The Samaritan Woman: Faith that Gives

| John 4:10-18; 28-30

Week of July 7, 2019

The Point:  Your life-changing encounter with Christ should be shared with others.

The Samaritan Woman:  John 4:10-18, 28-30.

[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.” [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.” [28] So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, [29] “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” [30] They went out of the town and were coming to him. [ESV]

“The Samaritan Woman: Finding the Water of Life. In John 4 we meet an unnamed Samaritan woman with a rather sordid background. Jesus met her when she came to draw water at a well, and the encounter transformed her whole life. The apostle John devoted forty-two verses to telling the tale of this woman’s amazing encounter with the Lord. Such a significant section of Scripture would not be given to this one episode unless the lessons it contained were supremely important. At first glance, much about the scene seems ordinary and unimportant. Here is an anonymous woman who performed the most mundane of everyday tasks: she came to draw her daily ration of water for her household. She came alone, at an hour when she probably expected to find no one else at the well. (That was probably an indication of her status as an outcast.) Jesus, traveling through the region on His way to Jerusalem, was resting near the well. His disciples were purchasing food in the nearby village. Jesus, having no utensil or rope with which to draw water, asked the woman to fetch Him a drink. It was not the stuff of great drama, and this was certainly not a scene that would lead us to expect one of the most profound theological lessons in all the Bible was just ahead.

A Remarkable Setting. Look closer, however, and it turns out that many details in this picture are enormously significant. In the first place, this was Jacob’s well, located on a plot of land well known to students of the Old Testament. It was a field that Jacob purchase so that he could pitch his tent in the land of Canaan [Gen. 33:18-19]. He built an altar on the site to the God of Israel. This very field was the first inhabitable piece of real estate recorded in Scripture that any Israelite ever owned in the Promised Land. Abraham had previously purchased the field of Ephron, which contained a cave that became his and Sarah’s burial place [Gen. 23:17-18; 25:9-10]. But this property actually became Jacob’s home base. John 4:5 reminds us that this was the same parcel of ground Jacob deeded to his favorite son, Joseph [Gen. 48:21-22]. It later became the very place where Joseph’s bones were finally put to rest [Joshua 24:32]. Remember that when Moses left Egypt, he took Joseph’s coffin. The Israelites carried Joseph’s remains around with them for forty years in the wilderness. One of their first acts after conquering the Promised Land was the final interment of those bones. This was all done at Joseph’s own behest [Heb. 11:22]. To the Israelites, the tale of Joseph’s bones was a significant reminder of God’s faithfulness [Acts 7:15-16]. The well that was on the property was not mentioned in the Old Testament, but its location was well established in Jesus’ day by centuries of Jewish tradition, and the site remains a major landmark even today. The well is very deep, accessible only by a very long rope through a hole dug through a slab of soft limestone. The reservoir below is spring-fed, so its water is always fresh, pure, and cold. It is the only well, and the finest water, in a vicinity where brackish springs abound. The existence of such a well on Jacob’s property was deemed by the Israelites as a token of God’s grace and goodness to their patriarch. Hence, the location had a very long and meaningful history in Jewish tradition. In Jesus’ era, though, that plot of ground lay in Samaritan territory, and this is another surprising and significant detail about the setting in John 4. For Jesus to be in Samaria at all was unusual. The Samaritans were considered unclean by the Israelites. Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee. A look at any map reveals that the most direct route goes straight through Samaria. But in Jesus’ time, any self-respecting Jew would always travel a different way. The preferred route went east of the Jordan River, then north through Decapolis before crossing the Jordan again into Galilee. This alternate route went many miles out of the way, but it bypassed Samaria, and that was the whole point. Samaritans were a mixed-race people descended from pagans who had intermarried with the few remaining Israelites after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom (722 BC). As early as Nehemiah’s time (the mid-fifth century BC), the Samaritans posed a serious threat to the purity of Israel. Secular history records that Nehemiah’s main nemesis, Sanballat, was an early governor of Samaria [Neh. 4:1-2]. By the first century, the Samaritans had a distinct culture built around a syncretistic religion, blending aspects of Judaism and rank paganism. Their place of worship was on Mount Gerizim. Sanballat had built a temple there to rival the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan temple was served by a false priesthood, of course. Remember that the Israelites in the northern kingdom had already corrupted Judaism several centuries before this by establishing a false priesthood. That defiled flavor of Judaism was precisely what gave birth to Samaritanism. So the Samaritan religion was twice removed from the truth. But they did hold to selected elements of Jewish doctrine. Samaritans regarded the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture. They rejected the psalms and the prophets, however. The Jews’ contempt for the Samaritans was so intense by the first century that most Jews simply refused to travel through Samaria, despite the importance of that land to their heritage. Jesus deliberately broke with convention [4:4]. He had a purpose to fulfill, and it required Him to travel through Samaria, stop at this historic well, talk to this troubled woman, and make an unprecedented disclosure of His true mission and identity. Seen in that light, virtually everything about the setting of John 4 becomes remarkable. It is unusual to find Jesus alone. It is amazing to realize that God incarnate could grow physically weary [6] or become thirsty [7]. It is startling that Jesus would intentionally seek out and initiate a conversation with a wretched Samaritan woman like this one. It was astonishing even to her that any Jewish man would speak to her [9]. It was equally shocking for the disciples to find Him speaking to her [27]. It would have been considered outrageous for Him to drink from an unclean vessel that belonged to an unclean woman. It seems odd for a woman like this to enter so quickly into an extended theological dialogue. It is marvelous to see how rich Jesus’ teaching could be, even in a context like this. (The heart and soul of everything Scripture teaches about authentic worship is condensed in just a few words Jesus spoke to this woman in verses 21-24.) It is astounding that her own sin was such a large issue in her own heart and mind [29], even though Jesus had only referred to it obliquely [18] and even though she initially seemed to try to dodge the point [19-20]. But what is staggeringly unexpected about this whole fantastic account is that Jesus chose this time and this place and this woman to be part of the setting where He would (for the first time ever) formally and explicitly unveil His true identity as the Messiah. And that singular fact automatically gives this woman a prominent place in the “extraordinary” category.

A Curious Conversation. Jesus’ conversation with the woman started out simply and naturally enough – He asked her for a drink. The well was deep, and He had no way to draw water from it, so He said: Give me a drink [7]. He probably said it casually and in a friendly enough way, but He expressed it in the form of a command, not a question. She obviously didn’t think the request, or the way He phrased it, was rude. She certainly didn’t act offended. Instead, she immediately expressed surprise that He would even speak to her, much less drink from her vessel [9]. Gender taboos, racial divisions, and the class system would normally keep a man of Jesus’ status from conversing with a woman such as she, much less drinking from a water container that belonged to her. Bypassing her actual question, Jesus said, 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 [10]. He was already hinting at the real message He intended to give her. She immediately understood that He was making an amazing claim. She replied, 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 [11-12]. As a matter of fact, He was greater than Jacob, and that is precisely the point He wanted to demonstrate for her. But once more, instead of answering her question directly, He continued speaking of the living water. Indeed, He assured her, the water He offered was infinitely better than the water from Jacob’s well [13-14]. Now she was supremely curious, and she asked Him to give her the living water [15]. I think by now she probably understood that He was speaking of spiritual water. Parables and metaphors were standard teaching tools in that culture. Jesus was obviously some kind of rabbi or spiritual leader. It is unlikely that she was still thinking in literal terms. But her reply simply echoed the same metaphorical language He had used with her. Jesus’ next words unexpectedly drew her up short: Go, call your husband, and come here [16]. Now she was in a quandary. The truth about her life was so horrible that she could not admit it to Him. He seemed to be assuming she was a typical woman with a respectable home and an honorable husband. She was nothing like that. But instead of exposing all her disgrace to this rabbi, she told him only a small fraction of the truth: I have no husband [17]. To her utter chagrin, He knew the full truth already [17-18]. Notice that He did not rebuke her as a liar; on the contrary, He commended her for speaking truthfully. She wasn’t denying her sin. But she obviously wasn’t proud of it, either. So in order to retain whatever shred of dignity she could, she had simply sidestepped the implications of His question without actually lying to cover anything up. No matter. He knew all about her sin right down to the infinitesimal details. When she later recounted her meeting with Jesus, this was the fact that left the strongest impression on her mind: He told her everything she ever did [29,39]. Moments before, she had questioned whether He was greater than Jacob. Now she knew. I love the low-key, almost droll simplicity with which she acknowledged her own guilt: Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet [19]. He had unmasked her completely. Whoever He was, He obviously knew all about her. And yet, far from spurning her or castigating her, He had offered her the water of life! At this point, a thousand thoughts and questions must have filled her mind. She certainly must have wondered exactly who this was and how He knew so much about her. It is obvious that He was quite prepared to tell her who He was. He Himself had raised that issue almost immediately [10]. But instead of pursuing that question, she turned the conversation in a bizarre direction. She brought up what was to her mind the biggest point of religious contention between the Jews and the Samaritans [20]. She actually didn’t frame it as a question, but I don’t think she meant it as a challenge. I think she was genuinely hoping that this rabbi, who seemed to know everything, could straighten out what seemed to her to be the fundamental debate of the ages: Who was right? The Jews or the Samaritans? Gerizim or Jerusalem? Jesus did not brush her sincere question aside. He didn’t reproach her for changing the subject. He gave her a brief but very potent answer in John 4:21-24. With that reply, He accomplished several things. First, He let her know that where you worship isn’t the issue. True worshipers are defined by whom and how they worship. Second, He made it clear that the religious tradition she had grown up in was totally and utterly false [22]. He did not airbrush the reality or trouble Himself with trying to be delicate. He answered the real question she was asking. Third, He subtly steered her back to the main subject by telling her that a new age was dawning when neither Gerizim nor Jerusalem would have a monopoly on the priesthood. The era of the New Covenant was just on the horizon. There was a subtle expression of messianic expectation in His words, and she got it. She replied with these amazing words: I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things [25]. Is it not significant that this Samaritan woman, born and raised in a culture of corrupt religion, had the same messianic hope shared by every other godly woman in Scripture? Now, consider the implications of her statement. She knew the Messiah was coming. That was a definitive expression of confidence. It was embryonic faith waiting to be born. And how did she think the true Messiah would identify Himself? When he comes, he will tell us all things [25]. Jesus had already demonstrated His full knowledge of all her secrets. As she later testified to the men of her city, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did [29]. She was strongly hinting that she suspected Jesus Himself might be the Messiah. The Holy Spirit was working in her heart. God the Father was drawing her irresistibly to Christ, revealing truth to her that eye had never seen and ear had never heard. Now Jesus was ready to pull back the curtain and reveal His true identity in an unprecedented way.

An Astonishing Revelation. No sooner had she broached the subject of the Messiah, than Jesus said, I who speak to you am he [26]. This is the single most direct and explicit messianic claim Jesus ever made. Never before in any of the biblical record had He said this so forthrightly to anyone. Never again is it recorded that He declared Himself this plainly, until the night of His betrayal. Of course, when Peter made his great confession, Jesus affirmed that Peter had it right [Matt. 16:17-19]. But He immediately charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ [Matt. 16:20]. When Jewish crowds demanded, If you are the Christ, tell us plainly [John 10:24], He never denied the truth, but He avoided explicitly stating the words they were clamoring to hear. Instead, He appealed to His works as evidence of who He was [John 10:25]. It was not until His trial before Caiaphas, in the early-morning hours just before His crucifixion, that Jesus once again revealed His identity as plainly as He did for this Samaritan woman. The high priest asked Him, Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? [Mark 14:61]. Jesus said, I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven [Mark 14:62]. This was the very declaration that ultimately cost Him His life [Mark 14:63-64]. In light of all that, it is absolutely astonishing that the very first time Jesus chose to reveal Himself as Messiah, it was to a Samaritan woman with such a shady past. But His self-revelation is a testimony to her faith. The fact that He declared Himself so plainly is proof positive that the tiny germ of hope that had her looking for the Messiah in the first place was either about to develop into authentic, full-fledge faith – or else it already had sprouted. Jesus would not have committed Himself to an unbeliever [John 2:24]. Scripture says it was precisely at this point that the disciples returned from their errand, and they marveled that he was talking with a woman [27].

An Amazing Transformation. Soon after the disciples arrived, the woman left the well, leaving behind her water pot. It wasn’t absent-mindedness that caused her to leave it; she fully intended to come back. Her plan was to bring the leading men of the city and introduce them to Christ. She was privy to amazing knowledge that must not be kept secret. Her response was typical of new believers, one of the evidences of authentic faith. The person who has just had the burden of sin and guilt lifted always wants to share the good news with others. The woman’s excitement would have been palpable. And notice that the first thing she told the men of her town was that Jesus had told her everything she ever did. No longer was she evading the facts of her sin. She was basking in the glow of forgiveness, and there is simply no shame in that. Her enthusiasm and determination were apparently hard to resist, because the men of the city went back with her to the well where they all met Jesus. The immediate impact of this woman’s testimony on the city of Sychar was profound. John wrote, Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony [39].” [MacArthur, pp. 141-153].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Describe the setting for this passage. Why is this important to the encounter described?
  2. Who was the Samaritan woman? How did Jesus interact with her? Describe how Jesus moved the conversation from every day matters, such as drinking water, to spiritual matters? What do you learn from Jesus concerning how to do this in your conversations with people?
  3. What did Jesus mean by living water? How did Jesus respond to the woman’s request for this living water? Why is this important? How did He deal with the woman’s sinful life style? Again, what do we learn from Jesus concerning how to talk with people about spiritual truth?
  4. In 4:4, John writes that Jesus had to pass through Samaria. Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria when the normal route for Jews was to go around Samaria? How do we see God at work in Jesus’ decision to go through Samaria? To be left alone at the well? To speak to a woman? To speak to a Samaritan? To ask for a drink of water from a Samaritan woman? What is the result of Jesus traveling through Samaria instead of going around Samaria?
  5. Consider this day in the life of the Samaritan woman. Just a normal day of going to the well outside of town to get water at a time when no one else would be there. But this day she sees a Jewish man sitting at the well. What should she do? She proceeds to the well since she needs the water. But the man speaks to her and even asks for her help in getting a drink of water. What is she to do? Should she leave? Should she ignore the Jewish man? No, she chooses to enter into conversation with this man. How did this decision change her entire life both now and for all eternity? Think about how important everyday decisions we make in life are. How God can use the normal routine of daily life to change us and draw us to Him. Consider how God has done this in your own life. Should we not approach each day with the expectation that God is at work and can do great things for His glory through normal day-to-day circumstances. Pray that you will be alert to God’s leading in your life.

References:

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

Twelve Extraordinary Women, John MacArthur, Nelson.

The Message of John, Bruce Milne, Inter Varsity (ebook).

John, vol. 1, Richard Phillips, REC, P&R Publishers.