Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 is an extraordinary conversation. It comes on the heels of his private discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:1–15 about the need for new birth. John applies his statement that “God so loved the world” (3:16) immediately as Jesus breaks the boundaries of the ancient world and teaches this adulterous Samaritan woman about living water and true worship. Let’s look at this fascinating conversation with some notes from The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary.

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A Detour through Enemy Territory – John 4:1–54

Jesus’s departure from the Jordan River is prompted by his concern that the Pharisees are viewing him as supplanting John the Baptist’s ministry (4:1; cf. 3:22–36). The hostility toward John now takes aim at Jesus. In the Synoptics, it is John’s arrest that brings Jesus into Galilee (Mark 1:14). The same is true in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus avoids incrimination stemming from his association with John. To be sure, Jesus’s ministry was similar to that of John: both men employed baptism (4:1–2). Even in Galilee after the death of John, Herod Antipas fears that Jesus is John back from the dead (Mark 6:14–20).

The usual route from the Jordan River to Galilee traversed the rift valley to Scythopolis (Beth Shan) and then went northwest into the valleys of lower Galilee. Instead, Jesus climbs into the Judean mountains and follows the ridge route north through the tribal territories of Benjamin and Ephraim and on into Samaria (4:5–6). The precise location of the city of Sychar remains uncertain; however, it is probably Shechem (so Jerome and the Syriac) inasmuch as the traditional site for Jacob’s Well is 250 feet from there. Further, Shechem is on the road from Judea to Galilee.

Water and Worship in Samaria

Jesus’s conversation with the woman of Samaria (4:1–42) is striking on several counts. First, the enmity between Jew and Samaritan is well established (see Luke 10:29–37). This enmity stands behind the woman’s words in 4:9. Moreover, few Jewish rabbis would initiate open conversations with women as Jesus does (see 4:27). Nevertheless, Jesus does so, and the ensuing dialogue harmonizes with the theological developments we have seen thus far: Jesus overturns the sanctity of an important religious institution. In this case it is the sacred well of Jacob.

At Cana (2:1–11), Jerusalem (3:5), the Jordan (3:22–26), and here, water serves a symbolic role, depicting the older institution that needs the messianic gift of Christ. As water became wine (2:9) and John’s baptism was replaced by that of Jesus (3:30; 4:1), so now well water will be replaced by living water. What is this gift that makes all else obsolete? It is the eschatological Spirit promised by Jesus (3:5). This is what will bring power to John’s baptism. The same is true in Samaria. John’s only other reference to living water is in 7:38–39, where he defines it as the Spirit. John explicitly emphasizes the Spirit even as the dialogue develops (4:23–24).

The dialogue with the woman enjoys a literary structure much like that in chapter 3: inquiries by the woman based on a misunderstanding of Jesus’s spiritual intent serve to transport the discussion to deeper levels of thought. But while Nicodemus never reenters the scene to issue his response (suggesting no faith in Jerusalem?), things are different in Samaria. We read a series of improving titles for Jesus (“Sir,” 4:11, 15; “Prophet,” 4:19; “Messiah,” 4:25, 29; “Savior of the world,” 4:42); the woman’s testimony converts many in the village (4:39).

Living Water

In verses 7–15 Jesus discusses living water. This section (like the next) introduces an “earthly” subject and through the questions of the woman leads to a spiritual message. Jesus’s request for a drink of water is rebuffed (4:9), but he issues a challenge to the woman: if she knew who Jesus was, she would see that he is the supplier of living water (4:10). A second round (4:11–15) turns on her misunderstanding: Jesus cannot supply water because he has no access to the well. But here at last Jesus’s clarification unfolds his meaning. His water ends all thirst and provides eternal life (4:14). It is the Spirit. (Compare this discourse with that on living bread in John 6:35–59.) Marvelously the woman asks to drink.

True Worship

In the next section Jesus’s focus is on true worship (4:16–26). When the light enters the darkness of the world, it necessarily brings judgment (3:19–20). Before the gifts of God can be obtained, the soul must be cleansed of sin. Jesus probes the moral life of the woman (4:16–18), but she does not flee—she admits to Jesus’s prophetic powers (4:19). She chooses to remain in the light; yet now she hopes that the religious institutions of her acquaintance will free her from Jesus’s scrutiny. Mount Gerizim (a mountain towering over the well) was the Samaritan holy place; Jesus is obviously a Jew who venerates Jerusalem.

But Jesus dismisses these institutions too (as he dismissed the well): again the new dimension that transcends these is the Spirit (4:23–24). This spiritual worship is not worship in the inner aesthetic recesses of a person: it is worship animated by God’s own eschatological Spirit. Jesus’s challenge and offer in each of these scenes is the same. Yet here we move a step further; worship must also be in “truth.” It must affirm the realities of truth (Jesus is the truth, 14:6), be doctrinally informed (cf. 1 John 4:1–3), and be directed toward Jesus.

True Nourishment

Now Jesus takes up the subject of true nourishment (4:27–38). When the disciples return from the village (see 4:8), the woman departs in haste, leaving her jar behind (4:28). In the light of Jesus’s offer, is it now obsolete? Her positive report in Shechem (“Could this be the Messiah?”) leads many to make their own inquiries at the well. (Note the parallel on evangelism and discipleship in 1:35–51 with Andrew and Philip.)

Not even the disciples are exempt from misunderstanding Jesus. Jesus sent them out for food (4:8), yet now when the disciples tell Jesus to eat he says that he has food enough (4:32). The disciples’ misunderstanding (4:33) propels the discourse forward (4:34–38). His nourishment is accomplishing his urgent mission.

The woman’s testimony bears fruit (4:39–42). And yet those who come out to see Jesus for themselves (as were Peter and Nathanael in 1:35–50) must obtain their own faith. Jesus remains in Samaria for two days, and many in the village believe (4:42).

An Authenticating Sign in Galilee

The miracle in which the official’s son is healed (4:43–54) brings Jesus back to Cana, the town that introduced this section of the Gospel (2:1–12). In both instances John numbers the sign of Jesus (2:11; 4:54), and shows belief in his work. Notice how there is a progression as Jesus moves from Jerusalem (chap. 3) to Cana (chap. 4). In Jerusalem Jesus cannot trust men (2:24), and Nicodemus comes making secretive inquiries at night (3:1–2). Then the Samaritans eagerly receive Jesus (4:39–42), while in Galilee the enthusiasm for him is open (4:45). The transition from Jerusalem to Galilee is a transition from unbelief to belief, from darkness to light. The proverb of verse 44 (used in the Synoptics to refer to Nazareth; cf. Mark 6:4) applies here to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets (Luke 13:33; cf. John 4:19; 6:14).

In John the miracle serves to display the new life (living water and true worship) promised by Jesus in the preceding discourses (3:16; 4:14, 36). In Cana, as in Samaria, Jesus hopes to inspire belief (4:50), and in this case, he saves the official’s son (4:51). John’s account underscores one feature of the miracle: Jesus’s word is powerful and effectual. The very hour of healing is the hour of Jesus’s utterance (4:52). This combination of miracle and belief (4:50, 53) distinguishes the Johannine term “sign.” The powerful works of Jesus evoke a response, to reveal who Jesus is. They are signs that lead to faith. This is the intent of the signs in Cana, Jerusalem, Samaria, and again in Cana. This is the aim that John has even for his reader of the Book of Signs. “Many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name” (2:23).

Keep Reading The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

I love how Jesus broke societal norms to bring good news to the strangers, outcasts, and even enemies! No one is beyond His reach and all need living water and true worship! Keep learning about Him with the one-volume Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. Or purchase this resource as a part of the seven-volume Baker Illustrated Collection. Just follow one of the links below to visit our store and learn more.

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