This is one of my favourite passages in the whole bible and I was quite thrilled when Santosh asked me to preach from it. With every reading, every study, new light gets thrown on the passage. New meanings emerge, like waves at a beach, each carrying the previous meaning a little further.
Before we proceed let us understand the scene, the geography, for only then will we be in a position to understand the nature of this encounter. John tells us in v. 4 that it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria.
Actually, the practice of many Jews was to cross the Jordan eastward near Jericho, incidentally where Jesus probably was conducting the baptisms mentioned in this passage, then go north along the eastern bank of the Jordan in the province of Perea, and then cross over to the west near the confluence of the River Jabbok and the Jordan, thereby avoiding any contact with the Samaritans.
So if John tells us it was necessary, it cannot mean that this encounter was necessary in a geographical sense. Rather, we must conclude that the encounter in this passage was a crucial one in God’s plan, not just a nice happenstance.
In today’s passage we find Jesus at the well near Sychar. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem and then north to Nazareth in Galilee did run through Sychar. But the well was about half a mile away from the road, toward the east of the city. So Jesus actually would have gone through Sychar, and then walked another half mile east to rest near the well. Why? Was there no inn or tavern where he could have gotten a decent midday meal and rested his feet? And then he must have sent his disciples back to the city to get food. Does this not seem like simply an excuse to get rid of the disciples for a while? It was necessary for him to be at this well, but it was necessary also that the disciples not be there!
Now the well itself is an important symbol in the Old Testament. We in this city today, where the water supply is inconsistent at best have a different important symbol – the borewell. In the Old Testament scenes at wells have immense significance. Abraham’s servant, sent to find a bride for Isaac, finds Rebecca at a well. Jacob, fleeing from Esau, and looking for a place to settle, finds Rachel at a well. Moses, fleeing from Egypt, finds Zipporah at a well. The Samaritans, whose faith centred around the patriarchs and Moses knew these well scenes well. The well was where the towering figures of their faith found their brides.
Finally, we also need to take a close look at some of John’s comments for they are telling. Our passage is sandwiched between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and his encounter with the nobleman. At the end of the encounter with the nobleman, John tells us that healing the nobleman’s son was the second miracle that Jesus did, the first being when he changed water to wine at Cana. What this specifically means is that the encounter with the woman involved no miracle. This is important so hold on to that thought.
Another comment John makes is in v. 9. After the woman asks Jesus how he asks her for water, John tells us, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” Yet, when the disciples return, John tells us they were surprised to find him talking with a woman. Why does John bother with these two bits of information? Why should we know whom the Jews did not associate with? Why should we know what the disciples were thinking? As Pastor Ken told us last week, John has had a good 60 years in which to ponder what he will write in his Gospel. If he has written something, it must be for a good reason.
John is telling us not to be like the disciples. John is telling us, this is primarily an encounter between a Jew and a Samaritan, their respective genders are incidental to the encounter. John is telling us that the entire exchange between Jesus and the woman should be understood as being between a Jew and a Samaritan.
Now let us see what happens in this exchange. Jesus asks the woman for a drink. She asks him how he, being a Jew, asks a Samaritan for water. Jesus then introduces the concept of living water. The woman accurately observes that Jesus has no implements with which to draw water from this well. So she concludes that there must be more to this man than meets the eye.
“Surely you are not greater than our patriarch Jacob who first dug this well so that centuries later we still can draw from it.” For Jacob, the patriarch, did not simply draw water from this well. By digging the well, he had provided generations of Samaritans with water. Indeed the Empress Helena had built a church over the well, providing a small passage down to the well. The well was found to be 35 feet deep and even in the seventeenth century there was 5 feet of water in it. Of course, human propensity to throw garbage just about anywhere has killed the well.
Jesus realizes that the woman is catching on. So he extends the metaphor. “Drink of the water I give you and you yourself will become a source of this water.”
Now the woman realizes that not only is this man claiming to be equal to Jacob. He is indeed claiming to be far greater! Now the Samaritans held to a Moses centred doctrine rather than a David centred one. This is only expected since the Northern kingdom of Israel, which later became Samaria, separated itself from the Southern kingdom of Judah ruled by David’s descendents. The Samaritans were looking for the Prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18.15.
When Jesus extends the metaphor, the woman realizes that he is claiming to be the prophet like Moses that the Samaritans awaited. Only that prophet could have a gift such as the one Jesus claims to have.
She understands that he is claiming to have a gift that only a fool would refuse. And she is no fool. So she asks Jesus for the gift. Give me this water. And if this were indeed that prophet, then the Messianic age would have started and physical thirst would have been abolished. So she boldly declares her faith by saying, “Give me this water, so that I may not have to keep coming here.” She is not running away from her problems. She is challenging Jesus to live up to his words. She has not misunderstood Jesus. She has understood him better than we understand him. If he is the Messiah then his blessings must infuse our physical world as well, not just our spiritual world. Jesus’ blessings cannot only be pie in the sky by and by!
To her statement of faith Jesus says, “Go call your husband and come back.” If this were literal, it just does not make sense. Remember, we already said that this encounter does not involve any miracle, even the miracle of revealing to the woman her past. If Jesus had revealed her past, he would have been doing a miracle. Yet, John goes to great pains to indicate both the first and the second miracles and no other!
If we take the reference to husband as literal, then we have to explain why from the notion of living water, Jesus jumps to the woman’s past, then she jumps to his being a prophet and to worshipping on a mountain. The whole passage then seems like a hodgepodge of disjointed segments that are as immiscible as oil and water.
But if we take our cue from the Gospel itself, which tells us that Jesus is doing nothing miraculous in this encounter, then we cannot take this talk of husbands as literal. It must be symbolic. But symbolic of what?
In 2 Kings 17 we read that the king of Assyria settled what later became Samaria with people from five nations – Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim – who built places of worship to their gods. The Samaritans became corrupted and worshipped these gods. Then the king of Assyria sent a Jewish priest to Samaria to teach the residents how to worship God. But they did not worship only God. They also worshipped other gods.
In light of the marriage metaphor used by many prophets to describe the relationship between God and Israel, we draw from 2 Kings 17 that the Samaritans had five husbands – namely the gods of Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim. Then they turned to a faith which mixed worship of God with these foreign gods. In other words, currently the Samaritans were not in a covenant relationship with any god because the true God cannot be worshipped along with other gods.
As soon as Jesus mentions the five husbands and the one who is not a husband, the woman, who is very astute, recognizes that this is the kind of language the Old Testament prophets used to describe the relationship of God with Israel.
So she says, “I can see that you are a prophet.” Not because he had told her all her dark secrets. John has already told us not to see this encounter as containing anything miraculous. She recognizes a prophet because he is denouncing incorrect worship. A prophet’s primary task was not to tell people their secrets or to reveal the future, but to call people back to worshipping God correctly.
And so she continues with the subject of worship. “Where should we worship?” is her question. Here on Mount Gerizim as believed by the Samaritans or in Jerusalem as believed by the Jews?
Jesus also continues with the subject of worship and makes it clear that in the future the place of worship will be rendered meaningless for what would matter is that people worshipped in Spirit and truth.
Later in the Gospel, in chapter 7, Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within them.” You can search night and day for an Old Testament passage that mentions streams of living water flowing from a person and you will not find it. But we have just seen Jesus, God’s Word become flesh, make this promise to the woman! Jesus is citing himself as Scripture! What a wonder. And in chapter 7 John explains what Jesus told the woman. The living water is the Spirit.
And so we see what the encounter with the Samaritan woman is all about. It is not about Jesus’ telling the woman her secrets. Rather, it is about Jesus as the Bridegroom of the New Israel wooing God’s lost people of Samaria to re-enter a covenant relationship with the Father in which each one of them will learn from the Spirit that flows within them how to worship the Father. And he does it in much the same way as the towering figures of Samaritan faith found their brides – at a well.