John chapter 4 presents us with one of the most beautiful encounters in all of Scripture: a meeting with Jesus and a Samaritan woman. She’s a woman with a past – a long line of broken relationships, frustrated hopes and unfulfilled desires. She’s an outcast – a woman to be avoided, a loner – on the fringes of society. But things are about to change for her. For she is about to meet Jesus. He enters into a conversation with her which will change her life forever. She comes looking for physical water; she finds the water of life. She comes broken and goes away whole. She arrives empty and leaves full.
Few passages give us such insight into the loving heart of God like this passage. We are reminded here again of the character of divine love which is not determined by its object. It just washes over anything and everything that it encounters. And that gives hope for us all doesn’t it?
But this passage also teaches us something about ourselves. We are just like this woman – thirsty people looking for something to drink. We spend our lives looking for ways to satisfy the deep emptiness we experience within, but always coming up short. We look for it in relationships; we look for it in money and possessions. We throw ourselves into our work, driven by an ambitious thirsting for accomplishment and significance. Like the woman who comes to the well, we thirst.
So let us now look a little closer at this story and see how we too can access this living water that Jesus has to offer.
The Divine Encounter
We learn in the opening verses that Jesus heads off for Galilee because there’s a growing potential for conflict with the Pharisees. John tells us, “He had to travel through Samaria” (verse 4). Samaria lies directly north of Judea and Galilee lies further north on the other side. So the simplest thing to do would be to go straight through Samaria. But Jews never went that way. They would go east to Jericho and then travel north, skirting the hills of Judea and Samaria just west of the Jordan River. Then when Mt Gilboa came into view they turned west into the Jezreel Valley and then down into Galilee. It’s the long way. So what’s the deal?
There’s a deep-seated hatred between Jews and Samaritans that goes all the way back to 722 BC when the Assyrians conquered Israel and took the northern ten tribes into captivity. They brought in Gentiles from other areas to settle in that same region. Eventually those Gentiles with their pagan ways intermarried with the Jews who had been left behind. Over the generations those people were called the Samaritans, and they developed their own religion that was partly based on pagan ideas and partly based on Judaism. Eventually they built their own temple at a place called Mount Gerizim. And they developed their own language and their own version of the Old Testament. Jews looked down on the Samaritans as religious and racial half-breed heretics. It’s hard for us to understand the animosity that existed between these two groups. If you think of the Bosnians and Serbs or Palestinians and Israelis, you’ve got the right idea.
John tells us Jesus had to go through Samaria. Something compelled him. And that something was a divine appointment – with a woman. She isn’t looking for Jesus but he is looking for her.
Jesus arrives at a town called Sychar near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jesus, worn out by his journey, sits down. It is about six in the evening John tells us – the cooler part of the day; the time when women came to draw water. And sure enough, she arrives. No doubt she is surprised to find a man sitting there – a Jewish man at that! She lowers the bucket into the well, pulls it up and begins to pour it into the large earthen water pot that she had brought with her. “Give me a drink,” he says.
She is shocked. Why? Well firstly, she is a woman and he is a man. Men never speak to women in public – not even their wives. Secondly, Jews never speak to Samaritans, for any reason, ever (now we know why). Thirdly, Jesus has nothing in his hands to drink from, which means he would have to drink for her container. Jews never eat or drink from the same containers as Samaritans.
The Surprise Offer
The woman can only respond to all this with utter shock – “How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” she asked Him. Jesus answered,
“If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would ask Him, and He would give you living water”
See what he does, he turns the question around. He’s thirsty and she’s got the source – right? She’s the one with the bucket full of water. Now all of a sudden she’s thirsty and He’s got the source. The fountain of life comes asking for a drink and then declares she needs a drink from Him.
“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do You get this ‘living water’? Is there some secret well around here that I don’t know about? There’s a secret little spring here somewhere? If you know about some secret water source you must know something Jacob didn’t know, and Jacob, well he was no slouch. So just who are you? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are You?”
You can see she’s a little confused. In fact she’s very confused. So Jesus, ever so gently and graciously and lovingly leads her one step further… toward himself,
“Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again—ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life.”
Now she senses it, he has something – something she needs. She’s not sure what this “living water” is, but she senses this man has something she has been searching for all her life.
“Sir,” the woman said to Him, “give me this water so I won’t get thirsty and come here to draw water.”
And we can all see here how close she is to the Kingdom of God. Just one more step; she wants what Jesus has. But she’s not ready. Before she can receive there’s something important that must happen: she has to deal with her sin. She has secrets – secrets that need to be revealed. She’s done stuff – and it’s mess.
The Painful Exposure
“Go call your husband,” He told her, “and come back here.”
Jesus drops the bombshell. He touches the most sensitive and painful part of her life. Like a skilful surgeon, Jesus applies the scalpel and opens the wound.
“I don’t have a husband,” she answered. “You have correctly said, ‘I don’t have a husband,’ ” Jesus said. “For you’ve had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
The woman has been trying to quench her thirst with the love of man. It’s just that the first one didn’t work. Nor did the second. Or the fifth. No human relationship can provide the satisfaction our souls crave for. Only a relationship with the living God can do that. Until we come to know God through his Son Jesus we are doomed to a life of restlessness, frustration and despair.
So what does the woman do at this point? She acknowledges Jesus to be a prophet. And it’s time to change the subject – to religion. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, yet you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Now there are two ways we could look at this: 1) This issue of whose religion is the right one has been bugging her for some time and now here is an opportunity to get it sorted, or 2) It’s a diversionary tactic. Things are getting a little too personal. So let’s talk about something more general. Or it could be a bit of both.
She says to Jesus the Samaritans worship on Mt Gerizim and the Jews worship in Jerusalem. Who’s right? Jesus says the Jews are right, but soon it isn’t going to matter. Because everything is going to change. The sacrifices in Jerusalem won’t matter, because Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The temple building in Jerusalem won’t matter, because Jesus is the true temple. And mountains won’t matter, because God is spirit (John 4:23-24)
The Great Disclosure
What happens next is incredible – and utterly unique. In no other encounter, in any of the four gospels, does Jesus do what he does here. Jesus himself clearly discloses that he is the Messiah.
“The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ ). “When He comes, He will explain everything to us.”
“I am He,” Jesus told her, “the One speaking to you.”
The Greek is even more powerful – the original manuscript simply reads:
I AM – the same I am that was and is and is to come. The same I AM whose Spirit hovered over the surface of the waters in creation and who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and who parted the Red Sea. This same I AM is sitting now before this woman, gently wooing her, exposing her sin and drawing her to Himself. And as His blazing eyes meet hers, she believes, and is immediately transformed. She is cleansed – made new. The past no longer matters. Nothing really matters. Except Jesus.
What does the woman do next? She runs from the well back to the village – forgetting her water jar, forgetting she is an outcast, forgetting that no one has listened to her or taken her seriously for years. She runs to the townsfolk unable to contain what’s within – this living water that is now bubbling up inside of her – she pours it out to anyone coming into contact with her so that they all become drenched.
“Come,” she says, “and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?” And they all left town and followed her.
I AM is at the well. And he seeks to flood your dry and weary soul with his living water. He is at the well right now, waiting for you. He’s at the well, offering each of us a transformation that comes from above. You don’t need a bucket or a cup. All you need to do is open your heart to him, allow him to expose what is within, so that you can be washed clean.
Living water is continuously pouring out from above, all over our land. In fact, all around the world. Will you drink from it today?
Note: this post is based on a message I preached from the Gospel of John – you can access that sermon here.