The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the first of three major stories in the gospel of John. This gospel frequently uses stories as an introduction to a discourse about the meaning of Jesus. Chapter 3 is a good example. The encounter with Nicodemus begins the chapter, but after a few verses Nicodemus just "disappears" and John reflects on the meaning of Christ. In contrast to that common pattern, the story of the Samaritan woman is sustained for almost forty verses. This story is like the stories of the man born blind in chapter 9 and the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. These stories interweave theological insights into the dialog and characterization.
The literary structure is carefully crafted. John uses misunderstanding (v. 11), irony (v. 12), an embarrassing subject quickly changed (v. 19), and front and back stage effects (v. 29). There are two main scenes: first the dialog with the Samaritan Woman (vv. 4-26) and then the dialog with the disciples (vv. 27-38). Verses 39-42 pull the two scenes together for an appropriate evangelistic conclusion.
Scene 1 - Part 1 - Verses 6-15 deal with the Living Water. This is developed by two brief dialogs:
v. 7 - Jesus asks for water
v. 9 - The woman mocks Jesus' need
v. 10 - Jesus challenges the woman
i. To recognize him and
ii. To ask for living water.
This first dialog introduces the issue of Jesus' identity and living water. The second dialog addresses the issue of living water.
vv. 11-12 - The woman fails to understand Jesus (He is less than Jacob)
vv. 13-14 - Jesus clarifies his reference to water
v. 15 - The woman asks for the water.
At this point the living water has been addressed, but Jesus' identity has not. Attention now turns to that.
Scene 1 - Part 2 - Verses 16-26 dealing with True Worship of the Father. This portion also has two brief dialogs with three lines in each.
v. 16 - Jesus reveals himself by discernment of her
v. 17 - The woman becomes evasive
v. 18 - Jesus uncovers her evil.
This is a critical point in the scene. John 3:19-21 indicates that people whose deeds are evil do not come to the light lest their evil be exposed. The evil of the Samaritan woman has now been exposed. Judgment has come to her. Will she turn her back on the light or continue toward a new birth?
vv. 19-20 - The woman evades again but remains open by her comment about worship
vv. 21-24 - Jesus explains true worship
vv. 25-26 - The woman recognizes and confesses Jesus.
Scene 2 - Verses 27-38 deals with the Dialog with the Disciples. Verses 27-30 are played out in backstage. The witness of the woman to the men of the city sets the scene. The subject will be the question of men coming to Christ. The misunderstanding about food in verses 31-33 is similar to the misunderstanding about water in verses 7-11. Jesus is speaking on a spiritual level in both instances, but the hearers are thinking in physical terms. Verse 34 is Jesus' clarification of the misunderstanding. His symbolic use of food opens the door to verses 35-38. These verses contain two proverbs with commentary.
v. 35 - First proverb - on harvest
v. 36 - Comment on first proverb
v. 37 - Second proverb - on sowing
v. 38 - Comment on second proverb
Finally, John draws the two scenes together and to an evangelistic conclusion in verses 39-42. The harvest that Jesus had described in Scene 2 is brought to completion as the Samaritans believe for themselves. The preparatory work of Jesus and the woman is acknowledged as an important part of the process leading to the Samaritans' believing. Their faith is another instance of the purpose of John's gospel being illustrated.
John 4:4-26 - Dialog With The Samaritan Woman
Verses 4-6 provide the setting of the dialog. Verses 7-15 focus on the issue of living water. Verses 16-26 turn to the matter of true worship and Jesus' identity.
Verse 4 introduces the story that John is about to unfold. It states that it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria to reach Galilee. At a literal level this was not true. It was quite possible to travel from Judea to Galilee without passing through Samaria. Most Jews avoided traveling through Samaria and went through the Jordan Rift Valley. It was inconvenient, out of the way, and harder, but it was quite possible to avoid Samaria. The phrase, "it was necessary," was a typical Jewish way of saying that it was God's will. Thus the encounter with the Samaritan woman is no accident but part of God's providential management of history.
Verses 5-6 complete the setting. On the journey Jesus passed through Sychar and Jacob's well. Verse 6 emphasizes that Jesus was weary from the journey. The Greek tense indicates that he had become tired and remained exhausted. John presents Jesus in human weakness - truly become flesh in this scene. The reference to the sixth hour probably means noontime. His disciples had enough energy to go to town to purchase food, but Jesus was so tired he had to remain at the well. The scene is set.
John 4:7-15 - The Living Water
Jesus began the dialog by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink. In doing so he violated a number of social customs of that time. That Jesus would talk with a woman immediately demonstrates his rejection of Judaism's culture of male superiority. Rabbinic restrictions against speaking with women were so strict that a Rabbi was not even allowed to speak with his own wife, daughter, or sister in public. The fact that Jesus began the conversation with a woman is important. That he would continue conversation with a woman he knew to have a bad moral reputation is even more shocking and thus more significant.
The rejection of Jewish prejudice is even stronger in that Jesus spoke with a Samaritan and asked her to share a drinking vessel with him. Jews and Samaritans had been in a strained relationship since the return from the Babylonian exile in the 530's B.C. The degree of the antagonism and the means of expressing it had varied through the centuries. But John was correct in noting in verse 9 that Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. In New Testament times Jews assumed that Samaritans were ritually unclean and thus to have contact with them was to render oneself ritually unclean. To share a drinking vessel with the Samaritan woman was a dramatic disregarding of the details of Pharisaic interpretation of the Old Testament Law. Thus the very setting of the story shows Jesus rejecting the basic assumptions of Pharisaic Judaism.
The Samaritan woman's response in verse 9 shows that she recognizes the unusualness of Jesus' request. Her question might be re-phrased, "what are you up to, Mister? What do you have in mind by asking me for a drink?" Jesus' reply in verse 10 introduces the issue of his identity and the theme of living water. "If you knew . . . " implies that the woman does not understand some very important basic matters. She does not understand with whom she is dealing. On the surface it appears that Jesus is an exhausted pilgrim begging for water. In reality he has the capacity to provide her with living water.
The woman does not understand the "gift of God." Judaism used the phrase, "gift of God," to refer to the Law. However, on some occasions, Jews referred to the Messiah as "the gift of God." Within the literal logic of the conversation, the phrase might well refer to water. For John's Christian readers several other possible understandings would immediately come to mind. Jesus himself may have been the "gift of God." Perhaps more likely, "the gift of God" would be understood as the Holy Spirit.
The expression "living water" also has a double meaning. At the literal level it was a common Jewish expression for running or flowing water. On the surface Jesus was telling the woman that he would provide a river for her. However, "living water" also had a history of figurative usage. Jeremiah 2:13 and 17:13 both refer to God as "living water." Zechariah 14:8 speaks of living waters flowing out of Jerusalem in the day of the Messiah. The Greek phrase, "living water," might also be translated "water of living," or "water of life." There was a very clear understanding in the desert Near East that water was necessary for life. Water made things and people live; water kept things and people alive. Ezekiel 47 spoke of water flowing out of the temple that brought life in the desert. The Jewish rabbis spoke of living water (or just water) to refer to both the Law and the Holy Spirit. It should not be surprising to us that "living water" should have several levels of meaning in John 4:10.
Neither should it be surprising that the woman misunderstands Jesus' statement. She pursues the literal, superficial meanings and, ironically, challenges Jesus' status. (That is because she doesn't know who he is.) "Do you think that you are better than our father, Jacob?" John's readers, including you and me, know that Jesus was certainly greater than Jacob; but the woman is about to be taught that truth by Jesus himself. Jacob gave the well, but Jesus is talking about water not about wells.
However, he accommodates his argument to her level. He points out that people who drank from Jacob's well got thirsty again; people who would drink the water that he would give will never thirst again. The contrast between Jesus and Judaism is again obvious. Jacob, a Jewish patriarch, gave the well that fails to satisfy thirst. Jesus provides the water that forever satisfies. There is also a contrast between container and contents. Jacob provided the well - but the water was God's gift. Jesus does not come offering a well, a container; rather he offers water, the content for the well. Thus Jesus offers what only God could provide according to Judaism. This is a key point for John. The implication is that Jesus provided the Spirit rather than the form for worship.
Across the centuries Christians have understood Jesus' references to living water in verses 10-14 in two ways. Some interpreters have seen the living water as a reference to the teaching of Jesus. The Old Testament often spoke of wisdom as water of life. Proverbs 13:14 states, "The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life." Proverbs 18:4 declares, "The fountain of wisdom is a flowing brook." In Isaiah 55 the Lord invites the thirsty to come and drink by receiving His teachings and wisdom. Then Jesus says in verse 14, "whoever might take a drink of the water which I will give him will never thirst." It is not hard to think that he means that whoever accepts his teaching will never need to seek another source of wisdom.
There is another stream of thought in Christian interpretation of these verses. From the second century interpreters have seen the Holy Spirit in Jesus' reference to "living water." The Old Testament also frequently used water as a symbol for the work of the God in His cleansing and life-giving ministries. In verse 14 Jesus spoke of the water that he would give becoming a well of water springing up (or leaping up) toward eternal life. The Greek verb for springing or leaping up referred to the quick movements that living beings (both animals and people) make when they jump, dart, and run. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) used this same verb to describe God's spirit coming upon Samson, Saul, and David. In John 7:37-39 living water is specifically stated to mean the Holy Spirit. As a result many believe that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit in chapter 4, verses 10-14.
Raymond Brown has wisely remarked that there is no need for us to choose between the two interpretations. John is quite capable of having both meanings in mind as he relates this story. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to interpret the teachings of Jesus to us. The words of Jesus come to life when the Holy Spirit is applying them to our lives. If our understanding of the Holy Spirit is given content by Christ, Christ's teaching, and Christlikeness then the two interpretations flow together. If we try to separate the teaching of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit or place them at odds with each other then we will be forced to choose one interpretation over the other.
There is one aspect of the Greek verb in verse 14 that seems especially to point toward keeping the teaching of Jesus and the work of the Spirit together. The verb "drink" in verse 14 is in the aorist tense. This means that the author has in mind the single act or event of taking a drink. He is not referring to frequent and repeated drinking as would be the case with drinking literal or ordinary water. It is the event of receiving the Holy Spirit that satisfies thirst forever. The event of receiving the Holy Spirit ushers one into the daily experience of the well of water (also the Holy Spirit) that continually springs up for eternal life. If verse 14 doesn't make a person thirsty for all that God can do for them and all that God can become in their lives nothing will create that thirst.
John 4:16-26 - Worship in Spirit and Truth
The Samaritan woman sees the possibility of saving herself a lot of work. She understands verses 13-14a as promising a way out of much of her work. The woman's response is totally self-centered. "Give me this water, so I won't have to come out here and draw from the well all the time." Her response is also rather typical of many people in their initial approach to Jesus. They want to use him to fulfill their own agendas in life. He is seen as a convenience and thus subservient to themselves and their goals. The woman did not understand verse 14b. To understand it her attention must be turned from the water to the one who gives water. Who Jesus is reveals the nature of the water He will give. So John turns his attention to the identity of Jesus in this section.
Jesus' command for the woman to go and call her husband seems like an abrupt change of subject. However, it is very effective. The woman self-centeredly wanted to use Jesus for her own convenience. It was time to make clear to her the consequences of a self-centered approach to life. One's spouse is the most logical place to begin to live with one's focus lifted beyond self. The woman's evasive response, "I have no husband," clearly vindicates Jesus' direction of the conversation. He must now confront her directly, "Right, you've had five husbands and the fellow you are with now is not your husband." This statement serves two purposes. First, it clearly reveals the kind of consequences that flow from a self-centered approach to life. The woman had thoroughly messed up the relationships of her life by means of self-centeredness.
Secondly, Jesus' statement illustrates John's comment back in 2:25 that Jesus had no need for evidence about people because He knew what was in people. That Jesus would know about the trail of the woman's husbands suddenly confronted her with the question of who Jesus was. His insight into her past and present relationships caused the woman to affirm that he was a prophet. Since he was obviously a religious person the woman attempted to deflect the conversation into a contemporary religious controversy, the right place for worship.
Commentators are divided as to whether or not there is also symbolic significance to the number of husbands. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century, described the Samaritans as five foreign tribes, each with its own god. Further, the Samaritans were, in the minds of the Jews, then worshipping the true God in a false way. Thus the various marital arrangements of the woman may represent the various false programs of worship in Samaria. The fact that the woman turned the conversation to worship is sometimes taken as evidence of such symbolism.
The proper place of worship was one of the bitter controversies between Judaism and the Samaritans. The Samaritans had built a temple on Mt. Gerizim and had continued a sacrificial system of worship there. They would produce a Samaritan Pentateuch in which the book of Deuteronomy would specifically ordain Mt. Gerizim as the place for true worship. Obviously, Judaism with its temple at Jerusalem could not accept Samaritan theology. The Jewish leader Hyrcanus had destroyed the Samaritan temple around 128 B.C. However, he did not end Samaritan sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim nor the argument about where God wanted to be worshipped. In fact, the argument moved to new levels of heated exchange after Hyrcanus' act.
Jesus did not enter into the old legalistic proof-texting arguments so common between Jews and Samaritans. He moved the question to a new plane and introduced the concept of worship in Spirit and in truth. It is not likely that Jesus was contrasting internal worship with external worship though some Protestants have thought so. Jesus was not talking about worship in the inner recesses of one's own spirit. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The contrast between worship at Jerusalem or Gerizim and worship in Spirit and truth reflects John's dualistic way of thinking. It is an example of earthly things in contrast to heavenly things (John 3:12). In the cleansing of the temple John presented Jesus as the true temple (John 2:21). As Brown notes, here it is the Spirit that enlivens the worship that replaces worship at the temple. Again, the contrast between Jesus and Judaism is obvious. Judaism's understanding of worship was confined to containers and so they argued about which temple (container) was appropriate for worship. The followers of Jesus understood Jesus to be the true temple and it is the Spirit, which Jesus offers, that makes for true worship.
The Samaritan woman appears to understand that Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit. Judaism expected the coming of the Messiah to be accompanied by a fresh anointing of Israel with the Holy Spirit. In fact, the coming age was called both the Age of Messiah and the Age of the Spirit. From her perspective only one thing really needed to happen to bring about the kind of Spirit-led worship to which Jesus referred. Messiah would have to come. That is the point of her remark in verse 25. Jesus' reply in verse 26 quietly confirms that she is speaking with the Messiah at that very moment.
The identity of Jesus was goal of this section. Once Jesus has been identified as Messiah John is ready to change direction. The story now turns toward the results of knowing who Jesus is.
John 4:27-42 - Dialog With The Disciples
At the return of the disciples the conversation between Jesus and the woman ends. John sets up two stages upon which action then takes place. In the background the woman returns to her home and tells everybody in the village about what has happened to her. The response is a movement toward Jesus. Meanwhile, in the foreground Jesus is in dialog with his disciples. In the background the woman is witnessing about Jesus. In the foreground Jesus is teaching the disciples about witnessing. John has created a two-pronged approach of deed and word, example and precept. The logical conclusion will occur when the Samaritans come to believe in Jesus.
The woman hurried off to town when the disciples returned with the food they had gone to buy. The text does not indicate directly that she has yet come to full faith in Christ. However, his insight and new teaching have attracted her and she urges the townsfolk to "come and see." These are the same words of invitation used by Jesus in John 1:39 when he invited Andrew and the other follower of John the Baptist to discipleship. The woman's understanding is still deficient, however. Her emphasis is on the miraculous ability of Jesus to describe her past and present life. She is not even certain that he is Messiah, though her comment in verse 29 suggests that she is beginning to think so. Nevertheless, her witness is effective and the townsfolk set out to meet Jesus.
In the meantime Jesus is conversing with his disciples. In typical Johannine fashion the conversation begins with the disciples suggesting that Jesus eat something. He responds with the claim of having food they don't understand. As is typical in John the disciples interpret Jesus' remark literally. In fact, Jesus was speaking figuratively of the sustenance that comes from doing the will of God. Verse 34 points to a very significant fact of spiritual life. Survival is not a matter of our successfully scrounging enough to eat. True life, in fact, all creation flows from the creative word of God. Deuteronomy 8:3 had already stated the truth: "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." As C. K. Barrett notes, "The creative will of God, realized in obedience, sustains life."
Then, perhaps seeing the approaching Samaritans, Jesus shifts the focus to the missionary work of witnessing. The very coming of the Samaritans is visual evidence that the Samaritans do not have to wait for harvest time; the time is already ripe for harvesting. By doing God's will in his dialog with the Samaritan woman Jesus had created a ripe harvest for the disciples to follow up on with the Samaritan townsfolk. That is the point of verse 38, "I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
The disciples will be sent out on a life-long mission assignment. Anytime they (or we) experience success, they (we) must recognize that it is not their (our) success, but the result of someone or Someone having already planted the seed. When success appears to be far away, they (we) must accept their (our) responsibility for planting seed as well as for harvesting fruit. There is no question of whether or not there will be a harvest. That is sure. The only question is the role that a given disciple will play in the process.
The promised harvest is then seen in the Samaritans who believe. Their faith is not based on the report of Jesus' miraculous insight, but on their own hearing of Jesus. In verse 42 they state, "we have heard for ourselves." In Jewish thought the word for "hear" and for "obey" is the same. Perhaps John is thinking that the Samaritans have both heard and obeyed. That is the definition of believing.
The validity of the Samaritans' faith is confirmed by their confession of Jesus as "the Savior of the world" in verse 42. In the course of this story Jesus has been called a Jew (v. 9), sir (v. 11), greater than Jacob (v. 12), a prophet (v. 19), Messiah (vv. 26, 29), and Rabbi (v. 31). How fitting it is that the final words of this story should correctly proclaim him as the Savior of the world.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will make the Word alive for you.
First Day: Read the notes on John 4:4-42. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a specific personal application for your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Have you moved beyond earthly things in your worship to worship in Spirit and in truth? Ask the Lord to help you be open to the Holy Spirit as you worship.
Second Day: Read John 4:43-5:29. Focus in on John 4:43-54.
1. What is the second sign that John describes Jesus as doing?
2. What do these verses teach about faith? What is the connection between faith and obedience?
3. As background to verse 44 read Mark 6:1-6 and Luke 4:23-30. What dangers do we face when we become so used to Jesus that he seems to be a part of our hometown?
Third Day: Read John 4:46-5:29. Now focus on John 5:1-9.
1. What is the time and place of the events described in John 5:1-9?
2. Is the man's answer in verse 7 an appropriate response to Jesus' question in verse 6? Why or why not? What parallels can you draw to the way we often respond to a word from Christ?
3. Read Mark 2:1-12. What elements are common to Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:1-9? What are the most important differences?
Fourth Day: Read John 4:46-5:29. Focus in on John 5:10-18.
1. What reasons are given in these verses for Jewish opposition to Jesus?
2. Read Mark 2:27-28. In what ways does John 5:1-18 illustrate these verses from Mark?
3. In verse 17 Jesus says that The Father is working and He (Jesus) is also working. List some of the things you think Jesus meant when he said the Father was working until now. What things have you read about Jesus in the gospel of John already that show Him doing the same work as the Father?
Fifth Day: Read John 4:46-5:29. Now focus in on John 5:19-24.
1. What things does Jesus describe God the Father as doing in these verses?
2. What are the four most significant verbs in verse 24? What tense are they in (are they past, present, or future)? What significance do you see in the tense of the verbs?
3. How would you describe Jesus' relationship with the Father based on these verses? What aspects of Jesus' relationship with the Father are also applicable to your own relationship to God?
Sixth Day: Read John 4:46-5:29. Now focus on John 5:25-29.
1. List several words, phrases, or concepts from John 5:19-24 that are repeated in John 5:25-29.
2. Compare and contrast verse 25 and verse 29. What seems to you to be the most important differences? Why are they important?
3. Think about how you are living your life now in relationship to verses 25-29. Are there any changes in your life that you would like to make as you look forward to these promises being fulfilled?