The woman at the well in Samaria

I want to focus on a story about a woman and her interaction with Jesus. The woman who in the Biblical account is given no name, arrived at the well to draw water. Lo and behold there was a stranger at the well who seemed friendly enough. Anyway let us read the story from the Bible. John 4:4-26.

One day, when Jesus was travelling from Judea to Galilee through Samaria,  

4-6 He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.

7-8 A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

9 The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

11-12 The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

13-14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

15 The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”

16 He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.”

17-18 “I have no husband,” she said.

“That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”

19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.

23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”

26 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.

28-30 The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.

39-42 Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman’s witness: “He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!” They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. They said to the woman, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He’s the Saviour of the world!” (John 4, The Message).

Samaritans, women and sinners

The in-depth account about Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well is highly significant for understanding Jesus in several relationships: Samaritans, women, and sinners. By talking openly with this woman, Jesus crossed a number of barriers which normally would have separated a Jewish teacher from such a person as this woman of Samaria. Jesus did three things that were highly unconventional and astonishing for his cultural-religious situation:

  • He as a man discussed theology openly with a woman.
  • He as a Jew asked to drink from the ritually unclean bucket of a Samaritan.
  • He did not avoid her, even though he knew her marital record of having had five former husbands and now living with a man who was not her husband.

The disciples showed their astonishment upon their return to the well: 

“They were marvelling that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). 

A man in the Jewish world did not normally talk with a woman in public, not even with his own wife. For a rabbi to discuss theology with a woman was even more unconventional. Jesus did not defer to a woman simply because she was a woman. He did not hesitate to ask of the woman that she let him drink from her vessel, but he also did not hesitate to offer her a drink of another kind from a Jewish “bucket” as he said to her, 

“Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). 

Salvation was coming to the Samaritan woman from the Jews, and culturally there was great enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans (considered a half-breed race by the Jews). Although she was a Samaritan, she needed to be able to drink from a Jewish “vessel” (of salvation) and Jesus no more sanctioned Samaritan prejudice against Jew than Jewish prejudice against Samaritan.

This is an event without precedent: that a woman, and what is more a “sinful woman,” becomes a “disciple” of Christ. Indeed, once taught, she proclaims Christ to the inhabitants of Samaria so that they too receive him with faith. This is an unprecedented event, if one remembers the usual way women were treated by those who were teachers in Israel; whereas in Jesus of Nazareth’s way of acting such an event becomes normal.

The key to Jesus’ stance is found in his perceiving persons as persons. He saw the stranger at the well as someone who first and foremost was a person—not primarily a Samaritan, a woman, or a sinner. This evangelised woman became an evangelist. She introduced her community to “a man” whom they came to acclaim as “the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42). Jesus liberated this woman and awakened her to a new life in which not only did she receive but also gave. The Bible says she brought “many Samaritans” to faith in Christ (John 4:39). If the men in John 1 were the first “soul winners,” this woman was the first “evangelist” in John’s gospel.

Jesus and Women

In all the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels there are about 35 women who have encounters with Jesus. There is Jesus and the haemorrhaging woman, Jesus’ female cousins, Mary Magdalene, and so on. But here with the woman at the well, Jesus has a long talk with a woman just as he would if she were a man. Jesus treats women and men the same. Interesting though is that many of the women who interacted with Jesus were not named. Church tradition established after the Gospels named these nameless women. 

In the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, this Samaritan woman became a follower of Christ and, when she was baptised, received the name Photini. Photoni proclaimed the Gospel over a wide area and was later martyred. She is recognised as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Jesus’ interactions with women are an important element in the theological debate about Christianity and women. Women are prominent in the story of Jesus. He was born of a woman, had numerous interactions with women, and was seen first by women after his resurrection. He commissioned the women to go and tell his disciples that he is risen, which is the essential message of Christianity.

The most striking thing about the role of women in the life and teaching of Jesus is the simple fact that they are there. Although the gospel texts contain no special sayings repudiating the view of the day about women, their uniform testimony to the presence of women among the followers of Jesus and to his serious teaching of them constitutes a break with tradition which has been described as being “without precedent in [then] contemporary Judaism.”

Jesus gave no explicit teaching on the role of women in the church. In fact, he left no teaching at all concerning women as a class of people. He treated every woman he met as a person in her own right.

A plain reading of Jesus' teaching recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels indicates that Jesus forbids any hierarchy in Christian relationships, presumably including both women and men:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25–26a; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). 

While “lord it over” implies abusive leadership, his words “exercise authority” have no connotation of abuse of authority.

The Gospels describe two miracles of Jesus raising persons from the dead. In both incidents the dead are restored to women—to the unnamed widow from Nain her only son (Luke 7:11–17) and to Mary and Martha their brother Lazarus (John 11:1–44).

The Discourses of Water and Bread

While it is interesting to see how Jesus related to women, it is also interesting to understand the core teaching of the water of life.

In the Gospel of John some references to water, as in John 4:15, are traditionally identified as the Water of Life. We understand that the water of life is the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39).

The passages that comprise John 4:10–26 are sometimes referred to as the “Water of Life Discourse.” The Water of Life Discourse is the second among the seven discourses in the Gospel of John that pair with the seven signs in that gospel.

Another discourse, called the Bread of Life Discourse, appears in John 6:22–59. On their own, each of the discourses on the Water of Life and the Bread of Life are key examples of “single theme discourses” in the Gospel of John. However, these two discourses in the Gospel of John complement each other to form the theme of “Christ as the Life.”

According to W. E. Vine, this theme of “Christ as the Life” relates to John 5:26 where Jesus states: 

“Just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself” (John 5:26).

This reflects Jesus’ assertion to have the power to give life, based on his relationship with the Eternal Father.

Giving the Water of Life

And so the women at the well was given the water of life. Not only did she not draw from the well, but she drank of the water of life deeply. She went out and proclaimed to the people in her town that Jesus had indeed come and that she was drinking deeply of the water of life. The Holy Spirit guided her in presenting to the surrounding town and led her to a new life.

May we benefit from the Holy Spirit entering our lives. May we drink deeply of the water of life. May we lead the people we encounter to the Water of Life!


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