The pregnant phrase to underline in the incident at Sychar’s well which is so rich in spiritual instruction, is the announcement John gives at the beginning of the chapter, namely, “He must needs go through Samaria.” Why the necessity? While this was the shortest and most usual road for a traveler going from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52), the Pharisees avoided this customary route, and took a longer, round-about one through Peraea. They did this in order to avoid any contact with the Samaritans with whom, as Jews, they had no dealings. While the Jews and the Samaritans were physically alike in many ways, requiring the same food, following the same occupations, having the same hopes and ambitions, and suffering the same diseases, yet there was a racial hatred that kept them apart.
The origin of this hostility between these two peoples may be traced back to the Assyrian colonization of the land of Israel (2 Kings 17:21). From this followed the antagonism of the Samaritans to the Jews at the return from captivity (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4), which led to the erection of rival temples on Mount Gerizim. This was in the mind of the woman at the well when she said, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain” (John 4:20). From that time the spirit of religious bitterness lingered, and this accounts for the Jewish reproach.
“He who eats the bread of a Samaritan is as he who eats swine’s flesh.”
“No Samaritan shall be made a proselyte.”
“They have no share in the resurrection of the dead.”
Jesus spoke of a Samaritan as an alien (Luke 10:33; 17:16, 18), and in turn was accused by the Jews of being a Samaritan Himself and possessed by a demon (John 8:48). While the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans, Jesus had. He spoke well of them, healed one of them of leprosy, and rebuked two of His disciples for wishing to destroy some of their number with fire from heaven (Luke 9:55, 56; 10:30-37). As the omniscient Lord, He knew all about the woman in Samaria and went there to show and teach that He was above all religious and racial prejudices and that true worship consisted of worshiping God in spirit and in truth.
Thus necessity brought Jesus to the place where the Samaritan woman lived, and reaching Jacob’s well, being wearied because of the long noontide journey, He sat by the well while His disciples went into the city to buy food. The reality of our Lord’s fatigue testifies to the reality of His humanity. As the Man, He was weary and required food and drink, but as the God He could tell the woman who met Him at the well all about her guilty past and her soul’s deepest need. Jesus was often weary in His work, but never weary of it. As Man, He knows all about our human and spiritual needs, and as God, He can meet every one of them. So about noon that day, Christ, a Jew, and the God-Man, met a Samaritan who was a woman, whose life was to be transformed as the result of that contact.
Twice over this nameless female is referred to as “a woman of Samaria” (John 4:7, 9). Prominent in this phrase is her religious and national position. She was not only an alien as far as the Jews were concerned, but was also poor, for women of affluence did not draw water in those times. The Samaritan woman differs from many of the other women who came before Christ in His itinerant work. Some of them pressed into the kingdom or took it by violence with their earnest prayers. We think of Anna who spent her nights and days in fastings and prayers—of the sinful woman of Canaan who washed His feet with her tears—of the widow of Nain who moved His heart by her silent weeping in her great loss, but for the woman before us no petition was granted, no miracle was wrought except her spiritual transformation. Yet she was a privileged woman in that Christ confessed to her that He was indeed the Messiah which He did not usually confess even to His disciples, leaving them to discern for themselves the truth of His Godhead from His mighty works and miracles of mercy. Thus this woman has an individual prominence in that she was among the number who sought Him not (Isaiah 65:1). Further, He did not usually offer His gifts unasked, but waited until they were sought or importuned. Here He offered the woman the unspeakable gift of Himself. First of all, He asked relief of the woman, then He offered her relief, not common water to slake her thirst, but Himself, the Well of Everlasting Life.
What kind of a woman, morally, was this Samaritan water-carrier? When the disciples returned from their shopping errand they “marvelled that Jesus talked with the woman.” Perhaps they were surprised to see Him talking in public with a woman, which was directly contrary to the Rabbinic precepts affirming that a man should not speak in public to his own wife, and that the words of the Law should be burned rather than taught publicly to a woman. Probably there were three reasons why the disciples marveled at the sight of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in earnest conversation. First, they wondered that He, as a Rabbi or Teacher sent from God, talked with her because she was only a woman. Second, because she was a Samaritan woman with whom no Jew should have dealings. Third, because she was a sinner. Some versions speak of her as “the woman of Samaria,” and she was likely well-known because of her association with men.
As a Samaritan, this woman had and knew the Pentateuchal law against adultery. When Jesus found her she was living with a man who was not her husband, but He did not expose her sin to others. He wanted her to feel the sense of sin herself. So when she asked Jesus for the living water of which He spoke, He replied: “Go, call thy husband.” Her life had to be a clean receptacle to hold the living spring, so Jesus revealed the foulness that had to be destroyed, and His thrust left its mark. Her past and present life had been laid bare by the omniscient Lord who said, “Thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband.” If death had invaded her home upon five occasions, and the five men she had lived with in succession were actual husbands, she certainly did not gather praise for her five marriages. But to bury her fifth husband and go and live with a man who was not a husband, revealed how she had fallen into the depths of sin. We can imagine how the people of her locality avoided her because of her lack of feminine modesty and purity.
Behind the questions, “What seekest thou?” “Why talked thou with her?”—such a woman—is the thought that whatever His talk with such a woman, whose reputation the disciples may have heard about in the city, it must have been of the highest nature and was related to her spiritual welfare. Because those disciples believed that Jesus was perfect, and knew no sin, ulterior motives could not be ascribed to such a Holy One, as He talked with one whose sin became apparent in the white light of His holiness.
It is inferred that the woman complied immediately with the thirsty Man’s request for a drink of refreshing water, even though she could see by His features and dress that He belonged to the nation who hated her people. As she drew water from the well she asked Him, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, asketh drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?” Little did she realize that in her willingness to give the Jew a drink she was fulfilling the Christian law toward Him, “If he thirst—even if he is thine enemy—give him drink,” and that cup of water she gave Him did not lose its reward (Matthew 10:42). Jesus answered the woman’s question by bringing home to her mind her ignorance of the greatness of the One sitting at the well.
If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
What the Samaritan woman was so ignorant of was the fact that she had been coming daily to a deep well of water that had been God’s gift of refreshment to man and beast since Jacob’s time, yet there was a deeper well of spiritual truth so necessary for man’s hidden needs, of which she was unconscious. She was a traveler in the journey of life, travel-stained by her sins, but had not discovered as yet the fountain opened for uncleanness. Instead of Christ begging her for a refreshing draught of water, she should have been beseeching Him for the unfailing supply of spiritual water from the eternal well.
From her ungracious manner and slur at Christ’s people, she answered His comment in a tone of respect. There was something about His voice and manner that gripped her heart, and while she did not understand His message, she was conscious of its latent force, and felt that this traveler was no ordinary man. He seemed to speak with authority, and so passes in her address to Him from, “Thou, being a Jew”—the last word uttered in the tone of contempt—to the reverential, “Sir,” Having had five husbands she was not easily worsted in conversation and wanted to know where was the better well than Jacob’s from which the “living water” could be secured, and her ignorance begins to vanish as she asks Him, “Art thou greater than Jacob, our ancestor?”
As the woman spoke of the deep well before her, and of Christ having no bucket to secure more vitalizing water from the depths of the well, Jesus, pointing to the ancient well, said, “Anyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but anyone who drinks of the water I shall give him will never thirst any more; the water I shall give him will turn into a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.”
What Jesus supplied was not external water to satisfy the recurring physical need, but an internal and eternal source of unfailing spiritual, life-giving water. Such living water was a divine gift (Isaiah 55:1), was Christ Himself (John 4:10), easily reached—the woman walked far to reach Jacob’s well, but the spiritual well is ever at hand—and a satisfying, unfailing gift for “whosoever drinketh” (Revelation 22:17). As light broke in upon her darkened mind, the woman replied to Christ’s teaching, “Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.”
But a full understanding of His words was not yet hers. Still thinking of them in their physical sense, she thinks of toilsome hours and weary journeys that could be saved if only she knew the marvelous well the Stranger was speaking about. Jesus answered her request, and cut short her argument with a command that went straight to her heart: “Go, call thy husband and come hither.” Our Lord wanted to turn her from a proud argumentative frame of mind to the humility of confession. Here was a sinful creature worth saving, but she must be made conscious of her sin, and when she humbly said, “I have no husband,” she became a different woman.
Proceeding gently, Jesus replied, and revealed His omniscience as He unmasked her secret: “Thou hast well said ... For thou hast had five husbands, and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband.”
The very wounds her shame would hide were seen by His all-searching eye, and her ignorance gives way to spiritual insight as she reverently confesses the prophetic gift of the One who knew all about her past and present life and asks Him to solve the problem of the right place of worship for both Jew and Samaritan. The woman was taken up with the place of worship, but Jesus sought to teach her that the spirit of worship is more important than the place. Alas, on any Lord’s Day there are thousands in the place of worship as they gather in churches, but they are strangers to the spirit of worship which is related to the worship of God in spirit and in truth—worship inspired by the Holy Spirit in conformity to the truth of the Word.
It was to this woman that Jesus revealed the only basis of acceptable worship, and also the truth of His Messiahship. Perceiving that Jesus was a Prophet, the woman felt He knew the nature of true worship, namely, the spiritual worship of a spiritual Being not only at Jerusalem or Gerizim, but wherever there is a heart seeking Him. With her mind opening to Christ’s instruction about spiritual worship, the Samaritan woman confessed the power of the coming Messiah to reveal all things, and perhaps now sensed that because the Jew before her had told her all things about her life, He must be the Messiah. Then came the dramatic word of Christ’s claim, “I that speak unto thee am the Messiah.” How privileged this sinful woman was to hear from the lips of Jesus Himself the divine secret of His Messiahship!
By the Spirit, the woman acknowledged the truth of Christ’s Messiahship and Omniscience, and immediately became a powerful witness to her remarkable discovery. With her mind full of the new truth she had learned, she left her water-pot and, full of her great discovery, hurried back to the city. In her enthusiasm she left her water-pot behind as a pledge of her return, not only for natural water, but also for a further spiritual draught from the living well she had found in Christ. Reaching the city, she met the men who knew her only too well, and declared the truth she had learned of Christ’s Messiahship. Because He had unveiled her past life, He must be the Christ for whom both Jew and Samaritan were looking.
Her ignorant mind had grasped the secret of true worship and of Christ’s mission, and her instinct for telling news became apparent as with the passion of an evangelist she said, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” He had awakened her to a new and better life and such was the effect of her earnest witness that many of those Samaritans went out and came to Jesus at the well. For two days they listened to His teaching, and came to believe in Him, and accept Him as the Christ, the Saviour of the world. This was not only because of what His first native woman evangelist in Samaria had said of Him, but also because they had heard Him for themselves, and hearing, believed. In the glow of her newborn faith, the woman had to tell others and share with them all she had heard and experienced. Some four years later, when Philip the Evangelist came to preach “in many villages of the Samaritans,” he doubtless met “the woman of Samaria” and realized how wonderfully the Holy Spirit had used her life and witness as well as the testimony of the Samaritans she had been the means of leading to Christ, to prepare the way for his miraculous ministry in Samaria. When the disciples returned from the city and saw Jesus talking with the woman, they knew what He meant by telling them that the fields were white already unto harvest. Because of the seed sown by the woman who, when she found the well, left her water-pot, Philip experienced a great ingathering of souls in Samaria, so much so that there was great joy in that city. The most joyful inhabitant was the woman who from her heart confessed, “Come see a man, who told me all things that ever I did; is not this the Christ?” (Acts 8:5-25). She had laid the foundation of that Samaritan Pentecost. At Jacob’s well she saw Jacob’s Star (Numbers 24:17), and ascending Jacob’s Ladder (John 1:51) became the means of others climbing to God.