samaritan woman and Jesus at the well

A Samaritan Outcast Blossoms Into a Spiritual Princess

Taken from the first chapter in Dr. Greg Harris’ The Stone and the Glory. This has been published with the permission of Dr. Harris and associated parties. © 2015 Dr. Greg Harris

He comes there alone.  Having left Judea, Jesus journeyed north toward Galilee and through the region of Samaria. If you had asked the opinion of many of the day, they would have readily told you that Jesus had unwisely traversed through enemy territory. Samaritans: half-breed bastards who had mingled their sacred Jewish blood with that of their Assyrian conquerors over seven centuries earlier. Later in His ministry, when accosted by His opponents, Jesus received one of the harshest accusations ever made against Him in John 8:48: “Do we not say rightly that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” So great was this Jewish disdain that they attempted to make little distinction between Samaritans and demoniacs. Common custom and Jewish good sense mandated that one must circumvent Samaria when traveling from Judea into Galilee. Although avoiding Samaria made the trip much longer, it was better to have a lengthier walk than to have the accompanying contamination one bore by mere association with the Samaritans. Nonetheless, Jesus entered the region unashamedly. He feared neither public perception nor personal defilement. Although He, too, was weary from His journey, He comes  there under divine mandate—both to receive and to give water.

The account of John 4 indicates that Jesus was sitting alone by the well (John 4:6)—but this was not just any well in the region. Jesus sat at the well. John revealed vital details for understanding much of the conversation that would follow: “So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour” (John 4:5-6). This is the same well that Jacob had given to Joseph back in Genesis 48:22, and this is the context from which Jacob attested to “the God who has been my shepherd all my life” (Gen. 48:15). The well was functional because it supplied water, but beyond that, this was a well of Samaritan history and pride. Although the Jews disdained the Samaritans (and the Samaritans the Jews), the Samaritans were quite proud of their ancestral lineage. This well was their Plymouth Rock; Jacob’s well was their heritage.

Here the Shepherd stations Himself. Jesus sits alone by Jacob’s well of stone, not many yards away from where Jacob had made an altar to Him, naming it “God, the God of Israel.” Here Jesus waits for the lamb who will unexpectedly encounter Him, much in the same way her ancestor Jacob unexpectedly experienced his life-changing encounter with God almost nineteen hundred years earlier.

She comes to the well alone. She is an outcast among a people of outcasts—a Samaritan among Samaritans. Sychar was a very small village about one-half mile north of Jacob’s well. A dirt path worn from centuries of wear led to the well. This woman had walked this path so many times before, almost every time—if not all times—by herself. As she performed her arduous labor, she had no companions with whom to engage in friendly conversations; no discourse with mothers about family affairs or household solutions to everyday matters; no trusted friend to confide deep-heart secrets and hopes.

John noted, “it was about the sixth hour” (John 4:6). If he employed Roman time, the hour was 6:00 P.M. If he used Jewish time, which seems more likely, it was about 12:00 noon. Women usually drew water earlier in the morning or at the end of the day and usually in groups; however, she does not draw water then. She comes during the heat of the day—alone.

She is a whore. A married whore, or at least she had been, but why bother now. Later when Jesus asked her to go get her husband, she replied, “I have no husband.” In the penetrating revelation of the eyes of God, Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly” (John 4:17-18).

Two scenarios are possible. Perhaps each of her five husbands had died. Years later during Passion Week, in tempting Jesus, the Sadducees described a woman who was married seven times, each time the previous husband had died (Matt. 22:25-27). Had the Sadducees heard of this account that would later be recorded in John 4 and purposely used it as the basis for their attempt to prod Jesus? If so, they knew that Jesus could not deny this possibility because He had previously encountered such a woman years before. If this was their thinking, the Sadducees concluded that they would force Jesus to respond. He could neither claim ignorance nor deny the plausibility of such a story.

The second possibility is much more likely: the Samaritan woman had been passed from husband to husband. Under the Law of Moses, and according to the Matthew 22 account, such a widow was to marry the brother of her husband. The Samaritans held to the Pentateuch, which contains this teaching concerning widows (Deut. 25:1-10). But John did not state that she married brothers. If she had been widowed, she could have revealed this detail to Jesus. If she had been widowed, the women probably would have treated her with a degree of respect and sympathy, as Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi was treated in the Book of Ruth, unless they placed some superstition over one associated with so many deaths. Who were these men who had married her? Did some die? Did some abandon her? Did all? Who in this small village would marry a woman who had been married five times already? The types of men she bound herself to were most likely of the basest nature.

We know nothing of her early background. She may have entered into the first marriage at a very young age, perhaps arranged by others for myriad reasons, all usually funneling down to money. This woman may have loved none of her husbands nor they her. Whether the first one died, divorced, or abandoned her, we do not know. What we do know is that four more husbands followed, each sharing one common characteristic: either by choice or by death, they all left her. Receiving kindness, let alone love, was an alien concept to her. With her sixth partner, why marry? What did it mean, anyway, other than a temporary abode before being turned out and picked up by the next “husband” who had no intention whatsoever of a “til death do we part” relationship. Even in the biblical account, unlike so many other characters throughout the Bible, her name is never given. She is simply “a woman of Samaria” or “the woman.” After all, with whose name would she associate herself?

So she comes to the well alone. If she passed other women on the path, they likely would divert their eyes and perhaps especially cover the eyes of their children, choosing to stray off the path so as not to become defiled in her presence. Men of low morals, however, would pay her more much attention, hoping to gain sexual favors from one who had the reputation of so freely giving them. Sychar was a village, not a town. In village life, not many secrets stay hidden long. Her situation, plus whatever else the gossip rounds added in elaborate detail, made her the subject of many conversations that she was not present to hear. Just as well; she would be spoken of either in contempt or in laughing mockery, which, after all, inflicts a far deeper sting of contempt.

And then in the midst of her drudgery she unexpectedly encounters Jesus. She was not looking for Him—not even aware that He existed—yet He purposely sought her. The account in John 4 is so vivid it speaks for itself:

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.

Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?”

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw” (John 4:7-15).

Obviously, two levels of conversation took place: namely, those regarding physical and spiritual water. Each was necessary to life, both physical and spiritual; however, the woman knew only the physical. Note in John 4:12 how the woman referred to her ancestor Jacob and to the well. Jesus understood this and lovingly nudged her to spiritual truths. When the woman asked, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You?” The way she asked, as recorded in the Greek text, indicates that she obviously expected the obvious answer, “No, I am not.” Jesus answered in such a way as to lead her to another conclusion (John 4:16-19):

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.”

The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”

Most people who read the Bible would not consider Jacob to have been a prophet, yet he did prophesy in Genesis 49, speaking to the twelve tribes, “what shall befall you in the future” [or literally in the Hebrew, “the last days” or “end of the days”] (49:1). The woman reached a conclusion after asking, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You?”—“Obviously you must be, at least to a degree, because I have never met you, and yet you tell things about me that no one told you.” Having recognized and designated Jesus as a prophet, the woman turned toward spiritual matters that had long puzzled her. Few would have considered this type of woman as having any interest whatsoever in the things of God. Jesus knew better, which was one reason that He was there. With the woman’s background, she probably would have had no one else to ask. What an Audience God granted her to ask about spiritual matters! This woman had been born into a feudal conflict that had lasted for almost eight hundred years. She wanted to know who was right—Jew or Samaritan:

“Sir I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:19-24).

Jesus disclosed to the woman His teaching that would so infuriate the Jewish officials not long thereafter. Note that the woman directed her questions about where to worship God. The Jews and the Samaritans worshiped the same God of the Old Testament. Her question was not Who, but where, on this mountain, or is Jerusalem the place where people ought to worship? All throughout His ministry, whenever Jesus encountered hearts earnestly seeking the Truth, He kept revealing God’s Word to them—whether to this woman or to Nicodemus in the previous chapter of John 3. Although not denying God’s divine choice of Jerusalem and its irreplaceable importance even in the future return of Messiah, Jesus took the question away from the place and redirected it to the spiritual status of the individual: “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). She asked about the past; Jesus responded about the present and the future. Although divinely important in God’s plan, the place of worship is not the ultimate issue. The essential spiritual qualities and requirements of the true worshiper receive emphasis: spirit (Spirit?) and truth.

Many of Jesus’ adversaries would later respond along the lines of, “I don’t believe you! You are mad! This is our mountain, and I won’t leave it for anyone” If the woman had responded using similar or other reasons that people give for not receiving God’s truth, the story would have ended there. Instead, this little lamb goes deeper with her questions, as she nuzzled closer to the Shepherd without any fear. Twice Jesus had corrected the Samaritan woman on what she did not know. Once He said, “if you knew” (4:10), and then a more generalized, “You [plural—Samaritans] do not know” (4:22). Perhaps to indicate that she did, in fact, know something that is true, the woman said, in effect, “I do know this: Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us” (John 4:25).

John 4:26 records that Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

Actually, in the culture and the setting, Jesus said much more. Literally in the Greek, John 4:26 reads, “I AM (ego eimi—God’s name), the One who is speaking to you.” Later in John 8 the Jews asked the same question that the Samaritan woman asked, but they took it even further: “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham?” (John 8:53). The Greek wording made the expected answer obvious: “Of course not.” Instead, Jesus answered with the same base component that He had used months earlier with the Samaritan woman, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM (ego eimi)” (8:58). The Jews fully understood His statement and considered it brazenly sacrilegious, and they immediately took up stones to stone this blasphemer. But Jesus hid Himself. He had revealed divine Truth; they had rejected it. At this point there was no reason to offer any more. But for the one in John 4 who sought the truth, heard it, and received it unto herself, He offered more—He offered Himself—and she readily received Him. True worshipers—even the spiritual newborns—always worship in spirit and truth.

When we get to heaven we will see the biblical accounts complete with the facial expressions of those present. It would be understandable if Jesus had replied with the radiant smile of the Shepherd who had found the lost sheep, literally in the Greek, “I AM,”—employing His own name of God, —“the One who is speaking to you.” God is speaking to you, right now, just as He did then—even beyond what He had spoken with your father Jacob. In the presence of the one whom He had sought, who became a worshiper of the Father in spirit and truth, Jesus revealed God to the woman—and she would never be the same again throughout eternity.

One more quick aspect to note: John added that the woman left her water pot and went into the city and said to the men (as she possibly had no women to go to), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” (John 4:28-29). In John 1:45 Philip found Nathanael and declared to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael hardly believed this report from his friend, asking with noted sarcasm, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Yet, pagan Samaritans, with only one sentence by an outcast woman, caused men to go immediately and to investigate. Why?

Part of the reason may be that Sychar was such a small village. The sins associated with this woman were never performed alone. Her statement “come see a man who told me all the things I have done” may not have been welcomed news to the assembled men. All the things? “Yes, all the things.” In a village this small, “all the things” may have involved some of the very ones with whom she spoke. Better go and investigate this before the women do. The next line in John reads, “They went out of the city, and were coming to Him” (John 4:30). We will find out in heaven whether in their haste they turned over tables and chairs on the way out to discover exactly how much this One did know.

Jesus had originally asked the woman to, “Give me a drink,” but He never got one. The woman left her water pot as she raced back to the village. Still, Jesus was more than content with the outcome. He actually had given water—and life eternal—to one who needed it much more than He needed physical refreshment.

She would never be an outcast again; she would never be alone. Even in the future as she walked the path to the well, each trip would vividly remind her of the Shepherd she had so unexpectedly encountered there. Her water vessel even looked different, and she could never consider it totally empty again, for it would become a constant reminder of the day that she received the Water of Life. Since John recorded that many of the Samaritans first believed because of her word (4:39), and then later because of the words of Jesus, many more believed (4:41), she also picked up a new family of faith who likewise drank the from the Savior’s spring. The Good Shepherd likely would have divinely nudged other newborn sheep to walk alongside this first Samaritan lamb in rejuvenating sisterhood.

She came to the well that day an outcast among outcasts. She ran back to her village a princess.

To watch a short, 5-minute video interview with Dr. Harris on writing this chapter, please click here.

The Glory of God changes everything


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