Summary: The Woman at the Well
“The Bad Samaritan”, John 4:1-30, Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Jesus never avoided conflict, and He certainly did not look down on people who were different. We see Him showing kindness to Gentiles, and here (in John chapter 4) to Samaritans, who were maligned as half-breeds, a mixed race. They were Jews who had inter-married with Gentiles following the Assyrian captivity in 727 BC. Samaritans were treated as impure outcasts, ethnically and spiritually, and were excluded from Temple worship in Jerusalem. The Jews felt that the ancestors of the Samaritans had betrayed their heritage through intermarriage with foreigners. Jesus’ enemies sought to insult Him by calling Him a Samaritan (8:48). We see Jesus traveling directly through Samaria, while most Jews would detour around it, through Perea, east of the Jordan River (which took longer), simply to avoid contact with Samaritans. Jesus was not in a hurry; and His direct route choice was intended to demonstrate that He was above religious prejudice.
Jesus pauses at Sychar. In Genesis 33, Jacob purchased land in this vicinity, and had dug a well. This land was venerated as a sacred place by the Samaritans, who, like the Jews, claimed Jacob as their father. The Jews and Samaritans had a common ancestor; both drank from this well. It had been a tiring journey, and the noon-time heat was draining…but Jesus had a purpose beyond satisfying thirst.
A Samaritan woman approaches the well alone. She brings an empty jar to be filled, along with an empty life. Normally women would draw water in a group, and at a cooler time of the day. Her solitary task was likely to avoid contact with others; she was a moral outcast, whose reputation would be well known in her small town.
Jesus is waiting at the well. To the woman, this stranger may have appeared as a troublesome inconvenience. Jesus has no bucket, or even a cup, but He draws her into conversation. She is startled that a Jew would even speak to a Samaritan, let alone ask for a drink. Jews and Samaritans would not remotely consider sharing the same utensils or facilities. Samaritans were regarded as ceremonially unclean (spiritually defiled), along with anything they touched. Why would a Jew want to use her ‘polluted’ vessel to get a drink of water? Rabbinic teaching stated that to partake of a Samaritan’s bread was “like eating pork”. Also, in these times speaking to women was regarded as a scandalous waste of time—men wouldn’t even have substantive conversations with their own wives. (In contrast, I’m reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, who called his wife Abagail, “My worthiest and wisest friend.”) A rabbi of the times said “It is better that the words of the Law be burned than be delivered to a woman.” Jesus didn’t agree with that prejudice. For ethnic, religious, and gender reasons our Lord’s conversation is unconventional. We learn that God values us all, that we all possess dignity and worth, because our Savior came for all the world.
Prejudice is regarding one’s group as superior, and viewing others in a negative or hostile fashion. Bigotry assumes that one’s culture is the best—it may take leaving a comfort zone to discover the richness of diversity. Having lived overseas, I’ve known some “Ugly Americans” who, when overseas, refused to explore and enjoy living in a foreign land.
The woman objects to Jesus’ request—after all, he may be thirsty, but he is Jewish! Jesus responds by revealing that He is God’s gift to the world, one offering “living water” to all who thirst for God. In the Psalms we read, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for God” (42:1), and “With the Lord is the fountain of life” (36:9). This water Jesus is speaking of refers to the new life He brings. All who thirst for God will be satisfied.
The woman isn’t prepared for spiritual conversation—she doesn’t sense the depth of this stranger’s words. She’s bewildered by Jesus’ claim—how can he give her a drink? He doesn’t even have a container, and the well was deep (according to archeologists, over 100 feet deep). Since this was Jacob’s well she may have interpreted Jesus’ words as a claim of superiority—was he dishonoring her people’s revered well by claiming to be better than the patriarch Jacob? She responds with a sense of outrage. Jesus is trying to awaken spiritual thirst and challenge her thinking. He wants to draw her to the well of salvation. Jesus is offering water better than the old order. Jesus is ushering in the Kingdom of God, a new order.
Hydration is essential for life, and one drink will not satisfy. If we deprive ourselves of water we will perish. Yet there are people who are spiritually dieing of thirst who refuse to drink the living water Jesus freely offers. They drink instead from the troubled streams of the world. The water we drink will sustain us in life—but the water Jesus offers provides for life eternal. In ch 7 Jesus urges, “Let anyone who is thirsty come and drink; rivers of living water will flow from the heart of those who believe in Me” (vss 37-38). Jesus is making a significant claim about Himself.