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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Woman at the Well

John 4:142

In his delicate, painterly writing style St. John gives us one of the great pictures of personal evangelism. In this lesson, we will see the necessary background first, then we will treat it as if it were a play. We will examine the characters, and then the action, to draw our conclusions. But first, the text:

(John 4:1-42 NIV) The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, {2} although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. {3} When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. {4} Now he had to go through Samaria. {5} So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. {6} Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. {7} When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" {8} (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) {9} The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) {10} Jesus answered her, "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." {11} "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? {12} Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" {13} Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, {14} but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." {15} The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." {16} He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." {17} "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. {18} The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." {19} "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. {20} Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." {21} Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. {22} You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. {23} Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. {24} God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." {25} The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." {26} Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." {27} Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?" {28} Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, {29} "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" {30} They came out of the town and made their way toward him. {31} Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." {32} But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." {33} Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?" {34} "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. {35} Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. {36} Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. {37} Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. {38} I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor." {39} Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." {40} So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. {41} And because of his words many more became believers. {42} They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."


Geography: where is this place?


As is evident from the map, if you want to go from Judea to Galilee, you need to go through Samaria. The devout Jew would not, of course, to avoid the possibility of being made ceremonially unclean.

The place where Jesus meets the woman is at Sychar. If you look closely, you can see that Sychar sits at the meeting of two mountains. To be specific , they are Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Mt. Gerizim was the place where Joshua had the Israelites pronounce, in chorus, the Lord’s blessings (Ebal got the cursing chorus)[1]. Hence, it was known as the “mount of blessing,” and the Samaritans chose it therefore to house the temple. The name “Sychar” actually means “falsehood.” The area is also known as Shechem (Hebrew for “shoulders”, from the mountains). The city of Samaria, from which the region took its name, is just to the northwest, up the valley.

Jacob’s Well. The well is still there today, and it is relatively certain to be the same well. Americans do not have the same sense of “historical familiarity” that the residents of Palestine do. Even in this time Jacob’s well is about two thousand years old, yet the name remains unchanged. There is no direct reference to the well in the Old Testament, but the giving of the land is well documented.[2] The city of Sychar itself later blended into the city of Shechem, and these two archeological sites are near the modern village of Aschar (which is surely Sychar from an Arabic tongue). This is a suburb of a small city named Balatah. The well is extremely deep for the region -- remember this is an open well, not a drill pump well -- as the water table varies from 75 to 105 feet in the area.

Jews and Samaritans. As is clear from the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along very well. Indeed, a devout Jew would go around Samaria to get to Galilee. The incident in the passage which relates that Jews and Samaritans would not share utensils comes from this interpretation: the Samaritans evidently held that a woman during her menstrual period was unclean -- but anything she touched was not. The Jews held that anything she touched was unclean. Since you could never tell if a woman during her period might have touched a pot since its last ceremonial cleansing, you could become ceremonially unclean just by touching a water bucket! Better safe than sorry -- walk around the place.

The Samaritans were also a mixed race. The king of Assyria exported some of his subjects to the area as part of his conquest. These were taught the law.[3] In the time of Jesus (and to this day) the Samaritans considered themselves the only true believers (the right wing fundamentalists) because they accepted only the five books of the Law as binding (and there are some significant textual variations on those). The considerations of race and religion made the Jew and the Samaritan like oil and water.

Living Water: the concept. The Samaritan use of the first five books only may have had some influence on the woman’s understanding of Jesus. The phrase “living water” could also be translated (under other circumstances) as “running water.” It is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, as is shown in the Old Testament.[4] But we need to remember: the Samaritans did not accept the rest of the Old Testament! The phrase does not occur in the Pentateuch.

Dramatis Personae - the Characters

The woman: There is disagreement amongst the commentators about the time of day at which this takes place. Some (following Jewish time) would say noon, which would emphasize the fact that the woman is an outcast. Others, noting that John usually uses Roman time (remember, he wrote after the fall of Jerusalem), would put this at 6:00 PM or so. At either time, however, she is alone at the well.

There are two key characteristics of this woman that I would bring to you:

·         She is a materialist. Despite the obvious metaphoric nature of Christ’s words, she asks for the physical water -- so she won’t have to haul it from the well. He offers eternal life; her sites are set on indoor plumbing. Does this sound familiar?

·         She is a “chaser.” In her case, it’s men. “If I can only find Prince Charming (here in the bar).” In those days, a rabbi would not marry a woman after five husbands (reasons obscure) so she was obliged to live “without benefit of clergy.” Like so many of us, she thinks, “If only....” and sets her sights on things below.

The Disciples. Remember that this is early in his ministry; Jesus’ disciples are also materialists. Their vision is food. They would see it as “being practical.” But even at this early date, they know better than to challenge the master.

Jesus: The subject is inexhaustible, of course. But there are two things I would point out:

·         Jesus made no effort to obtain water himself. It is as if he has arranged the occasion so as to put himself in conversation with her.

·         Jesus has quite obviously come through Samaria without the prejudice against the Samaritans. It is remarkable because it is unusual for the time and usual for the man.

Personal Evangelism

It is now time for our lesson. There are five main themes in this drama, and we may take them in turn:

Living Water. It is not clear yet to the disciples what this might mean, but it is clear to us. It is the Holy Spirit. There are two key points made so early in his ministry:

·         Jesus is the source of the Holy Spirit, this living water. It is the consistent teaching of the New Testament that salvation only comes through Jesus; and consistent with that is the fact that the Holy Spirit is given only by Jesus.

·         The result of the Holy Spirit indwelling is eternal life. A full study of this is beyond the scope of this lesson, but it is interesting to note that without exception life is portrayed in Scripture as spirit dwelling in body.

The point is this: in personal evangelism, we need to say not only what Jesus has done for me (and will do for you) but also to point out that He is the only source of eternal life. Want to live forever? One way, and one way only.

“Call Your Husband.” “Sin” is an unpopular word these days. No one likes to be yelled at for their mistakes. Note the gentle way in which Jesus does this:

·         In the quietest way possible, yet with unanswerable question, he points out to her that she is a sinner. She tries to duck and dodge (“I have no husband”) but Jesus will not let her go from the point. She is a sinner.

·         It is also a reminder of the futility of denying it. Not only are we all sinners -- God knows it. He knows what we have done. Why should we deny it?

The lesson for personal evangelism is this: we cannot “duck” the issue of personal sin -- God know it all anyway -- but it must be done with gentleness. Dare we say even with humor?

True Worship. The woman tries an end run, a distraction. She acknowledges him as prophet (her understanding gets better as we go along) and asks about worship. Isn’t it characteristic of most people that they want the “right answer?” So many of the people we meet have questions about eternal things, questions for which we should (and don’t) have an answer. Here are two:

·         God does not want liturgy, formulas or rituals -- he wants worship in spirit and truth. It sounds obvious today -- but doesn’t this question have as its background the idea that “so much empty ritual can’t be what God really wants, can it?”

·         The worship is personal; Jesus is the “I AM”.

The lesson for personal evangelism: be prepared with a “ready answer,” and pick up on the correct perceptions of the listener. Shape the truth they already know into a more complete truth.

Interlude: The Disciples. The disciples are quite amazed at all this. Jesus, in their reaction, gives them a little lesson on evangelism. I see two points here:

·         God will amaze you with what he will do -- if you let him alone to do it.

·         Evangelism is a team effort. No one brings anyone to Christ “all by themselves.” Some sow, some reap. Do not be discouraged, but rejoice when the reaping comes.

The Cycle of Discipleship. It is most interesting to note the woman’s actions after meeting Jesus. She brings others. There are some lessons here:

·         She does not wait until she is convinced; she starts immediately. There is no “discipleship program,” no study course. Her message is “come and see.”

·         The basis of her appeal is fact: “come and see.” She may know nothing about the theology, but she knows what she knows -- and invites others to see it too.

For your convenience, I give you an acronym:


Who -- always remember that it is Jesus, the source of Living Water that is being presented (not “my class” or “my church.”


Humility -- remember that you are a sinner too, and point out your hearer’s sinful nature in the gentlest way possible.


Integrity -- always present the truth, shaping the truth they know into the greater truth of God, for God desires worshipers in spirit and in truth.


Team -- remember that evangelism is a team effort: some sow, some reap, and all should rejoice.


Encourage -- even the newest of hearers should be encouraged to bring others.

[1] See Deuteronomy 11:29, 27:12-26.

[2] Genesis 48:22, 33:18-20

[3] 2 Kings 17:24-41

[4] See, for example, Jeremiah 2:13 for a metaphoric use and Zechariah 14:8 for a prophetic use.

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