The story of Jesus and the woman at the well of Samaria helps us deal with many modern issues. Here Jesus crosses the barrier of race prejudice and interacts with a race hated and rejected by the Jews.. Our Lord encounters a moral outcast and displays for our instruction the proper approach to take with people like this. In this story he also settles a theological quarrel that had been going on for centuries as to the proper place and manner of worship. We, too, are still wrestling with those issues today, so this scripture is of great value to us.
John gives the background and the setting of this encounter in the first six verses of Chapter 4 of his gospel.
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. 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.
John calls attention to the route Jesus took on his journey to Galilee. He chose the most direct route, traveling through Samaria, which lies between Judea and Galilee. It is interesting that Prime Minister Menachem Begin reintroduced the practice of calling this section of the Holy Land, Samaria today. This direct route from Judea to Galilee was about 70 miles, or two and a half days’ walk. But many of the Jews chose not to go through Samaria. They traveled the hot desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and up the Jordan valley. Thus, because of the terrible prejudice that prevailed against the Samaritan people, they journeyed almost twice the distance on a much hotter and more uncomfortable road. But our Lord cut right through that ignorant, narrow-minded prejudice and went through Samaria.
Then, John calls attention to the place where Jesus stopped. It was an historic spot — Jacob’s well, at the foot of Mount Gerizim. There, about one-half mile west of the village of Sychar, where Joseph’s tomb is located, at the well which Jacob, in his day, had dug for his flocks and herds, Jesus sat down to rest.
It was “the sixth hour” when Jesus stopped at the well. By Jewish reckoning that would be noon. Jesus was weary. He had been walking in the hot sun. He was thirsty, so he sat beside the well to rest while the disciples went into the city to find something to eat. We have here a very beautiful picture of our Lord’s humanity.
Verses 7 through 26 give an account of a most remarkable conversation our Lord had. Jesus himself seizes the initiative with a woman who comes to the well to draw water.
7 A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” 8 For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.
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.
How very beautifully Jesus overleaps the barriers that separated him from this woman. He was a rabbi, and according to the rabbinical law, rabbis were instructed to never talk to a woman in public — not even to their own wives or sisters. In fact the rabbinical law said, “It is better to burn the law than to give it to a woman.” In that culture women were regarded as totally unable to understand complicated subjects like theology and religion.
Ever since the days of Nehemiah, 450 years earlier, this race of Samaritans — who had been brought in by the Assyrians to populate the area after they had removed the Jewish population — were regarded as a hated, heretical Jewish cult. The Samaritans accepted only the five books of Moses, and they had mingled with the Law of Moses pagan, idolatrous practices. They had even erected a temple on Mt. Gerizim as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. They were regarded by the Jews as reprobates, and were hated even more than the Gentiles. No wonder, then, that this Samaritan woman was surprised when Jesus addressed her.
But notice how Jesus treats her. He knows her heart, her past and he loves her. Although there was another well in the village, as a moral outcast she was forced to come all the way out to this well, half a mile away. Remember that he himself said on one occasion, “I did not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners,” (Matthew 9:13).
So, as he always did in such a wonderful way, Jesus seizes what was right at hand. Here was a thirsty woman coming to draw water, and he said to her these remarkable words, “If you knew about the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me to drink,’ you would have asked of him and he would have given you living water.” This woman misunderstands what he says. Although he is speaking figuratively, she takes him literally.
She is obviously puzzled by his words. She responds, “You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.” If you have been there you know the well is indeed deep. It is at least 60 feet down to the water. If you do not have a long rope and a bucket you cannot get the water out. Then when Jesus says “living water,” she thinks of running water. That is what the figure means metaphorically — a fountain or a stream, compared with a well or a cistern. She is puzzled by what he says. “You have nothing to draw with; and what do you mean, ‘running water’?”
That she has already begun to suspect she is talking to a most unusual man is shown by her second question, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” Jacob was the great founder of the Jewish faith. The Samaritans, who had the five books of Moses, looked to Jacob as their founder as well. Her question, “Are you greater than Jacob?” indicates that she does not clearly understand what he means. But now Jesus explains:
That is a very clear explanation. What Jesus says immediately is, “I am not talking about the water in the well. Drink of that water and you will thirst again.” (She knew what he meant. She had been coming to that well for years.) “But I will give you living water, and the one who drinks of the water I give will never thirst.” Many Christians never seem to learn this truth. They never realize that there is a place where their inner thirst — their sense of restlessness, their desire for more than they have got — can be met instantly.
Jesus goes on to make clear that it is going to be from within: “The water I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The water shall be in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” He means, of course, that that Spirit which he will impart is a life-giving Spirit, that as one drinks of that Spirit one experiences the quality of life which is called, in the Scriptures, eternal life.
That means far more than everlasting life. It means refreshing, invigorating, exciting life; life that has the qualities of love and joy and peace about it. When you lack these qualities, if you have drunk of the water that Jesus gives you can immediately slake your thirst — again and again and again. It is a beautiful picture: a well springing up to eternal life.
But, still confused, the woman replies: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
It is obvious that she still does not understand him. But the issue is up to him. She has asked for the water which he offered, now it is up to him to find a way to supply it.
Jesus knows that there is something hindering her, that she is still in darkness. This very gospel begins with the words “the light shines in darkness and the darkness cannot get hold of it; does not apprehend it, does not grasp it, does not understand it.” That is what Jesus is up against with this woman. There is something inhibiting her understanding.
Jesus knows what it is, and he proceeds immediately to deal with it.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
He knew she had had five husbands, and that she was regarded as a moral outcast in the village. He also knew that she was now living with a man without benefit of marriage. Jesus shared that with her not to condemn her, but to help her face the problem in her life.
The gospel tells us that the steps to redemption are twofold: repentance and belief: Repentance is a human act; belief and regeneration is a divine act. Until we admit our need there is no way of releasing God to act and to regenerate. Jesus knows that she must come to that place, so he proceeds to deal with the hindrance. “Go call your husband,” he tells her. She admits that she has no husband, and he tells her she has had five, and is now living with another man. Jesus knew there was a thirst in this woman’s heart, a hunger for something more.
What is it that causes a woman to have five husbands and then keep on living with men anyhow? It sounds like the life of a Hollywood movie star. This is the story of many. The hunger after the thrill and excitement of falling in romantic love is a powerful drive.
Falling in love imparts an arm-flinging ecstasy, a beat in the blood, a heady euphoria. You can hear about it in the popular songs of any day. All the songs reflect the yearning of people after a new affair, a new sense of this euphoric excitement. That is what this woman wanted. But that kind of excitement is intended to lead to marriage and to simmer down to a steadier, growing, deeper, richer kind of love which is intended to last a lifetime. C. S. Lewis rightly said, “That richer, quieter love is the fuel on which the engine of life runs. Falling in love is the explosion that gets it started.”
But many insist on living in the heady intoxication of falling in love; they long to have that preserved and perpetuated. It is simply impossible to do that. It cannot be retained no matter how hard a couple may try. If they are unwilling to let that go they never allow the deeper love to form. When romance fades, as it always does, they become restless. They feel cheated, deprived and angry. Eventually they feel desperate, trapped. They fling over the old, a new partner appears, and they fall in love again. The fires begin to glow again, never quite as brightly as the last time; there is always a diminishing return. At last, they end up as millions are doing today, like this woman who had five husbands. Finally, not bothering with the formalities of marriage at all, they just have a roommate live with them.
This is the kind of woman Jesus met at the well. He knew that somehow he must gently lead her to face the thing that was destroying her; that she must understand what it was that was ruining her life and keeping her from the satisfaction of her thirst. So gently, plainly, forthrightly, but without condemnation, he led her to see what was wrong.
Her response is very revealing. We will look at her response and more great dialogue in the next post.
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Sources: Life Application Bible Notes
Ray Stedman Ministries