Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman
1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
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.)
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.)
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."
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?"
13 Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to 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."
On a recent trip to South Africa, I had the privilege of speaking to a group from a wonderful church in the city of Port Elizabeth. As I was speaking to this group, I began to talk to them of a biblical passage from 2 Kings 5 in which Naaman asks the prophet Elisha for earth that he can take back to home homeland so that, in his mind, he can properly worship the God of the Jews on His own land. In describing this event, however, I didn't use the term "earth." I used a term that was quite common to Americans for earth, which is "dirt." "Dirt" has always meant "soil" in my mind, and I didn't even give it a second thought. It was only later that I found out that in South Africa, "dirt" means "garbage" or "rubbish." In their culture, I was teaching an amusing lesson about a man healed of leprosy that was requesting that God's prophet give him two donkey loads of garbage to take with him. Lucky thing for me, these people were more intelligent and culturally aware than I was, and either already knew or figured out how Americans use this word. It can lead to great misunderstanding, though, if you are speaking of one thing, and your listeners are hearing something totally different.
John describes this phenomena as a constant problem throughout Jesus' ministry. There is a constant misunderstanding, as we saw in chapter 3 with Nicodemus, as Jesus speaks of heavenly things, things from God's reality, while Nicodemus can only seem to comprehend things from an earthly perspective. In a sense, it is like people speaking two different languages, but in reality it can lead to even more confusion. At least when people speak different languages they know they are different. When people use the same words but mean quite different things by them, it can lead to real confusion because you assume you know what the other person is saying, when the reality is that your missing the point altogether. As John begins his lengthy description of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes obvious that they are having one of those conversations. Jesus speaks of heavenly things, but she hears an earthly conversation, at least for a while. She is certainly still earthly focused and as in the darkness as anyone else, but perhaps John wants us to see the symbolism in the fact that Nicodemus came in the dark and remained there but this woman will encounter Jesus at high noon, when the light is at its brightest.
Just as surely as we can misunderstand individual words because of culture differences, so we can easily miss the depth or meaning of an entire story because we simply don't understand the culture in which the story takes place. So it is with the account that John gives of Jesus and the woman at this well in Sychar. There are several important cultural things taking place under the surface of this story that are easy to miss. This encounter might not seem that significant to us, but in Jesus' day and culture, it should have never happened for many reasons. First of all, Jews did not care for or generally speak to Samaritans, to the point that they usually would take a longer route on a journey to avoid going into Samaria. Second, Jewish men generally did not speak to women in public, especially women alone, and even more especially to women at wells (because Isaac and Jacob met their wives at wells, they became somewhat of a pick-up spot in Jewish tradition). Third, it would have been highly unusual for this woman to be there at this time of day, about noon. Women avoided the hot times of day and would go to the well in groups in the early morning or evening. That she was there by herself in the middle of the day, indicates that she was not well thought of in her society and was likely trying to avoid people. Thus, in its cultural context, we see that this scene is shocking on many levels. Nonetheless it happened.
As Jesus is traveling through Samaria, he and his disciples stop off to get some food, showing that Jesus and his disciples are a bit more open than most Jews would have been, as most Jews would not even eat food that had been handled by Samaritans. As Jesus sits down at the well for a rest, he sees this forlorn Samaritan women approaching for water. What she does not know is that she is about to have an encounter with the living water that will quench every thirst she has ever had.
For Jesus to even ask for a drink would have been shocking. Not only because she was a Samaritan women by herself and he was a Jewish man, but also because she knew that Jews felt that even the water jugs of Samaritans were unclean, so for him to ask for a drink was highly unusual. Jews, as John points out for his non-Jewish readers, do not associate with Samaritans for any reason. This simple request for water is the beginning of this two-leveled conversation. Jesus speaks of things that this woman does not comprehend. She thinks they are speaking of regular water, but clearly Jesus is talking of something else. She went to the well looking to not have to encounter anyone else, but she will encounter the Son of God. She thinks she is going to Jacob's well, but she will find Jacob's ladder (1:51), the staircase between heaven and earth.
Jesus asked this woman for a drink of water, and perhaps he genuinely was thirsty after a long day of traveling, but he seems to have mostly used the question as a means to open the conversation to the topic that he really wanted to discuss. He used a topic that he knew she would understand in an earthly manner, specifically so he could turn the conversation to spiritual things. For if she knew who she was talking to, she would hardly be worried about social customs, Jews and Samaritans, and why he would talk to her and ask for a drink. In fact, she would ask him for living water.
Living water in the first century referred to spring water or some other type of water that moved as opposed to stagnant water that was more likely to be no good. So when Jesus refers to living water, she is still thinking in earthly terms. Like Nathanael and Nicodemus, she is doing the best she can, but she simply has no idea with whom she is dealing. How can he draw the living water at the bottom of this one-hundred foot well with a bucket of any kind? Is he trying to sell her on some other source for water other than Jacob's well? As John's readers, privy to more information than she had at the time, we know that he is. She simply cannot see anything beyond the old water that comes from Jacob's well, from the old, traditional way of life. Jesus, though, is offering her true water that quenches the real thirst that humans have. He is the water that all water on earth can only point to. She thought that the reality of life was limited to things of this earth, but Jesus is about to open the reality of heaven and quench the real thirst that she has (cf. Ps. 42:2; 63:1; 143:6; Isa. 55:1; Matt. 5:6). Does this man actually think that he has something superior to the things of life that have been passed down since Jacob? In fact, he does. He doesn't merely know the location of a superior source of living water. He is the living water (7:37-38).
There is something else about this water that is rather unique, though. We drink regular water, it nourishes and refreshes us and then it is gone. Before too long we need more. That is true, really with anything that the world has to offer, whether it be food, water, religions, philosophies, or whatever else it may be. It meets a need for a temporary flash and then its gone and we need more and more in order to be satisfied. This living water is different though. It doesn't just meet a temporary need, says Jesus. Once we partake of this water, it becomes part of us. It will itself begin to bubble up inside of us and be a constant source of renewal and refreshment. Drinking this water doesn't just mean getting a taste of the new creation, or a slice of heaven. It means we become the new creation, we have heaven inside of us. Those who take this water will have welling up inside of them the new life that Jesus is bringing to the entire creation.
This woman wanted something. The very fact that she has come to this well in the middle of the day, trying to avoid everyone, demonstrates that she needed something. She knows her life is lacking. She doesn't know what Jesus is talking about fully but if he knows of a place where she can water and not have to be confronted with the shame of her past and the disapproving stares of others then she wants that desperately. Do you need to go to the living well for something? Have you already gone to the well but know many who haven't yet? The life that comes from the living water found in Jesus is, after all, the only thing that can bring life. It is the only thing that quench the thirst inside each one of us. All we have to do is take a drink.
One things that can be easily missed in this passage, is the statement in verse 4, that Jesus "had to go through Samaria." We are not told why he had to, but the obvious inference would be that he had to in order to fulfill the will of God and follow the leading of the Spirit. This means that Jesus went out of his way, on many levels, to intentionally talk with this woman. Do you follow the leading of the Spirit and intentionally go out of your way to talk to people about spiritual things? Spend some time praying today that God will lead you to people that He would like you to talk to.