Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 4:5-42, The Message or John 4:5-42, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Click here for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
Get set for some heavy-duty Bible reading from now till Good Friday. A whole chapter from John for the next 3 Sundays, then 2 from Matthew for Passion Sunday, and 2 more from John for Good Friday. Yikes. What were the Lectionary folks thinking?
Prior to this passage, Jesus has been in the region of Judea where his reputation has out-grown that of John, and, because it dangerous for a non-elite peasant from Galilee to get noticed by Judean elites, Jesus decides to retreat back to his home territory in Galilee. Traveling from Judea in the South to Galilee in the North requires traveling through Samaria. (See map.)
Note the very specific details John gives as to the place, location, and time. Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 98, see footnote below.) provide crucial background for understanding this passage:
Samaritans traced their origin to the ancient kingdom of Israel; however Judeans considered the Samaritan's Israelite pedigree to have been bastardized due to inter-marriage with Assyrian (conquerors), (722 BC) before Judean elites were exiled by Babylonian conquerors (586 BC). Since in antiquity people and their land were organically connected, it followed that both Samaritans and their land were unclean or impure in Judean eyes.
Verses 7 to 15. "The fact that the woman at the well is alone and that she comes at midday (instead of the early morning or evening as was the custom) when the other village women are not there suggests that she has been shunned by the other women... That Jesus would be there in the heat of the day is perhaps not surprising, but that he would talk to the woman in ... 'public' space is astonishing indeed." (Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 98.) Notice that Verse 8 emphasizes that they are alone. And Verse 9 emphasizes the woman's surprise that Jesus, a man of Judea, talks to her - a woman of Samaria.
Later, in John 8:48, Judeans will say that Jesus is a Samaritan! We need to hear these labels as name-calling; labeling Jesus as "not one of us," an outsider, not to be trusted, and vulnerable to abuse that we wouldn't do to one of our own.
The comment that Judeans do not share things in common with Samaritans means not even a bucket, ladle, or cup from which water might be drunk.
So Jesus' request, "Give me a drink," crosses deeply engrained social taboos: between Judeans (well, actually Galileans in Jesus' case) and Samaritans; and between women and men. While it is astonishing that Jesus speaks to the woman, it is equally astonishing that instead of immediately getting up and leaving, she engages in conversation with Jesus. Her daring, courageous, willingness to also break the taboos creates the possibility for the transformation that will arise from the conversation that follows.
Verse 10 begins a typical conversation in John:
- Jesus makes a statement.
- His statement is misunderstood.
- Jesus explains further.
There are a series of such conversation cycles in this story ... In the course of these, the women is being progressively led from outsider who misunderstands to enlightened insider.
At the beginning of the conversation Jesus says, "If you knew ...," (John 4:10) but she does not. If she did, she would be the one to ask for a drink, not Jesus.
By Verse 15 she is asking for the water.
Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 99.
The reference to "living" water has a double meaning which Jesus in John is so fond of using. It has the usual meaning of "flowing" water; but in John's reporting, also has the meaning of "life." The first meaning is literal; the second meaning is metaphorical. The woman's first response assumes the literal meaning - "You have no bucket and the well is deep."
But her question in Verse 12, engages Jesus in further conversation. Which leads to the third stage of the conversation: Jesus explains further. His comments here on living water foreshadow later comments on "living" bread, and most significantly, the living water that will flow from his side on Good Friday.
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 99.) comment on these Verses 7 to 15:
Note that Jesus is willing to share a drinking vessel with the woman, a serious polluting act by Pharisee standards, given the fact that he is a stranger sharing a utensil with a Samaritan woman. Yet she is willing to share with him. He, in turn, treats her like family, and now she begins to reciprocate.
The point is important because it signals that the space Jesus and the woman occupy is being transformed from "public" space, where their actions would have been considered deviant, to "private" space, where they are not.
Interpersonally, the woman is becoming part of the group of disciples forming around Jesus, hence, no longer a woman with whom he should not speak.
The conversation now turns from the "public" space of water and wells to the "private" space of family, and is marked by candor and the sharing of information that only intimate friends and family members would discuss.
Jesus' addressing her as "Woman" uses the same term for his own mother (John 2:4 and 19:26) and other women of his group (John 8:10 and 20:13).
Verse 20. Again the woman makes a reference to their shared pre-conquest, pre-exile history, and raises a theological question that was part of the division between the two Israelite Kingdoms: North and South, Samaria and Judea.
Verse 22. Oddly, Jesus begins by re-stating Judean's view of Samaritans.
Verse 23. But he then goes on to negate both: God will not be worshiped in this place or that place, but in "spirit and truth." Unlike the old physical spaces which are primarily the space of privileged males, the space of "spirit and truth" allows the full participation and incorporation of everyone - and in particular, of this unclean, shunned, woman.
Verse 26. Previously, the woman had seen that Jesus was a prophet (John 4:19 - and don't forget the importance in John of SEEing.) But now Jesus makes the first of his great "I am" self-revelations. That this verse and this unnamed woman are not venerated within the Christian tradition speaks volumes of the power of social custom to silence the power of the Good News.
Verse 27. The comment of the narrator about the disciples' reaction confirms the reality of the existing social divide that we have been discussing above. Asking questions of Jesus in the presence of an unknown-to-them woman would have been insulting to Jesus. Insiders do not account for their behaviour in front of outsiders. And especially not men in front of women.
Verse 28-29. The woman leaves her water jar - indicating she is now in a relationship with Jesus such that it is proper and fitting for her to intend to return.
Going back to the city and speaking to the people means she has gone back and entered the public square - again an exclusively male public space where no decent woman would be present without a supervising male. And where no decent woman would speak out - accompanied by a male or not.
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 101) comment:
That she decides to report a conversation about her own questionable sexual behaviour is strange indeed. It suggests she feels no obligation to defend or protect her sexual exclusivity. She appears to be either an adulteress or a "mistress," a fact the author presumes to have been known to her audience. Her shame was thus beyond retrieval.
In any case, such talk in public between unrelated men and women about sexual matters goes far beyond cultural expectations. Not only this, but in her report she indicates that she had been talking about sexual matters with a total stranger to their neighbourhood, Jesus!
The outcome of the episode, however, indicates that yet another transformation is in the process: the men to whom she spreads the news are also becoming (insiders) of Jesus.
Her question, "He couldn't be the Messiah, could he?" is perhaps the only socially acceptable thing she does in this report of her behaviour: she makes a claim about Jesus - he is the Messiah - but does it by the more honourable and polite way of being indirect - by putting it in the form of a question.
To our modern hearing, this also has the happy effect of putting the onus on us the hearers of this story. What do WE think? Could Jesus be the Messiah?
Verses 31 to 38. Meanwhile back at the ranch, we find the disciples addressing Jesus as "Rabbi," "Teacher." Not quite the same league as "Messiah" by which Jesus has just made himself known to the woman. And once again we find ourselves in the 3 step conversation mentioned above.
Verse 34 has echoes from the testing stories in Matthew and Luke that "Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Jesus' description of the harvesting describes what is already happening in the city where the woman is speaking - "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony." (John 4:39)
Verses 39 - 42. Remember that in the Gospel of John, "stay" is associated with "abide" and indicates deep bonding and loyalty.
The statement to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe," should not be read as dismissive or belittling. All of us are called to "hear for ourselves." But all of us also depend on that first step of the testimony of another. Without her, they would not also have become part of Jesus' inner kinship group.
And as is proper, the final word must go to Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 102.):
The final sentence of this passage contains the only use of the term Savior in John.... Here in John the title, Savior of the world, reveals Jesus as the rescuer of all Israel, including the branch of Israel considered a bastard offshoot by Judeans.
Which is good news indeed for all of us who do not have the pedigree to belong to the inner group of God's beloved.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, see link below, pages 98-105.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
John 4:5-42 (NRSV)
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." 17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" 19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." 21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." 26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33 So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" 34 Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 4:5-42 (The Message)
5 He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.
7 A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, "Would you give me a drink of water?" 8 (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)
9 The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, "How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" (Jews in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered, "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water."
11 The woman said, "Sir, you don't even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this 'living water'? 12 Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?"
13 Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. 14 Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life."
15 The woman said, "Sir, give me this water so I won't ever get thirsty, won't ever have to come back to this well again!"
16 He said, "Go call your husband and then come back."
17 "I have no husband," she said.
"That's nicely put: 'I have no husband.' 18 You've had five husbands, and the man you're living with now isn't even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough."
19 "Oh, so you're a prophet! 20 Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?"
21 "Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. 22 You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God's way of salvation is made available through the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
"It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. 24 God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration."
25 The woman said, "I don't know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we'll get the whole story."
26 "I am he," said Jesus. "You don't have to wait any longer or look any further."
27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn't believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.
28 The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, 29 "Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?" 30 And they went out to see for themselves.
31 In the meantime, the disciples pressed him, "Rabbi, eat. Aren't you going to eat?"
32 He told them, "I have food to eat you know nothing about."
33 The disciples were puzzled. "Who could have brought him food?"
34 Jesus said, "The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. 35 As you look around right now, wouldn't you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I'm telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what's right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It's harvest time!
36 "The Harvester isn't waiting. He's taking his pay, gathering in this grain that's ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. 37 That's the truth of the saying, 'This one sows, that one harvests.' 38 I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others."
39 Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman's witness: "He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!" 40 They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. 41 A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. 42 They said to the woman, "We're no longer taking this on your say-so. We've heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He's the Savior of the world!"
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials.
Acknowledgement in oral presentations is not required.
Otherwise, please acknowledge source as, "David Ewart, www.holytextures.com."