5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.
9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)
10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”
11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”
17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”
“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,'” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”
19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”
21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming– and is here!– when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”
26 Jesus said to her, “I Am– the one who speaks with you.”
27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.
31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”
33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”
34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”
39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (CEB)
The Samaritan Woman
One thing that I’ve learned as a parent is that no two human beings are alike. Even children of the same parents are strikingly unique. Kara is naturally honest and fair-minded. When she would get candy from preschool, she wouldn’t eat it. She would wait until she got home so she could share it equally with her little brother. To her mind, it would not have been fair if James didn’t get an equal portion of the candy she received. James, not so much. He was the kid who would eat all his candy immediately so he wouldn’t have to share. In his mind, it wouldn’t be fair for him to have to give what was rightfully his to anyone else.
Potty training with Kara was a breeze. She loved Altoids mints. All we had to do was set a tin of mints on the bathroom counter. We told her, if you go and flush and wash your hands, you can have one mint. And she basically potty trained herself. She would even show us the mint before putting it in her mouth. Joy and I thought we were the best parents on the planet. Potty training is easy. So, we tried the same thing with James. The first time he walked out of the bathroom, his mouth was so full of mints that he couldn’t get his lips closed. Drool was oozing down his chin, and he was making this troubled buzzing sound like he was speaking through a kazoo. Why take just one mint when he can eat the entire container-full at once?
Most of us know siblings who are as different as night and day. My brother and I were like that, too. He was the sports guy who played football and baseball. Our mother had to coerce me to run cross country and track. When I got into trouble, Mom would ground me from going to Youth Group. When my brother got into trouble, Mom made him go.
Last week, we looked at Nicodemus, who went to Jesus by night. This week, we hear about a woman who met Jesus during the day. These two figures could hardly be more different from each other. She was a Samaritan, he was a Jew. It appears she had a checkered past, while he was a respected moral and religious leader. She was presented as a beginner and learner when it comes to religion, he was a teacher with vast knowledge. She was a woman in a male-dominated world, he was a man who had every advantage of power and autonomy. It appears that she might have been somewhat of an outsider in her own community, whereas he was as accepted as one could get within his. In the eyes of everyone, this woman is a nobody who doesn’t even get her name recorded. Nicodemus was a somebody, and his name is attached to one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.
Yet, it’s the Samaritan Woman, and the story that is recorded about her encounter with Jesus, that presents one of the best portraits of the Gospel. In fact, it gives clearer context to what it means that “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) than what the encounter with Nicodemus provides. In the first few verses of John 4, which the Revised Common Lectionary skips, we’re told, “Jesus had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4, CEB). And that’s true on two levels. First, he was going back to Galilee from Judea so, geographically, the shorter trip is to travel through Samaria.
Second, he was making more disciples than John the Baptist in Judea, so he had to move on if he was going to show what it meant that “God so loved the world.” The world is much bigger than Judea or Galilee. So, Jesus traveled through Samaria and had this marvelous encounter with a woman at Jacob’s well. There are some really remarkable things that happen.
Firstly, the differences between this woman and Jesus—she: a woman, he: a man; she: a Samaritan, he: a Jew—are, according to every social convention of the day, insurmountable. Jesus asks for a drink of water, and the woman’s response is incredulity because she immediately recognizes those two social barriers Jesus is breaching by even speaking to her, let alone asking for a drink. This woman has her place, and Jesus has his. The Samaritan Woman asks Jesus what in the world he’s doing when she poses her own question in return: “Why do you, a Jewish man ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” and the Gospel writer makes a side comment—our English translations put it in parentheses—so we understand the social dynamics at play, “(Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other)” (John 4:9).
In typical Jesus fashion, he starts into a religious discussion. “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water” (John 4:10, CEB). At first, the woman misunderstands and comments that Jesus can’t give her any water, let alone living water, because he doesn’t even have a bucket.
Now, here’s where we can misunderstand, too. Living water wasn’t necessarily a spiritual term. Living water was water that moved, like water that bubbles up from a spring, or water that flows in a stream (c.f. Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13). So, it’s likely that the Samaritan Woman was already skeptical of Jesus who suggested he could provide living water for her from a well. You don’t get living water—moving water—from places like wells or cisterns, and especially when you don’t even have a bucket with which to draw it.
She pushes Jesus even further by saying, “You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from hit himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (John 4:12, CEB). We already know what she thinks because rhetorical questions in Greek are constructed in such a way that we know whether the questioner expects a positive or a negative answer. The Samaritan Woman’s question uses the word μὴ, so it expects a negative answer. She’s stating that Jesus is not greater. In a sense, she telling this Jewish man that this well-water was good enough for their ancestor, Jacob—whom God named Israel—and it was good enough for Israel’s sons for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, so it’s good enough for her and him. She doesn’t need living water and neither does Jesus.
The Samaritan Woman knows the historical and religious disagreements between the Samaritans (the remnant of the northern tribes and Kingdom of Israel) and Jews (the remnant of the tribe and Kingdom of Judah). By pointing out their common ancestry, the Samaritan Woman deftly points out that Jesus can keep his Jewish arrogance to himself and drink from the well because Jews and Samaritans are part of the same family tree. His people are no better than her people, despite the fact that Jews believed otherwise. For a woman of her time, it is, honestly, rather forward of her to speak like this to a man. She knew way back then that a woman’s place is in the Rebellion. What she says is defiant, and I love it! (#Resist)!
But, Jesus continues to engage the Samaritan Woman with much more patience than he showed Nicodemus. He says, “Everyone who drinks from this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up to eternal life” (John 4:13, CEB). This is where the Samaritan Woman begins to understand. She takes baby steps, and Jesus encourages her to keep walking. She wants this water so she will never thirst again, and not need to draw from the well. She’s teetering on the edge of grasping that Jesus is talking about spiritual matters, but she’s still somewhat stuck in a physical understanding. It’s the next gentle push Jesus gives that brings her understanding to fullness.
Now, people have tried to read into Jesus’ words about the Samaritan Woman’s marital status for centuries, and most of them conclude that she’s living in some sinful or less-than-moral situation. But the truth is, we don’t know. It’s not as though a woman in her culture would have had any control over her own marital status anyway. It could just as easily be the case that this is a woman who has been abused, used, and hurt. So, for any one of us to judge her and declare that she is a sinner or assume she must be a prostitute is not only unfair, but it’s wrong to the point that we might be in danger of sin for doing so. Jesus never accuses her of sin, nor does he demand that she repent, nor does he offer her forgiveness. In the Gospel of John, sin is not so much a behavioral thing as it is unbelief and unwillingness to recognize Jesus for who he is.
Jesus’ question about the Samaritan Woman’s husband is meant to prod her to understand who Jesus is. He knows her life. He knows her sufferings. He knows her situation. It’s that intimate knowledge of her that makes her realize that this Jewish man is more than he appears. She recognizes that he is a prophet, and engages him even further in the discussion that has turned thoroughly theological. She says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem” (John 4:20, CEB). The mountain in question is Gerizim near Shechem, which had a long history as a place of worship. Abram built an altar to the Lord at Shechem. (Genesis 12:6-7). Jews, however, believed the Lord could only be worshipped at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Her theological comment really contains a question about God’s location. Where does God dwell? Where can a person worship God? The response Jesus gave surely surprised the Samaritan Woman. “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know, we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way” (John 4:23, CEB).
As the conversation continues about the coming of the Messiah who will teach her people everything, Jesus speaks the first of his I AM statements to the Samaritan Woman. “I Am—the one who speaks with you” (John 4:26, CEB). The beauty of how this conversation plays out is that the woman, who is already bold, is further emboldened. She leaves her jar and goes into the city to bring her people to Jesus. In fact, she speaks the very same words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he first invited them to follow him, “Come and see” (John 1:39, CEB). “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” (John 4:29, CEB).
There’s still a trace of skepticism in her words because her question expects a negative answer. Nevertheless, she goes and calls people to come and see! The Samaritan Woman becomes a witness to the Gospel, a witness to God’s salvation, and her perfect, beautiful response is to invite her entire village to come and see Jesus for themselves. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we were that amazed at what Jesus offers us that we dropped what we were doing to share the Good News and invited everyone we bump into to come and see?
John records this amazing statement: “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days” (John 4:39-40, CEB). Now, remember that verse from earlier that said Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. This is another barrier broken.
Many more of her fellow townspeople came to believe because of what Jesus taught them. Later, they told the Samaritan Woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42, CEB). It’s impressive, don’t you think, that an entire city came to believe because Jesus took the time to have a patient, gentle, kind conversation with a stranger—even a Samaritan woman who was so different from himself—about a drink of water? God so loved the world, not just people like us, not merely people who agree with us, but the world. Do we?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!