Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 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 white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
After the two days he departed for Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.
Jesus left Judea for Galilee in response to the Pharisees learning of Jesus’ growing popularity among the people. Jesus was well aware that his teachings and his very being would be growing offenses to the Jewish religious establishment that would culminate in his crucifixion. It was not his aim to postpone the crucifixion, but he had other work to do before that event. His time had not yet come. Jerusalem was in Judea. It was the power center of Jewish leadership. It was Washington, D.C. Jesus needed to get away, out to backwater Galilee.
John makes a point of clarification about Jesus baptizing. He says that, actually, it was his disciples doing the baptism, not Jesus himself. No explanation is given for why Jesus did not baptize but various commentators have suggested that the reason had to do with Jesus’ baptism being that of the Holy Spirit. Baptism by Jesus’ disciples is an important practice in the Church and Jesus commanded that we practice it perpetually, but it is a representative act. Regeneration is a work of God.
Galilee is roughly 90 miles north of Jerusalem. By foot the trip would have taken 3-5 days. The route was complicated by the fact that Galilee and Judea were separated by a region known as Samaria. The Samaritans were a sect of Judaism but were regarded with disdain by the religious leaders of Judah. Some of the more “pure” Jews, if they had to make the journey, would walk around Samaria in order to avoid contact with the despised Samaritans.
It is clear Jesus did not share this perspective, as John records him traveling directly through Samaria. It’s worth a quick look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan at this point. In the parable, Jesus identifies two characters who fail to show compassion to an injured victim of a robbery. The two are identified as Jewish religious leaders of high social standing. In contrast, he identifies a merciful, compassionate, self-sacrificing person as a Samaritan. It is the Samaritan who understands what it means to love his neighbor. The primary objective of the parable was to point out that, in order to love God, one must also love one’s neighbor. The secondary point of the parable was to show that a person’s status or reputation or race were of little importance, while the content of a person’s heart was of great importance.
Back in the passage, John draws attention to the setting of the conversation that is about to take place. Even though Jesus is in Samaria, he is near a field that Jacob, also known as Israel, had given to his son, Joseph. Joseph was the son who had been sold into slavery by his brothers but who, through wisdom and the gift of dream interpretations, had risen to become the Prime Minister of Egypt. Because of Joseph the entire Israelite clan relocated to Egypt, where they lived privileged lives for a time, but a few decades later were bound into slavery, where their descendants languished for 400 years. So a meeting at Jacob’s well would be one way to underscore the common histories of the Jews and Samaritans. Neither should we overlook the symbolism of the well. A father provides an everlasting source of provision for his son. Jesus has come to the place of provision to provide an even greater everlasting provision.
Jesus, tired from all his walking, sat down by the well. It was the sixth hour, which is to say, noon. He was hot, tired, and thirsty. Apparently the well did not have a pump or a bucket-and-crank system. If you wanted water you needed to bring your own rope and bucket. So Jesus waited for someone to come along with the right equipment.
A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. This, in itself, was unusual. The women would usually come in the morning to draw water, and they would also usually come in groups, as this would have been cooler, safer and more modest. The fact that the woman came alone at noon suggests that she was either in the middle of some kind of emergency or she was not accepted in good society. The text says Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink,” but in her response she asks him how it is that he would ask her, so I suspect that, while the text gives the impression of bluntness, the wording was a sort of short hand. She was surprised that Jesus would even talk to her, given that he was a Jewish man and she a Samaritan woman. For a Jew to share a Samaritan’s drinking vessel would have been even more unusual. But she was not a timid person and I suspect she was enjoying her moment of power and, knowing that Jesus was in need of water, wanted to seem him squirm. She challenged him on his request.
Jesus, in a manner common to him, answered her in a way that seemed to change the subject. He begins with this phrase, “If you knew the gift of God…”. (the gift of salvation) “…and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’…”. Here Jesus made a strong claim about himself. He was saying to her that he had come from God.
Then he said, “Had you asked, I would have given you living water.” The phrase “living water” was a colloquialism that referred to water taken from a stream or river. Living water was considered fresher and cleaner, and better tasting than well water. But Jesus was using common speech to suggest something on the spiritual plane. Perhaps his statement would have brought to mind the thirsty Israelites wandering in the desert, and how Moses was able to rap the rock with his staff and have water pour forth. It is estimated that a million or more people exited Egypt with Moses, so those occasions could not have been trickles of water. A shooting fountain would be a more apt description…an uncapped fire hydrant. More to the point, it was not the power of Moses that accomplished this. It was the intervention and provision of God.
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. – Isaiah 55.1.Most of us live where water is plentiful. Most of us live in homes where there are sources of fresh water ever available to us. We tend to take this for granted but it is an example of God’s grace in our lives. The critical nature of water would have been much more obvious to the Samaritan woman, who had to go on a long walk and lug that heavy water back to her home. How much could she carry? If only two gallons, that would amount to 16.5 pounds. Try carrying that much weight for a few blocks and see what an impression it makes.
Jesus takes up this theme again in John, chapter 7: On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. Jesus’ references to living are about surviving, but they are more. To be alive is to have a spirit that is pure and powerful. And to be alive is to be alive, not merely living in the expectation of death, but living and living and living abundantly.
The woman could have asked Jesus to explain why he was bothering her for water if he was capable of producing it himself. Instead, she basically said to Jesus, “Show me.”
Jesus responded by hinting that he was not being literal, but was referring to spiritual water. He was referring to an internal Spirit who would bring eternal sustenance. Apparently this was too opaque for her. She remained stuck on the literal plane, even as she made room for the possibility that Jesus possessed extraordinary powers. “Yes, sure, I’ll take some of that. I’m am tired of lugging water every day.”
Again, Jesus seems to change the subject. He asked her to get her husband and bring him back to the well. She responded by saying she had no husband. Jesus agreed, and then pointed out that she had had five husbands and she was at that moment living with a man to whom she was not married. While it is possible she had been in five legitimate marriages (if each of her first five husbands had died, for example), the fact that she was living with a sixth man makes it clear that she had adopted a sinful lifestyle. This also suggests that her five previous husbands were also “husbands”. Jesus had called her out for living in sin.
Why did Jesus bring up the husbands? Jesus was speaking to her in the way that John the Baptist preached: repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Salvation comes hand in hand with the turning away from sin. To embrace the kingdom of God means to adjust all aspects of one’s life. Some of the required adjustments radically disrupt a person’s life. In addition, the woman had asked for Jesus to show her his ability to provide living water. Jesus does show her that he has unusual powers. He does not show her in a way she was expecting, but he certainly showed her something. Jesus touched the core of her soul. Her repeated failures in her relationships with men undoubtedly dominated all aspects of her life, and hung about her neck like a millstone. Jesus knew about her and he understood her deep dissatisfaction. In response, she called him a prophet.
Is it possible Jesus had heard stories about the Samaritan woman? Perhaps she was a bit of a legend in the area. The Samaritan woman didn’t think this was the explanation for Jesus’ knowledge, however. There may have been a lot of tongue-wagging about her but that sort of gossip was not something that would travel well across the Samaritan/Jewish divide. She didn’t ask, “How do you know about me?” She attributed his knowledge to his being a prophet, i.e., someone receiving direct revelations from God.
Jesus is a mysterious character in than he is both man and God. He is one of a kind. Scriptures describes him as a man who grew in knowledge and stature. There are various passages where he points out that only the Father knows certain information. As a man, Jesus was not omniscient.
If this is so, his specific knowledge of the Samaritan woman should be seen as a special revelation. Why a special revelation in this situation? This special revelation is akin to the miracles performed by Jesus. Miracles served to confirm his identity, especially his unity with the Father. They revealed and confirmed the gracious nature of God by demonstrating his concern for human well-being. And they demonstrated the invasion of the kingdom of God. In the case of the Samaritan woman we see God demonstrating that his kingdom would not be restricted to the Jews. It was pushing outward and its first outward thrust was the invasion of Samaria.
The Samaritan woman recognized Jesus as a prophet but she still had a concern. She was a Samaritan, while Jesus was a Jew. Wouldn’t that difference disqualify her from receiving the living water?
Jesus did not hesitate to defend the Jewish tradition against the Samaritan’s. He pointed out that salvation was from the Jews and that the Samaritans were stumbling around in the dark. But then he went on to say something startling. He stated that true worshippers are those who worship in spirit and in truth. He insisted that neither Mt. Gerizim (the Samaritan holy place) nor Mt. Zion (the Jewish holy place and location of the temple) would be relevant in determining genuine worship.
There is an important application from this that should not be missed. There are no holy places in Christianity. Israel is often referred to as “the Holy Land” and many Christians assign special significance to it. There is, of course, the significance of it being the setting of a great deal of biblical history, the life of Christ, and the place of origin of the Christian Church. The historicity of Christianity is crucial. Nevertheless, these places will not survive the final judgment of God; they will be burned up in the conflagration, to be replaced by the new heavens and new earth. In Christianity there are no holy places, no holy shrines, no holy relics. In Christianity there is no fighting over holy places, as remains the practice in Judaism and Islam…and other religions. Christianity has stumbled over this matter from time to time. The Crusades provide an example. The Crusades were examples of zeal without understanding.
What Jesus teaches here and elsewhere is that the only holy places on earth are found within the human temples (bodies) of those who have committed themselves to Christ through faith. In such people the Holy Spirit dwells. In Christ, we are to honor all people, because they are made in the image of God and, so, reflect his glory and are precious to him. But we are also to look upon those in the Kingdom with a certain awe and wonder because, no matter how humble or tarnished they may appear, God has made them holy. As far as “holy” places are concerned, we do not treat them with disdain but, rather, treat them respectfully out of respect for those who assign them value. But we ourselves do not assign them any more value than we would any other place or thing that God has allowed to be on the earth.
The Samaritan woman rightly connects Jesus’ proclamation about the coming of spiritual worship with the coming of the Messiah. “That would be me,” says Jesus. This is one of those places that refutes the notion of Jesus-the-good-man/teacher. Here we must say that Jesus is either a profoundly delusional narcissist…or he is the One sent to earth by God himself.
Just when the story is building to a climax, the disciples come bumbling back on the scene. They are astonished to see Jesus talking to a woman. His behavior was unseemly. Thankfully, they had enough respect for Jesus to neither challenge him nor the woman. Nonetheless, it was clear to her that they disapproved or, at least, were very uncomfortable with the situation. She took this as her excuse to leave. Was she happy to escape Jesus’ probing of her soul? Perhaps not. She left her water jar behind—a signal that she intended to return soon. Then she went into town and proclaimed to all the people that she thought she had just had an encounter with the Messiah. “Come and see for yourself,” was her message.
The disciples, relieved of the presence of the Samaritan woman, began to urge Jesus to eat something. They were genuinely concerned that he wasn’t getting enough nourishment. Strangely, Jesus refused the food, claiming that he had been fueled by his recent act of obedience. Jesus was a man. He required food and drink, just as all humans do, and this was obvious to the disciples; otherwise they wouldn’t have pestered him to eat. Had some kind of miracle taken place in Jesus’ body? Perhaps.
I have read of researchers and writers and inventors who, from time to time, have become so absorbed in their work that they forget to eat. Perhaps when your mind is passionately full, such things at the pursuit of food, normally a source of pleasure and strengthening, are simply forgotten. The creative juices are full of excitement and cannot abide interruption. As a person who’s almost never experienced a loss of appetite, this is a mystery to me, and seems a minor miracle in any case.
I cannot say whether this phenomenon describes what was happening with Jesus but he seems to be saying something of the sort. He was caught up in the glory of obedience and in the wondrous results that came of it. My sense is that Jesus had a nearly irrepressible urge to dance a jig. Perhaps he hesitated, thinking about how when King David danced in the streets his wife scorned him for his lack of kingly dignity. The disciples were already reeling a bit because of his “questionable” interaction with a woman. I think that, for their sakes, he restrained himself. But he does say to them, “Who can think about eating at a time like this? Can’t you see the fields are ripe for a great harvest? When it’s time to harvest, we must harvest!” He is speaking metaphorically, of course, but it was routine for him to do so. The harvest was a reference to the Samaritans coming into the Kingdom.
The Samaritans did believe. They believed the testimony of the woman, and then they invited Jesus to stay in town for a couple more days, speaking to them and teaching. They were ready for his words and many believed.
We see next a parenthetical clause that mentions how Jesus had agreed with the proverb that a prophet is not honored in his home town. The clause seems like a non-sequitur. Jesus is from Nazareth and elsewhere in the Gospels this lack of honor is ascribed to the people of Nazareth. But the context here suggests that John is thinking about Jerusalem, the town Jesus is fleeing. Jerusalem is not, of course, the home town of Jesus the man. It is not where he grew up. But if any town on earth can be considered the home town of God, it must be Jerusalem. It was in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, in the temple where the Presence of God was made manifest the day it was dedicated by King Solomon.
This rejection of Jesus by the city of Jerusalem (by the Jewish religious leaders) is then underscored by John as he notes how Jesus is welcomed first in Samaria, then in Galilee, because of the miracles and teachings Jesus had performed in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had rejected Jesus, but not Samaria, not Galilee. The proud have no need of God (they think), but the humble know their need.