Commentary on John 4:5-42
The much-loved story of the Samaritan woman at the well is the second of four encounters with Jesus in John this Lent.
Each reveals something about who he is, some gift he brings to us on this year’s Lenten journey. Where last week the gift emerged out of the Father’s love given in the Son, this week it gushes forth as Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, poured into the hearts of believers.
This encounter begins with social boundary-crossing, typical of Jesus in all of the gospels, when he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. She is surprised that he is interacting with a Samaritan, and the narrator explains why her surprise is justified. Then the disciples will later be particularly concerned that he is talking with a woman.
The encounter between the two can be read in three movements. The first movement is all about water: Jesus’ thirst, then the ensuing conversation with the woman, a bit wary of him and his boundary-crossing, and then the living water gushing up to eternal life that he will offer her and for which she will ask.
The second movement is the conversation about the woman’s private life, which is the moment on which the encounter seems to turn. The third movement is the conversation about worship in Spirit and truth, which leads to her wondering about the Messiah and his revealing to her that it is he.
The reference to living water is a play on words in Greek, in that the phrase refers to water that is flowing rather than still “fresh rather than stagnant” while also actually meaning “living,” linking it to the gift of eternal life gushing up in the believer who receives Jesus’ gift. Like Nicodemus’ misunderstanding in 3:1-12 when he is unable to look beyond the earthly (physical birth) to the spiritual (birth from above) and the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ references to food in 4:32-34, the woman here first understands Jesus to be referring to water from the well and asks how he will give her this without a bucket, furthering the irony by comparing him to their great ancestor Jacob, who gave them the well.
But unlike Nicodemus, who doesn’t seem to move beyond his confusion, the woman does move. She asks for this water, realizing that it is not ordinary water but not yet understanding in what way, and she will go still further with and for Jesus as the narrative develops.
The language of the well scene “water, water jar, and drawing” — is reminiscent of the miracle at Cana when Jesus first revealed his glory to his disciples, with the latter two terms used only in these two passages in all the New Testament. The word used initially for well (in 4:6; a different word is used in verse 12) and then for the spring gushing up to eternal life appears several times in Revelation. The Lamb will guide them to “springs of the water of life” (7:17), and the Alpha and Omega, echoing the words of the Johannine Jesus, says, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (21:6)
But the most important and evocative connection with the chapter is found in John 7:37-39 when on the last great day of the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” And the narrator then identifies this as a reference to the Spirit. The believer is both the recipient of living water and, then, its conduit; and the explanation of 7:39 helps to interpret the meaning of the living water as the gift of the Spirit here in 4:14.
As soon as the woman asks for the living water, the conversation turns to her life, and Jesus will now tell her everything she has ever done, as she later puts it. Then, having been seen by Jesus, she sees him differently, and the conversation takes another turn. She immediately understands him to be a prophet and asks him a serious question about worship to which he gives a serious answer. This is the only sustained conversation about worship in John; the verb occurs 9 times in these five verses, and the noun for worshippers occurs only this once in all of the New Testament.
The Spirit is introduced here explicitly. To worship God as God wants is to worship in Spirit, presumably with the Spirit that Jesus offers gushing up from the heart, and in truth, which we will later understand to be embodied in Jesus himself (8:31-32; 14:6). Worship, this seems to suggest, is about relationship, dwelling in the vine Jesus. The Samaritan woman, who has entered into relationship with him here, perhaps understands this. She suggests in her roundabout way that he is the coming Messiah, and for the first and only time in John, Jesus says that he is.
Although Jesus knows everything about this woman’s life, as indeed he knows what is in everyone (2:25), there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text and no word of judgment or even encouragement to change her life. Any preoccupation with that is more a measure of the readers’ interests than those of the evangelist. What is life-changing for the woman is, according to her, that she has been entirely known by him, and this being known has enabled her to know him. The story is about her being able to begin to see who he is, being given the gift of that truth that leads to real worship and becoming a conduit for the living water. It is about her only insofar as it is about who he reveals himself to be to her and, through their encounter, to her neighbors and then to us.
The disciples themselves know better than to say a word to Jesus about this woman. Instead Jesus guides them into a conversation about mission, with elements reminiscent of the harvest parables in the Synoptics but also picking up on aspects of Jesus’ conversation with the woman, in particular with the reference to eternal life, and pointing toward what will happen next. The woman’s testimony has brought a harvest to Jesus.
A trial motif runs throughout John from the introduction of John the Baptist in 1:7 as a witness. Giving testimony is something Jesus’ friends are called to do (15:27). The woman testifies (4:39) to her city. As a witness, she is intriguing. She certainly cannot be said to overstate the case. She says only what she knows and then leaves the question with them in such a way that they are compelled to come and see him for themselves.
This text suggests in a number of ways that it is not about what we know but who we know. It is about having an encounter, experiencing the light of Jesus’ truth and love shining on our past and our future, and then having the courage and the wherewithal to drop anything that isn’t that and go share what we know (not what someone else knows, just what we know) as witnesses to his abundant grace gushing up to eternal life in us.