Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
Intro: John’s Gospel is where Jesus famously declares, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (8:12). So we are not surprised to learn that the nights in John’s Gospel are typically when evil/disappointing things happen and the days are when beautiful things happen. Judas Iscariot leaves the upper room after the foot washing “and it was night” (13:30). Jesus is betrayed at night. He is illegally tried in court by the high priest at night. Jesus is denied by Peter at night. But under the bright noonday sun, the Samaritan woman arrives at the well, hears the truth from a strange rabbi, believes the good news, and becomes the first lady preacher in Christian history. During the day the Lord heals the sick and delivers the oppressed. During the day He feeds the 5,000. The nighttime story of Nicodemus, who was the scholar of Jerusalem who wavers, and the noontime account of a simple Samaritan woman who believes are placed side by side. This is no accident. Skepticism of the Gospel belongs in the dark and true faith shines in the light.
John 4:1 Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John
John 4:2 (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples),
John 4:3 He left Judea and departed again to Galilee.
John 4:4 But He needed to go through Samaria.
To avoid conflict between His disciples and the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus decides to return to Galilee. Observant Jews typically traveled around Samaria to avoid defilement.
But Jesus said defilement comes from within not from without, so He took the most practical route which was straight through the region of Samaria, along the top of the ridge that passed by Sychar and Jacob’s well.
John 4:5 So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
John 4:6 Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
Jesus being fully human as well as being fully God, He wept and fell asleep. He got tired and thirsty.
“sat thus by the well” = “sat upon the well”
Major wells in Israel had large capstones shaped like huge donuts over them. The capstone over Jacob’s well in Samaria is still in place. It is 18-20 inches thick and about 5 feet across, with a small hole in the center for lowering a bucket.
The capstone prevents dirt from blowing into the well and it keeps children from falling into the dangerous depths.
It also provides a working surface to assist travelers in transferring water into a jar.
Jesus indeed sat on the well. This simple act sets the stage for his interactions with the woman.
SURPRISE #1 – CHRIST INTENTIONALLY EMPTIES HIMSELF
Middle eastern village women avoid the heat of the day by carrying water from the village well either early in the morning or just before sundown.
They always go to and from the well as a group to maintain proper appearances and for safety. Also, the water jars are heavy when filled and can be very difficult for a lady to lift onto her head by herself.
The woman in the Bible story appears at the well alone at noon (middle of the day). Only a “naughty, sensual” woman would be so daring. She is either a social outcast or she is business savvy knowing that travelers/customers can be found at the well at noon.
Wells in the middle east do not have buckets attached. Each traveling group must bring its own to draw water.
The text assumes that Jesus and the disciples had such a bucket, but the disciples must have taken it with them into the city. Jesus could easily have requested that they leave the bucket behind for Him to use. But He had a different plan in mind.
By deliberately sitting on the well without a bucket, Jesus placed Himself strategically where He would need whomever appeared with the necessary equipment.
The woman approached. Upon seeing her, Jesus was expected to courteously withdraw to a distance of at least 20 feet, indicating that it was both safe and culturally appropriate for her to approach the well.
Only then could she move to the well, lower her bucket into the water, fill her jar and be on her way.
But Jesus did not move as she approached (unusual). And she decided to advance to the well anyway (even more unusual). Then comes the real surprise.
John 4:7 A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.”
John 4:8 For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.
John 4:9 Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
By making this request Jesus does four things:
1. He breaks social norm
It was highly irregular for a man to speak with a woman, especially in an uninhabited place with no witnesses.
In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place.
The Jewish Mishnah took this hesitation to an extreme:
Talk not much with womankind. The Sages have said: “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at last will inherit Gehenna.” – Mishnah, `Abot 1:4
Jesus not only talked to women, but He also invited them into His band of disciples. Some traveled with Him, and He even allowed others to finance the journeys.
Luke 8:1 …And the twelve were with Him,
Luke 8:2 and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities — Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons,
Luke 8:3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.
Jesus introduces radical changes in attitudes toward women in the ancient world that almost defy description!
2. He ignores 500 years of history
Jews and Samaritans had been in conflict for over 5 centuries.
illus: 300 years earlier the Greeks had used Samaria as a base for their control of Jewish territory. The Jews took the opportunity to retaliate (128 BC) by destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. The Samaritans fired back by entering the temple complex in Jerusalem a few years before the birth of Christ and scattering the bones of the dead across the area on the eve of Passover, defiling the temple and making it impossible for the Jews to keep the feast.
Jesus set aside all the bitterness of past history when He requested a drink from this Samaritan woman.
3. He refurbishes evangelism
Our Lord was intent on winning this woman to saving faith – He wanted her to believe the good news.
And the way He approached the subject gives us a new and better way to evangelize.
Jesus so totally humbles Himself that He needs her help.
He does not start with her need for what He can do. He begins by verbalizing His legitimate need for her assistance.
Christ does not establish His initial relationship with her by suggesting how she needs him – that could wait for later.
Instead, His opening line, “Give Me a drink,” means, “I am weak and need help. Can you help Me?”
He was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those He came to serve.
The best way to build love between two groups (the strong/weak) is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other.
The Christian community must serve. We must also be in a position where we need to be served.
Do you remember the very first mission trip during the ministry of Jesus? He sent out the Twelve with some curious instructions.
Mark 6:8 He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff — no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts —
Mark 6:9 but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.
They were to go in need of the very people to whom they went.
Jesus’ first ever contact with Simon Peter was to request his help.
Luke 5:3 Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
An earlier example was the Christ child in a manger. He came vulnerable to the ones He targeted to save.
The Incarnation affirms this better way to evangelize – as servants who so humble themselves that their mission field can relate to them instead of feeling subordinate to them – as beggars who are telling other beggars where we found bread!
Jesus was ready to serve, and His self-emptying was so total that He needed to be served.
4. He elevates the woman’s self-worth
Only the strong can give to others to lift them out. When Jesus asks her for help in getting a drink from the well, He was affirming her dignity. This was her second shock.
Not only had He spoken to her, but now He is asking to come into contact with her water bucket which would ritually defile a Jewish man.
“For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” = “For the Jews do not use vessels in common with Samaritans”
He seemed to give no second thought to becoming ceremonially unclean by interacting with her. It really did appear that this strange Jewish man was convinced that the woman to whom He was speaking was valuable as a person. She felt no threat.
SURPRISE #2 – THE GIFT OF GOD IS A PERSON, NOT A BOOK
John 4:10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
For Jews, the gift of God was both the Law and the Prophets. For Samaritans, the gift of God was the Torah. Even for the Muslim, the gift of God is the Qur’an.
In other words, God’s ultimate gift was/is a book.
But the suffering servant in Isaiah was told by God…
Isaiah 42:6 “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles
Here the covenant is not words in a book but a person.
For all people, including this Samaritan woman, the supreme gift of God to His people is not the New Testament. Rather, it is the person of the Lord Jesus.
For the prophet Jeremiah, God was “living water” that the people had rejected as they dug their own broken wells.
Jer 2:13 ‘For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns — broken cisterns that can hold no water.
In John 4, language applied to God in the OT is reused to describe Jesus in the NT. “Living water” applies to them both.
The woman is skeptical that Jesus can acquire this living water which must mean spring water that bubbles up from the ground that doesn’t require a lowered container to collect.
Without a bucket He can’t even draw well water – how is He going to produce spring water?
John 4:11 The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water?
She attempts to reignite the national competition between Jews/Samaritans by reminding this stranger about the origin of the well.
John 4:12 Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?”
She means, “This is our well, not yours. Jacob gave it to us, not to you.”
The average Jew would have strongly rejected her assessment.
“You Cuthite, who do you think you are claiming our patriarch? Jacob was a Hebrew like us. You can’t claim him. The only reason you’re here is because your Gentile ancestors claimed our land when we were in captivity!”
She has yet to make the connection between Jesus and the “living water.”
SURPRISE #3 – THE DRINK THAT OVERCOMES TIME
John 4:13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again,
John 4:14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”
John 4:15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
Jesus declines her political challenge by not even answering the question about being greater than Jacob and who can claim him.
At once, Christ turns to the subject of the drink that permanently conquers thirst and becomes a spring for others overflowing to eternal life.
At this point, the woman only hears the first part. She will be glad to have a magical drink that will do away with her physical thirst and ease her daily grind of a life.
Everyone wants religion that will:
• ease my physical pain and make me feel good
• deliver me from my fear of dying
• lift my depression
• lower crime around me and make the streets feel safer
• curb corruption so I can keep more of my money
• provide a happy community for me and my children
Provide all these and I’ll be interested – “Sir, give me that water.”
The woman is not concerned to become a spring for others…at least not yet.
SURPRISE #4 – THE SPRING IS ALSO FOR OTHERS
John 4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
Jesus issues three commands to the woman. She is to go, call, and bring.
These instructions require that she, a woman, become a witness to a man. Is that even possible in her world?
Jesus assumes that it is not only possible but appropriate and necessary.
The next time our Lord will give these kinds of instructions is to Mary Magdalene in a garden outside an empty tomb.
John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
You, a woman, go tell the men.
If the Samaritan woman is to become a spring for others, her family should be the first to benefit from the water of life.
As He creates a spring in her, Jesus challenges her to allow its waters to flow to those around her.
But her initial reaction is to try to hide behind a misrepresentation.
John 4:17a The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”
When caught in sin, try withholding information! (this is universal to all sinners)
SURPRISE #5 – ESCAPING INTO RELIGION
John 4:17b Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’
John 4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.”
The water of life was washing over her, and like the water of a stream that exposes the roots of a tree growing on its banks, her roots were exposed.
Technically what the woman said was accurate – she did not currently have a husband – but her words were still deceptive since she wanted it to seem that she did not have a man in her life.
John 4:19 The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.
John 4:20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”
Since she wasn’t prepared to have her personal life exposed, she quickly became a “theologian.”
There was a contentious theological debate between the Jews and the Samaritans about which temple was God’s legitimate sanctuary. Surely bringing up this topic would derail the conversation about her private life.
Jesus was now functioning as a true prophet, exposing sin without being invited to do such a thing.
Where sin is exposed, the sinner must ask about the possibility of atonement. “You caught me. What can I do about it? Where can I go to receive forgiveness? Do I go to Mt. Zion or Mt. Gerizim? Where can I find God and His mercy?”
Once again, the Lord Jesus does not scold her for changing the subject but uses her debate question as an opportunity to change the 500-year-old debate to something entirely different.
SURPRISE #6 – NO MORE ZION
John 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.
John 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.
Jesus treats the woman as a serious theologian. He gives her respect. He does not condescend to her or patronize her.
And then He reveals to her the most important teaching on worship in the NT. Once again he elevates her as a person – and in the process all women with her.
Where is the Shekinah glory of God’s presence to be found? Does God dwell uniquely on Mt. Zion or on Mt. Gerizim?
Jesus’ answer: both temples are now obsolete. The one-word answer is “neither.”
Our Lord de-Zionizes the long-standing tradition for proper worship, and He chooses this simple woman as the first to hear this stunning news.
John 4:23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.
John 4:24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things.”
The cross, the Resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit have ushered in the new worship. It is no longer in a place. It now flows from the heart.
Properly worshiping God involves the emotions and the mind. The emotions are engaged in a man’s spirit, and the mind is engaged by truth.
4 Major Issues Dividing Judaism & Christianity:
(1) Who is the Christ?
(2) Can the Gentiles be welcomed into the people of God?
(3) What about loyalty to the temple and land?
(4) What about keeping the law of Moses?
Christology: Jesus is the gift of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Gentiles: A half-breed Samaritan woman and her village are welcomed as a believers.
The temple: Both Jerusalem and Gerizim are declared obsolete.
The law: Jesus does not condemn her and demand that she be stoned for her adulteries.
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.
It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness;
the nourishment of mind with His truth;
the purifying of imagination by His beauty;
the opening of the heart to His love;
the surrender of the will to His purpose –
and all if this gathered up in adoration,
the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.
The woman’s response appears to be a huge sigh – along with the hope that one day the Messiah will come and clarify all these complicated questions.
SURPRISE #7 – THE FIRST “I AM”
John 4:26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
“I that am talking to you, I AM.” (translation by K. Bailey)
The phrase, “I AM,” is the same one God used at the burning bush to tell Moses His Name.
The Gospel of John records a list of “I AM” sayings:
• I am the bread of life.
• I am the light of the world.
• I am the door.
• I am the good shepherd.
• I am the resurrection and the life.
• I am the true and living way.
• I am the vine.
Astonishingly, this famous series opens with the self-revelation to the Samaritan woman.
SURPRISE #8 – THE FIRST CHRISTIAN FEMALE PREACHER
John 4:27 And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?”
John 4:28 The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men,
The disciples appear on the scene, and they are stunned.
A self-respecting rabbi did not even talk to his wife in a public place. So why is their revered Master engaged in a private conversation with this Samaritan woman?
But no one dares ask, “What do you want/seek?”
This is a Hebrew figure of speech. A servant enters his master’s presence and asks this question. In this setting it implies, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?”
(It’s a question meant to provide an escape hatch for someone trapped in a smothering conversation).
The disciples dare not ask this traditional question because, perhaps, He wants to talk to her! (What next?)
Nor do they presume to scold Him by asking, “Why are You talking with her?”
“What do you seek?” = a traditional servant’s question
“Why are you talking with her?” = a disturbed colleague’s question
They dare not assume the role of a traditional servant or that of a disturbed colleague, so they fall silent.
The air is heavy with rejection, and the woman now feels their hostility even in the silence, so she departs. After all, they are Jews and she has two strikes against her. She is a woman of Samaria.
But she leaves not simply to carry out Jesus’ instruction, “Go call your husband and come here”; she also expands her mandate and witnesses to the entire community.
In her rush she leaves her water jar behind.
We don’t need to allegorize this. She is not leaving behind the Law of Moses or her former life.
But this seemingly trivial detail is significant. She came to draw the water that will quench her thirst for an hour or two. She returns to the village without that water.
Instead, she carries a witness to the water that quenches the thirst inside a person’s spirit – forever.
She begins to become a spring for others, just as the Lord had directed.
Her witness is guided by her instincts.
John 4:29 “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
John 4:30 Then they went out of the city and came to Him.
The first statement is calculated to seize their attention. The think, “everything YOU have ever done?” It is sensation and effective.
What might they find if they choose to return with her to the well? Could it really be the Messiah?
She knows that they may not believe her witness because she is a woman. At the same time, she invites them to make their own discoveries.