People are horrible. And yet, Jesus loves them.
In the time of Jesus, the Jews hated the Samaritans, and had for hundreds and hundreds of years.
You have to go all the way back to the separation of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, between Israel and Judah. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom. The Assyrians captured the city in 722BC and led most of the inhabitants into captivity, but some stayed behind and intermarried with settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria. The Jews considered them impure, even though they probably had as much pure Jewish blood as the Jews that returned from Babylonian exile had.
When the Jews returned from Babylonian exile, the book of Ezra tells us that the Jew began to rebuild their temple. The Samarians wanted to help, but the Jews didn’t want any help from those nasty Samarians. The Samarians were insulted and built their own temple at Mount Gerizim.
Then came the Maccabean wars. The Samaritans allied themselves with the enemy, the Seleucids. During that war, the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerizim. The fighting continued and continued and continued. In the days of Jesus, a band of Samaritans snuck into the Jerusalem Temple and desecrated it by scattering human bones throughout. Despite the fact that both Jews and Samaritans claimed to worship Yahweh, they hated each other.
The stage is set. The Book of John, Chapter 4, begins –
Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
Going through Samaria was certainly the shorter journey, but it was still unconventional for a Jew to travel this way. Going through Samaria risked confrontation, sometimes even death. Most Jews took the long way from Judea to Galilea
on the east side of the River Jordan. Safer. Friendlier. And far away from those Samaritans the Jews despised. But Jesus had a purpose. A divine appointment to change lives and teach us about His love. Jesus wasn’t just passing through; He intentionally stopped at a spiritually significant place, where Jacob dug a well when he lived there in Genesis 33.
Today, if archaeologists are correct, that well is near Tel Balata inside the Church of St. Photina built in 380 AD. Photina is the name traditionally given to the Samaritan woman by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church and can be visited today.
II. The Woman at the Well
So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
We know that John used Jewish time, so “the sixth hour” is likely to be what we call noon. It’s not conclusive, though, Roman time would have made this 6am or 6pm. I think noon makes more sense, both because of consistency with other times John mentions, and also because noon makes more sense for the disciples to head to town to buy food at this time.
What can we deduce about the woman, other than that she’s a Samaritan? It’s noon, the hottest time of the day. Women in towns would usually draw water early in the morning or late in the day, and it’s a social activity. This woman is alone. Perhaps she’d isolated. Marginalized. She’s alone at the well on purpose, to be alone. And that’s the perfect time for Jesus have a personal encounter with her.
I think before Jesus demonstrates His divinity, we can see His humanity here. Jesus is hungry and thirsty and weary. But He uses His humanity as an opportunity. I also think it’s interesting that all of the disciples left to go buy food. Probably didn’t take all twelve of them, normally only a few, maybe 2 or 3 would go. And it’s also interesting they’d buy Samaritan food.
Thomas Constable’s bible commentary says that the Jews hated Samaritans so much, they passed a new law after this incident at the well, saying that “the daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle” and therefore perpetually unclean. The Pharisees actually prayed that no Samaritan would be raised in the resurrection! And in John 8:48, when Jesus’ enemies wanted to insult Him, they actually called Jesus a Samaritan.
The woman’s first word was not “sir” or “rabbi”, but “how”. She was probably shocked that Jesus spoke to her at all. Jewish custom was that one didn’t speak to strangers, men didn’t speak to women, and Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. And it’s probably her response is also sarcastic, as in, “you Jews never speak to us until you want something.”
But His response must have shocked her, John 4:10-12,
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?”
Notice she begins her response with “sir.” It’s possible she had an inkling of what Jesus meant. She mentions Jacob, and in Jeremiah 2 verses 4 & 13, the Lord says,
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.
“For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
That can hold no water.
Here the Lord tells the house of Jacob that Yahweh is the fountain of living waters. Does the Samaritan woman know who she is talking to? Her questions back to Jesus sound like she’s either suspicious or incredulous, but she does begin her next sentence with the respectful “sir”.
But Jesus is there for her spiritual thirst, and in verse 10, Jesus says the water from the well can only satisfy physical thirst for a little while.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t say, “If you knew who I am.” That would imply that Jesus as a human could give her this living water. Instead, he uses, “If you knew the gift of God.” The word used for “gift” is “dōrea” and is translated as… um, “gift.” That’s it, just gift. Something freely given, no strings attached. It’s used 11 times in the New Testament to refer to God’s salvation as a gift, freely given to those who ask.
The words used for “living” is more exciting. It’s “zaō” and it’s rich with meaning. To live, breathe, be among the living, to enjoy real life, to be active and blessed, vigorous, fresh, strong, efficient, and active. The abundant life. Jesus is telling the woman she can have this valuable gift for free.
The woman hears all that Jesus says, but focuses on the practical aspects. Jesus didn’t have a bucket, and He would also need a very long rope. The well was probably over 100 feet deep until it reached the underground spring. The woman must have had a bucket – after all, the reason she came to the well was to draw water – but Jews would never use the same utensils or equipment used by Samaritans.
Where would Jesus get this amazing water He speaks of? Jesus has just told her He was more than He appears to be and He can offer her more than just physical water. She tosses in a reference to Jacob to remind Jesus that the Samaritans also share a common lineage with the Jews, from Jacob through Joseph and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Is Jesus something greater?
Jesus’ response in verse 13 reveals He is indeed greater than Jacob and can offer her more than physical water.
Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
Jesus brings her attention to the spiritual. The free gift of the abundant life is available for the asking. Go on. Ask. It’s available to everyone who asks, eternal life. Far better than the spring water from Jacob’s well.
III. Receive the Living Water
She responds in verse 15,
The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.”
Again, respectfully, she begins with “sir.” She doesn’t want to be spiritually thirsty, she doesn’t want to withstand the scrutiny from others when she comes to the well. She wouldn’t have to endure their condescending, dirty looks. If Jesus could solve this problem, she accepts, and she says “Give me” because she knows this solution cannot come from anywhere but Jesus.
In verse 16,
He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.”
Jesus’ response is proper. Setting aside the Samaritan / Jewish feud for a second, a man giving an unattended gift could easily be misconstrued. The culture at that time was that any gift should be presented in the company of her husband.
The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”
She redirects Jesus, possibly hoping to receive the gift without having to call somebody. Maybe Jesus will give her this gift anyway. But Jesus’ answer shocked her,
Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”
Jesus knew everything about her, and He spoke to her kindly, He commended her twice for her truthfulness while unmasking her past. Jesus was not condemning her. He just let her know He knew all about her past.
We don’t know why the first five marriages ended. Most commentaries seem to suggest she was simply immoral, moving from one husband to another. However, according to the law, men could divorce wives for any reason, so it’s possible some or all of the men sent her away. Maybe she was living with a sixth man out of immorality, or maybe she was living with him for survival.
But Jesus clearly knew everything. He knew her better than she herself did, even though they just met. There was nothing she could hide from Him.
Maybe she was uncomfortable with the direction the discussion had taken. After all, she had just come to the well to draw some water without being noticed. Or maybe she was used to people commenting on her social situation and just continued. Either way, she responds in verses 19 and 20 –
The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Again, she addresses Jesus as “sir,” but there’s nuance in these statements not readily apparent. She calls Him a prophet because of Jesus’ insight, but the Samaritans didn’t recognize prophets. For them, Moses was the last prophet. There’s an unnamed prophet in Deuteronomy 18:18 that the Samaritans believed would be the Messiah. She’s not just calling Jesus a prophet, she’s saying that if He’s a prophet, He must also be the Messiah.
And if Jesus is the Messiah and knows all about her, maybe she should change the subject. Look, a mountain! She obviously doesn’t want to talk about her personal situation anymore.
And the subject she chooses is a point of religious contention between Samaritans and Jews. Have you ever had a discussion about Christ with a non-believer? I think they use a similar style of response – instead of talking about the supernatural substitutionary death on the cross, they want to talk about evolution or the flood or “judge not” or anything they can talk about except self-examination or the truths found in Christ. First, the Samaritan woman also tries to jam a wedge between her and Jesus by referring to Him as “you people” or “you Jews.” Then, she points to the mountain and asking where people should worship. Is it only Jerusalem, where Samaritans don’t go? Or is it Mt. Gerizim? She’s nitpicking religious differences instead of examining the impact of Jesus’ words upon her life. Let’s not talk about the heart. Let’s talk about the head.
People still react like this today. When I happen to mention I occasionally teach the bible, people stop cussing around me. They often will bring up a reason why they don’t go to church, like “all Christians are hypocrites” or “church is so outdated.” They hide behind objection. I usually agree Christians are hypocrites, including me. Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven.
Of course people separate the heart from the head, separate personal struggles from theological issues. In a book called, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist,” the author says a simple question to ask a self-proclaimed atheist who doesn’t believe because their is no proof is, “If I could prove to you Jesus exists and is the son of God, would you believe, then would you accept it?” Most atheists answer “no.” Why? Because belief in Christ comes with moral strings attached. It’s not a question of the head. It’s a question of the heart. They don’t want to talk about objective truth, sin and brokenness.
The woman at the well tries to move the conversation away from the heart of the matter, asking instead about where people should worship. She observes that her ancestors worshiped on “this mountain,” but the Jews insist that worship should only be in Jerusalem. She refers to Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans erected their own temple for worship, which fit their view of God. Even though the woman brings up an objection and abruptly changes the conversation, Jesus does not miss a beat. He connects even this objection of where to worship back to the real issue at hand, which is the heart of worship. Jesus answers accordingly in John 4:21-24 –
Jesus told her, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
When Jesus says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know,” he’s pointing out their theology is incorrect. The Samaritans only have the first 5 books of Moses and have added various ethnic sources to supplement their lack of knowledge. The Jews have the correct and complete scriptures, even though the Jews don’t act like it.
But then Jesus says their choice of location doesn’t matter because Jesus has arrived and with Him is a New Covenant. Worship will not be on a mountain, worship will not require the sacrifice of bulls and goats. Ultimately, God doesn’t care about the bulls or the goats any more than He cares about our tithes and offerings. God is interested in the hearts, the obedience, the faith behind those bulls and goats and tithes and offering. A relationship with His people that was not possible because of our sin, is now possible because Emmanuel is with us and has saved us from our sins.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, Worship is not a matter of where. It’s a matter of who. To the Samaritan woman, Jesus confirms that at the present hour, the Jews have it correct and worship should only be in Jerusalem. God’s presence manifested on earth in the Temple and that’s where salvation was found.
But then Jesus says – twice – that “an hour is coming” where the place of worship will no longer matter because true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.
And then Jesus says the hour is here. The time has come, the Messiah has arrived. John 4:25-26,
The woman *said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus *said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
Everything changed because everything clicked. All these unrelated observations – Jacob’s well, God’s covenant with His people, her routine, her physical thirsts, her spiritual thirsts, her questions of worship, this mysterious man of God, all converged into one seamless picture of who Jesus really was and what that meant for her own life.
- He was the man for whom she had always looked.
- He was the well who could alone satisfy her deepest thirsts.
- He was the answer to her questions of worship.
- He was the presence of God, who had come seeking after her in her brokenness.
From there, her life changed. She had no name in this narrative, but she knew a better name, and now her own name was clean. She was irreligious, but now she had a relationship and she was found by the Savior. She was constantly parched and thirsty, but she had found true fulfillment and peace. She was loved by many men was still unfulfilled; now, she was loved by One forever, for eternity.
We all have earthly wells of materialism, broken relationships, unsatisfaction, shame. We may keep going back over and over again, looking for answers. But those earthly wells are dry bones, and source of nothingness. Only in Jesus do we have springs of living water welling up within us. Isaiah 12:2-4a gave us this Christmas message of our eternal hope:
“Behold, God is my salvation,
I will trust and not be afraid;
For the Lord God is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation.”
Therefore you will joyously draw water
From the springs of salvation.
And in that day you will say,
“Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name.”
All glory to God through Christ alone. Amen.