Setting: Prior to this encounter Jesus had spent some time in the “Judean countryside, where his disciples were baptizing (Jn 3:22). When Jesus knew that the Pharisees heard about his activities, he left for Galilee, passing through Samaria (Jn 4:1–3). This incident with the woman at the well takes place in a town of Samaria called Sychar, at Jacob’s well (Jn 4:4–6).
Jesus’ Setup (vss 7–10): From the very outset of his conversation with this woman, Jesus was in control. He knew exactly how she would respond to his speaking to her, let alone asking her for a drink. The text lets us know that the Jews had “no dealings with Samaritans.” On top of that, she points out, that she is a woman. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? (Jn 4:9)” So apparently, for her at least, it was strange for a male Jew to be talking to a female Samaritan. But I have no doubt that it was Jesus’ intention to draw that response from her, in order that he might take the conversation deeper. This can be seen in his response, which strikes at her most basic need, living water. So in the blink of an eye the conversation turns from one of getting a cup of water, to one which will naturally have eternal implications for the woman (Jn 4:10).
A point of application: This is a fine example of how our conversations with unbelievers should be, organic, and always seeking to take it to a deeper level. I think sometimes we (as in me) are awkward in our conversations, as if the person is a project rather than a human being. But Jesus shows us in this conversation how to skillfully use their responses, as a Judo master uses the force of his opponent against him, to bring the conversation precisely where he wants it. Jesus demonstrates maximum efficiency with minimal effort. This makes for a very fluid conversation, thus putting the woman at ease while drawing out responses that will get to the heart of the matter, the heart.
The Woman’s Ignorance (vss 11–15): At this she still doesn’t get it. She sees a very practical obstacle to what Jesus had just told her, namely, that he had nothing with which to get water to give to her. He had just asked her to retrieve water for him, so she’s completely thrown off by what he says. But if she had been listening closely, Jesus said, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [speaking to you].” She completely missed it. Jesus was saying, “the answer is in who I am,” not in what you can see. So before she even presented the problem, Jesus answers it by saying “if you knew me, you would know what I’m talking about.” But he is gracious, and he continues to persuasively and winsomely draw her deeper into the conversation, despite her oversights.
He tells her that this water she’s retrieving from the well is insufficient for her needs, mainly because she has to keep coming back for it. But the water that he has is eternal water, water which will truly satisfy. Of course, she remains in the physical, “Sir, give me this water so that I will not … have to come here to draw water. (Jn 4:15)” She still doesn’t get what he’s saying.
A Turning Point: At verse 16, Jesus really begins to peel back her layers by asking her to go and get her husband. He knows her, apparently, and he knows exactly what she will say to that request. She tells a half-truth, but Jesus gives her the other half. Not only does she not have a husband, but she’s had five. Her life is a mess, and Jesus knows it. Now she knows he knows, and she is astonished. It’s at this point that she finally goes with him where he’s been trying to go the whole time, the subject of worship. She says, “sir, you must be a prophet.” Realizing that there is something special about Jesus, she now has some pressing questions; she wants to know who’s right about worship, the Jews or the Samaritans. She wants to know where the proper place to worship is. She’s asking Jesus, the prophet of God, to settle an argument. Before informing her that her whole idea of God is wrong (“you worship what you do not know (Jn 4:22)), he lets her know that worship is not about a geographical location.
Now he’s into the heart of this whole conversation. Jesus unpacks for her (and us) the heart of worship, namely, that to worship God we must know what (who) we are worshipping. This is clear in that Jesus goes on to “define” God for her, “God is spirit.” He’s saying “look, you want to worship God, know him. Know that he is spirit. He isn’t confined to a location (not even “God’s house”). True worship worships in truth. And these are the worshippers God seeks, those who will know him.”
A side note: Not necessarily this text (until now), but this is what drove me to come and learn more about God. I wanted to be a true worshipper. In my own mind, and derived from my understanding of Scripture, I knew that to worship God you must know what (who) you’re worshipping. Otherwise, you worship something of your creation, an idol. I guess my own question for myself was to what extent our misunderstanding of God contributes to misdirected worship. But Hosea clears that up powerfully. Over and over again we are met with the theme of the people perishing due to their lack of the knowledge of God. So a lack of knowledge, intentional or not, is dangerous. This is why I want to do theological education ministry. I want to open people’s eyes to the beauty of who God is, really, as he describes himself to be in the Scriptures. I want that knowledge to seep down into the very core of their being, changing their affections, their relationships, every aspect of their lives. That’s my prayer for me, as well as my ministry.
Apparently, the woman, despite her failings, was acquainted with the Scriptures. She knew that there was a Messiah coming. She knew that he would know the answer to these things. In effect she tells Jesus, “When the Messiah comes, he’ll tell me if you’re right.” But our precious Savior, he is so gracious to her. He doesn’t get all twisted up in pride, and say “duhhh, dummy! That’s me.” No. He did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. He counted her as significant, and though he was in the form of God, he didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, responding to her in a servant-like manner, “I who speak to you am he.” How gracious of him!
I think about my own responses to people, to my wife even. They are hardly ever that gracious. They should be.
This goes back to his very first response to her. He said, “If you knew who it is speaking to you.” Taking it full circle, he now reveals himself to her. He is the prophesied Messiah. He’s been trying to tell her this all along, but she just couldn’t get it. Isn’t this the goal of every evangelistic encounter, to help the other person see Jesus for who he is, and to make worshippers of God? This is exactly what Jesus is doing with this woman. But he has more for us in this encounter. He’s not done with this woman. He is using her to teach his disciples (US!) something, while at the same time drawing her into worship of the Living God. And then comes the example of what happens to believers, “many … believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. (Jn 4:39)”
Jesus and His Disciples (vss 27–38): After he tells her that he is the Messiah, his disciples show up, and they are stunned that he is talking to her. This is, no doubt, due multiple factors, not the least of which is that she is a she, and a Samaritan. But they dared not question him. The woman leaves at this point to get others from her town. In her joy, she goes and testifies of this man, Jesus, saying, “Can this be the Christ? (Jn 4:29)” This of course grabs the attention of the people of Sychar, so that they are coming to meet Jesus.
Meanwhile, Jesus turns his attention to his disciples. It’s time for a lesson in worship for them as well. They had left to go and buy food, so naturally when they return they offer food to Jesus. Like the woman, their focus is on the physical when Jesus replies that he already has food, saying “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” But just as with the woman, our Lord is going beneath the surface as he explains that true hunger can only be met with real food, namely, to do the will of the Father. Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. (Jn 4:34)” For Jesus, the perfect substitute for actual food was to do God’s will. This satisfied him as would bread and fish, probably more. It’s reminiscent of the temptation of Jesus by Satan to turn the rocks into bread in order to satisfy his hunger, to which he replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Mt 4:4)”
All while the disciples were gone, Jesus had been going deeper and deeper into what it means to worship God. When they return, Jesus is no doubt continuing this conversation, only with a different audience now. He goes on to use an analogy of farming to demonstrate the work that is set before them. He says, “Do you not say, ‘there are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are ripe for harvest … Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life … I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” He’s telling them that if they’re hungry, there is plenty of meat, in the form of the Father’s will. There was no segue between “my food is to do [my Father’s] will,” and “see that the fields are ripe for harvest.” Jesus is adamant about having them see that there is work to be done, and that this work will fulfill their deepest needs. There is more to be said in this section; perhaps I’ll return to it at another date.
The Samaritans Believe (vss 39–42): The writer of the Gospel returns now to the Samaritans, to whom she has now testified concerning Jesus, “he told me all that I ever did. (Jn 4:39)” After two more days of Jesus teaching them, “many more believed.” What many Jews could not see, the Samaritans saw after spending time with Jesus, namely, that “this is indeed the Savior of the world. (Jn 4:42)”
What is my take away from this? The one moment that impacted me the most as I studied this passage is when Jesus finally revealed himself to the woman. When he finally said, “I who speak to you am he.” In his conversation with the woman, we see “his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)” That statement, and the conversation leading up to it is so profound. It is the goal of every evangelistic encounter to help people see Jesus for who he is, is it not? And the compassion, grace, and skill with which Jesus has in this conversation is something that can be meditated on forever. The truth found in verses 23–26 are worthy of a full study by themselves. Jesus’ words to his disciples in verses 31–38 are enough to write books about. There is so much here that I could make application to many different areas of life including evangelism, compassion, a “soft answer,” God’s will, work and many others, but my biggest take away is simply Jesus’ finesse in speaking with this woman. At every turn he brought her deeper and deeper in the meaning of worship, until he finally revealed himself to her. He was so graceful, never condemning, and full of truth. May it be so in our encounters. In Jesus’ name!