Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42 (Part I)

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 8

by Reta Halteman Finger

Giacomo Franceschini’s “Gesù e la Samaritana al Pozzo” (17th or 18th century) – from Wikipedia

I planned to write about Jesus and the woman at the well in one lesson, but now I see that I cannot. The text is too laden with meanings on different levels, with issues of race/ethnicity, gender, and even one-upmanship. We need more background to better evaluate Jesus’ skill at being a Spiritual Director (see Lesson 6).

But first, an overview: Jesus and his disciples are walking north from Judea to Galilee (click here for a map of first century Palestine). On the way, they stop at a well in Samaria, which lies between. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so he rests by the well while his disciples leave to buy food. A lone woman comes with her water jar. A long conversation ensues, after which the woman runs back to her village and rounds up whoever she can persuade to meet Jesus. These Samaritans come to believe, and they invite Jesus to stay for a couple of days. The story has a happy ending.

Roots of Ethnic Prejudice

First, why and how did Jesus end up at that well? According to 4:1-4, Jesus was actually fleeing popularity. The scuttlebutt among religious circles in Judea was that Jesus was competing for converts with John the Baptist, and apparently winning. (Did you know that Jesus’ disciples were already baptizing in his name? [4:2]).  So to quell the gossip and give John more space, Jesus heads back home to Galilee. Only this Gospel cites such a magnanimous reason for Jesus returning to Galilee. Mark and Matthew say he went there after John had been arrested (Mark 1:14; Matthew 4:12)—suggesting Judea was no longer safe for him.

Verse 4 translates literally from Greek, “It was necessary (dei) for him to go through Samaria.” (Dei always means, “it is necessary.”) Why include something so obvious, since a map will show you that Samaria lies between Judea and Galilee on the west bank of the Jordan River. However, at that time Jews segregated themselves from Samaritans, just as whites in the American South did from blacks during Jim Crow days. So Jews traveling between Galilee and Judea assumed “it was necessary” (dei) to cross the Jordan River and travel along its east bank.

To Jews—descendants of the two Southern Kingdom tribes of Judah and Benjamin— Samaritans were second-class because they were mixed-race. Ages ago, in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, deliberately scattering the wealthy, upper class people of these original ten tribes among “the nations” and forcing non-Israelites to settle in the land now called Samaria. The immigrants intermarried with the remaining inhabitants.

Though retaining their Yahwist roots, the Samaritans refused to worship in Jerusalem and maintained their own temple at Mount Gerizim. This place was “the gate of heaven” to them because here their ancestor Jacob had dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and God promising him this land for his offspring forever (Genesis 28:10-17).  But in 128 BCE, the Jewish high priest burned their temple to the ground. Additional prejudices about Samaritans’ ritual impurity kept Jews from associating with them.

But for Jesus, beloved son of the God who loved the whole world (John 3:16), it was necessary that he go through Samaria.

Site of Abraham’s Well at Beersheba, in southern Israel. Photo by Reta Finger
Site of Abraham’s Well at Beersheba, in southern Israel. Photo by Reta Finger

Reviving an old tradition—with a twist

It is no accident that Jesus stops at Jacob’s well. In this way, the stage is set for a repetition of an old Israelite typology:  man meets woman at a well; man proposes marriage; woman seeks advice, then accepts. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant Eleazer to find a wife for Isaac. He finds Rebekah at a well; true to custom, she gives him a drink and waters his camels for him. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets his future wife Rachel at a well. Moses meets his future wife Zipporah and their flocks of sheep at a well (Exodus 2:15-22).

But what a difference! The Samaritan woman is neither shepherdess nor virgin, and Jesus is no wife-hunter. We don’t know if the woman ever gave Jesus a drink from the well, but we do know that he reversed gender roles and offered her a drink instead. Once again, the author draws from the Hebrew Bible to portray Jesus not only as a prophet in the tradition of his people, but as the “One from Above” who relives Hebrew history—and then breaks its mold in shocking new ways. (See especially Lessons 4 and 5 on water-into-wine and cleansing the temple [John 2:1-22]).

Questions for reflection and discussion

With this background in mind, examine Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman.

  • What words have double meanings? How does this woman misunderstand Jesus?
  • How does Jesus spar with her, using “challenge and riposte” (see Lesson 7) as males normally do in that culture?
  • How do the disciples react to Jesus’ behavior? Though they baptize in 4:2, what evidence suggests they have a long way to go in understanding Jesus?
  • Where do you see the Above and Below interact throughout this passage? (see Lesson 1). How does the Below illuminate the Above?
  • Evaluate Jesus as a Spiritual Director. How successful was he in this case?
  • Is there anyone in this story with whom you most identify?
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.