But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again. In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up in him for eternal life.John 4:14
Early in John’s story of Jesus, readers encounter a person who is unique in the Gospels: a Samaritan woman. They meet as Jesus is passing through Samaria on his way from Judea to Galilee (4:3). He stops at Jacob’s well (unmentioned in the Old Testament) in the town of Sychar (otherwise unknown, though it is probably near Shechem or even another name for Shechem, the site of the well traditionally identified as Jacob’s well). Stories of a man and a woman meeting at a well appear a few times in the Old Testament (Gen 24:10–27; Gen 29:1–12; Exod 2:15–22), and usually a marriage follows. This episode in the Gospel of John follows both a marriage (2:1–11) and the statement by John the Baptist regarding brides and grooms (3:29), so readers might be thinking along those lines. But, as the Gospel has just told us, we should not think in “earthly” terms (3:31), and we soon discover that any marriage in this chapter is a spiritual one.
Samaritanism is essentially a different religion from Judaism, as Jesus acknowledges (4:22). (The limited commission in Matthew 10 excluded Samaritans and Gentiles, focusing only on Jews; Matt 10:5.) There are about 800 Samaritans in the world (818 according to the 2020 count, updated here), living mostly near Mt. Gerizim in Israel. They accept only the Torah (the Pentateuch) as Scripture, and they have their own particular version of the Torah, in Hebrew, distinct from the Jewish Torah in many ways, most famously with an additional commandment in the Ten Commandments, requiring worship on Mt. Gerizim.
Jews and Samaritans generally did not like one another (4:9; Luke 9:51–56), no doubt because they both based their religion on the Mosaic Law and yet interpreted key passages differently. (Also, John Hyrcanus, the Jewish high priest in the late second century BC, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim.) They each accused the other of heresy. The Jews insulted Jesus by calling him a Samaritan (John 8:48). But Jews would frequently pass through Samaria on their way between Galilee and Samaria, as Josephus attests (Antiquities 20.6.1), and as Jesus does in John 4.
The Samaritan Woman
We can take some guesses about this woman who strikes up a conversation with Jesus. She is coming at what is probably an odd time of day to draw water—in the middle of the day (4:6; sixth hour = noon). It would be hot at this time, and water is heavy. Most women probably came in the early morning or evening to avoid the heat (cf. Gen 24:11). This odd time for drawing water may indicate that this woman is a marginalized figure in Samaritan society. If so, it’s not hard to guess why: she’s been married five times and is now living with another guy (4:18).
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)John 4:9
Jesus begins the conversation by asking for water. The woman is surprised that a Jewish man would request a drink from a Samaritan. This is all the opening that Jesus needs. He immediately turns the conversation toward spiritual matters, though the woman is slow to pick up on the transition from literal water to spiritual water. He introduces two topics in v. 10: the gift of God—defined later in the same verse as “living water”—and the giver who imparts the living water. These two topics provide the outline for the remainder of the conversation. They first talk about the gift (vv. 11–15) before turning to the giver (vv. 16–26).
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”John 4:10
At first the words of Jesus confuse the woman. In fact, “living water” is the Greek way of saying “running water,” and no doubt the woman at first understood Jesus in this earthly sense. She assumed that he was offering access to some sort of running water. In the Old Testament, Hagar saw a well of “living [running] water” (Gen 21:19 according to the LXX) and Jacob’s servants found a well of “living [running] water” (Gen 26:19, according to the LXX and the Hebrew). The woman is having the same trouble as Nicodemus (cf. 3:4, 9) in understanding Jesus’ words in too “earthy” a fashion (cf. again 3:31). That’s why she asks where Jesus’ bucket is (4:11). Jesus is not talking about “running water” but about water that provides life, not earthly life—like the water the woman has come to draw—but spiritual life. “Living water” is a metaphor for Jesus’ teaching, acceptance of which grants eternal life and the Spirit (cf. 7:37–39).
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”John 4:16
Jesus changes tactics (but not topics!) at v. 16 by bringing up the awkward subject of the woman’s marital status. Up to this point, the woman has understood Jesus to be speaking of physical things (v. 15). But the comment about the woman’s husband allows Jesus to show that he is not some fool at a well without a bucket, but he has extraordinary insight (vv. 17–18). He himself is the giver of living water. The woman, probably shocked, immediately recognizes Jesus as a prophet (v. 19) and engages him on a spiritual level by asking about worship. (Perhaps she’s also trying to deflect attention away from her sordid history, but at least she doesn’t try to return the conversation to physical water.) Whereas Samaritans worship God on Mt. Gerizim, Jews worship God at the temple in Jerusalem (v. 20). Jesus affirms the special nature of the relationship between God and Jews: salvation is from the Jews (v. 22). Israel’s prophets had also spoken of a time when the nations would recognize that knowledge of the true God belongs to the Jews (Isa 2:3; 45:14; Zech 8:23). But the location of worship is now irrelevant, because the true temple is not at any physical place (2:21). To worship God in spirit and truth is to worship him according to his will without emphasizing boundaries that have become irrelevant (cf. 3:8). These words are enough to compel the woman to introduce the idea of the Messiah, which Jesus claims to be (vv. 25–26). (Verse 29 implies that she is coming to faith.)
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?John 4:29
The Woman and Other Characters
The Samaritan woman appears positively when compared to other characters in the narrative. Jesus’ own disciples often have their minds set on earthly things (cf. v. 33). Jesus talks to them about the white fields (vv. 35–38), but it is the woman who is reaping a harvest (vv. 39–42). She also appears more perceptive than Nicodemus, the Jewish leader from the previous chapter. She is fulfilling the function of an ideal disciple (4:39; cf. 17:20; 20:30–31). She no longer cares about filling her water jar (4:28), because she has begun to drink from living water.
This thirsty woman of Samaria who seems to have lived a difficult life (v. 18) and has not known the true God (v. 22) has encountered the one who offers living water. Having begun to sip, she displays the traits of discipleship that the Gospel intends to instill in its readers.
Questions for Discussion
John 4 narrates the encounter between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. The conversation begins with a discussion of water (vv. 7–14). What is the water that Jesus offers this woman?
Jesus seems to change the subject at v. 16. Why does Jesus bring up the topic of the woman’s history of marriage?
Why does the woman bring up the topic of worship (vv. 19–20)? What does Jesus want to communicate to the woman about worship (vv. 21–24)?
Compare the Samaritan Woman to Nicodemus in the previous chapter (John 3). What aspects of these two people separate them in terms of social status? Which of these two had the more adequate response to the words of Jesus?
Compare the response of Jesus’ disciples to the response of the woman (vv. 27–42). What does this Gospel want readers to understand about the nature of discipleship?