June/July 2013 - Vol. 68

The Woman at the Well

A life-changing encounter with Jesus 

by Don Schwager

The rescue mission
Jesus was on a rescue mission – not only for the Jews, but for the whole world as well. He came to set people free from sin, Satan, and death and bring them God's kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy. Jesus' public ministry was centered mainly in Galilee and in Jerusalem. He rarely left the physical borders of Israel. But on one occasion early on in his ministry he decided to cross through Samaria, a land which divided Galilee in the far north from Jerusalem and the region of Judaea in the south. 

The Jews for the most part avoided traveling through Samaria. They had been at enmity with the Samaritans for more than 400 hundred years. They despised the Samaritans as an unpure and mixed breed who had inter-married with foreigners. And they avoided contact with them because they were considered unclean. While the Samaritans followed the law of Moses – the first five books of the Old Testament, and kept many of the Jewish practices, the Jews, nonetheless, regarded them as enemies and heretics. 

arid mountaneous terrain and dry river-bed in Samaria

Jacob's well in Samaria
John in his Gospel account states unequivocally that “Jesus had to pass through” this region (John 4:4). Why did Jesus feel compelled to travel through enemy territory? As John’s account of Jesus trip through Samaria unfolds, we begin to see that Jesus had a very particular mission he wanted to accomplish there. John tells us that Jesus chose to stop at Jacob’s well, a place of great religious significance both for the Jews and for the Samaritans:

 [Jesus] left Judea and departed again to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. 
– John 4::4-6
Jacob is a very important figure for the Jews. He is one of the three great patriarchs – beginning with Abraham, the father of faith, and Isaac his son, who in turn is the father of Jacob. Jacob holds a special place of remembrance for the Samaritans because he had settled there and purchased a plot of land a half-mile from the town of Sychar (Genesis 33:18-19). Jacob dug a well there for his family and flocks.

Jacob's favorite son was Joseph. After Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold as a slave into Egypt, God raised him up as Pharoah’s chief steward. During a time of great famine which lasted for seven years, Joseph saved his family from death and brought his father Jacob to live with him in Egypt. Jacob on his deathbed bequeathed this well to Joseph (Genesis 48:22). After Joseph had died in Egypt, his body was transported back to Samaria and buried close to the well (Joshua 24:32). The Samaritans claim Jacob as their father and trace their ancestors to Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.

Jesus recognized Jacob as one of his forefathers in the flesh, and he also understood that his own mission was to fulfill the covenant promises which God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus now comes to Jacob's well, not simply to rest but to bring revelation of the good news of salvation to the people of Samaria. 

Beaking down barriers
When Jesus and his disciples reached Jacob’s well, Jesus sent them on ahead to buy food in the nearby town of Sychar. Jesus remained alone at the well. When a Samaritan woman shows up, she was surprised to see a Jewish man sitting next to the well in the harsh midday sun. Why was he alone, without any travel bag, food, or water jug for his journey? Shouldn't he have known that the next town was only a half-mile away where he could find shelter and cool refreshment?

As she approached the well and began to draw water with her rope and bucket, Jesus greeted her and began to converse with her at length. According to the customs of the time, it was improper and even scandalous for a man to be seen with a woman in a public place. A proper woman would flee if a man who wasn’t her husband tried to approach her in public. Rabbis were especially careful to avoid contact with women in public. So this encounter was all the more extraordinary in that Jesus deliberately sought to speak with this woman and treat her with special consideration as if she were one of his close friends.

Of all the people Jesus could have chosen to single out for a personal encounter that day, why did he choose to speak with a Samaritan woman? Wouldn’t it have been more advantageous for him to speak with one of the leading Samaritans – one of their elders, scribes, or teachers? What business could Jesus have with a woman who had never met him or heard of him before? 

Another unusual twist to this story is that the woman choose to come out to this remote well which was at least a half-mile away from her village. And she picked the hottest time of day to travel – at midday (noon time) when the sun was most intense. It certainly would have been more convenient for her to draw water from the town well inside the village of Sychar where she lived. Women usually drew water during the cooler morning time or nearer to the evening when the sun was setting. It is very likely that this woman chose to come to this remote well in the middle of the day because she had been shunned by the other women in her own village and driven away from their company due to her loose living and scandalous reputation. 

The living-water
As we follow the story recorded in chapter 4 of John's Gospel, it doesn't take long to discover the real motive and reason for Jesus' conversation with a woman of bad repute. The short dialogue which John records between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is most likely a brief condensed summary of the key points of their conversation.  Let’s examine the flow of the conversation as John relays it.

Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food).

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. 

 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.” 

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks 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.” 

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.”

– John 4:7-15 (NIV translation) 

Thirsting for God
We can see from the conversation that the woman is at first intrigued with Jesus. He’s a weary traveler who is alone and helpless to draw water from the deep well since he had not brought with him any rope and utensil for drawing, drinking, and storing water for later use. Jesus is also breaking a social and religious barrier – Jews refused to have any dealings with Samaritans. Jesus does the unthinkable – he offers her friendship. 

Then Jesus makes her an offer that she simply cannot comprehend. She takes him quite literally when he states that he could give her living water that will quench her thirst forever. All that she can think of is, "Where in this remote and arid land could this Jewish man possibly find a flowing spring of fresh cool water that can satisfy my thirst today, tomorrow, and forever? He must be crazy or he doesn't know what he is talking about." 

When Jesus used the expression "living water" he was referring to something which only God could supply. The Scriptures often spoke of water figuratively as an image of the soul thirsting for God.

As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. 
 – Psalm 42:1,2
You give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life. 
 – Psalm 36:8,9
The Jews understood that in every human heart there is a thirst which only God can satisfy. God is the true living fountain who can quence our thirst forever. Isaiah prophesied that the chosen people would draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3). Jesus states a Messianic claim that he can give the true "living water" that will not only satisfy our thirst for God but give us eternal life as well. 

Facing the truth
After Jesus speaks about the "living-water," he now speaks very directly to her in a very personal manner to bring her to her own senses. Jesus reveals that he knows everything about her – even her secret sins, failings, loose living, and total inadequacy. She is suddenly compelled to face up to herself.

Jesus told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 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.”
– John 4:16-18
Her immediate response, however, is to evade Jesus' inward gaze at her heart and soul. She tries to steer the conversation to another topic – to one of the major religious issues between the Jews and the Samaritans – where the true worship of God should be conducted. The Samaritans had built their temple on Mount Gerazim, while the Jews held that the true temple was on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. 
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
                                                                    – John 4:19-20 
Worship in Spirit and truth
Jesus' explains that God intended for the earthly temple to be a type or pattern of the heavenly temple which is spiritual – not made by human hands, but made by the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. God's purpose, which he accomplishes through his Son Jesus, is the building up of a spiritual temple – God the Father dwelling with his people, through his Son Jesus, in and through the work of his Holy Spirit. Jesus the Savior is the one who reconciles us to God and who enables us to freely come into the Father's presence to worship him "in the Spirit and in truth."
Jesus replied, “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
                                                      – John 4:21-24 
The Messiah is here
As Jesus speaks God's truth to the Samaritan woman, he awakens the dormant faith and longing in her heart for God's promises to be fulfilled. She now begins to see more clearly with "eyes of faith" and spiritual vision. And she now confesses that she believes the Messiah will come and reveal God's kingdom. Then Jesus opens the "eyes of her heart" to recognize that he truly is the Messiah and Savior of the world who has come to save her and all who would believe in him. 
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” 
 – John 4:25-26 
Sharing the good news
When the disciples returned to Jacob's well with their supplies for the journey, they were surprised to find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman. John tells us that the woman left her water jar at the well and immediately returned to Sychar. She was so excited that she didn't think to carry her water supply back to her home. 

She returned to her village a changed person full of joy, forgivness, and wonderment at what Jesus had done for her. It did not take long for more barriers to fall down. As soon as she arrived in town she told everyone she could meet what had happend to her at Jacob's well. Her joyful testimony of what Jesus had said and done for her left a deep impression on everyone. Could this man, named Jesus, really be the promised Messiah? They had to go and find out for themselves. So the whole crowd went out to the well to meet Jesus and to hear his message of the "living water" and the coming of God's kingdom.They, too, believed in Jesus and begged him to stay in their village.

John tells us that Jesus and his disciples spent two days at Sychar talking to all the people there. The villagers believed in Jesus and openly testified that this man really is the Savior of the world.

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?”

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 
They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 
So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. 

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 Savior of the world.”

                                                             – John 4:27-42 
The joy of salvation
The Lord Jesus offers each one of us the "living water" of his Holy Spirit so that we may receive new life in him and never thirst again. He brings the revelation of God's truth to each one of us, and he brings the revelation of our own personal weaknesses, failings, and inadequacy to us so that we may draw near to him to receive his abundant mercy, healing, and transforming power to live as sons and daughters of the living God. Through the gift of the Spirit he also gives us boldness and confidence to share the good news of salvation to our neighbors, families, friends, and people we meet along the way. May the Holy Spirit fill each one of us with the joy of salvation and the boldness to tell our neighbors what God has done for us and what he offers them as well. 

Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.| Photo credits: lds.org |
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