Brief Encounters: The Woman of Samaria

Derek Thomas Articles
In the second of a series of articles in which we examine Jesus' encounters with various individuals, this week we take a look at the conversation of Jesus with the Woman of Samaria in John 4.

They met at well, Jacob's well. It is meant to bring to mind the fact that a courting ritual had taken place at this well. Jacob's father, Isaac, sent his servant Eleazer to find a bride for his son. He found her at a well. John (the author of the story) is telling us that a wooing of sorts is taking place here too: Jesus, the great Evangelist, is wooing this woman into the kingdom of God.

It is very probable that this woman had something else on her mind as a stranger begins to talk to her. They are alone. And she has something of a disreputable reputation. The man she is now living with is her "sixth" partner! Danger is written all over this story if only we allow ourselves to think it. However unpalatable it may be to suggest, Jesus is in a place of temptation! "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15).

How does Jesus the Evangelist deal with this woman? He begins by drawing the conversation in the direction of water. He was at a well after all. And he was tired. And she had come to the well to draw water. He asks her for some water. And the woman responds, firstly, by saying Jesus isn't for the likes of me. It is not initially on the grounds that she is a sinner that she says to Jesus, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" At this point it isn't at all obvious she has any awareness of her sin. Her sense of impediment comes from racial and gender differences. Samaritans and Jews didn't talk to each other and the ancient world, before the onset of Christianity, had a low view of women.  In contrast to today, religion in those days was thought the province of men. "My dear woman," Jesus seems to be saying to her, if only you knew what it is I can give you!"

The second objection she raises is that what Jesus says is nonsense! Jesus has said to her that he could give her living water.  But how could that be? He had no means to get the water from such a deep well. "This man is talking nonsense," she seems to be saying. But "the kicker" (as they say today) comes when Jesus says to her, "if you draw from this water, you will be thirsty again." It is a classic statement of the futility of this life. However we compute it, we will always come up short of all we live for is that which can be seen and heard. This woman needed to appreciate that there was what Blaise Pascal called "a God-shaped void" in the center of her life.

                                I tried the broken cisterns, Lord
                                But ah! The waters failed...

The whole conversation has been for directed toward this goal: to show this woman her true need, her true condition in order that she flee to Jesus Christ for refuge and forgiveness.

Thirdly, having sensed what Jesus is doing, she does what unbelievers so often do: she turns the situation into a joke by asking him for this water that will mean she will never have to come to this well ever again. It is time for the Evangelist to get serious: he asks her to send for her husband. This is the doorway to underlining her great need. She is a sinner if ever there was one!

Fourthly, she tries to evade the growing conviction by saying (what was technically true) that she didn't have a husband. It was an attempt at evasion.  Her question about the mountains of Gerizim (where Samaritans gathered) and Zion (where Jews gathered) is a further attempt to change the conversation entirely. Even her off-handed remark in which she admits to knowing that Messiah was coming and that when he does he will explain everything to us (v.25) is a further attempt at evasion: "I will think about this later" is what she is really saying!
But Jesus will have none of it. "I who speak to you am he" he said (v.26). And it must have come to her as something of a bombshell. The Messiah was standing right in front of her. She could reach out and touch him. The story ends with the woman leaving to tell her friends and perhaps her "husband" that she met the Savior. The Evangelist had broken down all her defenses!

She left the water jar behind (v.28). It was a symbol of her past life, one she had now left behind. She had tasted the living water - Jesus!

Derek Thomas is the Editorial Director of Reformation21.  

Helpful Resources:
Gospel of John, Volume 1 by James Montgomery Boice
Gospel of John, Volume 2 by James Montgomery Boice
Jesus The Evangelist by Richard Phillips