John 4:1-26.
Jesus, The Living Water

      American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Jesus' ministry began with his baptism by John the Baptist and the gathering of disciples around the region of Jerusalem.  He would soon move his ministry center to Capernaum.  John, Chapter four, describes an event that took place as Jesus traveled from Jerusalem to Capernaum. 

John 4:1-3.  When therefore the LORD knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, 2(Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) 3He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee. 

The ministry of John the Baptist did not stop with the baptism of Jesus.  The Baptist continued to proclaim the coming of the Lamb of God, baptizing people for the repentance from sin, and pointing them to Jesus as The Lamb.  Though the scriptures provide considerable commentary on the calling of the twelve Apostles, we often overlook those others who followed Jesus who were not quite as close either in relationship or calling.  Like the three parts of the tabernacle, Jesus' relationship with his followers can be organized into three similar parts, or groups.  Those closest to Jesus were Peter, James and John, the inner circle.  These three would receive the most intense training from the LORD and would become the preeminent leaders of the church after Jesus' ascension.  The next closest level or relationship was experienced by the remainder of the apostles who also received intense training and the personal commissioning of the LORD.  The third and more peripheral level of relationship involved the many others, often called disciples who may have numbered between 150 to 500; people who turned to Jesus in faith and remained with Him to learn from His teaching. 

We may observe from this verse that the body of disciples that followed Jesus in and around the area of Jerusalem was growing to the point where in a short period, it was evident to the community that Jesus had more followers than John.  This was certainly reasonable as John was encouraging his followers to follow Jesus.  However, a cursory study of the short history of The Baptist's ministry in the first chapters of John reveal that He was considered a prophet of great regard, one of a stature of Elijah or Isaiah.  Jesus' acceptance by John as one in a position higher than himself created an even greater challenge for the leadership in Jerusalem as Jesus would pose an even greater threat to their tenuous hold on authority and power.

The Jerusalem leadership had reason to be very concerned.  If Jesus was believed by the people to be the Messiah, they would most likely rise up in an act of rebellion against the Romans, an event that would be disastrous for Jerusalem and all Judea.  The presence of the Roman barracks in close proximity to the Temple. and the puppet Roman king in Jerusalem were constant reminders of their tenuous situation.  The only way the leadership in Jerusalem could hold on to their power was to (1) assure that Rome received the appropriate tribute, and (2) they kept the peace.  Failure to maintain these two requirements of Rome would result in their immediate removal. 

The more zealous Jerusalem Jews believed that the Messiah would rise up as a political and military king over a political region, reigning in the manner of King David, one who would lead the people to defeat the intruders and re-establish a kingdom similar to that of ancient Israel.  They did not understand the spiritual or eternal nature of the kingdom that was identified in the prophecies and fulfilled in Jesus, Christ.[1]  There would be an appropriate time and setting for Jesus to confront the leadership in Jerusalem, but it was not yet time.  First, the apostles and disciples had to be prepared for the days (and years) to come, a process that would take a few years.  So Jesus left the area, traveling North to the region of Galilee.  Jesus would spend most of his ministerial period in and around the relative safety of Capernaum, returning to Jerusalem for the required festivals that included the Passover. 

John 4:4.  And he must needs go through Samaria. 

The shortest route from Jerusalem to Galilee was to travel due north through the region of Samaria.  A little understanding of the history of this region will help us understand the context of what is about to be described in John's gospel.  Samaria is that region north of Judea, in the southern area of that part of the ancient kingdom of Israel that was taken into captivity by Assyria in the 8th century B.C.  During that period that followed the destruction of the kingdom, the area was repopulated with people from other nations as the Assyrian king sought to diminish the local influence in the regions he conquered.  Over time the Jews who remained in this region intermarried with the foreigners.  When the Judean Jews returned from Babylonian captivity they considered these Samaritans to the north to be "half-breeds" and thus, ceremonially unclean.  The ritual separation of the Samaritans and Jews served to increase the traditional hatred that the Jews had for the Samaritans.  As the Judean Jews developed the oral and traditional laws following the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans held firmly to the authority of the first five books of the Torah, the books of Moses, paying little attention to the writings of the prophets, and gave no authority to the oral or traditional laws that came out of Jerusalem.  During the captivity the Samaritans gathered to worship at Mt. Gerizim in response to Moses' reference to it as a place of blessing.[2]

There were other differences between Samaritan theology and the current theology of the Jews.  The Jews expectation of a military messiah was a product of their recent oral and traditional culture, shaped by their history of military failures.  The Samaritans also waited in expectation of a Messiah, but their understanding of the Messiah, who was referred to as the Taheb, would be a prophet in the order of Moses who would come and renew their understanding of the truth and God's will when "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers."[3] Since the Samaritans were not expecting the Messiah to be a political or military leader, they were relatively content with their subjection to the Romans, and would find it easier to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient Israelite traditions.

When all of these differences between the Jews and Samaritans are considered, one can understand why the bigoted Jews hated the Samaritans so.  They had written into their traditional law a variety of rules which forbade them from relationships with Samaritans.   It is interesting to note, however, the hypocrisy of their legalized promotion of economic commerce with Samaritans. 

According to their traditional law, to touch a Samaritan would leave a Jew ceremonially unclean.  Consequently, whenever a zealous Judean Jew would travel north from Jerusalem, he would often choose to cross the Jordan river to the east, travel north along the Transjordan region, and then cross back over the Jordan before coming to the Sea of Galilee.  By taking this longer, more difficult route, the Jews would avoid contact with the Samaritans.

Jesus, however, harbored no social, racial, or spiritual bigotry towards any people.  His love for all people would bring him straight through Samaria where he would have an opportunity to preach, teach, and minister to its people who were the most receptive to His message of any people group in the region. 

John 4:5-6.  Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.  6Now Jacob’s well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. 

Though Sychar is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, there is considerable agreement that this is referring to the community that was once named Shechem, the ancient community that was settled by the ancient Israelites at the foot of Mt. Gerizim, the equivalent theological and governmental center of the northern Jews that Jerusalem is to Judea.  Just as Jerusalem was the theological and political hotbed of Jerusalem, Shechem was for the same for Samaria, except the Samaritans were a rather peaceful people and did not have the character of violence and rebellion that was known in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans had once built a temple at Mt. Gerizim that was considered an act of heresy by the Judean Jews who mounted an invasion and destroyed it about a century earlier.  Because of this, the culture around the area of Shechem was sensitive to and cognizant of their own theological beliefs, and quite aware of the theological conflict they had with the Jews to the south.

The Samaritans also believed that this region was holy not only because of the mountain, but because they believed that this was the epicenter of the land of Jacob.  The well outside of Shechem was believed to have been dug by Jacob, and so it held great historical and theological significance for them.  We see, then, in the Samaritan people a society who believes that they are being obedient to God in their observation of the content of the Pentateuch, and who are awaiting for a messiah who will be a great prophet and priest.  The Jews wanted a king.  Jesus was all of these.

The sixth hour places the time of this event in the middle of the day, around noon, six hours after the sunrise.  Jacob's well would be a small oasis in the dry region, and was a place where people would frequently come to draw water.  Since it was a place people would gather, it would not be an unusual place for people to linger and socialize.  However, people came to draw water in the cool of the morning when both they and the water they draw would not be subject to the midday heat.  The only people who would typically come to the well in the middle of the day would be travelers.  Jesus and his disciples were such travelers.  Jesus waited at the well while his disciples went into Shechem to purchase food and supplies for their continued journey. 

John 4:7-8.  There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.  8(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) 

We see here three circumstances taking place here that are rather unusual for Jewish culture, and significant in our understanding of the context of what would take place at this well.  First, we see a woman of Samaria coming to draw water.  Why would a woman come to the well from Sychar in the heat of the day rather than during the cool of the morning when all of the other women of the community would come?  We will see from the following verses that this woman was not well-respected.  She was one who would be shunned by the "righteous" crowd.  This woman was subject to the bigotry that people often hold towards others that they perceive as part of a lower state of social or religious respectability.  It is quite evident that she avoided the interaction with those people and came at a time when she would be alone.

The second event that is unusual is for Jesus to speak to her.  It was forbidden in Judean traditional law for a man to speak to any woman in public.  Women were to avoid eye-contact with men, and in order to do so, they were to keep their heads lowered at all times when in public.  Though such dramatic and systematic denigration of women is not the norm for most of the world’s cultures, though this hateful practice still persists in some areas.  Today, women are similarly denigrated in some fundamentalist Islamic communities.  If we observe the social behavior of those fundamentalist cultures, we may gain an understanding of the similar denigration of women practiced by the ancient Jews and Samaritans. 

Finally, we see that Jesus and the woman were alone.  The disciples had gone into Sychar to purchase food and supplies, leaving Jesus alone at the well.  Because of the dangers that are inherent to being alone and unprotected from robbers, this was typically not done.  The woman, who was also alone, arrived at the well to find a man there, so she would normally keep her head down, avoid any contact with him, get her water quickly, and leave.  She would see herself as an intruder, usurping the space of this male traveler.  Because of these cultural boundaries and characteristics we may be able to understand how she would respond when this traveler spoke to her.  She would know by his appearance that he is a Judean Jew.  She would also know that the Judeans would have forbidden Him to speak to her, to touch her, or specifically to drink from her cup.  All three acts would leave a Jewish man unclean, and so this simply would not happen.  The woman is quite surprised and confused by Jesus’ words to her.

John 4:9.  Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. 

The woman's response was natural, reasonable, and evidence that she understood the conflict between Judean Jews and Samaritans.  Her shock and confusion are evident.  Rather than hand Jesus a cup of water, the woman responded with a very appropriate question: "Since you are a Jew, why are you asking me to share my vessel?"  The words that are translated "have no dealings" are literally, "do not share vessels."  Jews and Samaritans do not share vessels because of the Jewish opinion that to do so leaves one unclean because of the Samaritan’s universal rejection of the Judean traditional and oral dietary laws.  It was unusual enough for a Jewish man to talk to her, but to ask to use her vessel would be quite shocking, particularly coming from a Jewish man who appears to be dressed in traditional Jewish clothing. 

John 4:10.  Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. 

Jesus had a purpose behind his meeting with this woman, and stayed with this purpose rather than answer her question that would have led to an unproductive discussion of Jewish and Samaritan traditions.   Instead, Jesus answers with a direct statement that would serve to introduce Himself and draw her into a discussion concerning her own spiritual state.  He states in general, "If you knew who I am, you would be asking a different question."  First he refers to her knowledge of the "gift of God."  This could be understood a multiple of ways.  The Samaritans would understand the water in the desert, particularly that which is found in Jacob’s well, to be a gift of God.  However, they also considered the coming Messiah was The Gift of God, and if understood as an idiom, Jesus was identifying himself as such.  It is interesting to note that Jesus avoids speaking of himself as the Messiah among the Jews, but immediately opens up to this Samaritan woman with this confession.  Remember that the Samaritans were awaiting a Messiah who would be a great prophet and priest.  Because of this, they were far better prepared to accept the true person of Jesus than the Judean Jews were.  Jesus could reveal Himself among the Samaritans without conflict.  Jesus simply stated that if she could see Him as God's Gift, she would be responding to Him differently, and correctly.

"Living water" referred to water that is naturally moving.  Water that flowed in rivers and streams was called "living water."  Water from a cistern or a well becomes stagnant and polluted.  However, living water is fresh and always renewed.  Jacob's well was a spring-fed, flowing well, a source of living water.  Jesus told her that if she knew Him, she would be asking Him to meet her need.  The woman has still not yet understood the metaphors that Jesus is using, as evident from her response to His statement. 

John 4:11-12.  The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? 12Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? 

The woman has observed that Jesus does not have a vessel to draw water with.  So, her question is natural and skeptical almost to the point of ridicule.  She is still thinking in terms of the water from the well.  It would be impossible for him to draw water without a pail to lower into the well, so how can He offer it to her?  She is the one with the pail.

Jesus' purpose in this encounter is to bring this woman to faith in Himself through His personal testimony.  This is a task that has been assigned to every person of faith.  Christians are called to make disciples, and to do so, must share the good news of Jesus with people in this lost world whenever the opportunity arises.  In such an engagement, it is necessary that one communicate the gospel, and that is usually best accomplished through conversation.  When Jesus met the woman, His comments and questions to her directed her into spiritual matters, and that direction culminated with her asking a question of Him that would open the door to enable Him to move on to necessary spiritual subjects.  This strategy of moving a conversation from physical matters to spiritual matters is a model for those who are involved with sharing their faith.  Jesus identified early the common need that they both had for water.  He drew this metaphor from their mutual presence at the well.  He then made a statement that would motivate her to ask a question for which he could move the conversation towards his own purpose.  Her curiosity was aroused.   She literally asked, "Who are you?"

John 4:13-15.  Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: 14But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.  15The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. 

With the woman's curiosity aroused, she was ready to hear what Jesus came to tell her.  His answer to her question would reveal to her that He was not referring to literal water.  "This water" is the water of Jacob's well, but the water that Jesus would give is different.  The water of which Jesus refers, is a well that provides everlasting life.  Jesus had just moved from literal water to deep theology.  The Samaritans were looking for a prophet who would come and provide them with this everlasting life, which in their tradition was referred to by the idiom, "flowing water."

Jesus had just revealed the purpose of His conversation in a way that the woman would now understand.  He walked into the Samaritan country, and began speaking to her within the context of her Samaritan culture.  The common ground that Jesus established with her was the need for water.  However, He also knew that "living water" was a Samaritan religious idiom for eternal life and used this idiom to introduce the gospel message. 

When sharing God's love with others, it is essential that we note the very important strategy that is illustrated here.  When attempting to obtain the respect and confidence of those we encounter, we need to meet them where they are, and second, to meet them from within their own culture.  Sometimes we are willing to step out of our comfort zone to establish a relationship outside of our own subculture, yet we still expect those we meet to move into our own.  Establishing a faith-sharing relationship often requires that we step into the culture of the people we meet as well as step into their location.  This does not mean that we are to compromise our behavior and take part in the sin of another culture, but rather we will find ourselves choosing which characteristics of our home culture are really important in the new setting.  We need to meet people where they are.  For example, Jesus broke with his home culture by speaking to a woman.  Jesus always considered the needs of a person above the rules of culture.  This is a lesson that is often hard for us to learn, but is a lesson that is necessary if we are to make disciples. 

A simple, personal illustration is in order ...  When my wife and I went on a trip to Belarus, one of the former Soviet republics, we entered a private host home after two days of difficult travel.  The family had generously set a table before us that displayed the best foods they could offer.  The first event that took place was the traditional toast to the guests.  I was served a small glass of Vodka by people who I could not yet even talk to.  Abstinence from alcohol is a tradition of those in my home church culture.  So, what did I do?  I tried not to wince too hard when I shared in the toast.  My hosts would not have understood my choosing not to share in their toast, and it would have most likely been perceived as an insult.   We entered the home as strangers, greeted by an emphatic "Niet Bog! Niet Bog! Niet Bog!" (No God! No God! No God!)  We left ten days later leaving a family with Bibles and reading assignments[4] doing so with hugs and tears.  While we visited we drank a minimum of wine, and reaped a harvest of love and relationship.  In the years following we experienced visits of their children to our home for Summer exchanges and through it some of their family members have come to Christ.  That short visit by strangers ended up changing the lives of the family forever.  Rejection of their traditional toast could easily have rendered that exchange impossible when meeting the spiritual needs of this lost, yet spiritually seeking family was far more important than my own cultural taboos.

Jesus was willing to forgo those rules of his culture that would stand in the way of his meeting the needs of people.  This is a lesson that is extremely important for all of us to learn.

Verse 15 would lead us to believe that she did not yet fully understand the connection that Jesus was making with the Samaritan prophesy of the "living water" as she still inquired how she might receive this water so that she would not have to return to Jacob's well.  Though she did not yet understand Jesus' metaphor, she did demontrate that she had some belief that Jesus could provide that which He promised.  She was now very willing to listen to Him.   

John 4:16.  Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. 

Jesus' next statement was a natural progression for what is about to take place.  Jesus is about to speak to her of important matters.  In their ancient Jewish culture, it was the man to whom important matters would be addressed.  So, Jesus commands the woman to go and get her husband, and return so that she can receive the gift that He is offering. 

John 4:17-18.  The woman answered and said, I have no husband.  Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: 18For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly. 

The woman has already started to perceive that Jesus is some form of Jewish prophet, and she is about to be convinced of it.  She veiled the truth as she replied that she had no husband, but Jesus revealed that He knew more of her than any person could, much less a stranger from Jerusalem.  She now knew that this was the One who would come and answer their questions.  His knowledge of her also demonstrated His understanding of her reason for drawing water in the middle of the day:  she was considered an adulteress by the people of Sychar.  Also, her lack of having a husband upon whom to depend enabled her to freely speak with this stranger.

John 4:19-20.  The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.  20Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. 

Having been presented with a prophet, the woman starts immediately into asking one of the more controversial and vexing questions that Samaritans lived with.  The Samaritans still worshiped at Mt. Gerizim, an act that was considered heresy by the Jews.  The Samaritans did not consider it a necessity to travel to Jerusalem since they were rejected by the Jews when, following the Babylonian exile, they were not allowed to help in its rebuilding.  

We also see in this question an effort by the woman to move Jesus off of the line of questioning that He was moving in.  Her question might have been posed to challenge this prophet who would surely say that it is necessary to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, a response that would discredit him in her eyes and free her of any further challenge by him.  People will often be willing to talk about religion as long as their personal life is not involved.  Making faith personal is a key to successful evangelism.

When we are intending upon sharing the good news with someone, it is important that we not get sidetracked, but rather use those side issues to draw the hearer back to the gospel presentation.  To do this, it is helpful if the person sharing the gospel has a clear plan to follow.  Many people will have a well-learned or memorized gospel presentation that serves as an outline.  This is often an outline that is tied to specific scripture verses.[5]  As the conversation is moved away from the presenter's outline, it is easier to direct it back when that direction is well planned.  Jesus did this with the diversion that the woman presented.   Note that Jesus still addressed the ancillary issues, but kept bringing the discussion back to His original plan. 

John 4:21-24.  Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.  22Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.  23But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.  24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. 

Jesus' answer to the woman was probably quite surprising.  She certainly expected Him to reject worship at Mt. Gerizim, but never would have expected Him to offer a position that also rejected worship in Jerusalem.  This prophet was not simply someone who was repeating the Pharisaical party line.  Here was a prophecy, spoken with authority and truth, that a day would come when all people would be united, both Jew and Samaritan, as God is worshiped in spirit and in truth instead of from within the confines of a Temple or synagogue.   

John 4:25.  The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. 

The woman's statement is directly from Samaritan theology.  Like the Jews, the Samaritans were waiting for the Messiah, the Christ.  The woman used the Hebrew word, but in their tradition, the Messiah would be the "restorer," the Taheb, who would be a great prophet, not a military leader like David.  The Samaritans rejected the kingships of Saul and David, believing that they were never a part of God's true desire for Israel.  She was ready to meet the Prophet. 

John 4:26.  Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.

With this statement, Jesus clearly revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman as the Taheb that they had waited for.  He revealed Himself as the Messiah that would be sent from God to save the people.  We do not know all of the conversation that took place between Jesus and the woman, but there is no question that her response was one of complete belief and trust.  The disciples soon returned to find them talking, and it may be notable that they were not critical of Jesus' doing so.  It is likely that she would have noticed this break with taboo that was shown by Jesus’ community of travelers.  The woman ran to her home in Sychar and announced to them that she had met the Taheb, and they should all come and see.  This was quite a demonstration of confidence for a woman who was despised by the community.  The difference in her presence and demeanor must have been quite evident since she brought a group of people back to the well to meet Jesus.  After Jesus spoke with them, they invited Him to stay with them.  Jesus stayed two days, during which many came to believe in Him.  Many were saved.

If we compare Jesus’ interchange with this Samaritan woman and with the earlier record of His interchange, we find some interesting contrasts.  “This second interview is another illustration of the fact that ‘He knew what was in a man (2:25).’ The Samaritan woman contrasts sharply with Nicodemus. He was seeking; she was indifferent. He was a respected ruler; she was an outcast. He was serious; she was flippant. He was a Jew; she was a despised Samaritan. He was (presumably) moral; she was immoral. He was orthodox; she was heterodox. He was learned in religious matters; she was ignorant. Yet in spite of all the differences between this “churchman” and this woman of the world, they both needed to be born again. Both had needs only Christ could meet.”[6]

This encounter with the woman at Jacob's well, contrasted with that with Nicodemus illustrates to us how Jesus, the Living Water, took his message of redemption to everyone without any negative regard of their social state.  He loved all people and was only concerned with their spiritual state, seeking to bless them by bringing them to saving faith in God.  Jesus did not condemn the woman for her lifestyle, but simply showed her a better way.  Jesus never avoided contact with people, but rather engaged in contact whenever possible.  He stepped out of the subculture of His own home that so tightly defined who He was, into to the outside world so that He could be who He really was to the kingdom of God.  We can follow Jesus' example as we seek to share God's love with a lost world.  This can only be effectively done by loving people more than the rules of our culture.  We must love them more than our own prejudices and bigotries.  It will be when we can make this step that we will be the witness for Christ that we have been called to be. 

[1] Isaiah 9:7; Luke 1:33.

[2] Deuteronomy 11:29, 27:12.

[3] Deuteronomy 18:15.

[4] The first reading assignment was the book of John.

[5] Evangelism Explosion, and Continuing Witness Training offered by Lifeway Resources are such outlines.

[6] Blum, Edwin A.