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The Woman at the Well

John 4:1-42

The story in this lesson takes some understanding – you have to know the players. Let’s look at the Scripture first, and then take a tour of the area.

1The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

4Now he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

7When 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.)

9The 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.£ )

10Jesus 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? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

13Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15The 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.”

16He 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. 18The 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. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

27Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ£?” 30They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

31Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

34“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

39Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41And because of his words many more became believers.

42They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

(The first section of this lesson, the background, is taken from an older study in the Life of Christ series. Plagiarism is its own reward.)


Geography: where is this place?


As is evident from the map, if you want to go from Judea to Galilee, you need to go through Samaria. The devout Jew would not, of course, to avoid the possibility of being made ceremonially unclean.

The place where Jesus meets the woman is at Sychar. If you look closely, you can see that Sychar sits at the meeting of two mountains. To be specific , they are Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Mt. Gerizim was the place where Joshua had the Israelites pronounce, in chorus, the Lord’s blessings (Ebal got the cursing chorus)[1]. Hence, it was known as the “mount of blessing,” and the Samaritans chose it therefore to house the temple. The name “Sychar” actually means “falsehood.” The area is also known as Shechem (Hebrew for “shoulders”, from the mountains). The city of Samaria, from which the region took its name, is just to the northwest, up the valley.

Jacob’s Well. The well is still there today, and it is relatively certain to be the same well. Americans do not have the same sense of “historical familiarity” that the residents of Palestine do. Even in this time Jacob’s well is about two thousand years old, yet the name remains unchanged. There is no direct reference to the well in the Old Testament, but the giving of the land is well documented.[2] The city of Sychar itself later blended into the city of Shechem, and these two archeological sites are near the modern village of Aschar (which is surely Sychar from an Arabic tongue). This is a suburb of a small city named Balatah. The well is extremely deep for the region -- remember this is an open well, not a drill pump well -- as the water table varies from 75 to 105 feet in the area.

Jews and Samaritans. As is clear from the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along very well. Indeed, a devout Jew would go around Samaria to get to Galilee. The incident in the passage which relates that Jews and Samaritans would not share utensils comes from this interpretation: the Samaritans evidently held that a woman during her menstrual period was unclean -- but anything she touched was not. The Jews held that anything she touched was unclean. Since you could never tell if a woman during her period might have touched a pot since its last ceremonial cleansing, you could become ceremonially unclean just by touching a water bucket! Better safe than sorry -- walk around the place.

The Samaritans were also a mixed race. The king of Assyria exported some of his subjects to the area as part of his conquest. These were taught the law.[3] In the time of Jesus (and to this day) the Samaritans considered themselves the only true believers (the right wing fundamentalists) because they accepted only the five books of the Law as binding (and there are some significant textual variations on those). The considerations of race and religion made the Jew and the Samaritan like oil and water.

Living Water: the concept. The Samaritan use of the first five books only may have had some influence on the woman’s understanding of Jesus. The phrase “living water” could also be translated (under other circumstances) as “running water.” It is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, as is shown in the Old Testament.[4][4] But we need to remember: the Samaritans did not accept the rest of the Old Testament! The phrase does not occur in the Pentateuch.

The Actions of Jesus

Why did he go to Galilee?

If you will notice in the beginning of the passage, Jesus is being pursued by the Pharisees. It is still very early in his ministry; therefore, it is not yet time to present himself as sacrifice for atonement. On other occasions he walks right through a riot crazed mob. So why, in this instance, does he flee? As God, he has the power to triumph over them.

  • First, so that you might know that he is human. In our day and age people have difficulty believing him to be God. In most other times people had difficulty believing him to be human. It is human to avoid trouble if you can.
  • Next, so that he might set an example for us. He tells us to flee when persecuted.[5] Here he shows us an example.
  • It is also an illustration of “spiritual judo.” When the Jews drove him out, they opened the door to the Gentiles. When they drove out the church, they spread the Gospel.
The humanity of Jesus

It is useful to note that Jesus is tired from his journey. Sometimes we think that, being the Son of God, his ministry was “no sweat.” It is exactly the opposite. He is both: completely man, completely God. If he walks a long way, he gets tired. Indeed, his humanity is necessary for our salvation. As Augustine said, “He created us by his strength; he saved us by his weakness.” Indeed, the weakness of God is greater than the strength of men.

This humanity is an advantage. Notice how gently he treats this woman. He speaks to her by means of a common metaphor – something that teachers know is easy to understand, and even easier to remember. By teaching her gradually, he uses his weakness to draw her to himself.

What we usually do not appreciate in this: the enormous condescension of Jesus in speaking to a woman – and a Samaritan woman, at that. Remember that Paul instructed women of his time to keep silent in the church – they could ask their husbands at home if they had any questions.[6] Jesus goes so far as to condescend to her needs – he shows her the way, not tells her.

The divinity of Christ

Even in this scene we can see also the divinity of Christ. See how lightly he treats the question of food – and this for a man who was thirsty a few minutes earlier.

One sure sign of his divinity is the way in which he answers her question. He speaks to her as the true God – who knows what he desires in terms of true worship. There are lessons in here:

  • First, the Father seeks such worshipers. It is not just that he accepts them, or considers this the minimum to set foot in the church building – no, he actively seeks those who will worship him in spirit and in truth.
  • As we see from this woman, such worshipers – though they may be great sinners – have a common characteristic: they lift Jesus up. So it is that more are drawn to Jesus. Do we seek our own whiteness, or do we lift him up?
  • So it is that the sinners received him gladly – over and over again we read how those who were the outcasts of the righteous society find in Jesus a source of joy and hope.

Jesus, God in the Flesh, ignores food and water so that he might do his Father’s will. Indeed, such work is meat and drink to him.

The Questions of the Woman

The woman is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Her sinfulness has made her an outcast – but like many other outcasts, she is not afraid to speak to the righteous. She has nothing to lose, after all.

Her character

We see three things which define her:

  • She is a materialist – like most people of today. She doesn’t “get it” when Christ speaks of living water. She’s concerned about how hot and tired she gets lugging the stuff back from the well.
  • She is – you can’t help but see this from five husbands – a woman dominated by her passions. When her passion becomes Christ, she tells all, “come and see.”
  • She is neither easy to convince, nor is she quarrelsome for the sake of argument.
Her inquiry

The core of this passage is the interchange between Jesus and the woman. Here we can see three things:

  • The Samaritans accept only the first five books of the Bible. But this is no barrier to Christ. You need not wait until you understand perfectly to come to Him. Indeed, it is notable that the Samaritans, with less light than the Jews, seem to be more hospitable to the Light.
  • The kindness of her reply - she does not ridicule, just questions – is evidence of the openness she has. She is looking for hope – and has been often disappointed. But see how she phrases things: the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans, not the other way around.
  • This kindness is returned. Her query is gentle; the Master’s rebuke is kind. At one and the same time he shows her that he is a prophet (at least) and brings up her chief sin.
Saved to serve and seek others

There is a great clue to her character here: she left the water pot. There is a change of heart and a change of purpose here. She “takes up the cross” in a sense. The task given her, implicitly, is to share this Jesus with others. Despite her reputation, she testifies.

Does she hand out a great theological explanation? No. She testifies to what Jesus has done for her. Perhaps the reason some of us are so poor at evangelism is that Jesus has never been given the room to do anything for us.

Indeed, if you think not, consider the contrast between Nicodemus and this woman. The teacher of the Law comes by night, becomes a secret disciple and tells no one. The sinner tells everyone she can.

Even more telling is this: this sinner asks about doctrine. She cares for the things of God; she wants to know the truth. By comparison, some of us should blush with shame.

The Puzzlement of the Disciples

It is well that we remember that this incident occurs early in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus takes them by surprise with his actions.

  • First, that he’s talking to a Samaritan. They would regard this as something contemptible.
  • Next, he’s talking to a woman. Remember, in this time women were expected to be silent, barefoot and pregnant – preferably in the kitchen.
  • Worst of all, they soon find out that he has been talking to a notorious sinner.

Despite all this, they do not challenge him on it. Even this early, they know better. They have found an early discomfort with the divine dilemma. God is righteous; how can he associate with sinners? God is love, why would he not?

They make the same mistake she does: they see only the material when he is talking about the spiritual. They have yet to perceive the true extent of his love. So he speaks to them in metaphors and parables. Later, they will remember these things (that’s why we use such instructional techniques).

Fields white

“The fields are white unto harvest,” the old King James put it. In this metaphor we can see several things:

  • The first is the phrase, “even now.” So many of us are waiting for the time when the fields will be white; Jesus says they already are. The world is hungering for spiritual nourishment, which comes from only one source.
  • Next, he makes it clear that no one of us can “do the whole job.” It’s been my privilege to baptize several people. I was there for that moment; others have taught them since; still others brought them along the narrow way when I found them. It is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.
  • For such reasons, some of us will see little in the way of results. Others will reap bountifully. Neither should despair; neither should puff himself up. God gives the increase.
  • But for exactly that reason, all of us (sower and reaper) should rejoice when a sinner comes home. Remember John the Baptist? He had to decrease as Jesus increased – and he counted it joy fulfilled.


If there is one thing which strikes me about this story, here it is: the worst of sinners, as accounted in her time, is gently led home – to testify to others so that they might be saved also. If one so far down in sin can do this, what excuse could we possibly present to our Lord for our inertia?

[1] Deuteronomy 27

[2] See Genesis 33.

[3] 2nd Kings 17:24

[4]Jeremiah 17:13

[5] Matthew 10:23

[6] 1 Corinthians 14:35

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