John 4:1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans. )
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
John 4:13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.
18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Water. It is an essential for life. And so in ancient lands a reliable water source supported the life of a town or village. Without pipes, running water and taps, the daily trip to the well was a necessity at the beginning of every day. Another day, another trip to the well for water.
Jesus is returning to Galilee to avoid further conflict with the Pharisees at this time. But for some reason he must travel through Samaria to return to the northern parts of Israel (v4). He could have gone around Samaria, not through it. But he is emphatic. He must. And so he meets the woman of Sychar at the well.
The common ancestry of the Jews and Samaritans is emphasised in verse 5 with the introduction of “Jacob’s well”. Throughout the narrative the woman is not given a name, only the parochial name of “Samaritan”. For now, that is her identity.
It’s not immediately clear why she comes to draw water in the middle of the day. Customarily, she would have come early in the morning with all the other women of the town. But perhaps she is an outcast.
Jesus’ request for water is rebuffed along the familiar grounds of ethnic and social barriers. Jews and Samaritans have no dealings, especially across genders, and certainly not sharing a cup. Anyway, a ‘strange’ man just does not talk to a woman in a traditional culture.
The conversation turns in verse 10 when Jesus introduces two unknowns for the woman to consider: (i) the gift of God, and (ii) Jesus’ identity. She is told she doesn’t know either. Further there is the intriguing “living water”. What is that?
Jesus explains the water. Instead of water that only temporarily sustains, Jesus offers water that lasts “into the Age”. This phrase is used here to mean “forever”, as in “never thirst again”. But the idea of “the Age” as an eschatological future time period— the kingdom of God— is picked up at the end of the verse, usually translated as “eternal life”. The water Jesus gives becomes a spring of water gushing up into “the life of the age”. I imagine that Jesus has the woman’s attention.
To what does the water refer, exactly? Is it the Holy Spirit himself? Or is it “new life”— a new quality of relationship with God which never ends? Of course, the former leads to the latter.
By verse 15, the Samaritan women wants ‘in’ — whether just as a labour saving strategy (no more trips to the well!) or due to a very real spiritual thirst. So Jesus decides to test her authenticity, and in so doing, strips away any pretence. He knows she is a woman in desperate need. Her back story reveals a difficult life of relationship failures and the resultant social stigma. Jesus’ gift of life giving water is freely available to such as her– even Samaritan women with an inglorious past.
But the woman’s instinct for self-protection in verse 19 is remarkable. Having been exposed as an adulterer who hides the truth, she immediately turns attention away from herself— first to the fact that Jesus is a prophet, and then to an old religious chestnut (where is the right place to worship?). If this is going to be a religious conversation, she’d feel safer on the other side of the age old Samaritan/Jew divide. And so she points to Mount Gerazim as an alternate to Mount Zion as the proper place to worship (See Joshua 8:33).
In response to the woman’s attempt to discuss proper religious form— the right place to worship– Jesus speaks about personal worship. Put aside religious controversies and disputes: the Father is the one to worship, regardless of location. He seeks spiritual integrity: spirit and truth.
The woman seems to try to avoid any personal response to all that Jesus has said. She wants to say, “Well, someday this will all become clear when the Messiah shows up…. but until then we can agree to disagree.” But Jesus will not let her off the hook. The time for a response cannot be put off. The Messiah has arrived and is even speaking to her now!
Dear Father, forgive me for the times I have tried to dodge the truth and hide behind religious debates. Instead, I now come to you without pretence. You know my past. And yet, you still offer me your Spirit and a new life with you. Be gracious to me and grant me this spiritual water that brings life into ‘the Age’. Amen.