The Samaritan Woman of Sychar - John 4

Watercolour and ink portrait of Photini by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

It seems to me that people have been too quick to cast aspersions on some women of the Bible. Eve, Delilah, and Bathsheba have been unfairly portrayed as seductresses. Mary Magdalene has been wrongly labelled as a prostitute, and the Samaritan woman has been regarded as a loose woman. This article looks at the Samaritan woman from Sychar without negative prejudices.


In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman of the town of Sychar came to draw water from Jacob’s well.[1] She probably came to the well every day, but today would be different. Jesus was there. What follows is an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and the unnamed woman.

Jesus had felt compelled to travel through Samaria—possibly because of this very encounter—instead of travelling the usual route taken by Jews, around Samaria.[2] He was now tired from his journey and sat resting near the well while his disciples went into the village to buy food.[3]

Jews and Samaritans

Jesus ignored the centuries-old hostility between the Jews and Samaritans, and ignored the deeply entrenched gender-division of the society of that day, and he engaged the Samaritan woman in conversation.[4] It is the longest conversation between Jesus and another person recorded in the Gospels.

Jesus begins by asking the woman for a drink of water. The woman is astonished, even shocked by this request, and she points out that Jews do not “associate” (NIV), or “have dealings (NASB), with Samaritans. The Greek word for “associate” here, sugchraomai, is also commonly used to mean “the sharing of eating utensils and dishes”.[5] Jesus doesn’t have his own utensil to draw water, and Jacob’s well is thirty metres deep. So he is asking to drink from her vessel—a Samaritan woman’s vessel!

Living Water

Jesus then begins talking about living water (John 4:10, 13-14). Just as Nicodemus had failed to see the spiritual meaning of being “born again” in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel (John 3:3-4), the woman fails to see the spiritual significance of “living water” and only sees what will be a practical advantage for her.[6] Living water, that is, flowing water, was preferable to the still well water that percolated through the ground.[7] And a never ending supply meant no more trips to and from the well carrying heavy water jars (John 4:15).

Jesus knows that the woman is “thirsty”, and he promises “living water” that will completely quench a person’s spiritual longing. Jesus describes this living water as becoming a spring of gushing water, eternally flowing from within the person who receives his free gift. In John 7:38-39 we are told that living water represents the Holy Spirit.

Five Husbands

Jesus suddenly changes the subject and asks the woman to call her husband. The woman answers candidly saying that she has no husband. Jesus commends her honesty. Jesus knows that the woman has had five husbands and that the man she is now living with is not her husband. He conveys these facts without the slightest sense of criticism or condemnation. It is important to note that Jesus never tells the Samaritan woman to repent of any sin, nor does he tell her to “sin no more”, a phrase found elsewhere in John’s gospel (John 5:14; 8:11).

Lynn Cohick writes that the Samaritan woman’s history fits a pattern we find among first-century women of “marrying in their early to late teens, living with fairly simple marriage traditions, relatively easy divorce laws, and haunted by the threat that death might at any time steal away a husband . . .”[8] The Samaritan woman’s five husbands do not necessarily signify loose living; they may signify a series of tragedies for the woman.

True Worship

It is possible, however, that the five husbands represent the five tribes sent by the Assyrians who had intermarried with the Samaritans, and that the woman is symbolic of Samaria.[9] The man she is with now, who is not her true or genuine husband, may represent the Samaritan religion which was not true or genuine. The woman, possibly perceiving this metaphorical meaning, realises that Jesus is a prophet speaking about true religion. So she asks him a theological question about true worship.

Some have suggested that the woman brought up the subject of worship to change the course of conversation away from an uncomfortable past. I would like to suggest that this woman had a genuine interest in worship and theology, and was asking an honest question to someone she regarded as a prophet (John 4:19). Jesus gives her a meaningful reply and explains that the Father is looking for true worshippers, and that genuinely spiritual worship is not tied to one location (John 4:20-26). (The Gospels record other theological conversations between Jesus and women.)

Messiah and Saviour

As Jesus teaches her theology, the woman becomes increasingly aware of his spiritual stature and says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus answers this with egō eimi (“I am”), a term thought by some to refer to God himself. A literal translation from the Greek of John 4:26 has Jesus saying, “I am he who is speaking to you.” Jesus clearly identifies himself to her as the Messiah (cf. Peter in Matt. 16:15-17 and Martha in John 11:27).

The woman immediately leaves her water jar and goes into the town (cf. Matt. 4:19-20). She boldly testifies in Sychar about Jesus, and says, “Could this be the Messiah?”[10] Many people believed in Jesus because of her testimony (John 4:39). A woman’s testimony was generally not regarded as credible in that time. The Samaritans of Sychar were ready to believe; however, and they went on to trust in Jesus even more when they had heard him for themselves. They declared, “Jesus is the Saviour of the world!”

Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Using Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman recorded in chapter 4, and Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus recorded in chapter 3, John presents fundamental and profound spiritual truths, and yet the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus could not be more different from each other.

Nicodemus was male, a Jew, and educated. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), and a “teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). His name, which in Greek means “conqueror of the people”, implies strength. It seems clear that Nicodemus held a prestigious and powerful position in society. Interestingly, he visited Jesus discreetly at night, probably under the cover of darkness (John 3:1-2). And he disappears silently and passively from the scene without us knowing if he, at that time, accepted Jesus’ teaching. Nicodemus’ last words to Jesus, recorded in John 3, are: “How can this be?” (John 3:9; cf. John 7:50-51; 19:38-40).

In contrast, the woman was female, a Samaritan (despised by the Jews), and her family connections are complicated and obscure. She is nameless and probably vulnerable. She meets Jesus in the midday sun in what would have been a scandalous encounter according to the social customs of that time. Nevertheless, she put her growing faith into action and went into town telling the people about the Messiah.

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were very different individuals. Yet John puts these two people side by side in his Gospel and shows that Jesus treated them with equal regard. He answered their theological questions and taught both of them precious eternal truths.


Endnotes

[1] There is simply no evidence that drawing water from a well in the middle of the day is a sign that a woman has an immoral or shameful life (cf. Gen. 24:11; Exod. 2:15-16; 1 Sam. 9:11). Lynn Cohick writes:

Many expositors focus on the woman’s presence at the well at noon as a signal that she is a social outcast. But this conclusion is not based on any parallel description or implication within the Greco-Roman world that moral women went to the village at certain times and degenerate women visited at other times. . . . From the story’s standpoint, it makes sense that Jesus is thirsty at noon, as opposed to, for example, 7:30 in the morning. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 123.

[2] John 4:4 cryptically states that “It was necessary for him [i.e. Jesus] to go through Samaria.” What was the necessity? I speculate that God had prepared the Samaritan’s woman’s heart and that she was ready to be a true worshipper and useful to God. So Jesus was compelled to travel through Samaria to meet with her. God may have prepared the Samaritan woman’s heart just as he had prepared Lydia‘s heart and Rahab‘s heart (before they met Paul and the Israelite spies respectively) and were made useful for God’s purposes. The Samaritan woman may well have been an important part of God’s strategy for reaching the town of Sychar.

[3] In the Bible, wells have “proven to be significant meetings grounds, giving relief to emotionally and spiritually parched people” (e.g. Hagar in Genesis 16:7; Jacob in Genesis 29:1-14; Moses in Exodus 2:15-21). Grace Ying May and Hyunhye Junia Pokrifka-Joe, “Wells”, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (eds) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 597.

[4] Derek & Diane Tidball, The Message of Woman: Creation, Grace and Gender (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 169.

[5] Sugchraomai literally means “to use together”.

[6] John uses a literary device in his gospel where Jesus makes a statement that is misunderstood, and then explained further (e.g. John 3:3-9; 4:10-15; 7:32-36).

[7] Flowing water was considered more health-giving than still water. Furthermore, according to the Hebrew Torah (Lev. 14:5-6, 50-52; 15:13; Num. 19:17; Deut. 21:4), the use of flowing water, was required for ritual purification of the more severe forms of uncleanness; and in the Judaism of Jesus’ time flowing water and rivers were associated with repentance and forgiveness. Robert L. Webb “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus”, Studying the Historical Jesus, Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (eds) (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 188.

[8] Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 128. Cohick discusses the possibility that the Samaritan woman may have lost her five husbands through divorces and deaths, and that her current partner may have been unable to legally marry her. More on this here.
For a number of reasons, cohabitation was not uncommon in the Roman Empire. Slaves, for instance, could not marry legally, but some had life-partners. Also, it was illegal for a Roman citizen to marry someone of a lower social status, making a legal marriage impossible for some couples.

[9] The Assyrian king brought people from (1) Babylon, (2) Cuthah, (3) Avva, (4) Hamath and (5) Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria (2 Kings 17:24).

[10] In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the Samaritan woman is described as “equal to the apostles” because of her evangelizing work. She is regarded as the first person, other than Jesus, to proclaim the gospel of Christ. She is believed to have continued her evangelizing work in Carthage, but was later tortured and martyred by Nero. The Eastern Orthodox church claims her baptismal name is Photina, or Photini, meaning “enlightened one”.


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