The Woman at the Well

The Woman at the Well

© C. O. Bishop 2010 THCF (SS) 11/18/2012 revised 2021

John 4:4-43


Walking to Galilee from Judea, Jesus had to travel through Samaria. The entire 4th chapter of John is about the exchange he had with the Samaritan woman at the city well outside of Sychar. (There are many sermons’ worth of content in John 4:3-43, but we will only hit the highlights.)

It is approximately a thirty-mile hike from Jerusalem to Sychar, through fairly rough country. I don’t know whether Jesus and the disciples did it in one day—ten solid hours of brisk walking—or in two days. I rather suspect two, because of the hour of the day—assuming the Jewish manner of keeping time was in view, it was noon. Jesus had been walking all morning and was tired. The disciples had gone on into the city to buy food.

Usually, the women hauled the water for their families in the early morning and evenings, when it was cool outside. Jesus was alone at the well when the woman—also alone—came to draw water.  My guess would be that she probably came at a time when no other women would be present, so that she did not have to endure their hostility toward her. We will see in a few verses that she had a rather checkered marital history, and most likely was viewed unfavorably by the other women. Jesus treated her remarkably gently, as he seemed to always treat women. But it is still in rather sharp contrast to how he had treated Nicodemus, in chapter 3.

Jesus knew who he was dealing with, and also knew that he was ignoring several customs of the time, in asking her for water. I think it was likely that a man would not have dealings with a strange woman, anywhere, as a rule…it wasn’t safe…beside the fact that in that culture as a whole, women were not usually treated as first-class citizens, and some men considered it beneath their dignity to speak to a woman at all. But, beside the male/female issue, we know from reading, here, that the Jews ordinarily had no dealings with the Samaritans (v.9). The Samaritans were a half-Jew-half-gentile nation, with a muddled idolatrous religion based on a half-understood concept of the God of Israel, but mixed with a lot of falsehood. They were the long-term result of forced evacuation of most of the Jews who once lived there, and the intermarriage of the remaining Jews with heathens who were forcibly transplanted there by the same Assyrian king.

Now, Jesus had also already bypassed a local prejudice by sending the disciples to buy food from Samaritans. (I’m sure the disciples were uncomfortable about it.) But, He further stretched the boundaries by talking with the Samaritan woman, and asking for water. It is pretty intriguing to watch and learn how Jesus practiced personal evangelism.

Jesus and Personal Evangelism

Jesus asked for water, and she sidestepped the request, remarking on how odd it was that he would even ask. Jesus persisted, and appealed to her curiosity, saying, “If you knew who it was who asked, you would ask me for a drink—and I would give you living water.” Now there are several possible understandings. “Living water” was what they called a spring, or a river, as opposed to a cistern or a well. And yet they also recognized a “living water” (see Ezekiel 47), that made things come alive; but I doubt she knew of it. Her confused response suggests that she was still thinking literal, physical water. She observed that:

  1. the well was deep, and
  2. Jesus had no means by which to get the water out of the well.

She was kind of confrontational, too, though: asking whether he was greater than Jacob—it seems to be a type of “who do you think you are?” question, not an honest query. Jesus took no offense, but answered regarding the water: “Whoever drinks from this well will thirst again—whoever drinks the water I supply will never thirst again.”  Now there should have been little or no question that he is not talking about literal water; but she still gets confused, apparently thinking the water is literal, but has “magical qualities,” or something. She would like to have some of that wonderful stuff, but she saw it simply as an end to the chore of drawing water.

Jesus cut off the exchange at that point, and sent her to get her husband. Remember, Jesus knew who he was dealing with…he knew she had no husband. But this put her in the position of having to admit what she was. She could have said, “Yes Sir”, and walked off and simply never come back. Instead, she chose a half-truth. She (correctly) stated that she had no husband. Jesus answered and told her that that was certainly a true statement, as she had had five husbands, and was now “shacked up with” a sixth man, without benefit of marriage.

An important point to glean from this is that while God ordains marriage, and hates divorce, He nevertheless recognizes divorce…and remarriage. Jesus did not say, “…you once had a husband, but have lived in adultery with five men since then”, or anything of the kind. He recognized all five marriages, and their broken ends, and did not condone the adultery in which she was now embroiled. He also made no overt judgment: He simply stated it as a fact.

The woman tried once more to sidestep the truth by opening a religious debate. Jesus effectively told her that she did not know enough to begin that conversation, but that there was coming a time when all such discussions and arguments would be pointless, anyway, as each true worshipper will worship in spirit and in truth: the location or method will become irrelevant.

Her final hedge was: “I know that Messiah comes! He will tell us everything…” And Jesus plainly told her “You are talking with Him…”

The Response: Faith

It is good to see that she had recognized his person, admitted that she was a sinner, and professed faith in a coming Messiah. Perhaps she had believed all along, in one way or another, hoping that somehow the coming King would not reject her. We cannot see her heart, but only her actions. God sees the heart, and accepts the faith of the simplest person. I don’t know at what point in this passage she actually believed and was saved. God knows. What she did in this situation was the important thing for us to see, because it demonstrated her faith: she obeyed, and, lacking a husband, she went and found the men of the city.

Faith is an obedient response to a revealed truth.

Faith and obedience are linked in this way: Faith is an obedient response (sometimes simply believing) to a revealed truth. Obedience is what demonstrates faith. Jesus said, in John 6:29, “This is the work of God; that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.” That is the obedient response to the Gospel that brings us into the family of God. Noah obeyed by faith and built an ark…he obeyed by faith and got aboard that ark, and then he saw God bring all the animals aboard. Then he saw God close the door. At that point, he was closed in. Whatever he thought, during the next thirteen months, it really had no effect on his position—he was in the ark, and that was what counted.

At some point this woman became a believer. We see her faith in her response to Jesus’ command. She went and found the men of the city, and told them that there was something very strange going on at the city well. Her message was simple, and as complete as she could make it: “Come see a man who told me all I have done —is this the Messiah?” She didn’t pretend to be an expert: she just told the message as best she could, and called on them to make a judgment.

Isn’t that pretty much what we are called to do, as well? We do not have to be experts, and we are certainly not to “pretend” anything at all. But everyone who has trusted Jesus as his or her savior knows enough to say, “Come and see…” You can invite a friend to read a book that you have read. You can invite them to visit your church or Bible study. You can testify to the fact that Jesus paid the full price for your sin, and that all God asked you to do in return is believe. You can share this good news with a neighbor, not “pushing” anything on them, but simply sharing with them the help you have found in Christ. All the woman really told the men of the city was to “Come and see….” There is nothing wrong with that message.

I don’t know how long it was before Jesus got his water…probably he helped himself, as she left her water pot, when she went back to the city. Incidentally, this is the scene into which the disciples returned, just before she left. And they were even more amazed than she had been, to see Jesus talking with her, but they said nothing. This is a good example for us to think about—they did not interfere with what Jesus was doing, but watched, and were amazed. They did not question his wisdom, though they did not know what he was doing. A good example….

The Priority of the Harvest

The men of the city were at least interested enough to go back out to the well and see this man the woman told them about…evidently not just a few, either, but a whole crowd. They knew who she was: they could simply have dismissed her as the “village tramp”, telling tales. But part of the interest may have been because they knew her, and this was something new: it was not her usual way of dealing with men, apparently. A few verses later, we see the end results.

In the meanwhile, before they had come, the disciples were trying to get Jesus to “break for lunch.” They had no idea what he had started, in sending the woman back to get the men, and had no idea that, as a result, there would now be no time for a meal. Jesus said, “I have food you do not know about.” Notice the parallel…he told the woman, “I have water you don’t know about”, and the disciples were told of hidden food. The woman needed salvation—the disciples needed to learn to serve God’s priorities.

We tend to serve our own priorities—we see the need in our own lives, and work to meet those needs. We serve ourselves, and miss out on the ultimate fulfillment of following God’s priorities.

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work.” I really wish that were true in my life, but too frequently, my food is to do my will, and to fill my belly, or my pocket, or my ego, or whatever I currently am pursuing. If Jesus found His primary fulfillment in doing what the Father wanted done, I think I should do the same.

Jesus went on to admonish the disciples to “lift up their eyes” and see the harvest. The harvest of souls was coming to them at that very moment. They needed to readjust their priorities to match those of God. So do I. The harvest of souls is going on continually, and people don’t wait—they move away, or they die, or in some other way become inaccessible. Incidentally, the enemy does not wait, either, but brings someone to distract them, and to convince them that the Bible is untrue, or unimportant, or simply, that “there is no hurry.” When a person delays a choice to receive the Savior, it is a choice, for the moment, to reject Him.

I frequently miss the opportunities God supplies, simply because that is not where my treasure is, thus, not where my heart is, either. In Matthew 6:21 Jesus said “…where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Notice it is not the other way around.) I have not made God’s priorities my own, so as to be always looking for the harvest. Instead, the harvest surprises me, when fruit falls on my head, or something of that sort. The disciples were concerned with their own needs, and those of their master, wholly on a temporal plane. It had not occurred to them that the Samaritans were even part of God’s concern, and they were amazed to see Jesus talking with the woman. So, when she left, their only thought was “Finally! Time for lunch!”, whereas Jesus was looking to things of eternal value, rejoicing at the opportunity to harvest souls for God’s glory, and their eternal joy.

We, too, need to embrace the priorities of God. Jesus invited the disciples to join Him in His work. He invites us to do the same. The day is coming when rewards will be given to those who served with the master. Salvation is a gift, not a reward. You cannot earn it, and, having received it, you cannot lose it…but rewards are in response to obedience, and a labor of love. Rewards can be earned, and/or they can be missed out on.

So, what happened in Sychar?

What was the “rest of the story”? The woman “went and told,” as Jesus had commanded, but what was the result? The initial result, we already saw: they went to see Jesus. But, then it says that many had believed because of the woman’s testimony, and many more believed later, after hearing him personally. They went because she testified, but believed because He spoke to them.

The end result in Sychar was that many were saved. They asked Jesus to stay, and he did. (I am sure the disciples were not pleased, at least not initially.) He stayed there for two days, and evidently taught the people (v. 41 says they believed because of His word).

What a privilege they had, in Sychar, hearing Jesus in person! What a privilege we miss, in not subjecting ourselves to God’s will and His direction.  We could be a part of that harvest, and rejoice with the reapers as we draw people to Christ.

All it takes to be part of that harvest is:

  1. Confess that your priorities are not the same as those of God.
  2. Decide to adopt the priorities of God.
  3. Begin to learn those priorities (one is the redemption of a lost world)
  4. Begin to look for ways to implement them in your own life.

To share the Good News with others, you need to know two things: that you yourself are saved, and how you got that way. That’s it!

To make it an authoritative message it makes sense to have the backing of God’s word, the Bible. So, you can write down passages that explain how you were saved. Memorize them, if you can. Then, pray for God’s direction, and be looking for someone to share with.

They are all around you: “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields!” That’s what Jesus said!

Lord Jesus, we ask that you open our eyes to the lost souls around us and make us aware that each of them is a precious soul for whom you gave your life. Fill us with compassion for the lost, and a desire to share the gift of eternal life with those around us.