Moving From Failure to Witness

Lesson Focus:  Failures in our past do not mean we cannot change. We can trust Christ to save us from our sins.

Recognize Our Needs:  John 4:7-14.

[7]  A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." [8]  (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) [9]  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.) [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." [11]  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? [12]  Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." [13]  Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, [14]  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."  [ESV]

[7-14]  The Samaritans had developed their own religious heritage based on the Pentateuch (they did not accept the other books of the Hebrew bible as canonical), continuing to focus their worship not on Jerusalem and its temple but on Mount Gerizim. John may intend a contrast between the woman of this narrative and Nicodemus of chapter 3. He was learned, powerful, respected, orthodox, theologically trained; she was unschooled, without influence, despised, capable only of folk religion. He was a man, a Jew, a ruler; she was a woman, a Samaritan, a moral outcast. And both needed Jesus. Jesus arrived at Jacob’s well around noon, when the heat of the day and the progress of the journey explain Jesus’ thirst and tiredness.  Apparently the woman came to the well alone. Women were more likely to come in groups to fetch water, and either earlier or later in the day when the heat of the sun was not so fierce. Possibly the woman’s public shame contributed to her isolation. The connection between verse 7 and the parenthetical explanation of verse 8 suggests that normally Jesus’ disciples would have helped Him draw water, but their absence prompted Jesus to breach social custom and ask the Samaritan woman for a drink. That Jesus and His disciples were willing to purchase food from Samaritans betrays a certain freedom from the self-imposed regulations of the stricter sort of Jews, who would have been unwilling to eat food that had been handled by Samaritans. Some foods, however, especially dry foods, were considered less easily defiled than others. Although some Jews could imagine eating with Samaritans, doubtless many a Jew would not eat with a Samaritan on the latter’s home turf for fear of incurring ritual defilement. Probably this fear was intensified when the Samaritan was a woman. The Samaritan woman’s surprise is therefore entirely understandable: Jesus was a Jew and she was both a Samaritan and a woman. From her perspective, she dismisses Him as a Jew; later on, Jews will dismiss Him as a Samaritan [8:48]. But in His ministry Jesus wins some Jews and some Samaritans by not allowing human prejudices to influence the way He dealt with people. At this point, however, the woman is not about to be won: she cannot fathom what would possess a Jew to ask her for a drink. She does not know that, far from being defiled by what is unclean, Jesus sanctifies what He touches. Others who touch lepers become unclean; Jesus touches a leper and brings healing [Mt. 8:3]. A religious, male, Jewish aristocrat like Nicodemus, or an untrained, female Samaritan peasant who had made a mess of her life – Jesus converses frankly with both, and happily breaks social and religious taboos to do so. Not only had Jesus’ request of the woman proven Him to be above the biases of strictly observant Jews, but He Himself now proffers living water of which she knows nothing. She sees in Him a weary Jewish traveler; she does not yet perceive His glory. If she had known who it was that was asking her for a drink, she would have been pressing Him for a far better drink. The gift of God that she does not recognize is probably the eternal life that only Jesus can bestow. The expression, living water, has been chosen to allow two levels of meaning. On the one hand, it denotes fresh, running water from springs. On the other hand, the expression belongs to a considerable network of metaphorical uses. The obvious background, however, is the Old Testament. There God declares, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water [Jer. 2:13] – that is, they have rejected the fresh running supply of God and His faithful goodness, choosing instead the stagnant waters of cisterns they themselves prepared, discovering even then that their cisterns were cracked, and leaving them with nothing to sustain life and blessing. But the prophets look forward to a time when living water will flow out from Jerusalem [Zech. 14:8]. The metaphor speaks of God and His grace, knowledge of God, life, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. All of these themes are picked up in John’s use of water or living water in this gospel. There are passages where Jesus is the living water as He is the bread from heaven [6:35], and other passages where He gives the living water to believers. In this chapter, the water is the satisfying eternal life mediated by the Spirit that only Jesus, the Messiah and Savior of the world, can provide. Because of the double meaning of living water, the woman finds it easy to think Jesus is talking about fresh, running water, like that of the spring that feeds the well. To obtain water on this spot, even the patriarch Jacob had found it necessary to dig a well and to provide the means for raising the water from the deep hole. If Jesus was offering fresh water without expending the energy to dig or using the means provided, He was greater than Jacob, or a cheap charlatan. The woman has little doubt Jesus is the latter: the form of her question [12] implies the answer was a decisive “No!” in her own mind. But misunderstanding combines with irony to make the woman twice wrong: the living water Jesus offers does not come from an ordinary well, and Jesus is in fact far greater than the patriarch Jacob. There is no Old Testament record of Jacob digging this well. Probably it belongs to tradition associated with the account of Jacob’s move to the Shechem area [Gen. 33:18-20]. The woman’s question [12] is skeptical, perhaps slightly derisory, but Jesus answers it. Some measure of the relative greatness of Jacob and of Jesus can be found in the fact that the water provided by the venerated patriarch, as valuable as it was, quenched thirst only for a short while; the living water Jesus gives bans thirst forever in the one who drinks it. This thirst is not for natural water, but for God, for eternal life in the presence of God; and the thirst is met not by removing this aching desire but by pouring out the Spirit. Indeed, this water will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life [14] – clearly a reference to the Spirit who alone gives life [6:63]. Again there are echoes of Old Testament promises. In the day of God’s salvation, with joy God’s people will draw water from the wells of salvation [Isaiah 12:3]. They will neither hunger nor thirst [Isaiah 49:10]; the pouring out of God’s Spirit will be like pouring water on the thirsty and streams on the dry ground [Isaiah 44:3]. The language of inner satisfaction and transformation calls to mind a string of prophecies anticipating new hearts, the exchange of failed formalism in religion for a heart that knows and experiences God, and that hungers to do His will [Jer. 31:29-34; Ez. 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-32].

Confront Our Failures:  John 4:15-18.

[15]  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." [16]  Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." [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 now have is not your husband. What you have said is true." [ESV]

[15-18]  The woman, like Nicodemus, continues to think on the purely naturalistic plane, as is made clear by her desire not to keep coming here to draw water [15]. The Samaritan woman, with what degree of skepticism or hope we cannot tell, wants to get in on any blessing that will enable her to abandon these trips to Jacob’s well. The change of subject, though abrupt, is not artificial [16]. The Samaritan woman has already failed to grasp who Jesus is, and misconstrued the nature of the living water He was promising. By this turn in the dialogue, Jesus is indicating that she has also misunderstood the true dimensions of her own need, the real nature of her self-confessed thirst. Both in the Fourth Gospel and in the Synoptics, the sheer flexibility of Jesus leaps from the pages as He deals with a wide array of different people and their varied needs. No less startling is the manner in which Jesus commonly drives to the individual’s greatest sin, hopelessness, guilt, despair, need. This should not be surprising: if He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, inevitably He will deal with sin in those who express some interest in knowing and following Him. The woman’s I have no husband [17] was formally true, if her five former husbands were all deceased or divorced; but doubtless her intention was to ward off any further probing of this sensitive area of her life, while masking the guilt and hurt. Jesus exposes the whole truth but in the gentlest possible way: He commends her for her formal truthfulness, while pointing out that she has had five husbands and the man with whom she is now sleeping is not her legal husband at all [18].

Tell Others About Jesus: John 4:24-26,39.

[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 (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things." [26]  Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he." [39]  Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, "He told me all that I ever did."  [ESV]

[24-26]  God is spirit means that God is invisible, divine as opposed to human, life-giving and unknowable to human beings unless He chooses to reveal Himself [see 1:18]. As God is light and God is love [1 John 1:5; 4:8], so God is spirit: these are elements in the way God presents Himself to human beings, in His gracious self-disclosure in His Son. And He has chosen to reveal Himself: He has uttered His Word, His own Self-Expression. In that Word, now become flesh, He may be known as truly as it is possible for human beings to know Him [1:1-18]. That incarnate Word is the one who baptizes His people in the Holy Spirit [1:33], for unless they are born from above, unless they are born of the Spirit, they cannot see the kingdom of God, they cannot worship God truly. This provision of the Spirit is made possible by the work of Him who is the truth [14:6], and who by His glorification by way of the cross pours out the Spirit, who is called the Spirit of truth [14:17; 15:26; 16:13]. This God who is spirit can be worshipped only in spirit and truth. There are not two separable characteristics of the worship that must be offered: it must be in spirit and truth, i.e. essentially God-centered, made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in personal knowledge of and conformity to God’s Word-made-flesh, the one who is God’s truth, the faithful exposition and fulfillment of God and His saving purposes. The worshippers whom God seeks worship Him out of the fullness of the supernatural life they enjoy (in spirit), and on the basis of God’s incarnate Self-Expression, Christ Jesus Himself, through whom God’s person and will are finally and ultimately disclosed (in truth); and these two characteristics form one matrix, indivisible. To worship the Father in spirit and truth clearly means much more than worship without necessary ties to particular holy places (though it cannot mean any less). The prophets spoke of a time when worship would no longer be focused on a single, central sanctuary, when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. How much of this the Samaritan woman understands is debatable. Doubtless she catches some messianic implications of what Jesus is saying, and replies, in effect, that these sorts of questions will be resolved once the Messiah appears. Jesus had been talking about eschatological matters with utter authority; the Samaritan woman rightly insists that the Messiah, when He comes, would make such matters plain. She may well have begun to suspect the truth, voicing her confession of faith as a kind of test to see what He would say. Jesus needs no further invitation: I who speak to you am he. The one who sat by the well and asked her for a drink was none other than the promised Messiah, the one who could indeed provide her with living water. It is entirely in line with this Gospel that Jesus should unambiguously declare Himself to be the Messiah to a Samaritan, but not to His own people. For many Jews, the title Messiah carried so much political and military baggage that His self-disclosure in such settings necessarily had to be more subdued and subtle. Similarly, in the Synoptics Jesus is far more likely to encourage the public testimony of those who have experienced His transforming power if they live in Gentile territory.

[39]  The woman’s fellow townspeople appear to progress beyond the woman’s understanding of Jesus. The woman’s testimony provided the initial impetus for them to come to Jesus, but now they have heard for themselves and have drawn their own conclusion. In fact, secondhand testimony is no substitute for a direct personal encounter with Christ. Moreover, faith overcomes any scandal that may be given by the external circumstances of the revealer’s origin; in this case, Jesus being a Jew.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does Jesus mean by living water? How does one get this living water?

2.         What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth? Analyze your own worship of God. Do you need to change anything so that your worship can be more in spirit and truth?

3.         What things do we learn about evangelism from this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman? Note the following points.

            (1)  Compare Nicodemus with the Samaritan women. See how Jesus is able to deal with people from very different backgrounds.

            (2)  Jesus begins with physical, immediate concerns before moving to spiritual matters.

            (3)  Jesus deals with a person’s spiritual need brought about by their sin. See the change of direction Jesus makes in 4:16. The Samaritan woman must recognize her need for the living water before she will truly desire it. And she must first recognize the consequences of her sin before she will see her need for spiritual truth. But note here the gentleness of Jesus is dealing with the woman’s sin.

            (4)  The true believer will then go and tell others about Jesus.


The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

John, Andreas Kostenberger, ECNT, Baker.

The Gospel According to John, D.A. Carson, Eerdmans.

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