Jesus and the Samaritan woman – John 4:1–4
Gospel of John Bible Study Notes
In the first three verses of chapter 4, we discover that Jesus is gaining more and more disciples, more disciples than John the Baptist (cf. John 3:23b & 26). And we learn that Jesus’ closest disciples are baptising the new followers. This religious movement was gaining momentum and was causing some concern for the Pharisees. To avoid becoming involved in a futile confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples leave Judea to travel north to Galilee.
In verse 4, we are given the impression that there was some pressing necessity for Jesus to travel through Samaria. It is thought that Jews travelling between Judea and Galilee normally went around Samaria (a six-day journey), but Jesus was compelled by Holy Spirit to travel through Samaria for a divine appointment.
The Ancient Jews and the Samaritans
The Samaritans had developed their own compromised version of Judaism. They believed in Yahweh, the God of the Bible, but they worshipped at Mt Gerizim instead of Jerusalem. The Samaritans had adopted their own syncretised worship practices and they had their own Pentateuch in Aramaic which differed from the Hebrew Pentateuch. They did not accept the poetic books or prophetic books of the Old Testament as Scripture. In around 400 BC(?) the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim. This caused tension and hostility between the Jews and Samaritans. The Jews ultimately destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128–129 BC. The Samaritan religious community still exists today.
The Jews regarded the Samaritans as outside of God’s favour or consideration and they would not associate with them. The Samaritans, however, were still very part of God’s plans as shown in this chapter of John’s gospel. Later, Jesus would specifically mention Samaria when he told his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
More on the Samaritans here.
The Woman at the Well – John 4:4–12
Note: A more recent, better article on the Samaritan woman is here.
John 4:5–6 sets the scene for this narrative. It is midday, and Jesus and his disciples have arrived at a Samaritan town called Sychar which is close to the land Jacob gave to Joseph’s descendants. Exhausted from the journey, Jesus sits alone by the well of Jacob while the disciples go into the town to buy lunch (John 4:8). In these verses, John, as in other passages in his Gospel, seems to be emphasising the “Jewishness” of Jesus’ ministry, but here he is emphasising the Jewish heritage of the Samaritan town. (See also John 4:12.)
In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman has come to draw water from the well. Some speculate that the woman comes at midday to avoid meeting people because she was ashamed of her life, but this speculation has no firm basis. What follows is an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman. “Jesus ignores the centuries-old hostility between Jew and Samaritan, rides roughshod over the battlements of an entrenched gender-divide, and actually engages this woman in conversation.” And it is the longest conversation between Jesus and another person recorded in the Gospels.
Jesus asks the woman to give him a drink of water. She is astonished, even shocked by this request, and points out that Jews do not associate (NIV), or have dealings (NASB), with Samaritans. The Greek word for “associate” (sugchraomai) here can refer to “the sharing of eating utensils and dishes.“ This is precisely what Jesus is asking. He doesn’t have his own utensil to draw water from the deep well.
However, it wasn’t only her ethnicity that was a potential issue. The Jews regarded Samaritan women as “menstruants from the cradle” (Mishnah Niddah 4.1). According to Old Testament regulations, menstruating women were ritually unclean. Nevertheless, Jesus is asking to drink from the vessel of a Samaritan woman!
Living Water – John 4:10–15
Following this initial interaction, Jesus begins talking about living water. However, just as Nicodemus had failed to see the spiritual meaning of being “born again” (John 3:3–4), the woman fails to see the spiritual significance of the “living water” and only sees what may be a practical advantage for her. Living water, that is, running water, was considered preferable to the still well water that percolated through the ground.
Jesus knows that this woman is “thirsty” and he promises that his living water will completely quench a person’s spiritual longing and thirst. Jesus describes this living water as becoming a spring of gushing water, eternally flowing from within the person who receives his gift. In John 7:38–39, the imagery of living water is used again and we are told that it represents the Holy Spirit.
Five husbands – John 4:16–19
Jesus suddenly changes the subject and asks the woman to call her husband. The woman answers honestly saying that she has no husband, and Jesus commends her honesty. Jesus knows that the woman has had five husbands and that the man she is living with now is not her husband. He conveys these facts without the slightest sense of criticism or condemnation. [Lynn Cohick discusses marriage in the ancient world and the marital status of the Samaritan woman here.]
It is plausible 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. 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, perhaps 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 speculate that the woman brought up the subject of worship to change the course of conversation away from an immoral past. I believe this woman had a genuine interest in worship and theology and was asking an honest theological question from someone she regarded as a prophet. The New Testament records several theological conversations between Jesus and women.
True, Spiritual Worship – John 4:20–26 (I’ve omitted this section.)
The Messiah and the Woman
After Jesus’ speech about true, spiritual worship, the woman, becoming increasingly aware of his spiritual stature says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responds with a statement that contained the words “I am” (egō eimi), a phrase thought by some to refer to God himself. Jesus tells the woman, “I am he who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). He identifies himself to her as the Messiah.
The woman immediately leaves her water jar and goes into the town (cf. Matt. 4:19–20). This woman who had come to draw water in the middle of the day was now testifying throughout the town about Jesus saying, “Could this be the Messiah?” And many people believed in Jesus because of her words (John 6:39). This is remarkable because, in the first century, a woman’s testimony wasn’t considered as credible as a man’s testimony and had little weight in courts of law. These Samaritans were ready to believe, however, and they went on to trust in Jesus even more when they had heard him for themselves. The Samaritans declared that “Jesus is the Saviour of the world!” (John 4:42).
Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman
Using Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman (recorded in chapter 4) and his previous 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, educated, and from a good family. He was morally upright, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a “teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). His name, which in Greek means “conqueror of the people,” suggests strength. Nicodemus held a prestigious position in society. And he visits Jesus discreetly at night, possibly under the cover of darkness (John 3:1–2).
In contrast, the woman was female, a Samaritan (despised by the Jews), and probably uneducated. She is nameless and possibly vulnerable. She isn’t rich, as she fetches her own water, and her multiple marriages may have made her an object of suspicion in her town. This woman meets Jesus, a Jewish man, in the midday sun in what would have been a scandalous encounter according to the customs of society at that time.
Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were very different. Yet John puts these two people side by side in his Gospel and shows that Jesus treated them with equal concern and regard, and he taught both of them precious eternal truths. One thing Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had in common was that they both needed the new life in the Spirit that Jesus offered.
 Abraham and Jacob had built altars near Mount Gerizim (Gen. 12:7; 33:20). Later Mt Gerizim was to be blessed when the Israelites entered the promised land (Deut. 11:29). According to the Samaritan scriptures, Moses commanded that an altar be built there. This is quite different in our Bible. See Deuteronomy 27:4–6.
 The Pentateuch comprises the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are the only books accepted as holy scripture by the Samaritans.
 Compare Genesis 33:19 and 48:52 with Joshua 24:32.
 Derek & Diane Tidball, The Message of Woman: Creation, Grace and Gender, (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 169.
 Sugchraomai literally means “to use together.”
 Jacob’s well is more than 30 metres deep.
 The King of Assyria 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).
The idea of connecting the five Assyrian tribes with the Samaritan woman’s five husbands “was proposed decades ago by John Bligh in ‘Jesus in Samaria,’ The Heythrop Journal 3 ( Oct 1962): 336. It has been regularly disputed by commentators who prefer a literal interpretation …” Sandra Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier 1999) in chapter 7 which looks at John 4:1–42. (Google Books)
 The Messiah is the promised deliverer of Israel and a descendant of King David. The Samaritans recognised Jesus as the saviour, or deliverer, of the world (John 4:42).
 The Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling council, made up of 70 members and overseen by the High Priest.
 Fetching water was a lowly chore usually given to daughters or servants of the household, but this woman fetches the water herself indicating she has no servants. (She is not referred to as a servant in John 4.)
 James McGrath writes that the story of Sarah and her multiple dead husbands in the Book of Tobit “suggests that a serial widow may struggle to remarry—a man might fear that some curse or demon was associated with her, and that his own life would be at risk if they wed.” (Source: Bible Odyssey)
© Margaret Mowczko 2009
All Rights Reserved
Postscript 1: March 28, 2014
Living Water and Ritual Purification
I read this today (28.03.14) in Robert L. Webb’s chapter, “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus” in Studying the Historical Jesus, eds. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 188. According to the Hebrew Torah (Lev. 14:5–6, 50–52; 15:13; Num. 19:17; Deut. 21:4), the use of flowing water, or “living” 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. Did the Samaritan woman realise that she needed Jesus’ gift of living water for her purification and forgiveness? It is important to note, however, that Jesus never tells the woman to repent of any sin, or tells her to “sin no more,” a phrase found elsewhere in John’s gospel (John 5:14; 8:11).
Postscript 2: December 29, 2022
I like this observation by Murray D. Gow in his chapter on the Samaritan woman.
Many writers focus on what they consider to be the moral failings of the woman making her out to be an immoral, loose woman, but this reads into the text what is not there. Rather, the focus is on the failure of the men in her life. We are not told how she came to lose her husbands; was she divorced or widowed? In view of social practices in ancient Samaria, it is not unlikely that the woman was married more than once to older men in which case she could well have been widowed several times. Consider too that it was men, not women who found it easy to divorce in her time. Regardless of whether she had been bereaved or abandoned, either way, she had been let down by men. (From Dr Gow’s forthcoming book on female agency in the Bible.)
“The Samaritan Woman …” (79847) by Pearl via Lightstock
The Samaritan Woman of Sychar (John 4)
A note on “everything I ever did” (John 4:29)
A Brief History of the Samaritans
Jesus, Women and Theology: Jesus said to her …
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women