The Woman at the Well
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The story of the woman at the well is familiar to most churchgoers. I’d like to tell it again this morning in a way that may surprise you. My hope is it’ll speak to you in a fresh, new way.
I had the privilege of studying the Gospel of John in seminary with Dr. Fred Gealy – at the time, a respected and well-known Bible scholar. He now reigns in the Church Triumphant; even so, I tip my hat to him, as I offer this sermon in his honor.
The way it’s commonly told, the story goes like this: Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asks her for a drink of water. They talk. In the process, she confesses to have been married five times and is presently living out of wedlock. He confronts her sinfulness. She recognizes him as the Christ, repents, and rushes off to tell others, shouting, “Come, see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
That’s the literal understanding of the text. There’s also a figurative understanding lying just below the surface. It draws on the power of symbolism. It’s John’s way of proclaiming the gospel to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see Jesus as Lord and Savior. The story begins,
“(Jesus) left Judea, and departed into Galilee.
He needed to pass through Samaria.”
Actually, there are two ways to get from Judea to Galilee. One takes you up the Jordan River Valley. It’s soft and flat. The other takes you through Samaria. It’s rocky and mountainous. To borrow a line from Frost, Jesus took the road less traveled. He was on a mission. John goes on:
“So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar,
near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son, Joseph.”
Sychar was the site of Jacob’s well. In the Old Testament, this was where Jacob first met Rachel. It was love at first sight. (Genesis 29)
This is our first clue as to what this story is about. Back when Jacob first met Rachel the Jews and Samaritans were one people. They shared a common faith, a common heritage and a common devotion to Yahweh. It was back in the days before they went their separate ways, pointing their fingers at each other and accusing each other of infidelity.
So, Jesus came back to where it all started. Like his forefather, Jacob, he came with a proposal in hand. But not a marriage proposal. His proposal had to do with reconciliation. That was his mission – to reconcile the world to God. (2 Corinthians 5:19) In order to do that, he first had to reconcile the Jews and the Samaritans. That’s what this story is all about. John says,
“Jacob’s well was there.
Jesus therefore, being tired from his journey, sat down by the well.
It was about the sixth hour.”
Noon is the time of day when the sun is high overhead. It’s the brightest part of the day. John would have us know that it’s a moment for God’s self-revelation.
It was also the part of the day when you weren’t likely to find many women at the well. Women drew their water in the cool of the morning or late afternoon. It took a strong woman to draw her water in the heat of the day – an independent and resolute woman – a woman with a mind of her own – a woman like Rachel – who, if you remember, also came to the well at high noon the day she met Jacob. (Genesis 29:7)
Jesus was sitting at the well when the woman arrived. He got right to the point. He said, “Give me a drink.”
Sure, it was noon. Sure, he was hot and thirsty. That’s beside the point. The point is Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix. They didn’t drink from the same cup. They didn’t commune with each other as brothers and sisters of a common faith. He’s pushing the envelope.
“The Samaritan woman therefore said to him,
‘How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’
(For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)’ “
Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God,
and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’
you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.'”
It should be obvious: He’s not talking about water. He’s talking about life – real life – life in all its abundance – eternal life – life in the Spirit – the New Creation. Like Nicodemus in the story last week, the woman didn’t get it. It sailed right over her head. She said,
“‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.
So where do you get that living water?
Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well,
and drank of it himself, as did his children, and his livestock?'”
Here’s another clue: Both Jews and Samaritans claimed Jacob as one of the Patriarchs. They shared a common history. You’d think that would’ve held them together. But it didn’t. Jesus said,
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again,
but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him
will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him
will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
Again, she didn’t get it. She said, “Sir, give me this water, so that I don’t get thirsty, neither come all the way here to draw.” (John 4:15)
Another clue: It’s embedded in the language. The same Greek word for “sir” – kurios – is also the word for “Lord”. It’s also the same word for “husband,” and that’s where this conversation is going.
“Jesus said, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’
To which the woman replied, ‘I have no husband.’
(Which is the same as saying, ‘I have no lord.’)
“Jesus said, ‘You said well, “I have no husband,”
for you have had five husbands;
and he whom you now have is not your husband.
This you have said truly.’
To which the woman replied,
‘I perceive that you are a prophet.’
John assumes we know the background. Back in the days of Hoshea, the Samaritans abandoned the faith. Scripture says, “They went after false gods and forsook all the commandments of Yahweh.” (2 Kings 17:15-16)
They fell into the hands of Assyria, and the king of Assyria brought in peoples from five different regions to occupy Samaria. They, in turn, brought their own gods and built shrines for them. (2 Kings 17:24, 29-31)
The Samaritans began worshiping these false gods, and so, drifted farther and farther from the one true God – Yahweh – creator of the heavens and the earth.
To put it this way: Jesus isn’t confronting the woman’s adultery; he’s confronting the Samaritans’ idolatry. He’s not asking her, “Who have you been sleeping with?” but “To whom do you ascribe your allegiance?” This is brought out in the verse that follows. The woman said,
“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain,
and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place
where people ought to worship.”
Here’s the missing piece of the puzzle: Back when the Jews and Samaritans went their separate ways, they established their own centers of worship. The sacred mountain for the Samaritans was Mount Gerazim. The sacred mountain for the Jews was Mount Zion. If the Jews and Samaritans were to be reconciled, one would have to come over to the other’s place of worship.
This is why the woman responds as she does: “Are you asking me to forsake my fathers and come over to Mount Zion?” You’d think Jesus would have said, “Yes! That’s precisely what I have in mind.” But, no, he said,
“Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain,
nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father.
You worship that which you don’t know.
We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour comes, and now is,
when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,
for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers.
God is spirit, and those who worship him
must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman didn’t get it. She said,
“‘I know that Messiah comes, he who is called Christ.
When he has come, he will declare to us all things.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who speaks to you.'”
The woman left her jar and ran into town shouting, “Come, see a man who told me everything that I did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)
At this point there’s a break in the story as Jesus confers with his disciples. In the meantime, the woman goes back to the village and tells everyone she meets what’s happened. As a result, John says, “From that city many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman …” (John 4:39)
They not only took her at her word, they followed her back to the well. John says,
“So when the Samaritans came to him, they begged him to stay with them.
He stayed there two days.
Many more believed because of his word.
They said to the woman, “Now we believe,
not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves,
and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
There are two points to be made here. The first is this: Once the woman recognized Jesus as the Christ, she ran to tell others. It was such an amazing and remarkable experience she couldn’t keep it to herself. It’s like the old camp song:
… That’s how it is with God love, once you experience it,
You spread His love to everyone, you want to pass it on.
The woman told the others what she’d seen and heard and, because of her testimony, others accepted Jesus as the Christ. But they weren’t content simply to know about Jesus; they wanted to know him first-hand. This leads to the second point.
They came to the well to see for themselves, and, once they had their own encounter with Jesus, it was no longer a matter of what the woman had told them. They said, “… we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
Both sides of the coin are important: How are you going to know that Jesus is the Christ unless someone tells you? Yet, simply adopting the faith of another is not enough. Listen: You’ll never know the joy of this abundant life Jesus promises until you experience him for yourself.
I hasten to say the experience of knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior is not a one-time thing; it’s an ongoing process of walking in his footsteps and feeling his presence along the way. That’s what Austin Miles was talking about when he penned the words,
“I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.< > And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”
Let’s wrap it up. Did the Jews and Samaritans ever reconcile their differences? Did they ever get back together? The answer is yes, but it took a while. First, Jesus was crucified. Fifty days later came the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church grew by leaps and bounds. Then came the backlash, as Jews began persecuting Christians for their faith.
They scattered to the four winds. Philip, one of the deacons, went to Samaria to preach the gospel.
Whether his preaching was something they’d never heard before or old hat, he and the Samaritans drank from the same cup and embraced Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
Did I mention that the story is about reconciliation? Whether it’s a matter of conflict in the home, church, community, nation or the world, we’re called to be reconciled to God and each other, and there’s only one way that’s possible – and that’s in Christ.
You can strive to reconcile your differences on a human plane, looking for areas of agreement; and, if you work hard enough, you may get close. But you’ll never truly be at one with others until you are one in Christ.
Only as we come together as sinners, cleansed and forgiven through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can we be united in lasting relationships of peace, joy and love.
Brothers and sisters, drink from the common cup of Jesus Christ and be at one in him. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2014 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.