Jesus & The Samaritan Woman
Perspectives on John 4: 1-42
Written by Martin Ellgar 2008
Jesus and the Samaritan woman has often been presented as a salvation story, and rightly so. Whether at Sunday school or from the pulpit the story is told of Jesus bringing salvation to the people in Samaria. On further examination of the story all does not appear as it seems. The specially constructed imaginary in the text supported with words of dual meaning present a different perspective of the salvation story. Furthermore, the Samaritan woman who has usually been presented as an adulteress is not who she seems to be either. Beside her personal identity which will be revealed in the commentary; she is also in a sense a ‘window’ through which one can glimpse the history of a forgotten people, their life, their torment, and their hope.
There are two important settings to be considered in order to bring about a clearer and a more meaningful understanding of the story. Firstly, the narrative setting describes the situation in life at the time of Jesus meeting with the Samaritan women. The second consideration is the setting in which John finds himself at the time of writing this text and the Gospel.
The Samaritan woman probably belonged to a people also known as the Israelite-Samaritans. They were a people amongst other cultural and ethnic groups that lived in the country of Samaria. Samaria lay between Galilee to the north and Judea to the South. Samaria had a history that included: the partition of the kingdom of Israel, years of occupation from foreign invaders, the forced removal of many of its inhabitants, the importation of foreign people by their new rulers, and a mixing of the various cultures and people within the land. The Israelite-Samaritans are believed to be the descendants of Jacob and Joseph, and the remnant of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom.
Judea at the time of Jesus was the result of similar circumstances. At the time of the divided kingdom, Judah (Judea) became the Southern Kingdom. After the exile of the people from the Northern Kingdom, Judah was also invaded and many of the people were carried away into exile. After many years of both kingdoms in exile the only people reported to have returned from exile were the people from the southern kingdom of Judah. Their hope for a renewed homeland and blessing from God was to rebuild their Temple at Jerusalem and to stringently adhere to the word of God as given to them through Moses and the Prophets.
Samaria and Judea shared a common heritage through Jacob their forefather. Despite their common ancestry there were differences that maintained the hostilities between them since the divided kingdom. Their main point of contention and reason for hostility was the place of true worship and sacrifice to God. The Southern Kingdom through the tribe of Judah believed that Mt. Zion in Jerusalem was the true place of worship and the site of the Temple. This was established during Israel’s Golden Age of a united kingdom during the reign of King David and his son Solomon. The decision to build the Temple came as a response from King David and his son Solomon to the goodness of God.
The remaining ten tribes of Israel that formed the Northern Kingdom established their place of worship at Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. Their choice was the result of a command from God. Earlier in the history of Israel, when Joshua first led the people of Israel across the river Jordan into the Promised Land, he set up an altar of sacrifice to God on Mt Gerizim. This was a command from God through Moses. The people of Israel were also to write the words of the Law on the stones of the altar so that they may not forget them and continue to be blessed in the Land. Both kingdoms believed that they alone had the authentic place for worship through which God would bless the land and all the people who lived in it. They believed that anything less would lead to God’s wrath and judgement upon the people.
There are other differences to consider that will influence the perspective on the story. Some of the people of Judah that chose to return from exile considered themselves to be the faithful remnant of Israel. The Israelite-Samaritans also made the same claim. They saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel because they had remained in the land and were able to carry on with sacrifice and worship of God at Mt Gerizim.
The Israelite-Samaritans adhered to the Torah, the five books of Moses as the only authoritive word of God. Some of them also considered the Book of Joshua. The people of Judea considered not only the Torah, but also the Prophets and Writings as the authoritive word of God. An important difference to understanding our text is that the Israelite-Samaritans taught both their boys and girls the Torah. It was not the case for the people of Judea. The Torah was only taught to the boys. They believed that it was an abomination for a girl to learn the Torah. It was for a woman akin to committing adultery. Unlike the women in Samaria, the women of Judea were also restricted from speaking to men in public.
The situation in life at the time of writing the text and Gospel adds to the understanding of the text. It embraces a community’s history, their present needs, and their future hope. John had collected certain stories about Jesus to write his Gospel. Those stories were chosen not only to tell the good news of Jesus but also to meet the pastoral concerns of his community.
John and his community saw the Temple at Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The Gospel of John was written a number of years after that event probably about 85 A.D. or later. The Temple at the time of Jesus was a focal point for both the Jews and the followers of Jesus for cultural and religious activities. During the rise in popularity of Jesus, the Jews thought for a while that he might be the expected Messiah. Many followers of Jesus thought the same. Scriptures proclaimed a coming Messiah in the end times, and the people of Judea expected one since they were living and suffering under the rule of Rome. The Messiah was defined as one that God would raise up amongst them to overthrow the power of Rome and to restore Jerusalem and Israel to its former glory. He was to rule God’s kingdom on earth from Jerusalem and all people would come to the Temple to worship the true God. Although, Jesus was perceived by many as the Messiah, Jesus was not the Messiah of their expectations. Jesus is the Messiah, ruler of the kingdom of heaven and not of this world. He is the Messiah who has come from heaven to suffer in our place so that all may have life through him.
After the resurrection of Jesus from death to life the heavens didn’t open with the out pouring of angels to install Jesus on the throne in Jerusalem as the Messiah. For all who had a hope in Jesus as the Messiah were left disappointed, confused, and their faith shaken in Jesus, in the Torah, and in God. Later, the Romans destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem as a response to further religious unrest and a sense of rebellion amongst the people in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple would have incurred painful memories when the Temple was first destroyed in the past. Israel had interpreted the earlier invasion of foreign powers, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the people as God’s judgement upon Israel. It was considered the final judgment because Israel had not listened to the voice of God through the prophets he had sent. Once more the Temple was destroyed by a foreign power. The destruction of the Temple could only add to the dismay of the people who held a hope for a new and glorious Jerusalem. Feelings of guilt would have developed in people who had interpreted the past events as a judgement from God, a judgement once more where the people of Israel had not listened to the voice of God.
Furthermore, to compound trouble with trouble the early Christians, the followers of Jesus were persecuted by the Jews and the Romans. For some, it meant they had to flee their homeland to find refuge in a foreign land and to find a people willing to help them. No doubt John deals with these issues and pastoral concerns of his community as he collected the stories of Jesus to write his Gospel and the text under review.
Text & Commentary
1. The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptising more disciples than John,
2. although in fact it was not Jesus who baptised, but his disciples.
3. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
In part, the first few verses give an introduction to the narrative of the following text. It provides a reason for Jesus’ appearance in Samaria. Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees was to leave the area. He knew what their intentions were towards him and it was not in keeping with the will of God. In an earlier narrative Jesus had drawn unwelcomed attention to himself where he cleared the Temple of traders and money exchangers (John 2: 12-25). It was also a time to leave. John’s final verses for that narrative give a reason for Jesus being cautious of the intentions in people. John wrote, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” (John 2: 24, 25). Again, in another narrative where Jesus feeds the five thousand, the people compelled him to leave. Jesus knew their intentions to make him king by force and it was not the will of God so he withdrew from them (John 6: 15).
4. Now he had to go through Samaria.
The Jews did not count Samaria as a Jewish country as they did Galilee although it shared a similar heritage. The faithful Jews would bypass it on their way to Galilee to the north. The Jews added to the demise of Samaria by treating it as a ritually unclean country. They despised the many places of worship to the various gods that were established by a mix of people from foreign lands. They saw Samaria as a country with people of different values, customs, and gods. Therefore, it was important for the Jews to bypass Samaria to avoid any possible harmful influence from them.
The text suggests a sense of urgency in Jesus’ departure from Judea. It suggests that there was no time to bypass Samaria but to take the most direct route through Samaria to Galilee. Perhaps it was a time for Jesus to flee from the Pharisees. For whatever earthly reason a person may apply to Jesus and his need to journey into Samaria, there was also a divine reason. Jesus knew the will of God. He knew his mission on earth, and he knew that God was sending him into Samaria for a reason. Jesus understood the various journeys in his life as being sent by God and doing his will. Later at the well in Samaria, Jesus expressed that relationship to his disciples and said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (v. 34).
5. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
6a. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.
Besides stepping around Samaria it was also prudent of faithful Jews not to speak about the Samaritans in conversation. However, John is building bridges of reconciliation by recalling the great ancestral names of Jacob and Joseph of an earlier united kingdom. John encourages the people of his community to review and strengthen their relationship with Samaria because of their common heritage. In a way, Jesus has journeyed from one holy place to another. Jesus has journeyed from the holy Temple in Jerusalem to the holy heartland of Samaria. Jesus is resting by Jacob’s well which is near Mt. Gerizim the holy mountain of the Israelite-Samaritans. Both these holy places had alters of sacrifice to YAHWEH, the God of Abraham and Jacob. In a more dramatic sense, Jesus who is God in the Trinity has moved from the holy place in Jerusalem to occupy the holy place in Samaria.
6b. It was about the sixth hour.
The sixth hour is a time period between noon and three in the afternoon. This time period also marks important events. On a daily basis, the sixth hour marks the hour of prayer and the largest meal of the day. It is the hour in which dedicated scholars of the Torah would emerge from their studies for their first meal of the day and perhaps make their own journey to the well. It would have been seen by others that the scholars were sustained in the morning by the word of God. The words of the Torah were often thought of as ‘living water from the well’ and able to sustain a person in need. The hour also marks the time in which the Samaritan woman came to the well to draw her water for her needs.
Foremost, the sixth hour is the hour in which the Passover lamb is taken for sacrifice. It was the hour in which Jesus was taken as the ‘Passover lamb’ and brought before Pontius Pilate to be crucified on the cross. It was the hour in which Pontius Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your king.” (John 19: 14). It is the hour in which Jesus finds himself in a foreign land, in the holy heartland of Samaria, the enemy of Judea. Therefore, the sixth hour at the well anticipates a sacrifice of a kind.
7. When 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.)
More than likely, John the youngest of the disciples remained with Jesus at the well while the others had gone into town to buy food. Now imagine the sense. Jesus left Judea in a hurry, tired and dusty from the journey, hungry and thirsty; he rests at the well without his entourage, and asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world who is at this time sitting at the well looking and sounding more like a beggar. In the resonance of the words spoken by Pontius Pilate, “Behold your king,” is Jesus, the ‘beggar king’ sitting at the well before the Samaritan woman.
9. The 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.)
Had Jesus been any other carpenter’s son from Galilee, or a peasant farmer from Judea, perhaps her response may have been different. Jesus’ dress and appearance would have revealed to the Samaritan woman that he is a Jew and one with knowledge of the Torah. The Samaritan woman gave a categorical reply to emphasise the gulf of difference between them. From the perspective of a Jew, a Samaritan was an idolatrous person and one to be avoided for fear of ritual uncleanness. The Jews feared the influences from the mix of Samaritan culture and gods. They feared in losing their own faith and being lead astray from the God that they knew. For the Jew, to follow after other gods meant the wrath of God upon them and the land. Samaritan women suffered even more under the Jewish perception of what was acceptable and not acceptable, clean and unclean. Samaritan women were considered more likely than any other temptation in the land to seduce and lead a faithful man astray. Therefore, they were considered as if they were a voracious adulteress.
The Samaritan woman was astonished when Jesus asked her for a drink. She knew the consequences that would face a Jew even in speaking to her let alone receiving a drink of water. Here was a Jew before her willing to sacrifice his standing in the community, and even the wrath of God for a drink of water from her hand.
10. Jesus 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.”
Jesus replies using the theological language of the day which the Samaritan woman is familiar with to tease out his true identity and to challenge her faith. The gift of God was considered to be the gift of the Spirit in the end times. Many people believed that they were living in the end times. The Romans had occupied and held the land by force. Their presence simply enlisted rebellion and reprisals in turn upon the people in the land. So, when Jesus mentioned the gift of God it was already in many peoples mind and hope that salvation would soon come. Jesus equates the gift of God to the gift of living water. It is through the living water that can cleanse and sustain life, and so it is with the Spirit. Jesus is the giver of this one and the same gift. From his position of being perceived as a ‘beggar’ at the well, and being under suspicion by the Samaritan woman, Jesus offers to fulfil her inner most needs.
11. “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?
12. Are 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?”
There is a growing change in the Samaritan woman toward Jesus. In her next response to him, she addresses Jesus as “Sir.” The respectful address she gave him, “Sir” is suitably translated from the Greek, kyrie, which is usually translated as ‘Lord.’ The first impression of Jesus was of him as a ‘beggar’ and as a Jew sitting at the well before the Samaritan woman. What had transcended between them that she now pays him respect and has called him, “Sir”, or even possibly “Lord”?
The Samaritan woman has a bucket to draw the water from the well but does not offer to give it to Jesus that he may drink from it. She is mindful of Jesus as a Jew and their restrictions towards the Samaritans and especially towards a Samaritan woman. For a Jew to drink from her bucket would mean ritual uncleanness, cultural ‘suicide’, and probably social rejection from his community. She is mindful of his religious situation and does not temp him to falter. She is aware of her low status before a Jew and yet responds to Jesus in a spirit of respect and humility.
The Samaritan woman is quite aware that Jesus is not just talking about the physical water in the well that lies between them, but about the Torah and what it offers. The Torah has often been referred to as the ‘well’ from which life is sustained. Metaphorically, the Torah has been a deep well for the woman, and perhaps at times too deep to get the living water that cleanses and sustains life as it ought too. She continues to question Jesus further about receiving this living water that she desires. In her next question, she indirectly asks Jesus whether he is greater than the Torah. She claims that in the past, the Torah has given life to Jacob and his sons, and through their adherence to this ‘well’, God has blessed their flocks and herds.
13. Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,
Jesus draws a distinction between the two waters that can give life. It is true that the water from the well in the ground can only sustain physical life for a while until the next thirst. Likewise, the Torah is also inadequate as a source in fulfilling a person’s innermost needs. It seems to be a well too deep.
14. but 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.”
The repetition of Jesus’ words, “the water I give him” provides an important emphasis that Jesus is only the one who gives the living water. The gift is a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The gift remains internal for eternal life. The gift of the bubbling spring becomes part of a person. It is forever. The spring of water welling up to eternal life is a reference to God (Jeremiah 17: 13). The gift that Jesus gives is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit remains inside a person producing the gifts of the Spirit for the purpose of eternal life. The gift of the Spirit produces faith, hope, joy, peace, and the greatest of them all love.
Jesus arrived at the well being thirsty. It was a thirst not of the soul but of the body. Where as the Samaritan women arrived at the well having a thirst of the soul, a thirst for eternal life.
15. The 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.”
No longer does Jesus ask for water from the woman who has the bucket and the means to draw water from the well, but now the woman asks Jesus for water to quench her thirst. The Samaritan woman sees in Jesus someone greater than Jacob and greater than the Torah, and so asks him for the waters of eternal life. She is reaching out to Jesus as a ‘beggar’ no less to deliver her from the daily burden of plunging into the depths of the Torah in order to find life. With a spring of water welling up to eternal life inside of her, it would negate the need of the daily ritual of attending to the Torah in search of life.
It is the sixth hour when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. It is the hour of prayer, and at this time the woman asks Jesus for the living water that leads to eternal life. The sixth hour does not point to itself as being important but points to prayer as the means of receiving the gift of God from Jesus.
16. He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
She goes and comes back. When she comes back it’s with the people of the town. There appears to be an abrupt deviation from speaking about living water to “go and get your husband.” No, it is still a continuation in a discussion of the Torah, and the gift of God.
17. “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.
18. The 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.”
She has no husband and yet she has had five husbands. The five husbands that Jesus is referring to are the five books of Moses, the Torah. From the perspective of a Jew a woman should not study the Torah. Such behaviour from a woman is like being an adulteress, and in this case five times over, one for every book of Moses. However, from the perspective of an Israelite Samaritan where women are taught the Torah, then the Samaritan woman has been a faithful scholar of the Torah. From her own need to quench the thirst of her soul and to find love and acceptance from God she became a faithful adherent to the Torah. It was her main source of comfort even if it was inadequate, perhaps like a failing husband.
Many of the Israelite Samaritans only considered the five books of Moses as the authoritative word of God. Some also turned to the book of Joshua as a further source of help and guidance from God. Others would have seen that as flirting with a stranger. Therefore, when Jesus said, “and the man you now have is not your husband” it is possible that the Samaritan woman may have at times turned to the book of Joshua for help and guidance from God.
The Samaritan woman has spoken to Jesus in a spirit of respect and humility, and now Jesus commends her openness in speech, her spirit of truth. She is a true product of the Torah. She can be viewed in the same light as the Good Samaritan in a parable told by Jesus (Luke 10: 25-37). Although the Word of God through the Torah has made her an exceptional person, still her soul thirsts for enough living water.
The role of the Samaritan woman in the community finds its equal in Nicodemus of Jerusalem. She is a scholar of the Torah and a respected leader in her community. He also is a scholar of the Torah and a leader of the Jewish council. There the similarities end. Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus under the cover of darkness (John 3: 1-18). The Samaritan woman speaks with Jesus in the light of mid-day and in a public place. He speaks to Jesus using sly questions to find out his intentions of establishing a new kingdom in Jerusalem. She speaks openly about the waters for eternal life. The last verse in Jesus’ dialogue to Nicodemus puts a favourable light upon the Samaritan woman. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3: 21).
19. “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.
An Old Testament prophet was someone sent by God to proclaim the word of God in order to bring a people back onto the path to God. The Samaritan woman saw in Jesus, a prophet, a man with the intent on restoring a people to God.
20. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
The Samaritan woman still maintains some suspicion about Jesus. She suspects that Jesus is enticing her to come and worship at the Temple in Jerusalem as a means to being restored with God. As they speak, the ruins of the temple for the Israelite Samaritans would have been visible at nearby Mt. Gerizim. She points out the division between the Jews and the Israelite Samaritans, where the main cause has been the place of worship as the means to God. She summons the witness of the patriarchs in support of her claim for Mt. Gerizim as the true place of worship. She says this against the claim made by the Jews, the mighty and powerful House of Judah who say that Mt. Zion in Jerusalem is the rightful place of worship.
21. Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
22. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.
24. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
In this instance, the use of the word time would be better translated from the Greek hora as hour. In John’s Gospel the word hour is a signal word which points to the glorification of Jesus and to the building of the kingdom of God. It is a word that signals to the reader that something significant is about to happen.
Jesus says something amazing to the woman. Jesus says that no longer will God be worshipped on Mt. Gerizim, or Mt Zion in Jerusalem. It means that no longer will sacrifice be given to God from this altar or that altar in Jerusalem. It means that all the religious and cultural practices performed at the temple will be made redundant, together with the priesthood who presided over them. Much of the Torah that prescribed the ritual and cultural practices at the Temple will also be made redundant. At the time of John writing his Gospel, the Temple at Jerusalem lay in ruins as did the temple at Mt. Gerizim. With both the temples laying in ruins the main cause of division between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, between the Israelite Samaritans and the Jews has been demolished. The Torah and the Temple had provided the necessary means for a person to reconcile themselves with God, and to continue to receive His blessing. But they have failed and lie in ruins.
Jesus offers an alternative, a new and better way to worship God. Jesus gives the gift of God, the gift of the Spirit to dwell in the person. The gift is given to all who ask for it. It means that the Spirit of God descends from heaven to dwell in the person as the living Torah, the living Word of God. In this relationship the Spirit works to bring healing in the person and to produce the gifts of the Spirit. The Spirit works in a person to produces faith, hope, joy, peace, and love. As it was in the former Temple, the person would respond to God’s goodness with praise and thanksgiving. Through the working of the Spirit the person would endeavour to live a life imitating Jesus, a life of giving of one’s self for the benefit of others. To worship God in spirit and truth is to be like Jesus.
Jesus said to the woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know;” is similar to what Jesus said to Nicodemus who is also a scholar of the Torah (John 3: 10, 11). Both the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus have studied the Torah and became two different products of it. They both have missed the message of the Torah in different ways. It is not a matter of fulfilling ritual and being rigorous in one’s duty in order to please God, but to worship God in spirit and truth as the Torah implied. Jesus is the embodiment of all that the Torah implied. On another occasion, Jesus replied to the Jews who persecuted him and said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5: 46). Jesus was saying to the Jews, had they ‘listened’ to Moses and discovered his intent behind the words they would have seen the Spirit of God and how it is now manifested in Jesus. Jesus continued to say to the woman, “for salvation is from the Jews,” referring to himself as the means of salvation, the giver of the gift of God.
25. The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
The Jews and the Israelite Samaritans both had expectations of a Messiah who was to come at the end times. The Jews believed that the Messiah would: oust foreign invaders, rule from Jerusalem on God’s behave, restore Israel to its former glory, restore true worship at the Temple, and all the people of the world would come to Jerusalem to worship God. The Israelite Samaritans had a similar vision with the difference being that their Messiah would do it all form Mt. Gerizim. The Samaritan woman expected also that the Messiah in the process of restoration would explain the mind of God and the hardships they endured as his people.
26. Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
From the beginning of their meeting at the well, Jesus has revealed himself as something more than a man, a beggar, a Jew, he revealed his nature as the Son of Man. The Samaritan woman had perceived something extraordinary about the ‘beggar’ Jew sitting before her at the well. Throughout their meeting and conversation Jesus had shaken and challenged her faith in the Torah, and presented himself as a possible alternative to the Torah that she knew and lived.
Now, Jesus declares that he is the expected Messiah. But he is not the Messiah of her expectations. Jesus came to the woman as a ‘beggar’ Jew and now declares that he is the Messiah. Jesus is like the Torah in the sense that the Jews and the Israelite Samaritans see only the letter of the Law and do not perceive the Spirit of the Law that reveals the true meaning of the Torah and the nature of God. Jesus like the Torah has an outward physical appearance. Jesus has the appearance of a man, a beggar, and a Jew. But he is more than that; he is the Son of God, full of the Spirit and the nature of God.
27. Just 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?”
The disciples had returned from buying food at the nearby town. They came back to see Jesus, their teacher and leader had crossed cultural, and religious boundaries to talk to a Samaritan woman. No one approached the woman nor Jesus to find out what was happening between them. They were silent.
The disciples were familiar with the Torah as they were with the other teachings of the Jews. From their mix of cultural and religious teachings they also shared in the prejudice of their culture towards the Samaritan woman and were therefore surprised to find Jesus speaking to her. In a surprise to them, Jesus, the Spirit of the Torah speaks with the woman and ‘embraces’ her as a disciple.
The Torah in spirit was meant to sustain the nation of Israel as a holy nation to witness to the neighbouring nations the goodness of God. Through their witness, Israel was to draw all people into the worship of the one true God. Jesus is fulfilling the true role of the Torah by drawing the woman into the true worship of the Father in spirit and in truth. The grace that Jesus had given the woman has silenced the disciples as they recognised their own failings.
28. Then, 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?”
30. They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
With the arrival of the disciples, it gave an interval for the Samaritan woman while the disciples engaged with Jesus. She left inspired by Jesus, endowed with the Spirit to convey her experience and the words of Jesus to the people of her town. She left her water jar behind. She had no need of it. The Samaritan woman came to the well to satisfy her thirst from the well, and left instead filled with the living water that Jesus gave her.
In the original Greek text, the woman’s question to the towns people is asked in a way to solicit a ‘no’ answer. Although she has the gift of the Spirit from Jesus, still there are some nagging doubts whether Jesus is too good to be true. Or perhaps she struggles still to let go of her life in the Torah and to accept the new man at the well and what he offers. The Samaritan woman is a scholar of the Torah, a respected leader in her community, and the people listen to her. They follow her to meet with Jesus.
31. Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
Beyond the judgemental eyes of the disciples the woman is strengthened with the gift of God to return to Jesus. The word ‘meanwhile’ expresses the idea of an interval before resuming the concluding episode between Jesus and the woman.
The disciples urge Jesus to eat something in an endeavour to remedy what appeared to them as strange behaviour caused possibly from fatigue and hunger.
32. But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33. Then 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.
The disciples continue in doubt and ignorance of the drama being played out before them. Both Jesus and the woman have abandoned their material urges for now. Jesus no longer needed the bread from the hand of the disciples, nor the woman the water from the well. They both shared in the same gift of God that sustained them. Through the Spirit of God they were working to do the will of God who sent them which is more than food and water. As Jesus has gone out from the Father to bring salvation to all people so the Samaritan woman in turn has gone out from Jesus as a disciple to tell the people of her town that the Messiah is here at the well.
35. Do 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.
36. Even 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.
37. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.
38. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”
During the interval, Jesus deals with the puzzled looks upon the faces of the disciples. Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to help explain what has occurred between himself and the woman. More than likely, Jesus uses this agricultural metaphor because it is appropriate for the setting. Imagine, Jesus looking upon the ripe fields and seeing in the midst of them the Samaritan woman leading the town’s people to him. Indeed, they are the harvest.
Jesus tells the disciples, “even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life.” Jesus is the one who harvests the crop for eternal life. He tells them, “even now” he is doing the work of the Father who sent him to finish his work. When the crop for eternal life has been brought in then his work is finished. The ‘crop’ that is in the field is not one that appears to be ripe. It is a crop in need of the living water. Its very need makes it ripe for Jesus.
The Father in heaven is the one who sows the seed and Jesus is the one sent by him to harvest and finish his work. God, together with the Samaritan woman sow the field. She is a servant of God and has worked hard to sow and tend the field until the time of harvest. The Samaritan woman through the Torah has tended to the people in her town, preparing them for the harvest, preparing them for Jesus.
The saying, ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true in the agricultural sense as it is also true in a theological sense. The harvest is a partnership between the sower and the one who brings in the harvest. God chooses people to help him sow the field. He also sends out people to bring in the harvest. God’s work can be found in unexpected places and performed by people one would least expect.
Before the Samaritan woman arrives with the people of the town, Jesus reminds his disciples as fellow harvesters that what they are about to receive has been the labour of others. Through the agricultural metaphor, Jesus has presented the Samaritan woman to his disciples as a co-worker in the service of God. Therefore, as Jesus has treated the woman with full respect as a disciple of his so should the disciples do likewise.
39. Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”
40. So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.
41. And because of his words many more became believers.
42. They 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 Saviour of the world.”
The disciples of Jesus as harvesters are indeed enjoying the hospitality of the town because of the labours of the woman. The people of the town held the woman in high regard. They respected her scholarship in the Torah, they listened to her, they followed her, and many believed in Jesus because of her word.
Jesus and his disciples stayed in the town for two days eating and drinking with the Samaritans. The two days is also symbolic of the new unity established between Jew and Samaritan. It is a unity that is possible only in Jesus. In this town, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah sat down together at table with Jesus.
While they were there many more believed in Jesus because of his words. The Samaritan woman had taught the Torah and had given guidance from it as the word of God. Now, the people of the town have moved on from hearing the words of the Torah from the woman to the words of Jesus who is the living Spirit of the Torah in their midst. Jesus is the one who gives the living water to eternal life. Jesus is the New Torah, the Word of God.
The sixth hour anticipates a sacrifice of a kind. From the perspective of Jesus’ followers, and the Jews, Jesus had done something beyond thought and deed. Jesus crossed cultural, religious, and political boundaries to talk with the enemy. It would have been seen by some as an act of treason. Jesus went to Samaria to embrace the people there and to give them the gift of God, the true ‘living water’ that leads to eternal life. Jesus in his holiness descended to embrace a people considered profane and unclean by the Jews. This is similar to the image of a holy God descending heaven to be born in Bethlehem in a stable. God who is holy has descended to embrace a sinful and unclean people on earth for the purpose of salvation and to give them renewed life. The shepherds, the foreigners, and all who witnessed the birth of Jesus rejoiced in the salvation that God has brought about. The crossing of boundaries has brought with it a redefining of holiness. Therefore, the new meaning of holiness lies in sacrifice as seen in Jesus. The nature of holiness is seen in Jesus as one who descends his throne to help others.
For the Samaritan woman there was also a sacrifice of a kind. She was a dedicated scholar of the Torah, a respected leader in her community when one day she was confronted by Jesus. That meeting with Jesus challenged her way of life. Jesus offered himself as the living ‘Torah’, the giver of the gift of God, and a new way of life through him. She struggled to sacrifice her ideals, values, and expectations as set down by the Torah that Moses gave to the people of Israel. She struggled to give up her current way of life for something different that Jesus offers. After leading the townspeople to Jesus, her role as a respected spiritual adviser in the community would have diminished since many of the people turned to Jesus. The people of her community have said to her, “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 Saviour of the world.” (v.42). In a way, the Samaritan woman is like John the Baptist, they were both servants of God, led people to Jesus, and found their role in the community had diminished. John the Baptist in reply to his disciples implored them to follow Jesus and said to them, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3: 30). Despite her doubts and struggles to let go of the past and to follow Jesus, he had given her the gift of God so that it may become in her a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
Through sacrifice, reconciliation has occurred, in a sense between the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom, between the Jews and the Israelite Samaritans. The greater power has come to the lesser. Jesus who is a Jew and a representative of the mighty nation of Judea crosses the border into Samaria to make peace and bring healing. He does not come in pomp and ceremony, but as a beggar. He asks for water and yet he gives the gift of God, the gift of living water to all who ask. Jesus in the spirit of humility gives respect towards the Samaritan woman and to the people of the town who in turn receive and welcome him.
From the resounding words of Pontius Pilate, “Behold your king”, Jesus’ appearance is once more contrary to that of a king. Jesus sits at the well as a ‘beggar’ asking for water from the Samaritan woman. Both meet in a spirit of humility and respect for each other contrary to the expectations of the Jews. Her spirit of humility would have been developed from listening to the Word of God as she studied the Torah. It is this spirit of humility developed by God that allowed her to see in the ‘beggar’ before her, a prophet and a servant of God. Through the working of the same Spirit every person that comes before us should be treated with respect having the possibility of being a servant of God sent to us. It should also be considered that every beggar’s hand that reaches out may also be offering a gift from God. Jesus saw in the Samaritan woman a servant of God who had sowed the seeds of the Word of God within her community. Like his own disciples the Samaritan woman was also a disciple of the Word of God.
At the time of writing the Gospel, the Temple at Jerusalem lay in ruins, a sacrifice paid for the rebellion of the independence movement in Judea against the occupying Romans forces. Unfortunately, the Christians were misunderstood by some and wrongly sited by others as being part of the rebellion against Rome. Therefore, they were persecuted by both the Romans and the Jews.
John’s story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman helped all those who were being persecuted, and for all those in need of a new hope for the future. Jesus blazed a new trail for escape. Jesus became the new hope for all who were being tormented by their neighbour or by the loss of the Temple and all it meant in their life. Jesus set the way and set the example. Through his example, Jesus has shown that it is acceptable to God to flee into foreign lands, to seek help from them in a spirit of humility, to treat them with respect as a fellow servant of God, to give them a gift of appreciation, that is, the gift of God.
It is the gift of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit that can help sustain a person no matter where they are or what hardships they endure. The Spirit works to release a person from fear. It is the Spirit that works in a person’s life to change it to bring about a life of faith, peace, joy, hope, and love. The Spirit unites people in a new community with a common focus on God through Jesus. Although there are many differences in the community, the community is sustained through their common worship of Jesus who has become the new Torah for all people. He is the source of new life and the source through which God is worshipped. His life of sacrifice for the betterment of others has set new values of life for others to follow. Jesus has become the new Torah in which life is given. The final verse is a confession of faith from the people of the town saying, “We know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (v.42).
The text teaches that there is no longer a Temple, they have been destroyed. The text neither points to Jesus as the new Temple nor any other place of worship. In fact, it vanquishes the idea of temple as a place and means of worship. However, the text does point to Jesus as the new ‘well’, the new Torah, the living Word of God. People who have received the Spirit have received the living Word of God. They therefore worship God not by means of a place but rather through the Spirit and in truth. It means that they worship God through a transformed life, a life like Jesus, one of sacrifice for the betterment of others. Therefore, as Christians come together to worship God, they come together in Spirit and in truth. The worship takes on a practice of helping each other, and partaking in the Word of God.
The temples have been destroyed since they are longer required. Their destruction could easily been seen by many Jews and the Christians in John’s community as the wrath and judgement of God upon the people. That would have led to guilt and despair in the community. Once more, it is not what they had thought or learnt from past experiences. God’s wrath and judgement was not expressed in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing away of an old institution made of stone enabled the grace of God to be seen. With the building levelled Jesus towers as the grace of God. Judgement has passed away and grace remains. In the midst of perceived ‘judgement’ God has sent Jesus to give salvation to all people, such is the grace of God.
The story of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman is a good example of how Jesus brings healing between nations, within families, and for individuals who are seeking peace in their life. Jesus gives the gift of God. He gives to all who ask for the gift. He freely gives the Holy Spirit for the purpose of peace and salvation.
Concluding Text of John 4
43. After the two days he left for Galilee.
44. (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country.)
45. When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.
46. Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.
47. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
48. “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
49. The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
50. Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.
52. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”
53. Then the father realised that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.
54. This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.
Chapter 4 concludes with another salvation story, but this one is set once more in Cana in Galilee. In part, this story is in contrast to the previous salvation story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well. The contrast gives emphasis to the faithfulness of the Israelite Samaritans. They honoured Jesus because they believed in the word of Jesus.
The people of Galilee also welcomed Jesus into their midst. The reason for their joy was because they had seen Jesus perform miraculous signs elsewhere, and now he was amongst them. Many people believed in him because of the miraculous signs he had done. They believed that he was the Messiah according to their traditional belief, and they did not realise that Jesus was on a different path to bring about salvation. Despite their unbelief in his word, Jesus gave them miraculous signs so that they could begin to believe in him. The miraculous signs pointed to Jesus as someone special and worthy to listen to his word. The words of Jesus are the words of God and through listening to them a person can discover the full grace of God. The gift of God that is, the Holy Spirit is given through Jesus, and can now reside in a person like a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Therefore, listening to the word of Jesus is far more valuable than a miraculous sign which only points to Jesus. In contrast, Jesus did not perform a miraculous sign amongst the Samaritans there was no need. They listened and believed in his word. Through their belief in Jesus they have truly honoured him. John, the Gospel writer continued in this concluding text to uphold once more the Israelite Samaritans as a worthy and faithful people in Jesus.