perhaps she was too aggressive, and he’s turned uppity. The mention of “living water” would not have confused her. Rain water, spring water, stream water were all considered “living water” because they moved—they were fresh sources of water. Water sitting at the surface of a well doesn’t move. So she hears Jesus’ answer to her and figures that he’s turning down her offer of water, saying that the only water he really wants is spring water, such as the water from the surrounding springs or deep at the bottom of the well where the well water springs up.
Now indignant, the woman mocks what she thinks is Jesus’ attitude by calling him, “Sir” (a title of respect—Lord). It’s as if she is saying, “Listen here, mister!” She dismissively scorns him, saying, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep so how are you going to get the spring water that feeds this well?” And then she attacks what she considers his high-and-mighty attitude in refusing the well water: “You think you’re so good? You think you’re greater than our father Jacob? He drank from this well, but you’re to good to do that? Who do you think you are!?” She is letting him have it.
But then Jesus stuns her just a little. He replies that he’s talking about giving her water after which she’ll never be thirsty again. Of course, he’s talking metaphorically about satisfaction for her soul, but she still doesn’t know that. First, she thought he was attracted to her. Then she thought he was piously uppity. Now she must wonder whether he’s in fact a little deranged. So, still wondering why he said that, she sort of plays along, and says, “Well, yes, that sounds great. I’d like to have that kind of water.”
Jesus then tells her to call her husband—another non sequitur. “My husband?” she must think. “Why would he want me to call my husband? Perhaps he is attracted to me. Perhaps in his piety, he wants to make sure this is not a case of adultery.” So, she tells him, “I have no husband.”
And then Jesus really stuns her. He tells her about her five former husbands and the guy she’s living with now.
In shock and awe, she calls him “Lord” again, but this time with full correspondence to its actual meaning. She understands Jesus to be a prophet. Her declaration is no small pronouncement. Samaritans did not believe there were any prophets since Moses. (Of course, that probably had to do with all the prophets predicting bad things about the northern tribes of Israel from which the Samaritans came.) But they believed the statement by God in Deuteronomy 18:18 that said one day a prophet like Moses would come. This prophet, they believed, would accompany the Messiah. So, for the woman to call Jesus a prophet was to think that he is the one prophet to accompany the Messiah. Her quick change of subject to religious matters, therefore, is understandable. Here he is a Jew. He must be THE prophet. But he’s here in Samaria! The Jews and Samaritans had been in conflict of religious belief about worship for ages. Is this prophet’s presence in Samaria confirmation of Samaritan beliefs, or is the fact that he’s a Jew confirmation of Jewish beliefs? Unsure, she asks.
She mentions the worship of the Jews at the temple in Jerusalem. Then she mentions the worship of the Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim. Back when the temple was being rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were refused to participate in the work. They built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, also building a biblical case for that being the place that Yahweh had wanted the temple all along. That temple had been destroyed in the intertestamental period about one to two hundred years prior to Jesus’ and the woman’s conversation.
Jesus corrects her Samaritan thinking by verifying that God had indeed worked through the Jews and not through abandoned Ephraim. But Jesus presents the new hope and covenant that would embrace all people through the worship of God in spirit and truth.
The woman, possibly not getting this all straight in her mind—she was, after all, no scholar—concludes that the Messiah would explain this all when he came. And then Jesus replies, “I am He.”
We have in this story, then, repetition of the themes John introduced in the first section of Jesus as the replacement. The water represents purification—the theme in John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus as well as in the water turned to wine. The temple in Jerusalem is replaced—the theme in Jesus’ cleansing the temple. Worship is done in spirit—the spirit theme in John the Baptist’s declaration, Nathaniel’s musing, Mary’s expectation, and Nicodemus’s questions. And the Messiah is revealed—the theme of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus.
As we continue reading this story, we find the disciples return at this point. John makes special note to say not merely that “after this” they returned, but he emphasizes “just then” or “at that very moment.” We begin to understand his insistence after reviewing what happens when they show up.
John remarks that the disciples (including John) were amazed that Jesus was talking with this woman. Of course, they had just been talking with Samaritans in purchasing their food. They also had no idea about her five husbands and living arrangements. So their surprise is directed toward the fact that Jesus is alone speaking, not with this particular woman, but with any woman. Rabbis did not talk with women. An old rabbinical rule read, “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no not with his own wife.” So, based on cultural concerns, they had questions in mind as those stated by John in verse 27. But they say nothing. Why? In other Gospel stories the disciples, especially Peter, are always blurting something out, but here they don’t. Why?
Notice what had just happened. John emphasized that the disciples walked up just at that moment. They, therefore, heard the women’s statement about the Messiah and Jesus’ declaration that he was the Messiah. The learn the reason for his talking with the woman immediately upon arrival.
And Jesus almost half directs his comment to them. After all, when Jesus tells her “I am He,” he adds, “the One speaking to you.” Was he worried she didn’t understand the antecedent of “I”? If someone asked me about my house, “Who owns this house?” I would answer, “I do.” I probably would not feel compelled to clarify that by saying, “I do, the one speaking to you now.”
But the fact that Jesus mentions in his response to her (which the disciples overhear) that he, the one speaking to you, is the Messiah, lets his disciples know that he knows what he is doing. “Yes, disciples,” Jesus appears to be telling them indirectly, “I am speaking to this woman. But it is about my ministry and her soul. That subject of the gospel transcends gender barriers, just as it transcends ethnic and social barriers.”
The woman leaves her water jar, probably for the benefit of Jesus and the disciples, and rushes to town with her shocking news. Not only did Jesus elevate the status of women through his discussion with her to receive gospel news, but John shows the further elevation of women as this one becomes a gospel proclaimer, echoing in 4:29 Philip the disciple’s words from 1:46b where he tells Nathaniel to “Come see.”
While she is away, the disciples urge Jesus to eat. Many ancient Mediterranean stories involve leaders, overcome by grief or concern, not eating while their followers urge them to do so. Perhaps the disciples thought Jesus was overcome by the pursuit of the Pharisees. This was the very reason we are told he is traveling to Galilee. So they urge him to eat.
But Jesus uses this moment to teach a principle of priority. Yes, there is an immediate need. But the long term need holds precedence.
Then, as they sit there, perhaps now eating, Jesus looks up and sees the townspeople crossing the field from the town to the well. He points to them, saying to his disciples, “Open your eyes and look at the fields, for they are ready for harvest” (4:35b). This is a tremendous object lesson for the disciples in the pursuit of people for God’s kingdom. As food gives physical life, doing the will of the Father gives eternal life.
So we see, both in the woman’s development and in the movement of the people from believing somewhat in her testimony to a richer belief after hearing from Jesus himself, that God works here in this story just as he always works throughout the Bible in a revelation-response pattern. God provides revelation, and as people respond in faith, God provides further, progressive revelation toward that full revelation of grace that brings salvation.