Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

26. At a Well in Samaria (John 4:1-42)

The preaching of Jesus in Judaea brought a speedy reaction from the authorities in Jerusalem. As a matter of course they were having him watched, so before long the impact which he was making was reported to headquarters — and the information that this report had been received and that action was about to be taken on the basis of it was soon afterwards conveyed to the Lord. It may be surmised with a fair degree of probability that Nicodemus was the one who sent the warning message (Jn. 4: 1).

But the work was going well. Converts were being made at a satisfying rate. Their instruction was largely in the hands of Jesus himself-necessarily so. Nevertheless, he personally baptized none of them, lest any should later take pride in the fact that the Lord himself had baptized them (cp. 1 Cor. 1: 14-16).

The message from Jerusalem brought this work to a halt. Jesus knew how the wiles of the rulers had been tried out against John the Baptist (Mt. 3: 7) and also how an attempt had been made to unsettle John’s disciples (Jn. 3: 25). John himself had just been thrown into prison. Reading between the lines, it would seem that the Baptist had been invited to the king’s court to repeat before the king the substance of his reformation message. In the utterly fearless fashion that was characteristic of him, John hammered away at the duty of personal repentance. He pointed an accusing finger of stern rebuke at the king who had callously disowned his wife, the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, in order to acquire another wire, the notorious Herodias, by stealing her from his brother Philip.

It may be taken as fairly certain that, in spite of the vigorous directness of John’s reproof, Herod would have hesitated to do anything against him but for encouragement given by the Pharisees, and the venom of Herodias, who, as it later turned out, was not even content to have John flung into a dungeon (Jos. Ant. 18.5.2).

Now there was a danger of similar action against Jesus by the Pharisees of Judaea. So, warned about this, and being unwilling to put the loyalty of his unfledged disciples under strain, the Lord sent his Judaean disciples back to their homes, and with his handful of Galileans he left the south forthwith (Mt. 4: 12; Jn. 4: 1-3).

Because of the mutual hostility that existed between Samaritans and Jews, Galilean travellers usually avoided Samaria. Jesus could have done this by striking east to the Jordan valley and using that as his highway north. The fact that instead he went straight through Samaria argues that he deemed this route safer than the risk of being picked up by Herod’s men at the southern end of Gennesaret.

Roman Time, or Jewish?

After a long spell of walking, the little band came “at the sixth hour” to the neighbourhood of Shechem. There is much argument both as to the time and place. If this is Jewish time, then it was high noon, and Jesus would be understandably tired and hot and thirsty. But it was “the sixth hour” when Jesus was finally condemned to be crucified (Jn. 19: 14). For this to be noon sets John’s gospel in sharp contradiction with the synoptists (e.g. Mk. 15: 25). If however, John’s “sixth hour” is Roman (that is, modern) time, it was 6 a.m. when Jesus was condemned, and either 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. when he came to the well of Sychar. Of these alternatives the latter is a solution not free from difficulties, for there would then not be sufficient daylight left for the long discussion with the woman, followed by the excited trek of the multitude out of the city to see and hear him.

If, however, it was the hot season of the year (and verse 35 is no real evidence to the contrary), it is not unlikely, but indeed probable, that Jesus and his disciples chose to make a cool journey by moonlight, and now at 6 a.m. he was naturally both tired and thirsty.

Is Sychar Shechem?

There has been much argument as to whether Sychar is to be identified with Shechem or whether it was a small village distinct from Shechem, on the slopes of Mount Ebal. In favour of the former is the emphasis in the woman’s conversation on “our father Jacob” (twice) and on “our fathers (Abraham and Jacob)”, both of whom dwelt for a time in Shechem. Accordingly, Joseph and his brethren were later buried there. Also the indications of a big crowd of people coming out of the city to see Jesus suggest a place of some importance, and not a trivial hamlet. On the other hand it is not easy to see why John should avoid the very familiar name Shechem. Perhaps Sychar was a Jewish nickname for the place, for it closely resembles the Hebrew for “a lie” (the Samaritan religion), or “drunken”, or “wanton” (the woman herself; Is. 3: 16) or “wages” (v. 36). John’s symbolic mind was doubtless at work when he wrote this part of the record.

If Jesus was tired and hungry as he rested by the well, it may be taken as certain that the disciples were also. It is a measure of their eagerness to be of service to him that they all took this task on themselves of fetching food-that is, all except perhaps John, who if he stayed with Jesus would be able to report the details of what happened. It may be, too, that because they were unwelcome Jewish visitors, it was deemed rather dangerous for only one or two of them to enter the city to make the necessary purchases. So, providing safety in numbers, they all went.

A Jew and a Samaritan

Long centuries before this Jacob, travelling north, had similarly come to a well where he had met the woman who was to become his wife (Gen. 29: 10,11). Perhaps it was with his mind on this incident that John now wrote: “Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well” (as Jacob his forefather had done) — the RVm reading here: “as he was”, is inadmissible.

When a woman came to the well for water, Jesus surprised her by asking for a drink. That he should speak to her at all was altogether unexpected, “for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” From the time of the return from captivity in Babylon there had been bad blood between the two communities. The semi-Gentile origins of the Samaritans were despised, their rejection of Psalms and Prophets from the Scriptures was resented, their choice of Mount Gerizim as a holy site in place of Mount Zion was condemned, and their easy-going standards of religiosity were reprobated.

So the woman’s surprise at Christ’s simple request was not to be contained: “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (had she recognized Christ’s Jewishness by his speech or his dress or his looks?).

Unlike his fellow-Jews and unlike many of his followers of the present day, Jesus was glad enough to avail himself of the kind help of a Gentile.

Just as Rachel did not know who the stranger was who drew water for her and her flock, although he was actually a kinsman, so now this woman of Shechem failed to appreciate that here was a stranger who could satisfy her thirst. He called himself “The gift of God” (3:16), and offered “living water”: It was a double-meaning phrase, with both literal and symbolic force-fresh running water (but there was this at the bottom of Jacob’s well - v. 6,14 switch to the word “spring, fountain”); symbolically, Jesus was offering water of life-his teaching, and the Spirit (7: 37-39).

It is usually assumed that the woman, lacking in religious perception, and all at sea with the spiritual implications of this stranger’s strange talk, tried to take him literally, and made a fool of herself in the process.

Two considerations suggest that it is the interpreters, and not the woman, who lack insight. In the first place, if indeed she were so spiritually obtuse, would the Lord have persevered in attempting to bring home to her mind religious ideas so profound that today they leave experienced men of Truth floundering? And secondly, the woman’s later contributions to the discussion show that she was not a spiritual blockhead. The words Jesus had just spoken to her required to be lifted away from literality, for if he could give to her a pitcherful of fresh water, why should he be asking her for a drink?

Her crude address: “thou, being a Jew” was promptly replaced by “Sir, Lord.” Here, she now recognized, was one with far higher spiritual powers than her own.

Continuing the figure, she objected (but not aggressively): “Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that (not, this) living, water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well?”

She saw the well, bequeathed to all later generations by Jacob, as a symbol of the divine Promise inherited from him by his descendants. It was a Promise of a centre of worship, with an altar and a place of ready access to God, a Promise of a multitudinous seed, and of an Anointed Messiah, fallen and raised up again (Gen. 28: 12-19).

Was this Jew actually offering something better than that? That well had not only refreshed the spirits of Jacob and his sons, but had also saved the lives of his flocks and herds. (This woman knew her , Bible-she had noted, and remembered, that when Jacob, returning south, came to Shechem where he dug the well, he was blessed with numerous cattle; Gen. 33: 17). Now, falling in with the mode of speech of this friendly Jew, she asserted her faith in the Promise - for herself and her fellow Samaritans living round Jacob’s well, and for “Jacob’s cattle” (did she mean the Jews?).

The answer to her sceptical enquiry startled her: ‘Yes, indeed, I am greater than Jacob. For you and all others depending on the Promise there is only a constantly-recurring thirst until it is fulfilled. / am the one through whom the Promise is to be fulfilled. Receive me and my teaching, and you will have a lasting satisfaction nothing else can impart. I am asking you to pin your faith not to pride in your descent from the Fathers (which is dubious anyway) but to the higher truth you can learn from me. Fasten on to that, and you yourself will become a quencher of the thirst of others. It shall be in you “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”-like the spring dug by the princes of Israel when they came to the border of their promised inheritance, causing them to sing for joy: “Spring up, O well” (Num. 21: 17).

The woman responded at once with a similar play on double meanings: “Lord, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.” Thus she voiced her aspiration for the fulfilment of the Promise.

‘There can be no fulfilment’ Jesus answered, ‘except there first be love for and union with the heavenly Bridegroom. Was not that Rachel’s experience? and it led on to the birth of Joseph, now buried here at Shechem. So I say: Go, call thy husband, and come hither.’

This was his way of leading on to the need of the Samaritans for himself as the promised Messiah.

She shook her head. “I have no husband” -meaning: ‘Messiah has not yet come. Did I not tell you that just now when I asked for the real thirst- quenching water?’

‘That is what I wanted you to realise clearly’, Jesus answered. ‘You Samaritans have had five husbands - the five Books of Moses which alone you accept. And you have come away from their teaching in order to follow a false Messiah, one who is no Husband.’

It was true. About that time the Samaritans round Shechem were building up excitement over the claims of an imposter who, later on, was to claim ability to disinter from Mt. Gerizim the sacred vessels Moses (sic!) had hidden there (Jos. Ant. 18.4.1).

Now it may well be that what is usually taken for granted by most commentators is correct-that this woman had had such a variegated personal life as Jesus now described (double meaning again!). But in that case, what likelihood that she had five times found herself a widow? Or was it that, dissatisfied, she had successively left them, hoping always and idealistically for a better? The alternative is that she had been successively divorced five times. And now she was living promiscuously with another.

In that case, the obvious cover-up, for one as intelligent and quick-witted as she, was to do as she was bidden, passing off the man she lived with as her husband.

Instead, she invited immediate disbelief of her abrupt reply: “I have no husband.” Can it be that here was the first sign of a moral response to this Jew who impressed her so strangely?-as though she there and then determined to break off this illicit union.

She made no attempt as self-justification. Instead:

“Lord, I perceive that thou art a prophet”-by which she may have meant: “the Prophet like unto Moses” (Dt. 18: 15-19), for there was no Messianic Scripture the Samaritans made more of than this.

Moses had bidden conquering Israel recite the blessings and curses of the Law at Shechem, with the blessings assigned to Gerizim (Dt. 27: 12), and Joshua, a prophet like unto Moses, had carefully obeyed (Josh. 8: 33); but in all their copies of the books of Moses there was no mention at all of Jerusalem, even though their copies of the Law had all been altered to read “Gerizim” in connection with Melchizedek (Gen. 14: 18) and the offering of Isaac (Gen. 22: 2). “Then, (she asked), if you are the prophet Moses foretold, are you going to change the appointment Moses made? Then which is the temple where men should worship? — ours on Gerizim, or yours on Zion?”

The solemn answer which Jesus gave must have startled her, and would have startled any Jew even more: “Woman, believe me (here Jesus was speaking with exceptional earnestness), the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (cp. Mal. 1: 11). Gerizim and Zion were alike to be put out of fellowship (cp. Acts. 7: 48; 8; 12). In the Roman War, in A.D. 70, both temples were reduced to rubble. But already, in the cleansing of Jerusalem’s temple and in his word about the “raising up” of a new Temple (2:19) Jesus had pointed his hearers from a place to a Man.

Nevertheless, there was a difference in the status of the two religions. For all their pathetic formal adherence to Moses, the Samaritans wallowed in ignorance: “Ye worship ye know not what” (cp. 2 Kgs 17: 26-28,29,33,41); and the life she lived may have borne witness to the fact. But it was hardly so in Israel. She had referred Jesus back to the Genesis record (12: 6,7; 33: 18-20) of Jacob and Abraham worshipping at Shechem. In turn he had to remind her that the name of Jacob’s altar was “God is the God of Israel”, and that the promise given there to Abraham was: “Unto thy Seed will I give this Land.” So, beyond controversy, the Saviour (the Joshua-prophet like unto Moses) is to be a Jew-and therefore the salvation he brings is of the Jews (Lk. 1: 77).

But why did Jesus say: “Worship the Father” (and not “the God of Israel”)? Because he meant “my Father”. Here was an explicit claim to be the Son of God foretold in the great Messianic Promise to David. That Promise had switched from David’s ambition to build a temple “exceeding magnificat” to the building of a different kind of House-a House of men and women, all of them sons of the Father.

Jesus had now succeeded in achieving for this discussion the change of emphasis he sought. Instead of personal labour and exertion to draw literal water out of a well, he offered “living water” for the asking. And instead of a worship of outward forms glorifying not God but a man-made temple on this mountain or that, he called for worship “in spirit and in truth”. Since God is Spirit, and not located in any one place on earth, those who would be acceptable to him must avoid centring their worship on any earthly place and must rise above the types and outward forms of the Mosaic system to the truth of the inner spirit which the Law was designed to express. These, Jesus insisted, are the true worshippers (the word he used makes deliberate contrast with type and ceremony): “for also the Father seeketh such to worship Him”, even as they, actuated by their sense of need, seek Him. They have to be sought because of their fewness. The man who “trembles at God’s Word” (ls. 66: 2) is not to be found under every roof.

The words of Jesus were, by design, chosen from Joshua’s exhortation to the leaders of the twelve tribes when he gathered them together at Shechem. Here now was another Joshua repeating the same warning at the same place: “Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity (contrast Israel!) and in truth (contrast the Samaritans): and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the Euphrates (whence the Samaritans were brought), and in Egypt (whence Israel came out)” (Josh. 24: 14).

“Messiah cometh”

By this time the woman was beginning to grasp what Jesus was driving at. If there was to be a true and acceptable approach to God, it must be through a Man of God’s providing-a Seed promised to Abraham at Shechem, a Prophet like unto Moses, a Joshua settling the people in God’s Land, and leading them in a worship which knit the soul of the sincere believer to his Covenant God: “I know that Messiah cometh ... when he is come, he will tell us all things.” By using the Jewish title, Messiah, she showed her ready acceptance of Christ’s essential principle: “Salvation is of the Jews.”

The Disciples’ Return

In reply, Jesus claimed point-blank to be the Messiah: “I that speak unto thee am he”, but her response was cut short by the return of the disciples. These, astonished at the conversation and its evident earnestness, were eager to satisfy their curiosity - “Why talkest thou with her?” - but were held back by diffidence. They wanted also to bombard the woman with enquiry: “What seekest thou?” but the presence of Jesus restrained them.

Without a word more the woman left her waterpot and returned to the city in haste. The disciples pressed Jesus to join them in a meal, but the stimulus of this encounter with the woman, and its unexpected promise, had taken his mind off food: “I have food to eat that ye know not of”(cp. Ps. 19: 10; 40: 8; Mk. 3: 20). His hunger was gone, and his tiredness, but the woman’s thirst had increased. “Hath any man brought him ought to eat?” the disciples asked each other, implying: ‘Not here in Samaria, surely!’ Their blundering literalism-a sharp contrast with the woman’s insight- did them little credit.

In reply Jesus came down to their level: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” The form of that last phrase would normally suggest the crucifixion (17: 4; 19: 30), but in this context the meaning is more likely to be the extension of the gospel to Samaritans and Gentiles (Acts. 1: 8).

“Fields white to harvest”

It is clear that this long discussion with the woman, and the evident developments which might spring out of it, had left Jesus in a very exalted and almost excited frame of mind. Wanting his followers to share his enthusiasm, he talked on, trying to communicate to them some appreciation of the big possibilities which lay before them: ‘You have a proverb: ‘Four months from sowing to harvest’ (cp. Mt. 16: 2). Don’t let that teach you an easy-going attitude of mind: ‘Plenty of time to spare before we really get to work.’ Lift up your eyes (ls. 49: 18; Prov. 20: 13b), and see that already opportunities of reaping a great harvest for God are before you.’

“The fields are white already unto harvest” is a strange expression. The allusion is perhaps to the sheen on the bearded barley as it stands in the field ready for cutting-and barley is the cheapest coarsest grain grown in Palestine, an apt figure for the rough, spiritually untutored Samaritans who were even now streaming out of the city to verify the woman’s emphatic report.

At this point in the record John includes one of the Lord’s later exhortations (v. 36-38) to his disciples urging them to greater missionary zeal and activity: “He that reapeth receiveth wages.” The present tense “receiveth” was designed to emphasize that the labour of the preacher is its own reward - “now, in this time” (Mk. 10: 30); witness the way the exhilaration of this encounter had transformed Jesus. No longer a tired hungry traveller!

And the experience of “gathering fruit (the harvest already referred to) unto life eternal” is specially satisfying, for converts to the gospel are given the most alluring of prospects. Thus in the efficient and successful consummation of the gospel’s work “he that soweth and he that reapeth rejoice together.”

They had another proverb mostly used in a bad sense: “One soweth, and another reapeth.” It could be an equivalent of: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Or it could express a bitter summary of the world’s unfair economics. But with reference to the Lord’s harvesting only the good sense will stand. In the apostles’ experience in Judaea and Galilee, the real work was done by John the Baptist and by Jesus — “he that soweth is the Son of man” (Mt. 13: 37) - and the twelve entered into their labours, gathering a worthwhile harvest which neither John nor Jesus saw in the days of their mortality. The same became true of Philip’s remarkable success in Samaria (Acts. 8: 5-17). Nevertheless in days to come, “he that soweth and he that reapeth will rejoice together” (cp. Pr. 11: 18).

Jews and Samaritans

What a contrast is to be seen between the Jews’ stubborn rejection of the witness of Holy Scripture, of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, Son of God, and the immediate willingness of these uncouth Samaritans to go forth, at the bidding of a woman, to greet and welcome Jesus as Messiah. The Greek text (v. 42) uses a very vigorous word, to describe her constant talk or chatter. How well it expresses her excitement! Her appeal - “Come, see” (cp. 1: 46) -was made to “the men” (v. 28). She was more at home talking to them than to her own sex, amongst whom she probably had a shady reputation. If the women responded as well, it would be because of the example set by their menfolk. Today it is more usually the other way around.

Many of these Samaritans, impressed by her conviction, believed the truth of her claims on Jesus’ behalf before they even set eyes on him. These promptly offered him hospitality, and the result of two days in that place was that “many more believed because of his own words”, expressing openly their conviction that “this is the Saviour of the world”. At this time that phrase could hardly mean to them more than Saviour of both Jews and Samaritans. In due time they would learn its wider significance.

Years later when one of the most urgent problems of the early church had crystallized out in a bleak unwillingness of Jewish believers to associate with their Gentile brethren in Christ, the apostle John was to make eloquent use of this Samaritan title bestowed on Jesus (its only other occurrence): “We have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world... If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4: 14,20).

Notes: John 4:1-42

The Lord. Only twice before the resurrection (4: 1; 6: 23) does John use this title for Jesus in his narrative. Why here?
Askest. Normally this Greek word describes a request from an inferior to a superior! (v. 10 also).
Our father Jacob, which gave us the well. An interesting little addition to O.T. history.

Art thou greater...?The form of the question implies: Surely you are not!
Springing up. In LXX this word describes the Holy Spirit springing up in Samson; Jud. 14: 6.19; 15: 14. But there seems to be allusion here to Num. 21: 17-19, when Israel was on the border of its inheritance; and thence they came to Mattaneh (the gift-of God; v.10 here), and to Nahaliel (God is my inheritance). See Pr. 10: 11a.
Saidst. This form of this verb is commonly used for a divine pronouncement or inspiration. Then was Jesus saying: ‘You spoke more truth than you know?’ or was he commending the insight behind what she had said symbolically?
I perceive. There could be a play on words here implying: If I am a prophet, then by God I tell you that you are the Prophet like unto Moses.
We know what we worship. Why should Jesus use here a neuter pronoun with reference to the God of Israel? Salvation links with Saviour (v. 42) and with the allusions in this chapter to Joshua at Shechem.
The hour cometh, and now is. Contrast v.21: “the hour cometh.”
Yet no man said. The disciples were in some awe of Jesus; cp. v. 33; 12: 20-22; 13: 22-24; 16: 17-19; 21: 12; Mk. 9: 32.
Left her water pot. This hardly suggests the purblind materialist she is often made out to be. Comparable examples: Mt. 4: 20; Mk. 10: 50.
Told me all things that ever I did. Cp. the reaction described in 1 Cor. 14: 24,25.

Is not this the Christ? The form of the question attempts to cloak her own enthusiasm: He can’t be, can he? This, and her “Come, see...” betrays a good “preaching technique”.
Apostolic misunderstanding of their Master: 14: 5; 11: 13; Mt. 15: 15; 16: 7,22; Lk. 22: 38.
Harvest. Contrast Jer. 8: 20 (and context) as a prophecy of God’s judgment on Israel (A.D.70) when they shut their minds to the gospel.

Four months, and then cometh harvest. If literal, and not proverbial, then this sets the time as about December, four months before 5: 1. Had the disciples been commenting on high food prices in Shechem — until the next harvest should come in?
/ sent you. This past tense is the chief reason for regarding v. 36-38 as a parenthesis, preserving a later intensely relevant saying of Jesus spoken after Mt. 10: 37; Lk. 10: 2. Perhaps John inserted it here (a) because of a possible play on words - Sychar may mean “wages” (v. 36); (b) because “I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour” echoes Joshua’s “sincerity and truth” exhortation, spoken to Israel on this very spot (24: 13).
Believed on him. Elsewhere the phrase implies baptism.
Besought him that he would tarry. Again contrast the not infrequent attitude of Jewry: Mt. 8: 34; Lk. 4: 29; 13: 31. There is also Lk. 9: 52,53.

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