Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42—Part II

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 9

by Reta Halteman Finger

Water in handsThis is the fourth lesson about Jesus as Spiritual Director. He failed with Nicodemus, the teacher in Israel. Will he succeed with an outcast, sexually-compromised, ritually unclean Samaritan woman? (Review the background of this story in Lesson 8.)

It is high noon near Sychar, Samaria, and the sun is beating down on travelers from Judea. Their leader is tired, so he sits down by Jacob’s well while the rest go into town to buy lunch (4:5-6). How very human of Jesus to be hot, tired, and thirsty! The Word from heaven (1:1-17), the prophet who reads human hearts (2:24-25), experiences fatigue like we do!

I used to imagine the well on a sun-drenched hillock, but it was probably more like the photo in Lesson 8—a tree-shaded rest stop. Unexpectedly, a local woman comes to draw water, a task usually completed at daybreak. Jesus asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked. “Do you, a Jew, ask me, an ‘unclean’ woman of Samaria, for a drink?”

Words with double meanings

Then follows a classic feature of this Gospel, what Jerome Neyrey’s Cambridge commentary calls “statement—misunderstanding—clarification.” Jesus ignores the ethnic taunt and cuts to the chase: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would instead ask him for living water” (4:10). The woman is not dumb. Lacking indoor plumbing, “living water” means “running water” from springs or rivers. It is always superior to the still and often stale water of cisterns or wells.

Like Nicodemus and the birth image, she thinks concretely: “With no bucket and a deep well, how will you get this ‘living water’? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well?” she mocks, assuming the answer is no. This woman is not shy; she is used to bantering with men. She laughs at the reversed-role idea of a male giving a female a drink.

At this point, let’s assume the woman did draw up water for Jesus—he must be thirsty from hours of walking! After a long drink, he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but if you drink of the water I give, your thirst will be quenched. This water will be a spring gushing up into eternal life” (13-14).

The woman probably knew the legend about Jacob’s well—that occasionally water would surge to the top and overflow. But this strange man promises an ever-flowing spring, so he must be greater than Jacob! Still thinking of physical water, she begs for it so she will never again have to come to the well. (Won’t the neighbor women be jealous!)

What kind of woman is this?

The conversation abruptly shifts, and Jesus says, “Go call your husband.” “I have none,” she replies, and does not obey him. But as Spiritual Director who can read hearts, Jesus somehow knows this sad tale: five previous husbands and a live-in boyfriend (17-18). He can tell this woman is accustomed to relating to men. But is she promiscuous?  Marriages were arranged and divorce was easy for men in that culture, so abuse and abandonment may lie in her past. But Jesus’ insight definitely gets her attention. Water is forgotten and her eyes light up. “Sir, I see you are a prophet!”

Leaping at the chance to discuss theology with a real prophet, her question about the right place to worship suggests her thoughts are still on an earthly level. Please say Mount Gerizim is the proper site!

But place does not matter, asserts Jesus. God is spirit; we must worship God within our spirits, for God is actively seeking such people to relate to (23-24). This is a bold assertion. “Place of worship” was what separated Samaritans from Jews. For a Jew, only the temple at Jerusalem was sacred. Now Jesus challenges place, just as he had Jewish ritual law at the Cana wedding! (Lesson 4). For a moment she pauses, uncertain. “Well, when Messiah comes, he’ll tell us the truth about everything!”

Verbal sparring now gives way to revelation: “I am Messiah.” She is stunned, for once at a loss for words.

But the holy moment is interrupted by the noisy return of Jesus’ disciples, who stop in astonishment that he is talking with a woman. (What would they think if they knew what he just told her!)

Forgetting her water jar, the woman runs back to her town –not to the women’s quarters but to the town square where men dominate. “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” (27-29).

The text says in 4:30, “they left the city and were on their way to him.” (How many of those men were former husbands of the woman?!) Before they arrive, however, Jesus’ disciples ask him to eat food they’ve brought, and he makes another enigmatic statement with a double meaning, which of course they misunderstand: “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” After losing Nicodemus, his “food” was the exhilaration of conversing with someone who actually “gets it.”

Unlike the Jewish religious leaders, many Samaritans in Sychar believe in him and invite him to stay awhile. They say to the woman, “It’s no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves” (42). This is not a putdown. The story clearly honors her as a bold theologian and evangelist. But a direct, personal relationship with Jesus is always the goal in this Gospel. Now the Samaritans, former outsiders, announce, “We know that this is truly the Savior (or Benefactor) of the world.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. How well did Jesus succeed as Spiritual Director?

2. Identify in the text various ways in which the Samaritan woman defies expected female behavior in that culture, and the ways Jesus goes along with it. Do you like her?

3. Is the Mother-Father God seeking you to worship him in spirit and in truth? (4:23).

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.