The woman at the well is a familiar figure to most churchgoers. This poor Samaritan woman from John chapter 4 has managed to gain a semi-regular role in many Sunday sermons and Wednesday night Bible studies. She has been held up as a poster child for everything from social justice to stylistic worship preferences. Yet a careful examination of the passage reveals one of the most profound theological lessons in all of history—one that every true Christian must grasp.
At first glance, little about the scene seems worthy of note. An anonymous woman performs the most mundane of everyday tasks: She comes to draw her household’s daily ration of water. She comes alone, and at an hour she expected to find no one else at the well. (That likely indicated her status as an outcast.) Jesus, traveling through the region on His way to Jerusalem, was resting near the well, His disciples away on an errand. Having no means by which to draw water, Jesus asked the woman for a drink. It was not the stuff of great drama, and this was certainly not a scene which would lead us to expect the staggering revelation that lay just ahead.
[Jesus] left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:3–9)
A Remarkable Setting
Look closer, however, and it turns out that many details in this picture are enormously significant.
In the first place this was Jacob’s well, located on a plot of land well known to students of the Old Testament. It was a field that Jacob purchased so he could pitch his tent in the land of Canaan (Genesis 33:18–19). He built an altar on the site and called it El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:20), meaning “the God of Israel.” This very field was the first inhabitable piece of real estate recorded in Scripture that any Israelite ever owned in the Promised Land. Abraham had previously purchased the field of Ephron, which contained a cave that became his and Sarah’s burial place (Genesis 23:17–18; 25:9–10). But this property actually became Jacob’s home base.
John 4:5 reminds us that this was the same parcel of ground Jacob deeded to his favorite son, Joseph (Genesis 48:21–22). It later became the very place where Joseph’s bones were finally put to rest (Joshua 24:32). Remember that when Moses left Egypt, he took Joseph’s coffin (Genesis 50:24–26; Exodus 13:19). The Israelites carried Joseph’s remains around with them for forty years in the wilderness. One of their first acts after conquering the Promised Land was the final interment of those bones. This was all done at Joseph’s own behest (Hebrews 11:22). To the Israelites, the tale of Joseph’s bones was a significant reminder of God’s faithfulness (Acts 7:15–16).
The well that was on the property was not mentioned in the Old Testament, but centuries of Jewish tradition attested to its location by Jesus’ day, and the site remains a major landmark even today. The well is very deep (John 4:11), accessible only by a very long rope fed down a hole dug through a slab of soft limestone. The reservoir below is spring fed, so its water is always fresh, pure, and cold. It is the only well, and the finest water, in a vicinity where brackish springs abound. The existence of such a well on Jacob’s property was deemed by the Israelites as a token of God’s grace and goodness to their patriarch. Hence, the location had a lengthy and meaningful history in Jewish tradition.
But during Christ’s time on earth, that plot of ground lay in Samaritan territory, and this is another surprising and significant detail about the setting in John 4. For Jesus to be in Samaria at all was unusual (and perhaps even somewhat scandalous). The Samaritans were considered unclean by the Israelites. Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee (John 4:3). A look at any map reveals that the most direct route goes straight through Samaria; any self-respecting Jew living at that time would always travel a different way. The preferred route went east of the Jordan River, then north through Decapolis before crossing the Jordan again into Galilee. This alternate route went many miles out of the way, but it bypassed Samaria, and that was the whole point.
An Estranged History
Samaritans were a mixed-race people descended from pagans who had intermarried with the few remaining Israelites after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom (722 BC). As early as Nehemiah’s time (the mid-fifth century BC), the Samaritans posed a serious threat to the purity of Israel. Secular history records that Nehemiah’s main nemesis, Sanballat, was an early governor of Samaria (Nehemiah 4:1–2). The Jewish high priest’s grandson married Sanballat’s daughter, incurring Nehemiah’s wrath: “I drove him away from me” (Nehemiah 13:28). Such a marriage “defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites” (Nehemiah 13:29).
By the first century, the Samaritans had a distinct culture built around a syncretistic religion, blending aspects of Judaism and rank paganism. Their place of worship was on Mount Gerizim. Sanballat had built a temple there to rival the Temple in Jerusalem. And a false priesthood served in the Samaritan temple—the Israelites in the Northern Kingdom had already corrupted Judaism several centuries before by establishing this false priesthood. That defiled flavor of Judaism was precisely what gave birth to Samaritanism. So the Samaritan religion was twice removed from the truth. While holding to selected elements of Jewish doctrine—for example, Samaritans regarded the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture—they rejected other key components, like failing to recognize the psalms and the prophets.
During the Maccabean period, less than a century and a half before the time of Christ, Jewish armies under John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple. Gerizim nevertheless remained sacred to the Samaritans and the center of worship for their religion. (A group of Samaritans still worships there even today.)
Jewish contempt for the Samaritans was so intense by the first century that most Jews simply refused to travel through Samaria, despite the importance of that land to their heritage.
Christ’s visit, however, was a deliberate break with that convention. John 4:4 says, “He needed to go through Samaria” (NKJV, emphasis added). He had a purpose to fulfill, and it required Him to travel through Samaria, stop at this historic well, talk to this troubled woman, and make an unprecedented disclosure of His true mission and identity.
Seen in that light, virtually everything about the setting of John 4 becomes remarkable. It is unusual to find Jesus alone. It is amazing to realize that God incarnate could grow physically weary (John 4:6) or become thirsty (John 4:7). It is startling that Jesus would intentionally seek out and initiate a conversation with a wretched Samaritan woman like this one. It was astonishing even to her that any Jewish man would speak to her (John 4:9). It was equally shocking for the disciples—they were “amazed that He had been speaking with a woman” (John 4:27). It would have been considered outrageous for Him to drink from an unclean vessel that belonged to an unclean woman.
But what is staggeringly unexpected about this whole fantastic account is that Jesus chose this time and this place and this woman to be part of the setting where He would (for the first time ever) formally and explicitly unveil His true identity as the Messiah.
And that singular fact calls for a careful examination of this passage (John 4:1–42). That’s what we’ll be doing in the days ahead.
(Adapted from Twelve Extraordinary Women)