[K:NWTS 9/1 (May 1994) 16-23]
The fourth chapter of John presents the well-known account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Here we find a drama poignantly depicting the ineffable mercy, love and grace of Christ.
The drama involves two characters. One of them John's gospel has already identified by the following titles: The Word, the only begotten God, Lamb of God, King of Israel, the Prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, the Bridegroom, the Lord, Messiah, and Jesus. These titles not only identify the person but also his mission. He is the one the Old Testament leaves us longing for. He is the eschatological fulfillment of the Scriptures.
The other person in this drama has no titles. We are not even told her name. She is known only as a "Samaritan woman" (v. 8). Yet from this, we do know something about her.
First of all, she is a Samaritan. The Samaritan sect was a result of the Assyrian attack upon Israel in 724-22 B.C.. The Shalmaneser-led army stormed Israel taking into exile the wealthy and skilled Jews, leaving behind the poor and unskilled. This Assyrian king then brought in other peoples to intermarry with this Jewish remnant in order to dilute the Jewish presence and minimize the chance of any insurrection. Over time these "diluted Jews" developed some of their own theological distinctives and a mutual antagonism with the Jews. The woman in our text is part of this rival splinter group and thus is an outcast among the Jews (see 4:9b).
Secondly, she is a woman. Jesus, being recognized as a Rabbi, was forbidden by Rabbinic law (not biblical law) to speak with a woman in public (this explains the disciples' surprise in v. 27). Note that her response of mockery to Jesus in v. 9 is based not just on the fact that he would ask for water from a Samaritan, but from a Samaritan woman.
We also learn something of her character in vv. 16-18. Here we find that she has been married five times and is presently living with a man who is not her husband. She is an adulteress, a fornicator, a sinner, an outcast even among Samaritan women.
However, let's pause a moment to consider how this woman became an outcast of outcasts. Perhaps, as we look back on her very first marriage, we would find it preceded by an anticipation of joy, a sense of purpose, a hope of fulfillment and delight. Yet tragically that bond of marriage was broken. Whether through divorce or death we are not told, but the profound, precious union of the two-become-one was destroyed. It cannot be over-emphasized how much pain, misery, agony, even despair, is often associated with the destruction of a marriage. Yet, her pain would soon be replaced by another joyous anticipation of marriage. The hope she once had was renewed by another man. Yet this second marriage would also suffer dissolution by death or divorce. This tortuous cycle would occur in her life a third time, a fourth time, and, agonizingly, a fifth time. Are we surprised that she is not married to the man she is now with? She is tired of the pain and grief associated with the dashed hopes of marriage. She is tired of joy and hope turned to misery and despair. Over time husbands prove unfaithful, cold, unable to express compassion, sympathy and love; or if they can, they are soon taken away by death. So she holds out no expectations. She has no delusions about the happiness associated with love and family. Hope is pain. Joy is fleeting. Pleasure is futile. All is vanity. This character in the drama, a wayward sheep, is a woman of sorrow, acquainted with grief.
The action in this narrative begins in v. 3. Here we read that Jesus leaves the southern region of Judea for Galilee, having to pass through Samaria. John tells us that it is necessary for Jesus to pass through Samaria on his way to Galilee. However, passing through Samaria is not a geographic necessity. One could also travel to Galilee along the Jordan River Valley, east of Samaria. Jesus has to pass through Samaria, not because it is the only way, but because he has someone to see. He has an appointment from the Father; Jesus has a divine engagement. In this gospel, the necessary deeds of Christ are carefully reserved for the cross and his mission of bringing the other sheep (Gentiles, even Samaritans) to the fold. It is because of this divine engagement with a Samaritan sheep that Jesus has to pass through Samaria.
It is the noon hour when the woman comes to draw her water. Unlike the other women, who drew in the dim light of the morning or evening at the day's cool edges, this woman draws while desert shadows are short and the thirsty, sun-drenched journey is long. Yet the noon heat was quite temperate when compared to the fire of those tongues that greeted her so many times. She had spent many mornings and evenings at that well gathering more stares and insults, sneers and barbs, scowls and scurrility than thirst-quenching water. Wanting only to be left alone, she draws at noon, in the heat of the day.
Ironically, wanting only to be left alone, she meets Jesus, the one who knows all things about her and who will proclaim all things to her. She recognizes him only as a Jew. But he will prove to be far more than just a Jew.
Taking the initiative, Jesus begins the dialogue by asking her for water, to which she offers only mockery. Patiently, Christ responds to her: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." By using the phrase "living water", Jesus sets up a word play that leads to misunderstanding. She interprets the phrase to mean moving water. It was the gushing water found deep, below the reach of the well's walls. It was the best, most refreshing water of all. Yet how can this man provide such water, she wonders. For he has nothing to draw with and this well is especially deep. He is clearly not equipped to provide living water from this well. He must be referring to water from another well. But is there a greater well than this one? "You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his sons and his cattle?" What well could be better than this which has provided so abundantly and was given by the great patriarch Jacob himself? Surely this Jew is not greater than Jacob.
Perceiving only the physical, earthly side of the symbol, she fails to grasp its more profound significance. The water from Jacob's well satisfies physical thirst, but only for a time; she will thirst again. Jesus, however, is speaking on a higher plane. This thirsty woman lacks more than fluid; she lacks a right standing before her Maker. She has a spiritual thirst borne of her separation from God. John 7:37-39 uses the living water image again, there revealing the living water to be the Spirit. Jesus, that ladder on whom the angels of God ascend and descend, offers to quench her spiritual thirst with water far greater than that found in Jacob's well. For if she drinks his water she shall never thirst again, because Christ's water (the Spirit) will become in her a well of water bubbling up to eternal life. The water itself will become a well within her. It is not that she will take one magical sip and never thirst. The well itself will dwell within her—she may constantly drink from it!
Still unable to grasp the truth behind Jesus' words, she hears only that he is offering an alternative to this distant well. "Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty, nor come all the way here to draw." She desires this water that quenches thirst and is not a sweltering journey away.
Jesus' response to her request is unexpected. "Go call your husband," he says, "and come here." Jesus knows her painful past. Yet, he requests that she call her husband anyway, a husband she does not have. Can Jesus be any more insensitive? She has battled the scars of her tragic past for years, and her present adulterous relationship is a constant weapon for those around her. Her shame, guilt, sorrow and pain lead her to draw at high noon that she might avoid these despised conversations. Why would Jesus want to open old wounds? Has he no compassion?
Our Lord does not lack compassion. His request does not flow from a heart of insensitivity. Rather, in mercy he grants her request. It is his water she requests and it is that water he offers. However, the living water of Christ is not consumed with a cup, but with faith and repentance. If she is to drink the living water which bubbles up to eternal life then she must deal with the sin problem she has before God. She must recognize her hopeless state, her inability to change that state, and her need then to lean solely on Christ. Jesus must first accentuate her thirst. He therefore uncovers and lays all things bare. Christ pierces her hardened heart with the painful and shameful truth of her five past marriages and her present life with a man who is not her husband. She cannot look to a lonely well engulfed in the sun's heat to quench her thirst but to the Son himself, whose light does not burn the skin but renews the soul and recreates the heart.
This dialogue leads her to believe that she is dealing with an extraordinary individual, perhaps even a prophet. She uses this as an opportunity to change the subject by diverting the discussion to a controversial topic: the proper location for worship. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim in Samaria while the Jews worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, having just instructed her on thirst, takes this opportunity to instruct her on the thirst-quenched worship of the age to come. He points her neither to Gerizim nor Jerusalem. "An hour is coming," Jesus says, "and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth." No longer does one travel to a temple of stone to worship God. The coming of Christ inaugurates the age of the Spirit; and in the age of the Spirit the point of contact between God and man is not a stone building but God himself in Christ. What Jesus is offering this woman is not the provisional peace found in the old administration but an everlasting peace found in eschatological worship. She is not to look to Gerizim or Jerusalem but to Jesus.
The woman's conversation is finally moved to spiritual heights. She expresses her hope in a Messiah. She has grasped the eschatological tone of Christ's discourse on worship. With her mind directed toward the age to come, she speaks of the anticipated Messiah. "I know he is coming. When that One comes, he will declare all things to us."
At this point, Jesus no longer speaks to her in symbols, but clearly reveals himself to be the awaited Messiah. Taking the theophanic name upon himself Jesus declares, "I AM who speak to you." The one hope she still entertained in her wretched existence was now standing before her. Jesus, the fulfillment of the Immanuel promise, was proclaiming all things. She need not wait any longer.
This pattern of a man traveling to a foreign place and meeting a woman at a well occurs three other times in the Bible. It occurs in Genesis 24 with Abraham's servant and Rebekah, in Genesis 29 with Jacob and Rachel, and in Exodus 2 with Moses and Zipporah. All three of these accounts end in marriage. So too this meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well is to direct our thoughts to matrimony.
Wedding imagery was used by the prophets to describe that glorious age to come.
"For your husband is your Maker . . . For the LORD has called you, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit" (Is. 54:4-6).
"And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you" (Is. 62:5).
"And I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion, and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness" (Hos. 2:19, 20).
The long-awaited day of the Lord was likened unto a wedding, where the chosen people would be united to their Maker, forever gazing upon his beauty and delighting in the sweet, intimate fellowship they would have with their God. In John's heavenly vision, he heard a great multitude rejoicing over the arrival of this great wedding and saying, "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9). What a wonderful day that will be!
Yet, here in John 4 God is courting a Samaritan woman—now! The significance of God's courting activity with the woman as a present reality has been unveiled already in John 3:22-30, a pericope which provides the initial setting for John 4 (see John 4:1, 2 and the reference to Jesus baptizing more than John the Baptist). In John 3:22-30 we find John the Baptist's disciples concerned about the number of people leaving John for Christ. John responds, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice." The Baptist recognizes that Christ is the bridegroom and that these multitudes leaving him for Christ are the bride. He is witnessing the long-awaited betrothal of the bride. The age of the eschatalogical wedding has dawned and John rejoices.
This woman who has no husband is being courted by her Lord. This Samaritan woman is being grafted into the bride of Christ. The Jews hurl insults at Christ in John 8:48, saying he is a Samaritan and has a demon. Jesus denies only the latter. For Jesus is not ashamed to be counted among the outcasts. He comes even to a Samaritan. The Lord does not approach her to issue the condemnation she deserves but to draw her to himself, as part of his bride. He will be her husband.
Yet, this bride will not come cheap. God is just and by his very nature must punish sin. Quenching his beloved's thirst will require him to endure the horror of the cross in her stead. For it is there, nailed hand and foot, that Jesus, the source of living water, would cry out, "I thirst." John does not include the synoptic cry of dereliction, "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me." Rather, in this gospel, it is thirst that represents the consummate separation from God, the pains of hell. Christ goes to the cross to thirst in his bride's place, taking on her sorrow, grief and sin.
The fulfillment of the woman's Messianic hope is subtly displayed in v. 28. There it says she left behind her waterpot. This is not incidental commentary on the part of the author. The forgotten waterpot symbolizes a change in the woman. She is now a possessor of the Living Water. This Samaritan woman, this Samaritan bride, does not thirst anymore.
As the disciples come on the scene in v.27, the woman goes to the city to tell others about Jesus. "Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?" Earlier she had expressed her hope in the Messiah. He was the one who would declare all things to her. Now she is telling others about the one who told her all things. No longer running from her enemies, no longer seeking dignity on her own terms, she runs to them, inviting them to come and see. These Samaritans are also offered the Living Water and called to the Wedding.
It was earlier noted that Jesus had to pass through Samaria because of a divine engagement. But this engagement was more than just an appointment for Christ; it was a wedding engagement for the woman. It was an engagement of the most profound and holy matrimony, that between Christ and his Church.
If you are a member of the bride, meditate on what Jesus has done for you. You also were like the woman, thirsty, separated from God, in need of a spiritual husband. Jesus taking the initiative, came and revealed himself to you. He gave you living water, having thirsted on your behalf. That water has become in you a well bubbling up to etemal life; drink from it often. You no longer walk in the darkness of spiritual divorce. But having already been given the Spirit of the age to come, your identity is with your husband; you are hidden with Christ in God. Act like it. Dwell in the realm of the above. The troubles of this world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.
If you are not part of this glorious bride, consider the words of the woman: come and see. The promise of Christ is true: "he who believes in me shall never thirst" (Jn. 6:35). You, like the woman, will then know that most blessed, everlasting love which divorce cannot destroy, from which neither death, nor life, nor any other created thing can ever separate you. You will not be disappointed.