So much has been written concerning Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well that it sometimes begs the question: what more is there to be said? Hasn’t commentary on this encounter been exhausted? Perhaps the longer I live and the more deeply I grasp my need for grace, the more significant this story becomes. Coming to grips with my own desperation for compassion increases my capacity to see that same need in others. That’s the reason I recently was compelled to stop in the middle of my devotional time to write down my thoughts about the scene in John 4. Permit me, if you will, to talk through them with you.
John 4:3-42: …he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on 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 the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”…Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
The woman featured in the passages of John 4 presumably had so many strikes against her:
She was a Samaritan, living in Samaria.
The significance of this is that the Jews in the surrounding areas hated the Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual. Jews despised Samaritans because they were Jews who intermarried with non-Jews and followed a heretical religion. According to Biblical scholar and author, Marg Mowczko, Jews regarded Samaritans as ignorant and superstitious, outside of God’s favor and mercy.1 Samaria was smack dab in the middle between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, but most Jews travelled miles out of their way to avoid the region of Samaria altogether.
She was a woman.
Women in ancient times of this area were widely considered to be lesser people, not much more than servants or property. Men were not to speak to women in public, and first century Jewish men commonly thanked God in prayer for not being born a “Gentile, slave, or a woman.”
She was a Samaritan woman, a double strike against her, considering the context of this narrative. Samaritan women were considered to be unclean.
She had been married five times.
Even today, in western society, this seems scandalous in many circles. Imagine the stigma of being a woman who was passed around as little more than damaged goods. Could her expectations of security or worth have been very high? More than likely she was of the mindset to settle for whoever would have her, and whatever consequences that would get her, just so she could survive. Women of that time may not have sought out friendships with this woman for fear of being judged by the company they kept. She was rejected, most likely, by both men and women, even her family.
She was living with a man who was not her husband.
After five marriages that failed, after the stigma of that rejection, this woman presumably just gave up the pretense of an acceptable family unit. Why bother, at this point? Take the bed of whatever man would have her, even if he wouldn’t grant her the minuscule respectability and security of his last name.
Add all these things up and one arrives at this tragic summary: she was rejected by her own people, a rejected people.
John in his gospel tells us that “it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria” to get from Judea to Galilee. Looking at a map, it makes sense; the land connecting the two places is Samaria. But here’s the thing: Jews of that time went out of their way to avoid going through Samaria directly. Such was their hatred of this people. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! Better to take the long way around rather than risk interacting with those rejected neighbors. Jesus, however, was never one to circumvent the complicated route. The fact that John uses the phrase “it was necessary” leads me to believe that Jesus was compelled to visit this woman. On purpose. Like the Good Shepherd that He is, He left the ninety-nine to find this one who was lost. This was not just happenstance; this was orchestrated by God for His purposes. The circumstances of this encounter make me fall in love with Jesus all over again.
Like we’ve established, Jesus went through an area that others avoided to get there. Not only that, but He arranged it so that His disciples were away from Him, getting lunch. John writes that it was the “sixth hour,” about noon, the hottest part of the day. Logically, women in the town would probably have gone to the well either in the evening, as described in Genesis 24:11-21 when Rebekah watered Abraham’s servant and his master’s camels, or early in the day, before beginning their household duties which would have required water, and before the water would’ve gotten warm from being exposed to the heat of the sun. This particular Samaritan woman, however, came at noon. We don’t know if this was to avoid others’ judgment, or if she just needed more water at that time, or some other reason. We do know that she needed to be there at the same time as Jesus. The conversation they shared would change her life. Her testimony after this encounter would change the lives of everyone she knew.
When the woman got to the well, Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” To say that this shocked her is not an understatement. She pointed out the obvious to Him, asking, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan [and a] woman, for a drink?” Think about this from her perspective: this person came to her from a vulnerable position—-He was thirsty, and He asked her for help.
Not only that, but after she questions His motives, He begins to talk to her about living water. At that time, water that flowed was considered “living water” and was better than still water, like that contained in the town well. After discussing this notion with Jesus a bit more, she responds, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never get thirsty nor have to come [continually all the way] here to draw.”
They converse more, talking about her past and current living situation, her people and her understanding of God. Jesus teaches her about worshipping in spirit and in truth. The woman confesses that she knows the Messiah is coming. Then, miraculously, Jesus reveals to her that He is the Messiah! This was the first time Jesus revealed His identity to anyone. I love that it was an intimate, one-on-one conversation. The Savior of the world and a woman who was rejected. I love how God uses this one person to take the message of the Messiah to her people, a rejected people. I love how this one woman’s encounter with Jesus caused others to leave their town and set out to go to Him. No doubt this God-ordained encounter resulted in many being saved and becoming followers of Jesus (John 4:1-30).
Know this: the same Jesus Who “had to travel through Samaria,” who was willing to connect with and rescue a rejected woman from a rejected people, is also willing to come to you, to connect with you. No matter how many mistakes you’ve made, no matter how badly you’ve sinned, no matter how long or how far you’ve gone away from God, no matter how low you are, no matter if others have rejected you or even your whole family for generations, no matter what, Jesus wants to reach you, to have a relationship with you, to restore you to the Father, and to love you.
The Message Bible puts it this way in Romans 8: “The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture… None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable— absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
Dear friend, could you dare to imagine? Could you dare to trust this promise? Come to the well, have an encounter with the One Who’s sticking up for you, accept His love, and leave forever changed.