Conversations: Jesus and the Woman at the Well
Text: John 4:4-42
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing in our series of sermons on Conversations with Jesus, and today we have perhaps the lengthiest actual conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels. It’s the story today of Jesus speaking with the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria.
So turn with me to the Gospel of John, 4:4-42, and let’s listen in as Jesus and this Samaritan woman go back and forth in a dialogue that is truly intriguing.
My friends, this is a great conversation of Jesus, first as I’ve already said, because of its shear length. Most all of the conversations of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are short and to the point. It is rare to find one that is lengthy and engaging like this one.
But the other thing that makes this a great conversations the contrast between the speakers: Jesus is a Jew, and the woman at the well is a Samaritan, and it is that initial contrast that colors their entire conversation.
Jesus says, “Will you give me a drink?” And she says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And the Gospel writer John adds parenthetically, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans. Well, that’s putting it mildly. Jews hated Samaritans, and Samaritans hated Jews. It’s much like the Jews and Palestinians today. They live in close proximity to each other, share a common land, a common heritage, common lineage as descendants of Abraham, but their animosity goes way back. A Jew in Jesus’ day would rather eat dust than accept a cup of water from a Samaritan. So the woman at the well is startled by Jesus right off the bat.
The second contrast between the two is that Jesus is obviously a Jewish MAN, and she is a Samaritan WOMAN. This also causes a few sparks in the conversation. No Jewish man in that day, and particularly a Rabbi, would ever speak to a woman alone and in public like this. You can see this in the reaction of the disciples when they come back from shopping in the town. In v. 27 it says that when the disciples returned, “they were surprised to find Jesus talking with a woman!”
You bet they were. It just wasn’t done. But they would have been especially surprised if they had known what Jesus knew about this particular woman. She was a mess! She had had five husbands, and was now living with a sixth man who hadn’t even bothered to marry her. The reason she is out at the well at 12:00noon in the heat of the day to get her water, is because she was not welcome to come earlier in the morning with all the other women of the town. She was something of an outcast in the local society.
So there are our two participants in this conversation: Jesus, the Jewish man who is known by all to be holy, good, and righteous. And this Samaritan woman, who is thought by most everyone she knows not to be holy, good, or righteous.
Quite a contrast. But notice that it’s Jesus who initiates the conversation,
and he seems to know exactly who he is talking to. In fact, as the story goes along, one gets the sense that when it says in v. 4 that Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” it was just for the purpose of having this conversation with this particular woman. And there isn’t anyone in the story more surprised about this than the woman herself.
So let’s look now at the conversation itself, and what they say to each other. It’s the contrasts in the content that make the dialogue sparkle, too.
First, Jesus responds to the woman’s surprise at him asking her for water, by saying, “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.”
Jesus immediately introduces a contrast between the regular drinking water from the well that he is asking for, and another kind of water altogether: a living kind of water; a kind of water that she should actually be asking him for.
And the contrast Jesus is going for here, isn’t just between a worldly natural water and an other-worldly spiritual water. What he is driving at and what she actually gets, is that he is contrasting himself with Jacob, the Patriarch, who dug that well thousands of years before, and was revered by the Samaritans.
Jesus is saying to her, “I have asked you for water from this well, but I have something more to give you than Jacob ever could have given with a hundred such wells.”
And she gets this. She says, “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself?” And he says in essence, “That’s exactly right. Everyone who drinks from this well of Jacob will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I will give him will never thirst again. What I have to offer is a kind of water that becomes in each person a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.” And she says, “Sir, I’d like some of that water.”
Now then comes the next contrast. Jesus seems to change the whole course of the conversation by saying: “Go call your husband and come back.” And it makes you wonder: is Jesus falling back on the old male/female distinctions of his day? Will he only give her some of his living water if her husband is there to say it’s OK?
But no, pretty quickly we find out that this isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. He knows full well that she has no real husband at this point. He knows she has had five husbands in the past, but the guy she’s living with currently is not even a husband to her.
So what is he doing? Trying to make her feel bad? No. He is leading her to a deeper revelation of who HE IS. He is showing her that he knows everything about her without her even having to say it. And again, she gets the point: “I see you are a prophet,” she says.
And then she goes back to the contrast between the Jews and the Samaritans again that colors the whole conversation. “You Jews claim we must worship God at Jerusalem on Mt. Zion, but our fathers have always worshipped on this mountain, Mt. Gerazim, here in Samaria.”
And Jesus says, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when such contrasts and distinctions won’t matter anymore at all. A time is coming when true worshippers, no matter where they are, will worship God in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”
And she says, “I know that when the Messiah comes, he will explain everything.” And Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am he.”
And that, my friends, was the goal of the whole conversation. Jesus’ revelation of himself to this Samaritan woman. That is why he came to Samaria. That is why he stopped at this well. That is why he asked for a drink of water and initiated this whole conversation. He knew exactly what he was doing and why.
And it was the point of all the contrasts he was painting: the contrasts were meant to reveal who he is. He is the one who breaks down the barriers between Jews and Samaritans. He is the one who breaks down the distinctions between men and women. He is the one who breaks down the dividing wall of sin that causes five marriages to collapse, and people to live as social outcasts in their own town. He is the one who is greater than Jacob, and greater than all the forefathers of the faith we so revere. He is the one who is greater than Mt. Zion, or Mt. Gerazim, or any other holy place where we think God is truly worshipped. He is the one who gives us both the Spirit and the Truth and enables us to worship God anywhere and everywhere, because a stream of living water is bubbling up within us that cannot be contained.
“I am He,” Jesus says. “I who speak to you am He.”
And then the most amazing thing happens. When she sees Jesus for who He is, and when she realizes that He is the one to reconcile all of these contrasts that have dominated her life, all these contrasts that have defined who she is, and have kept her in bondage all these years, she is set free. And she can’t help but go tell the whole town about this man who has set her free. The social barriers don’t matter to her anymore. She is set free to worship in Spirit and in Truth and to go tell others what has happened and who she has met that made it all happen.
And was her testimony winsome? You bet it was. Half the town believed in Jesus just seeing the change in her. And the other half believed when they came out and met Jesus themselves. And it didn’t matter that he was a Jew and they were Samaritans. And it didn’t matter that she had been an outcast and now they were all worshipping together. The contrasts only made Jesus stand out all the brighter.
And that’s what the Gospel writer John wants you and me to see today, too. He wants us to see Jesus standing out before us in Spirit and in Truth; shining brightly for all the world to see; offering living water that will well up in you unto eternal life.
Is there something about you that deep down you believe would prevent Jesus from coming to seek and to save you? Some sin? Some social barrier? You’re not from the right side of town? You grew up with the wrong set of parents? You were abused when you were young? You have always felt like you didn’t fit in anywhere, like you don’t really belong? People have betrayed you, abandoned you, hurt you. Maybe God belongs to some other group of people, because He doesn’t seem to ever reveal himself to me.
I bet this woman at the well felt every one of those feelings. But here is Jesus making a special trip to Samaria just for her. Here is Jesus initiating a conversation with her that goes on and on and on. Here is Jesus revealing himself to her in a way he hasn’t even done fully to his own disciples yet. And he does so for this Samaritan woman in a way that she can understand, and in a way that changes her life.
All the stark contrasts that have kept her polarized and stigmatized and marginalized, become a setting in which to discover the beauty of Jesus. She can’t help but go tell her whole town about him. They can’t help but listen, and go see, and believe.
Let us pray.
Come, Lord Jesus to this place and meet us here today.
-Start a conversation with us.
-Reveal yourself to us.
-Help us to drink deeply of those living waters which only you
have to offer.
-Help us to worship you in Spirit and in Truth,
-and then to go forth to proclaim who it is we have met,
and what it is He has done for us.