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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 10

Jesus and the Samaritan woman

| Martin Charlesworth
John 4:1-26

Faith comes to the Samaritans as a result of the woman's testimony. Jesus gives a mission masterclass. The analogy of sowing and reaping is explored. We can all be sowers.

Faith comes to the Samaritans as a result of the woman's testimony. Jesus gives a mission masterclass. The analogy of sowing and reaping is explored. We can all be sowers.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 10 entitled ‘Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.’

Introduction and Recap

We're still in the narrative of John's Gospel, where we've been for a few episodes, as John carries the story forward for us. We're going to be turning to John 4, where we'll be reading the remarkable story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman and some very surprising outcomes in her life and in the community. Before this event, as John's Gospel makes clear, Jesus had been in and around Jerusalem for a period of time, having previously been baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan nearby and then made a brief visit back home to Galilee for the wedding festival at Cana. He'd been in Jerusalem for a time; he'd challenged the market traders in the Temple in an episode known as the cleansing of the Temple; then he had a long conversation with Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders; and, in the last episode, we saw that Jesus and some of his early disciples - just a handful of them, we only know five, there might be a few others - were travelling around the countryside in and around Jerusalem and in the Judean countryside, preaching and conducting some baptisms and then John the Baptist commented on what was going on.

That's the story as we left it in our last episode. In this episode, Jesus decides to return to Galilee. That's very significant because it is in Galilee that he is going to formally start his public ministry of preaching. He's going to concentrate on Galilee, in the north of the country, for most of the next two or three years while he is preaching. He's going to return home and he takes his disciples with him. Interestingly, the route he chooses to go home is through the centre of the country. The most direct route to go from Jerusalem through to Galilee (to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee and that area), is to go straight through the middle of the country - through a district called Samaria. Most Jews did not take that route because the Samaritans were a group of people that they didn't get on with at all well. Rather than taking the most direct route, they would normally go either to the coast and along the coast, and up and round, or down to the Jordan River and go along near the Jordan River and then back through to Galilee. Samaria lay in between Galilee in the North and Judea in the south. It's an interesting decision that Jesus made. Jews weren't generally welcomed as they travelled through Samaritan territory. We need to explain the reason for that in order to understand the significance of this story, this journey and the conversation that Jesus has with this woman.


About 700 years before the time of Jesus, the northern tribes of Israel were defeated in battle and their kingdom was destroyed by an invading power called the Assyrians. They deported many thousands of the Israelite people who were taken out of the land and scattered throughout the different provinces of the Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. At the same time, the Assyrians brought into that district many other nationalities. It was a conscious decision; they brought them in to mix with the remaining Jewish people there. From the mixture of incoming different nationalities and the Jews who remained, there became a new ethnic group which is racially mixed - partly Jewish and partly non-Jewish - and this group became known as the Samaritans (named after the district and one of the principal towns, Samaria). For 700 years or so, this ethnic group was half Jewish and half non-Jewish; it had a strange mixture of culture. These people considered themselves to be true followers of the Jewish God so they kept the first five books of the Bible - that was their holy book (the Pentateuch; the books are attributed to Moses that described the early part of the history of Israel). They had those first five books, they had the Law of Moses and they even created their own temple on a large hill in Samaria called Mount Gerasi. That Mount Gerasi appears mentioned in the text. Further south, we have Jews in Jerusalem with the Temple based on the original Temple and the full religion of Judaism functioning. In the middle, a bit further north, you've got the Samaritans who claimed to be truer followers of the God, Yahweh, than those other Jews and then in the north you have the Galilean people who are largely Jewish but with other components as well. As time progressed towards the time of Jesus, there was a lot of racial and religious hostility and mistrust between the Samaritans and the Jews - both the Jews of Galilee and the Jews of Judea in the south. This is the situation that Jesus encountered in this story and is the background to some of the mentions of the Samaritans that occur in the Gospels, which we'll look at in later episodes. But for now, let's turn to the text, John 4: 1 - 26:

‘Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”’

John 4:1-26, NIV

The Samaritan Woman Meets Jesus

This is a very dramatic story and there's a social tension in this story from the very beginning. Jesus has paused on the side of the road, his disciples have gone into the nearby town to buy bread, as the text says. He is resting by the well. Wells were important meeting places in those days (they still are in some societies in the developing world; wells or fountains are very important places to meet) and in those days it was a social meeting point. He's just resting there but he can't drink from the well because he's brought no water carrier with him. He has no way of accessing the water from the well and so hence his question to this woman who comes up to the well at this particular time.

There are two tensions going on here. There is, first of all, the tension between Jew and Samaritan but also the tension between man and woman. In those socially conservative societies, men and women only related to each other publicly in very limited ways - such as we find in some conservative societies even today. As the woman became aware that Jesus was both Jewish, and also male rather than female, she was nervous about the social interaction. It seemed odd and there was no one else around to experience the conversation. Jesus took the opportunity and he created an interesting and important conversation using the image and the analogy of water. Having asked for a drink, he then goes on to talk about ‘living water’ and the woman is perplexed. What on earth does he mean by ‘living water’? Jesus begins to talk about the fact that, in terms of water as a natural resource, we drink the water but after a period of time we'll become thirsty again - it's the nature of things. But he said there is another kind of water, which he described as ‘living water’, “If you can drink that water, you'll never thirst again.” This got the woman's interest. She was realising that there was more in this conversation than just Jesus needing to quench his thirst after walking some distance along the main road of Samaria. She realised he was talking about something else, but she couldn't quite understand what it was. She was intrigued.

Then something happened in the conversation that took it to a completely different dimension because Jesus, very surprisingly, asked her to go and call her husband and she quickly said that she wasn't married - she didn't have a husband. Then he described her life to her, without any possible knowledge of who she was, having never met before, never been there before, never walked through that part of Samaria before. Jesus described the fact that she had been married five times and was separated, or divorced, from those five husbands and now she was living with a man with whom she wasn't married - which was a fairly scandalous situation in that society. That suddenly, attracts the attention of the woman and makes her think very carefully, “What kind of person are we talking about here?” and she says, “I see that you're a prophet” - he could see from revelation from God, that he couldn't possibly have known in any natural way. This is the flow of the conversation which leads, later, to a discussion about worshipping God and what it really means - how we're going to worship, how the Samaritans are going to worship, and what God is doing in the world at the time. We'll come to that in just a moment.

Four Titles the Woman Gives Jesus

I want to note something else in the text which is very intriguing. The woman addresses Jesus during this conversation, by four successive titles, or descriptions. Those four titles, or descriptions, represent the progression of her thoughts during the conversation. First of all, she describes him in 4: 9, as a Jew. “You're a Jew, I'm a Samaritan,” that's a racial definition. She quickly worked out he was Jewish; she could probably work it out by his accent, possibly his appearance (certainly he would have had a Galilean accent, which was a Jewish accent different from a Samaritan accent). So she understood him to be racially different and she gives him that very simple designation, ‘a Jew.’ In verse 11, she entitles him, “Sir,” a sign of respect - that's a positive step forward. In verse 19, she changes her description of him dramatically when she describes him as a ‘prophet.’ “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.’ This is after he'd told her about her private life and said that he already knew what her private life was and how complex it was - that she wasn't living with a husband and she'd had five husbands - “Sir … you're a prophet.” So she sees, at that point, that she's met not just a Jew, not just a man she can respect, but someone who has the gift from God of revelation to actually understand and know things he couldn't possibly know. She realises this is a man of God (and the Samaritans would have recognised that prophetic capacity in a similar way to the Jews, even though they may not have experienced it in their community).

At the end of the passage we are dealing with today, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming,” verse 25, and Jesus says that “I am he,” “I am the Messiah.” She's moved to a description of Jesus which is really the truth - he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour coming into the world. In the conversation, it's interesting to note she's moved from calling Jesus a ‘Jew’ (which, by the way, could be a term of disrespect, because the Samaritans didn't like Jews), then to the term ‘Sir,’ then to the term ‘prophet’ and then to the term ‘Messiah.’ What's happening here? Her recognition of who Jesus is, is growing step-by-step and by the end of the conversation she's beginning to think, “This is the Messiah and, by an amazing chance, I've met him at the well just outside my town!” She's really shaken and excited and in trepidation at the extraordinary reality of what's happening. In our next episode, we'll look at what happens afterwards, where something incredible happens in her whole town; her whole community is fundamentally affected by her talking to them and then meeting Jesus later on. We'll come to that in the next episode.

Worship in Spirit and in Truth

We need to comment briefly on the final section here where there is a discussion about worship. ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain,’ she says in verse 19 - that's a reference to Mount Gerasi where there was a temple put up by the Samaritans - ‘but you Jews claim the place we must worship is in Jerusalem’- where the Jewish Temple was. Jesus goes on here to say that something is changing. It's all to do with his coming. Something is changing in the world of religion and in the world of faith; he says that the time is coming when it's not going to be about a particular place - your place or our place, Mount Gerasi or the Jerusalem Temple. No! Something is happening that is not going to be based any more on place. This is an interesting point and it reflects the fact that Jesus was already, when he cleansed the Temple, giving an implication that the importance of the Temple is going to change and reduce. It's going to be part of history rather than part of the future in terms of the community of faith. We saw that in the episode of the cleansing of the Temple, and here is another implication of something very similar: ‘Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, ... they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’

So what are these criteria? Worshippers ‘in the Spirit’ and ‘in truth.’ These are two vital pillars of true Christian faith. We know that the truth is the message of Jesus, the full Gospel of Jesus, which is being revealed step-by-step in the story. The fact that he's the Son of God, who came into the world to die for our sins as a substitutionary atonement and made it possible for us to be forgiven, to repent, to believe, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to receive eternal life. The truth is our alignment with the Gospel truth - we can only worship in truth if we align ourselves with the reality as it is. There's one way to God - through Jesus Christ and through his death on the cross, his resurrection, and the forgiveness that he brings. That's the truth component in simple terms; but the Spirit component is important too. We already saw, in the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, that Jesus identifies the work of the Holy Spirit as absolutely fundamental to salvation, belief and faith, and we can add in here, in this context, worship. If you want to worship God, you need the Holy Spirit inside you and the Holy Spirit is going to be given to every person who follows Jesus wholeheartedly. These truths are just beginning to come to the surface in this very brief discussion with the Samaritan woman. It's difficult to know exactly what she made of all that because we're not told but she's beginning to see that Jesus is not only a prophet but probably the Messiah and faith is growing within her even as the conversation continues. A very exciting story, a very sudden encounter between two people in totally different social and religious situations and, as they meet, Jesus is able to communicate, amazingly effectively, with this woman.


What reflections can we take from this particular episode? I think that Jesus' evangelistic approach here is very helpful for us. He takes a natural point of contact; he finds common ground (the discussion about water and the well); he has what can only be described as a prophetic conversation (where he is able to see into this woman's life and her background and talk about it); and he introduces truth step-by-step during the conversation. He's following the circumstances and the opportunities that arise naturally in the circumstances of his life - he didn't go looking for this woman, he just rested by the well at the side of the road while the disciples went off to buy some food. This evangelistic process and approach is helpful for us because our responsibility, if we're Christians reading this, is to share our faith and the best way to do it is in a natural, relational context. In our modern world, we have many meeting places - like the wells of the ancient world - places where much sharing about Christ is done. It might be in our workplace (in a factory, or a school, or a shop, or another workplace). It might be in the community meeting places (which is really what the well was for this Samaritan community). What are the community meeting places in your community, your village, your town, your district of a city? Those are the places where we can make friends and spend time and talk about things, or take friends there: the coffee shops, the restaurants, the market places; the parks of our world are very important places to meet people and to share our faith. Many of us are doing that and I want to encourage you to use the example of Jesus as an inspiration for just meeting people, talking to people naturally and seeing where the conversation goes. We can also pray that we can have insight from the Holy Spirit, prophetic insight that can guide the conversation and help it move in a way that leads that person forward in their understanding.

A second reflection I want to make is that people are generally searching for some meaning beyond their ordinary lives. Most people are frustrated by their human relationships and their life circumstances - as this woman, almost certainly, was. Her relational situation was very unsatisfactory. There's no suggestion she was blissfully happy; she felt quite perturbed that Jesus could so clearly see what had happened in her life. People are searching and, for Christians, our job is to meet such people on their terms and to guide them to a better understanding of the Christian faith.

The third point I want to make is that Jesus identifies the importance of respect for the Jewish heritage of salvation. He says, in verse 22, ‘salvation comes from the Jews.’ One of the themes that you'll find in this study of the life of Jesus, is the fact that I will emphasise what the Gospels emphasise - that the Jewish heritage is tremendously important; the Old Testament heritage, the Covenant, the history, the ancestry of Christ, his Jewish background and the prophecies that shape his destiny in his Messianic mission. We do well to respect that Jewish heritage, which for us means two things in particular: one is engaging well with the Old Testament and the other is resisting modern ideas of anti-Semitism. God has loved the Jewish people and revealed himself to them and given them the responsibility of sharing what they know with the rest of the world and therefore 'salvation came from the Jews' and we're now in the era of history where the rest of the world is hearing the message of Christ in many wonderful ways.

The final point to make is that the key to worship is not a place of worship, or the style of worship. It is the heart of worship - what's going on in our hearts. Are we worshipping God on the basis of a true understanding of the Gospel, the truth? Are we worshipping God in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the Holy Spirit leading us towards worshipping him?

This is a truly wonderful passage, I hope you've enjoyed us sharing it together. It's part one of a two-part story and we'll continue the second part in the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What is the meaning of the term ‘worship’. What do you need to be able to worship God in truth?
  • Discipleship
    1. How might you show respect for the Jewish people, bearing in mind Jesus’ Jewish heritage, in your society today?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Jesus models how to evangelise here. Look at the different parts and consider how you could use them as a pattern. Can you identify meeting places in your area, for instance?
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