The Power to Give Life

I. Setting

A. The location of this event has a strategic role in the progress of John’s Gospel. In this comparatively detailed presentation, we discover a movement from an interview with a self-righteous Jewish teacher to one with an outcast and desperate Samaritan woman. His initial readers would have been at least momentarily puzzled with this, but they would see a brilliant presentation of the true nature of covenantal justification and a clear revelation from the mouth of Jesus himself that he is Messiah. 

B. The specific path for this journey was undertaken seemingly to avoid conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus knew that the Pharisees opposed John the Baptist and, in addition to their questioning of him would now add their obvious suspicion of John the Baptist (1:19, 24) to him. Jesus’ leaving the place was purposeful for, in the words of Leon Morris, “He would not precipitate a clash until the right time.” 

C. This event gives gospel prominence to Samaria. The interview with Nicodemus was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast. Nothing could be more essentially and exclusively Jewish than this. This interview is in Samaria, the place that was synonymous with rebellion, rejection of the prescribed ceremonies of worship, and a mongrelized race, perverted from the purity of their Abrahamic descent. The Jews had refused the help of the Samaritans in rebuilding their temple (Ezra 4:2) and had burned the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim in 128 B.C. Relations were bitter and this provided a powerful opportunity for Jesus to show that he was the savior of the “world.” Saving knowledge of God is not ethnic or national but born of faith generated by the Holy Spirit. Remind yourself of John 1:12, 13. 

D. The need to go through Samaria was two-fold apparently. Seeking to get to Galilee as quickly as possible, and in light of the weariness of Jesus, he did not want to extend the walk by taking the longer route that avoided Samaria. The language indicates the need of spiritual urgency and moral necessity—he “must needs go,” he “had to pass through” Samaria. Jesus had an appointment there ordained from eternity. This was an appointment for salvation for the remnant—an outcast remnant—of the descendants of Abraham. It included in one grand event of Christocentric gospel presentation the salvation of numbers of Samaritans who also had Gentile forebears. 

E. It might be merely coincidental in John’s narrative style, or it might be a providence that John points out purposefully, that it was the sixth hour and again points it out during Jesus’ trial before Pilate (19:14) on the day of the preparation for the Passover. The commentator Lightfoot mentions this and another interesting parallel. In 4:34 Jesus said that his food was to do the will of “Him that sent me and to accomplish his work.” In 19:30 Jesus said “It is finished.” These words are from the same root that has the thrust of bringing to completion a purposeful activity. Surely this is more than coincidence; John shows that the trip to Samaria in John 4 was prophetic of the final accomplishment of the redemptive work that he came to do.

II. Interview

A. Jesus initiated the conversation with language that would allow him to identify himself in the natural dialogue that followed. Again, note the presence of water as an element of the narrative and eventually as a symbol of life. Here he asked for a drink and in the possible parallel of John 19, Jesus stated, “I thirst.” (John 19:28).

1. The woman remarks at the incongruity of the request. She was struck with the irony that the despised Samaritan was in the position of meeting the need of a weary Jew, and he had consented to recognize her advantage at this point. In Luke 10, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan that was in a position to aid a needy Jew. Jesus had forced his disciples into the same apparent compromise (8) so that they would participate fully in the astounding operation of redemptive grace that was in the offing.

2. In addition, not only was she a Samaritan, but she was a woman. The apparent parity of the engagement took her back. Note that the disciples were amazed that he was speaking “with a woman” (27). Her isolation in this task of drawing water came because even among the people of this Samaritan town, she was to be avoided. Some bit of conscience about her life gave her pause.

B. Jesus compared the recurring need for physical replenishment to the nature of eternal life (10). Note that number of rich items he immediately introduces into the discussion.

1. The gift of God – In spite of our unworthiness, God is poised to give needy persons a gift of incomprehensible proportions. Recall Paul’s extended exposition of grace in Ephesians 1 and 2, summarizing it with these words, “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast” Ephesians 2:8, 9). 

2. “Who it is that is speaking to you.” This “chance” happening had put this outcast, downtrodden woman, and untouchable reject among an untouchable people with the Creator of the world who had come into it to redeem it. On the one hand nothing is more incongruous than this interview, but on the other nothing more at the heart of Jesus’ mission. This contact establishes clearly who he is, Jesus, the one who saves his people from their sins. Those that are “not my people” now are the people of God (Hosea 1:10).

3. She should be the one that recognizes her need [“You would have asked him”]. Though he was, indeed, not just feignedly, weary and in need of a drink of water for physical refreshment, she had an eternal need for life. She was not merely tired spiritually, but dead, not merely oppressed by the heat of a journey, but under condemnation because of an insurmountable load of sin. She should be doing the asking, not he. 

4. Living water.- What an image! This image extends the conversation into the very point he was driving at.

      • Though the image is puzzling, she is undaunted in pressing him for greater clarity. Her narrative proceeds with an observation and a question based on that observation. “You have nothing to draw with.” Really! It is from the essence of his own being and the sovereignty of his will that this living water is drawn. “The well is deep,” but not so much as is the need for forgiveness and justification which flow from the person of Christ upon the finishing of his work anticipated in his present promise. 
      • Then she asks another question that establishes a challenge for Jesus to go further in telling her just how great is this water he will provide. Since it was clear that he had nothing with which he could draw water from the well before them, she wanted to know the source of this “living water.”  “Where then do you get that living water?” (11). An excellent question indeed!
      • For Jesus to have something that would provide her with more than this well had provided all her life he must be superior to the one that provided it; so naturally she queries, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” Yes the image of te invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, the firstborn from the dead, the One through, and for whom, and unto whom all was made. John illustrates in this conversation, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4).
      • That well had served Jacob, his sons, his livestock and had kept providing water generation after generation right up until her present need for water in her household. What Jesus had must be very impressive to outstrip the provisions of that well.

5. Verses 13, 14 – As he had done with Nicodemus, Jesus now shows the analogous relationship that things in the natural world (created by God) have to spiritual realities. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead” (Romans 1:20).

      • The satisfaction granted to a physical need by a physical thing will be short-lived and will have to be done again. The implication is that much less can any created thing meet the spiritual need that has led, as Jesus soon will point out, to the tumultuous bungling of relationships that has plagued this woman’s life.
      • The water that Jesus gives is not from the deep well before them, but from the infinite depths of his own being as Son of God whose death will forgive sins and whose grace will grant the adoption of sons through the Spirit, and the end thereof, eternal life. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
      • So intriguing are this possibility and the apparent confidence that Jesus has that he can give it, that the woman asks for it (15). Who would not want such a gift; but the character of both the need and the thirst-quenching gift must now be explored. The blessing of eternal life, freedom from frustration and want, freedom from the threat of divine wrath and other blessings have an attraction all their own. But the path to reception of them calls for an awareness of the strength of the barriers to such life.

C. Her personal sin and dissatisfaction (16-18). Jesus begins to point out both the sin and the frustration of her life.

1. Clearly symptomatic of her problem was that serial adultery under the guise of marriage that punctuated the short clauses of her life. Again, as we have seen as a theme in John (e.g  1:47, 48; 2:25), Jesus knows what is in all the persons that he engages. This clearly is a function of his deity. So, knowing what her life history has been, Jesus asked the woman to bring her husband before he told her about this living water (16). 

2. She answers truly but with the technique of mental reservation. Although, as Jesus pointed out, she has had five husbands, she does not have a husband at present, but is living with a man without the trouble of any recognizable form of vows. So, Jesus said that she answered with technical correctness, if not with truth in its entirety (17, 18). 

3. In light of this answer, the woman noted that Jesus is a prophet (19). Probably in an effort to deflect the attention away from the discomfort of looking at her personal moral failures, she turns to a well-worn religious discussion. Who is the witness that has not seen similar red herrings drawn across the path of an evangelistic encounter? Be prepared to refocus the discussion with plain—sometimes brutal—honesty.

D. Conflict between Samaritans and Jews over worship leads to affirmation and expansion.

1. Jesus does not avoid this discussion; nor does he allow it to turn him from the real issue of her life and of his mission. Not place of worship, but the nature of true worship and Salvation is the issue. This cannot be shoved aside in the interest of an abstract discussion. While the place of worship was not irrelevant under the specific commands given to Israel (Deuteronomy 12:5, 6), the real issue always had been the heart (Psalm 51:16, 17; Malachi 1:10-14). 

2. Expanding on that theme, Jesus indicated that the time was at hand when place of worship would be irrelevant, for the priesthood, the altar, and the sacrifice all would be fulfilled once for all by the “sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:23-28). “An Hour is coming, … An hour is coming and now is” (21, 23). So neither of the contested mountains would hold sway in this ages long dispute. The question of worship according to revelation, however, was not immaterial but embodied a compelling principle.

3.Because the Samaritans had invented their own places of worship and sacrifice [which they continue in small isolated pockets even to today], Jesus said that they did not know what they worshipped. Worship that is man-made as a mere ritual not built on divine revelation is an empty form generated by the human imagination and the essence of ignorant idolatry. The Jews, who had the full revelation of the entire Old Testament and worshipped according to the prescribed rites in Jerusalem, knew what they worshipped. This entire system was designed to lead to a knowledge of salvation when properly received and believed. Salvation is of the Jews—both in the meaning of their system of sacrifice, festival, and worship and in the prophetic material giving a true picture of the Messiah. Their knowledge of God, therefore, is more accurate than that of the Samaritans (22). 

4. God is Spirit, however, and when Messiah comes all the types will be fulfilled and the New Covenant will bring in a full knowledge of salvation and true worship of God. God, in reality, is not isolated to any geographical location. The specifying of a place was designed to focus the attention of all the people on the one place of sacrifice of acceptable unblemished offerings by priests set aside for the purpose. When Christ fulfilled all that, then the place formerly designated loses its relevance. “The hour is coming and now is here.” 

5. Worship in Spirit and Truth – To worship in Spirit brings one to see that only by the operation of the Holy Spirit in convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment may one be brought to a true worship of God. The new birth, spoken of in the last chapter, brings the sinner into a true frame of worship. Truth refers to the message of Christ received by faith. In his answer to this woman, Jesus anticipates his discourse to his disciple in John 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26; 16:8-10, 13-15. Worshiping in Spirit and in truth means that true believers worship by the work of the Spirit of truth who has implanted in our hearts the truth about Jesus as Son of God, Son of Man, Savior, Christ, and Lord. 

6. Worshippers must be such as can worship in Spirit and truth. The new birth that brings about faith in the completed work of Christ is the only foundation for true worship.

E. Jesus gives a clear statement that he indeed is Messiah (26; cf.10, 29). 

1. When the woman again tries to divert the discussion to a remote theological idea, she again discovers that this Jewish stranger responds with a radical claim. Certainly, she thinks, if I go beyond him in an appeal to the Messiah to which Moses pointed, this prophet will stop sounding so authoritative. He might be smart and know more than I do, but I will just avoid further interaction with him by saying that Messiah, when he comes will tell us all things. Jesus’ response again takes her completely off guard.: “I who speak to you am he.” Jesus makes a direct claim to be the Messiah.

2. Staggered at the transparency and honest consistency of the claim, the woman left her waterpot (her original reason for coming to the well) and goes into town and speaks to the men. This suggests a boldness, or perhaps urgency, that she would have avoided for any other and less piercing reason. She wants them to draw the conclusion, as she has, by describing the circumstance and posing a rhetorical question that she has been in a discussion with the Messiah.

III. The Rest of the Story

A.  Lessons for the Disciples

1. The delight in doing the Father’s will )31-34). 

2. The law of sowing and reaping

      • This pertains first to the triune God accomplishing his eternal purpose. This work among the Samaritans is done by Father, Son, and Spirit (34-36).
      • The principles in the complementarity between OT Prophets and NT Apostles (38; cf. Acts 2, Acts 10).

B. Savior of the World

1. They believe the Woman’s testimony (39). 

2. They believe because they hear Jesus (40, 41). His teaching was convincing and perfectly consistent with what they knew about the reduced canon of Scripture that they studied. He is Messiah as promised in Scripture and as such he is “the Savior of the world” (42). 

3. They believe though there is no “sign,” only the word.

C. Galilee and the Royal Official’s Son

1. “No honor” – Is this a complaint or an affirmation toward the Galileans?

2. “Royal official” – Perhaps of the household of Herod – kin or courtier. 

3.“You people” (48) – We do not know why Jesus responded this way other than his knowledge of all persons’ hearts and his comparison of the response of the Samaritans with the expectations of the Jews.

4. Jesus shows the unmediated unilateral nature of his power and authority by not going down in person but by merely speaking the word, “Go; your son lives” (50).

IV. Observations

A. John begins to develop his meaning of the word “World.” It includes the Samaritans as well as the Jews.

B.  Jesus gives a pivotal lesson in the nature of true worship along with a striking statement of the transition of covenantal provisions.

C. There is genuine fulfilling pleasure in knowing and doing the purpose of God (32, 33). 

D. The core of the gospel, humanly speaking, is its fitness for the worst of sinners (29, 39). 

E. Jesus shows himself to be Messiah through the clarity and confidence with which he speaks the word. The chapter includes an identification of the effectual power of his word in the healing of the royal official’s son. His word was no less effectual in his discourse with the woman; its effectual power has palpable manifestation in its curative effect upon observable disease and death (50, 53) as well as upon producing true belief.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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