Scandal: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.


Have you ever been really thirsty? I mean unbearably thirsty. Do you remember what that felt like?

I get a kick out of kids. As soon as they get even the tiniest bit thirsty suddenly they’re “dying of thirst!” Really? You’re dying of thirst? You just had a glass of water like an hour ago. I don’t think you’re really dying of thirst.

But there’s something rejuvenating about water when you’re actually dehydrated and exhausted. Have you ever been there?

Today we’re continuing our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus and over the course of this series we’ve been asking the question, what is so scandalous or offensive about Jesus? Why did the religious leaders try to kill him?

Today we’re going to be talking about John chapter 4, the time that Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. This is a pretty long passage and we’re going to go through it essentially verse by verse, so I’m not going to quote it here first.

John chapter four, starting in verse one says this:

1Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—2although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4Now he had to go through Samaria.

When Jesus started his public ministry, he started in Galilee. Galilee is the northern region of Palestine, which is where Jesus is from. So it makes sense that he started out in Galilee. However, in John chapter 2 we read that Jesus and his disciples travelled to Jerusalem before Passover to celebrate the festival, which was the custom at the time. Jesus then stuck around Judea, the region where Jerusalem is located, and after a while, he learned that word had begun to spread about him. He was gaining more disciples than John and the Pharisees had picked up on this. Since Jesus didn’t want to have an altercation with them yet, he decided to leave Judea and go back up to Galilee.

Now, when you’re going from Judea in the south, up to Galilee in the north there are two routes you can take. The safer route to take would be to leave Jerusalem and head east to Jericho. From Jericho, you would then cross over the Jordan River and travel up the Jordan river valley on the east side of the river through the region known as Perea before getting to Galilee. This was generally the route most Jews travelling between Galilee and Judea would take. It’s the route Jesus and his disciples originally took on their way down from Galilee and it usually took about six days.

The other option, to get from Judea to Galilee is to just head straight north. There was a road that led from Jerusalem and went through Samaria before eventually getting to the region known as the Decapolis or the ten cities, and then to Galilee from there. This was the direct route and would only take about three days to get from Jerusalem to Galilee.

Typically, most Jews would take the longer, safer route through Perea on the other side of the Jordan river. But this time we’re told that Jesus and his disciples went directly north through Samaria.

Now, the reason Jews would typically avoid going through Samaria was that Jews and Samaritans hated each other. There was a shared animosity for the other group. Every Jew knows that you don’t just go travelling through Samaria if you don’t have to. Those people are dangerous. Those people will rob you. Those people will kill you. So, if you’ve got the time, you go around. If you’re travelling alone, you go around. But this time, Jesus and his disciples go straight through Samaria.

We continue in verse five,

5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

If you’re travelling north from Jerusalem, the road would take you through Bethel and then Lebonah, which was the last spot which was considered safe to stay at night. Lebonah was in Judah and it was about a half day journey from Sychar. So if you’re travelling north through Samaria and you left Lebonah early in the morning, you would naturally end up just outside of Sychar right around noon. And Jesus, because he’s human like we are, was tired. It was hot and he had been travelling all morning.

7When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8(His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9The 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.)

Now, there are a couple of shocking things going on here. First of all, as John parenthetically reminded us, Jews and Samaritans don’t get along. If you’re a Jew you don’t talk to a Samaritan. In fact, even just using the same dish as a Samaritan would make you ritually unclean. Furthermore, Jesus is a man and the Samaritan woman is a woman.

In that day, men and women just didn’t talk. Especially a single man couldn’t be seen talking to a single woman. People might get the wrong idea. In fact, some Rabbi’s would go to extreme lengths with this. Some wouldn’t even talk to their own sister in public. Others would close their eyes if they were walking in public so that they wouldn’t look at any women.

So Jesus is a good Jewish man while the Samaritan woman is a Samaritan… and a woman. Moreover, the text tells us that it’s about noon and this woman is coming out to draw water from the well. This is abnormal behaviour. Most women would come to the well to draw water earlier in the day while it’s still cool. But this woman is coming at noon. The fact that she’s drawing water from the well at noon shows that she’s an outsider within her own village.

So she’s a Samaritan, a woman and she’s apparently done something that has caused her to be an outcast within her own community. If there was ever a character in all of the Gospels that Jesus was supposed to ignore and avoid, it was this woman. But instead he asks her for a drink. To which she is naturally surprised. “You are a Jew,” she says, “and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

In verse 10 he replies,

10Jesus 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.”

“Living water” is a strange phrase for us, but it was a common phrase in first-century Palestine. It was similar to what we would call running water. Living water is water that is moving and flowing instead of still water. Living water was considered pure and clean and fresh.

But, beyond simply meaning running water or fresh water, the phrase “living water” was sometimes used in the Hebrew Bible as a metaphor for God’s presence.

Psalm 36:9 says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

Later on in Jeremiah 2:13, God says “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

God himself is the spring of living water. The New Testament picks up on this metaphor in the book of Revelation when it speaks of the end of this age, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

So Jesus asks for a drink, and when she responds with shock that a Jewish holy man would even talk with a notorious Samaritan woman, Jesus responds by saying, “If you knew who I am, what I can offer, you would ask me for living water.” Ultimately, the gift of God that Jesus is talking about is God himself. It’s a life fulfilled and satisfied by his presence. So she tries to understand what he’s talking about.

11“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

She assumes Jesus is speaking literally about real water so she asks him how he plans to get it. This well would have been about 100 feet deep and the water would typically percolate up or bubble up from below. This woman would have known about all the sources of water in the area and would have known there’s no fresh water available. So she asks Jesus if he is greater than their forefather Jacob, who is a stand in for all of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob brought us this well. Jacob brought us the twelve tribes of Israel and the covenant with God. Are you greater than our forefather Jacob? Ironically, the answer is yes. Jesus is greater than Jacob.

So Jesus tries to clarify more in verses 13 and 14,

13Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.”

You can almost hear him pointing to this well as he talks. “If you drink this water, you’ll get thirsty again. But the water I provide will actually satisfy you.” This whole thing is a metaphor. He’s talking about this well and this still, well water and how even when you drink it you get thirsty again.

But he’s also talking about her life and all the ways she’s been trying to find satisfaction in life. So he’s saying, “If you keep drinking this water you’re bound to have to come back again and again and again. But if you want something that’s truly satisfying, you need to drink the water I’m offering you.” Furthermore, the water Jesus can give doesn’t just satisfy us, it becomes in us a spring welling up to eternal life.

Now, the phrase “eternal life” was also a common Jewish phrase. It didn’t just mean “You get to live forever and ever” or after you die you get to go to heaven. Eternal life referred to life in the age to come. In Jewish eschatology—in the Jewish belief about how everything ultimately ends—they divided things into two categories: the present age and the age to come.

“The present age” is this age. It’s this world we see around us with all of the corruption and injustice we see. But Jews also believed in what they called “the age to come”. And “the end of this age” was a phrase they used which meant that time or that point in history when Yahweh God would finally and definitively choose to act. That time when justice and peace would finally be the way of things. So eternal life, to a Jew in first century Palestine, meant living in the age to come. Living in the age where justice and mercy and peace would finally and completely win out over death, corruption and injustice.

But for the first Christians, they believed that Jesus death and resurrection was how God chose to act definitively and decisively in human history. Which means, for the first Christians, eternal life was something that could be experienced here and now. The age to come was, in a way, already here. The first Christians understood that we are not fully in the age to come, but that God had already acted through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And they called this the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. Meaning the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the age to come, is already breaking into this present age.

To experience eternal life is to participate in the age to come; to participate in the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. We’re not all the way there yet, and we can’t get there on our own. But we can still work with Jesus here and now to bring about the Kingdom of God. Or as N.T. Wright says, “We can’t build the kingdom, but we can build towards the kingdom.”

So, when Jesus, in verse 14 says, “The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” What he’s not saying, what’s he’s not telling this woman, is “If you accept me you get to go to heaven someday.”

Instead, this is an invitation to a life of purpose. What he’s saying is, “For all who are thirsty, for everyone who has tried again and again to satisfy their thirst with this well water, come to me.  Drink my fresh, clean, spring water. The water I give you will truly satisfy you.” And it won’t just satisfy you, but it will become a spring. You yourself will become a spring, an outflowing of the very presence of the living God blessing and touching all who you interact with as you experience eternal life, as you participate in the age to come, the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. The woman responds, in verse 15,

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.”

Finally, we’re getting somewhere. The woman asks for water because she doesn’t want to keep coming back to this well. Remember, this woman is an outcast. All the other women come and draw water early in the morning, but not her. Which means, every time she comes to draw water it’s a reminder of her isolation. It’s a reminder of how unwelcome she is among the others.

Jesus responds in verse 16-18,

16He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The 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.”

And finally, we get to the source of both her thirst and why she’s an outcast. Here is a woman who has had failed relationship after failed relationship. She’s had five husbands. Here is a woman who keeps going back to that well again and again. Who keeps drinking that well water only to find she’s thirsty again. And at this point, she’s probably lost all faith in it working out, and she’s so tired of it not working out, so she hasn’t even bothered with marriage this time.

In our culture, people live together all the time and most people don’t think anything of it, but for first-century Palestine, to live with someone you’re not married to was scandalous. I wonder what the other women said about her as they draw their water. I wonder how much they gossiped about another failed marriage, about another man in her life, about her sexual promiscuity. No wonder she’s an outsider. And Jesus calls her on it.

“Are you ready to be done drinking that well water? Are you ready for the fresh, living water I can give you?” At this challenge, the woman immediately changes the subject to something a little less contentious… religion.

Verse 19-20,

19“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Essentially, the woman recognizes that Jesus is a prophet—on account of him knowing about her husbands—and decides to try to get him sidetracked in a debate. The Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim, but even after it was destroyed they still claimed that it was the most important mountain; the one true place to worship the one true God. Meanwhile, Jews believe Mount Zion in Jerusalem is the one true place to worship the one true God. So she throws the statement out there. “We’ve always worshipped God here on Mount Gerizim, but you Jews claim Mount Zion is the right mountain.”

Essentially she’s asking, “Who’s right?” Jews or Samaritans? Which religion is the right one? Which mountain is the one that pleases God?

21“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation comes from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman, wanting to switch from the topic of herself and her notorious character, tries to get Jesus off topic with a debate about religion. Which religion is right? How do we please God? Which mountain should we worship on? And Jesus essentially replies with… neither. The location doesn’t matter. Religion is irrelevant. Religion is all about trying to do things to appease God or the gods.

William Barclay in his commentary on John says,

“Real religion is founded not on fear but on the love of God and gratitude for what God has done. Too much religion is a kind of superstitious ritual to avert the possible wrath of the unpredictable gods.”

It’s almost like Jesus is saying, “The One True God is offering you the gift of living water, true, thirst-quenching satisfaction and you’re asking which mountain he demands to be worshipped on? What kind of a god do you think this is?”

A time is coming and is already here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem. This God doesn’t care for your superstitious attempt at appeasement. Rather this God is spirit and we should worship him in spirit and in truth.

The Greek word for truth is “alethia” which means unclosed or unconcealed. The idea of worshipping God in truth means to worship God without hiding anything; without holding anything back. Jerome Neyrey, in his commentary, says this,

“There is no fixed space (i.e., temple), no system of sacrifices… Thus, worship is not material or sacrificial: It is inspired and mediated by the ‘spirit of truth.’”

This God is spirit and his worshippers must worship him in the Spirit and in truth. Not because that’s how you appease the gods, but because that’s just the reality. Holy mountains don’t matter. Everywhere is holy ground. What matters is worshipping in truth. Worshipping God without concealing or hiding anything back.

The woman is confused by this, or maybe she just doesn’t accept what Jesus is saying, because in verse 25 she responds with,

25“I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

Since the Samaritans don’t believe in the Writings or the Prophets, her understanding of the Messiah is based almost exclusively on Deuteronomy 18:18 which says,

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.”

The Samaritans were expecting a Messiah who was essentially a teacher. This idea of a saviour, or one who will inaugurate the age to come was completely foreign. But Jesus responds with, “I am he.” I am you Messiah, your teacher, the one like Moses.

What I love about this story is what a master teacher Jesus is. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus do this often; take a seemingly innocuous situation and turn it into an opportunity to teach and an opportunity to invite. He’s travelling through Samaria and he stops at a well at noon, because he’s thirsty. But he uses his own physical thirst to start a conversation with this woman about a deeper thirst, a thirst in her soul.

Here Jesus meets someone on the margins, a woman on the fringes of society; an outcast who, due to her sexual past, has been rejected by her own people. And he sees a woman who is trying to quench the thirst inside of her with relationships and with religion. It starts with a request, “Will you give me a drink?” And it moves into an invitation, “If you understood the gift of God and who I am, you would ask me for living water.”

The living water is a gift. Eternal life, participation in the age to come is a gift Jesus desperately wants to give us.  It’s not something we can earn through religion, but we need to be willing to worship in truth. We must worship him without hiding anything. Which means being honest about where we’re drinking from well water in our own lives.

Where are you drinking from well water?  Where are you trying to find satisfaction and meaning in places that will never satisfy you?

For the Samaritan woman, it was relationships and religion. Our souls craved intimacy and she kept trying to satisfy that with one guy after the next. She kept trying to earn approval from God rather than accepting that he already approved of her regardless of what she did. Where are you trying to find satisfaction in your life? Where are you continuing to drink well water when Jesus is offering living water? For some of us, maybe it’s also in relationships. Or maybe it’s our job.  Maybe it’s the car we drive or the house we live in.

This is something I struggle with a lot. I’m a goals person. I like to have things that I’m working towards. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with goals, but so often I can succumb to the lie that accomplishing those goals are what will finally allow me to be happy; what will finally allow me to experience abundant life. And so I’ll think to myself: If I can just graduate university, then I’ll be happy. If I can get married, then I’ll be happy. Once I’m a lead pastor, then I’ll be happy. If I can grow my church to this size, then finally I’ll be happy.

But it’s always a moving goal post. I reach those things and I feel okay. I’m happy I reached the goal, but they don’t truly satisfy me like I keep believing they will. What about you? What are the things that you keep telling yourself, “This is what will finally satisfy me.”

C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, says this,

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

What are the things that you’re trying to use to feel fulfilled and satisfied in life? Where are you drinking from that well? Are you willing to worship God in truth, unconcealed?

Second, how are you drinking the living water that Jesus gives? When I ask that, I don’t mean, have you read your Bible today or have you prayed today. Those are good spiritual disciplines and things we should practice, but I think for some of us, those can be religion, ways of earning God’s approval.

What I mean is this: The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts with asking the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers it by saying, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” And I really like that, but John Piper in Desiring God reframes it and says it would be more accurate to say, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” We glorify God most when we are enjoying him.

The 1981 movie Chariots of Fire tells the true story of two British men who ran in the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams an English Jew and Eric Liddell a Scottish Christian. And at one point in the film, Liddell say the most famous line. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

For Liddell, running was a way to glorify God because running was a way that he found satisfaction and enjoyment in God. For Liddell, running was one of the ways that he drank the living water Jesus offers. How are you glorifying God by enjoying him?

Jesus is offering us living water, true water that will forever slake our thirst. Maybe God made you to run or paint or play guitar or plant flowers. God created you to feel his pleasure. And when you enjoy him you glorify him. What are some ways you need to drink deep of Jesus living water and simply enjoy him; find satisfaction in him?

And finally, how are you allowing Jesus’ living water to become a spring of eternal life in you? If eternal life has more to do with participating in the age to come, if it has more to do with building for the Kingdom of God, then how are you a part of that? How are you part of Jesus’ ongoing work to bring peace and mercy and justice to this present world? What are you giving your life to? How are you giving your life away for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom?

For someone like Mother Teresa, it meant moving to Calcutta and working in the slums with some of the poorest people on the planet. For someone like me, it means teaching and leading in a local church. A friend of mine is a volunteer doula who literally helps welcome babies into the world. Another friend of mine works with an organization in South East Asia rescuing teenage girls from the sex trade.

Maybe you’re a stay at home parent and you’re raising the next generation to know and love and serve Jesus. Maybe you’re an administrator and you’re helping bring order out of the chaos. How are you allowing the eternal life of Jesus to well up inside you and impact those around you? When we engage in these things, it’s hard work, but it’s satisfying work.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” So often, the truly thirst quenching water Jesus offers is found difficult and so we instead go back to our regular well water. It might not quench our thirst, but it’s easy and it’s safe and it’s predictable. And all the while Jesus is there saying, “If you only knew the gift of God, you would ask me and I would give you living water.”

So often, we try to quench our thirst with still, maybe even stagnant, well water, while Jesus offers us fresh, living water. Where in your life are you still trying to drink well water? How are you drinking the living water Jesus offers? And how are you letting the spring inside you well up to eternal life?

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