The Son of God was not afraid to place Himself in a racist and sexist situation. By meeting with the woman at the well of Sychar, He created an opportunity to demonstrate the total absence of ethnic or gender bias on His part. The conversation that ensued reveals the ability of Jesus to search hearts. In order to understand the full significance of His communication with the Samaritan woman, one must first explore her ethnic background.
When Israel’s king Hosea pledged his allegiance to Egypt, Samaria was surrounded by the forces of Shalmaneser and subdued in 721 BC. After most of the Jews were carried off to Assyria, foreigners from surrounding territories settled in the area. As they and their descendants intermarried with the remaining Israelites, the mixed population became known as Samaritans. “Considering them to be half-breeds, the Jews also distained the Samaritans.”
But ethnic bias was not the only reason the Jews hated them. Jealous Samaritans not only refused to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after their Assyrian captivity, but pro-actively antagonized the Jews as they worked (Ezra 4: 1-4; Nehemiah 4:1-2). During the intertestamental period, the Samaritans’ rejection of the Jews was demonstrated by building their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. The interview between Jesus and this woman reflects the animosity between Jews and Samaritans concerning the rightful place for the worship of Jehovah.
Although destroyed by the Maccabeans in 128 BC, the Samaritans continued to worship on the summit of the hill where this edifice once stood. This explains the woman’s comment in 4:20 concerning ancestral worship.
The fires of anti-Semitism still smoldered and was proven by the discourtesy displayed when Jesus attempted to pass through a Samaritan village on His way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-55). His disciples did not hesitate to suggest calling down fire from heaven upon them (v. 55). At a later point in His ministry, the Jews insulted Jesus by accusing Him of being a demon-possessed Samaritan (John 8:48).Understanding the hostilities, Jesus gave the disciples strict orders to avoid Samaritan cities in their travels (Matt. 10:5-7). But Jesus had a more important reason for wanting to take the shorter route to Jerusalem through Samaria instead of the route traditionally taken by the Jews along the Jordan River. Knowing this woman must be ministered to privately, He sent His disciples away on a pragmatic errand (v. 8). Men should bear in mind that Jesus never embarrassed women, either publicly or privately.
To avoid the midday heat, women usually came early or late to a well to draw water. While no Jewish Rabbi of that era would speak with a woman in public, Jesus does not shy from asking here for a drink (v. 7). If one wished to gain access to the heart of another in that era, one way was to ask for a favor. By his dress and by his speech, it was clear that He was Jewish. She seems surprised at His request, because Jews have few conversations with Samaritans (v. 9). By stating that the Jews do not have (joint-use) friendly dealings (sunchraomai) with the Samaritans, she refers to centuries of tribal rivalry.
Even a simple passing comment from a Jew to a Gentile may be uncustomary, but to prolong a public conversation with a female Samaritan would be inappropriate. Her flippant response confirms the Jewish/Samaritan tensions. His comment seems to amaze her, because He had no vessel with which to draw water. His strange comments and empty hands caused her to inquire how He could obtain such water (v. 11).
Jesus expands upon His initial comment (v. 10). The water that He will provide will make it unnecessary for a person to seek satisfaction elsewhere. True spiritual communication begins to take place when people begin to believe that Jesus can provide what He claims.
From the onset of the conversation He initiates, He indicates that spiritual ignorance will never satisfy our thirst (v. 13). Knowing she had a thirst that only He could quench, her desire for a more comprehensive knowledge of Him caused her to petition Him (v. 14). Asking implies the desire for verbal exchange, a foundational principle of communication with God.
In his introductory remark, Jesus had asked her for water. When she hears of the water He offers, her egocentric response indicates she is not thinking along a spiritual plane, but rather in terms of avoiding this mundane daily task (v. 15). As the conversation begins to develop, there is further inquiry. Earlier, she asked if His influence exceeded that of Jacob, but now considers Him to be hold a prophetic office (v. 12 & 19). Her unconnected comments seem to indicate she is searching for purity of worship (vv. 21-24).
Asking for a drink of water eventuated in the opportunity to call attention to her moral condition. Leaving the abstract concept of living water, Jesus immediately turns to the pragmatic topic of matrimony (vv. 16-18). Jesus considered the subject a serious one. Although she is now living in immorality, Jesus mentions her past relationships with no hint of condemnation. While it may be argued that her previous husbands may have died of natural causes, her current common-law lifestyle has led many to assume these marriages ended in divorce. His comment that she had been married on five previous occasions is a statement of fact, while stating that the man she was now living with was not married to her is accusative. He exposed her moral condition only to expose her need. Jesus knew that her body must become a cleansed vessel in order to hold the living water of which she could not partake while in an adulterous relationship.
She confessed what Jesus knew was true about her (v. 19). By recognizing His prophetic gift, perhaps she suspected He could fathom other mysteries as well. While she acknowledged His prophetic gift, she uses His comment to change the subject of immorality to that of worship (v. 19). Her hunger for spiritual things did not deter her from bringing up the tribal feud concerning the proper location for worship. After crossing the Jordan River, six tribes stood at the foot of Mt. Gerizim to bless Israel (Deut. 27:12). The Samaritans came to interpret this as meaning that this mountain was ordained by God as a permanent place of worship.
Using a common term of respect for her gender (gyne), Jesus asks the woman to believe what He his communicating to her (v. 21). He refuses to be drawn into a religious debate concerning the acceptable location for worship. Since God is a Spirit, He is not confined to mountains or temples. Ten times in this passage the term worship (proskyneo) is used. Jesus knows that worship is the key issue in any nation. Having mentioned her past and current moral condition, He seems to indicate that true worship is impossible while living a moral lie. Unbiased in His conversations throughout the Gospels with people of all ethnicities, Jesus straightforwardly points out that the God’s covenant with Abraham was with the Jewish race. Her knowledge concerning worship was incomplete, for God’s plan of salvation originated with full-blooded Hebrews.
The common hope that both Israelites and Samaritans share prompts her to inquire further. For the first time in His ministry, Jesus reveals His Messiahship to an individual. Because Christ’s ministry is global, it is significant that it is a woman of another ethnicity. It was not to the haughty religious leaders who demanded that He declare publicly His divine office (John 10:24), but privately to a single woman. She stated that she knew that the Messiah was soon to arrive. Jesus stated that He has arrived already (vv. 25-26).
When the disciples returned, they are amazed He had been conversing with her (v. 27). What may have surprised them more was that He would consider drinking from her vessel. “According to Pharisaic interpretations of the laws of purity, Jews and Samaritans were not allowed to use drinking vessels together” (Exposition of the Gospel of John, New Testament Commentary. William Hendrickson, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953, p. 161.)
She told the men that Jesus told her “all”(pas) things that I ever did” (v. 29). Though Jesus had only briefly mentioned her five husbands, the woman seems to feel that her entire life could be summarized by her previous moral relationships. Her association with men could not be changed until her nature was changed. To this woman, He communicated that a proper relationship to God must precede proper relationships with men. She discovered that only intense fellowship with God can satisfy a soul thirsty for true worship. The water that she could offer can be compared to her earthly relationships and His living water to a heavenly relationship. It was Jesus’ physical thirst and her spiritual thirst that brought them together. She did not know the path to Jacob’s well that day would put her on the path to the Kingdom of God.
It is essential that individuals have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The men of the village later testified that they believed, not because of the woman’s testimony, but because they had heard Him personally (vv. 39-42). Perhaps the woman of Samaria represents any woman who believes that a relationship with a man can bring lasting satisfaction. Clinging to that belief, human beings will be thirsty still. He only unveiled her past to reveal her future. She did not wash His feet with her tears. She poured on Him no precious ointment. She was not physically healed. But she did receive the incentive to witness regarding the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
COME SEE THIS SEVENTH MAN!
The Stranger at the well has no vessel
With which to draw water,
Yet He speaks to me of a living stream
As if I am His daughter.
I talk of ancestral worship
Which occurs on the side of a mountain;
But He opens my eyes
And reveals an eternal fountain.
He is a Jewish man and unknown to me,
Yet He describes the state of my life.
He knows I am living in sin with a man
And five times I have been a wife.
Come see this seventh Man!
Taste of the water He alone can give!
From His heart pours a flood of compassion!
Drink of His water – and live!
– by Dr. John Knoles