"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 4 Jesus in Samaria: The Living Water

Section 4.2: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Speak Alone (Jn 4.7-26)


The elder's account of Jesus' encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman is very circumstantial. He is interested in the time of day, the place, the reason for Jesus' being there, the disciples' reaction, and the reaction of the woman's community. It's a well-told story. The question naturally arises, however, about its historicity. First there is the question of its source: how did the story become part of the tradition known to the elder? Clearly only through either Jesus or the woman, since the disciples were not present for most of the conversation. Either seems possible, though the woman herself seems a more likely source. Although the evangelist has likely shaped this story into the present form, giving it a structure that parallels in some ways the story of Nicodemos in ch 3 and using motifs and language that are characteristic of his writing throughout this gospel, commentators so otherwise far apart in their approach and conclusions as Bultmann and Brown agree on the existence of what Brown calls a 'substratum of traditional material' (See Brown 1966 pp 175-6 (quotation from p 176) and Bultmann 1971 pp 175-92).

The second issue as to historicity concerns the other gospels. As Brown briefly details, none of the other gospel writers suggested that there was any evangelisation of Samaria in Jesus' lifetime. In fact Jesus' instructions to the Twelve about their independent mission include in Mt 10.5 a prohibition of visiting a Samarian town. Even in Acts, Luke betrayed no knowledge of Christian preaching in Samaria prior to Philip's preaching in an unidentified Samarian city (described in Acts 8). Two points should be made in respect to these objections. First is that, as described in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus' presence in Samaria on this occasion was not part of a planned preaching mission: it was simply the consequence of local geography (Cp Bultmann 1971 pp 176-8). Second the conversion of a village near the main north-south highway between Galilee and Jerusalem may well have been too localised an event to be known in the more urbanised areas affected by Philip's mission. So there is in fact no necessary contradiction between John and the other evangelists here.

The story of the woman at the well falls naturally into several sections, as we have subdivided it: background, Jesus and the woman speak alone, the disciples return and the woman leaves, and the conclusion. The figure of Jacob is prominent in the first and second sections, because of his connection to the area and particularly to the well or spring where this dialogue takes place. Jacob the patriarch met Rachel, daughter of his uncle Laban and his favourite among his future wives and concubines, by a well and in broad daylight according to Gen 29. In fact in the patriarchs' story there are two significant meetings at a well -- Jacob's with Rachel, and in the previous generation, a meeting between Abraham's servant and Abraham's kinswoman Rebekah, who will become the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob. So a meeting at a well between a man and a woman, especially a man and a woman who are distantly kindred as a Jew and a Samaritan could be construed to be, would arouse expectations in its readers about the kind of story that would follow.

These expectations are also connected with the previous words of John the Baptist contrasting the bridegroom's friend and the bridegroom himself (compare Jn 3.25-35, especially 29-30). Readers who have just been told that Jesus is metaphorically or symbolically a bridegroom now see Jesus interacting with a woman at a well but what follows is not a marital arrangement, or at least not an obvious one. Yet it seems likely that to the Elder on some level this story was metaphorically or symbolically about the union of kindred but separated people in a new relationship with God through the Son as bridegroom not just to Israel but to all people.

In this section (vv9-26) the woman and Jesus engage in a conversation in which both seem quite conscious that, by proxy as it were, they represent to their interlocutor the whole group of which each is a part. The changes between a singular and plural form of 'you' and between 'I' and 'we' reflect this. As Craig Koester writes (Koester 1990 pp 671-2):

The woman is an individual, yet is presented as a representative of her people though the use of context and plural forms of speech.... She identifies Jesus as a prophet when he reveals his knowledge of her personal life, but tests his prophetic powers by raising an issue of national importance: Should worship take place at Gerizim or Jerusalem? During the discussion of the issue, both Jesus and the woman speak in first and second person plurals, as representatives of the Jewish and Samaritan peoples.

In vv 16-26 Jesus responded to the woman's request for water with an apparent non-sequitur when he invited her to go to get her husband. This invitation is another challenge, although this time it is Jesus doing the challenging. Would the woman answer him in kind or would she take a step back and not answer the implied question straightforwardly? Just as she did not shrink from argument with Jesus, she also did not shrink from admitting the truth, that she had no husband to bring. Jesus' reply is startling because it, like his words to Nathanael earlier (Jn 1.47-8), reveals a knowledge apparently beyond ordinary human capabilities.

Both the woman and Nathanael responded by affirming a new understanding of Jesus' identity, achieved through their reactions to these revelations. Nathanael addresses Jesus, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.' The Samaritan woman says to him, 'Lord, I see that you are a prophet!' Nathanael's story ends with his reaction and Jesus's response to it; in the woman's case her reaction begins a new phase of challenge in the conversation. Having decided she is in the presence of a prophet even if he is Jewish and not Samaritan, she sets him a question that goes to the heart of the divide between the two groups by asking about the proper venue for worship. Jesus' response calls for change and a new commitment to God from both groups.

Having acknowledged Jesus as a prophet in v19 (on the basis of what he has told her about her past life), the woman asked Jesus to resolve one of the fundamental differences between Jews and Samaritans, the proper place in which God should be worshipped, Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem. Jesus' answer is as surprising as his response about her husbands had been. While acknowledging Jewish superiority in the matter of salvation by contrasting Jewish knowledge with Samaritan ignorance, Jesus also proclaimed that both must abandon their claims and worship in a new way, in spirit and truth. That is what the Father wants, not worship that is tied to a particular place (v24). The woman apparently did not like that answer (and indeed Jesus did not really answer her question, transposing any question of worship into a higher key altogether).

What is worship in spirit and truth? In conversation with Nicodemos Jesus had spoken of a birth in water and spirit, here he speaks of a worship detached from place, no longer localised within the Land or restricted to a single shrine or temple, but carried out in spirit and truth. What that spirit is, which transforms earthly concepts into another, and higher, realm, is not yet clear. But we know from chapter 1 that there is a spirit-baptism as well as a water baptism, and that Jesus both received and dispensed it. And we learned in chapter 3 that there is a spirit-birth from above. Now we learn of worship in spirit and truth. Clearly these three things are bound together and the common element among them is spirit. John has thought much about this spirit and will have much to say about this spirit as his particular telling of the good news continues. For now however we must, like those in the story, wait to learn more.

On this entire chapter, see Brown 1966 pp 169-89 and Meier 2000, especially pp 227-32.


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The noon-time heat seems an odd time for anyone to come to draw water. Nor does this well seem to have been very close to the village where the woman lived. These two details suggest a woman distanced in some way from the village community among which she lived and prepare the attentive reader for Jesus' later revelations concerning her marital status in 4.18. They also hint that Jesus as portrayed by John is no more adverse to dealings with those on the margins of their society than is the Jesus portrayed in the Synoptics. The detail in v8 about the disciples' errand to purchase provisions helped the Elder to create the sense of a private, almost intimate, space in which the dialogue can unfold without interference by third parties or their expectations of behaviour between a man and an unrelated woman.

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In v10 (and in the rest of this episode) we see the motif of misunderstanding at work again, as it was in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus earlier. Here the misunderstanding turns on the phrase 'living water' -- the woman assumed Jesus referred merely to running water of a spring (as opposed to the still, standing water of a cistern), whereas he meant something closer to the water of life. Like Nicodemus, she failed to see that Jesus intended the multiple levels of meaning when he spoke. At this point in their conversation, the important difference between this woman and Nicodemus lies elsewhere.

The Samaritan woman challenged Jesus, not once (as in v9) but on several occasions. Nicodemus did not do so persistently as she does; for he asked questions that seemed to reflect exasperation more than anything. John's Jesus appears to have preferred to be taken up, even taken up sharply, on his statements. His mother did this indirectly in the story of the wedding at Cana; Nicodemus started to do so in 3.4 and then failed to press his points in 3.9. This woman went beyond either of them in 4.9 and 4.11-12: not only was she explicit and direct but she did not shrink back from argument.

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When the woman spoke of Jacob as 'our father' she is on one level simply referring with pride to Samaritan claims to descend, like Jews, from the patriarchs whose stories are told in Genesis, a part of the Torah which both groups regard as authoritative. But there is also irony in her words, because on another level they speak of that common heritage. Both a Jew like Jesus and a Samaritan like this woman claimed descent from one of the Twelve Patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. So the words 'our father Jacob' that excluded Jesus on the surface included both the speaker and her hearer on a deeper level.

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Verse 15 fittingly rounds out the first segment of their conversation, fulfilling in some measure the conditional statement of verse 10. Although she does not yet completely understand to whom she is speaking, the woman understands enough to ask for water from the one who had earlier requested it from her. Thus her insistence in challenging Jesus brings her to a place that Nicodemos does not reach in his encounter with Jesus.

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Commentators have struggled to find a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of these five husbands in stories of five nations going to create the Samaritan people or five gods that they worshipped (see Koester 1990 pp 669-70 for a brief précis). It seems better to see in them her personal tragedy . As Koester observes, her 'history was tragic at best, sinful at worst' -- we do not know whether she had been widowed all five times: divorce is a possibility as well. It appears that she had no adult children: a son or son-in-law would likely have delivered her from the necessity of having the economic protection of the sixth man with whom she was living without being married. In any case, Jesus' revelation both triggers her recognition of him as a prophet and explains the suspicions about her marginal status that alert readers will have nurtured since v6.

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The Samaritan woman demurred in v.25 with the pious hope that when Messiah comes, he will answer all questions. In the Samaritan religion the future hope lay not in a figure called 'Messiah,' 'Anointed One,' but in one called the Taheb (possibly 'Returning One') who seems to have been a figure based upon the future 'prophet like Moses' in Deuteronomy 15 and 18 rather than a royal anointed heir to David's line. John has used the more familiar titles 'Messiah' and Christ' but has likely retained something of the woman's real expectations of a Mosaic revealer-figure. In the final verse of this section, Jesus reveals himself to her as the fulfilment of that future hope. As such he established his right to require of both Jews and Samaritans the new kind of worship in spirit and truth to which vv23-4 refer. Verse 26 is also the first of the seven 'absolute' I AM sayings discussed above. Jesus' reply can be read on two levels, both as a simple identification with the person being discussed and also as an assertion that the speaker is properly identified with the Divine Name, an echo of YHWH's reply to Moses from the burning bush.

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