The beginning of Jesus' public ministry (John 2:1-4:54) - Continue

E. The Samaritan woman, living water, and true worshippers (4:1–42);

Main idea

In the person of Jesus, the entire world is confronted with (1) the inadequacy of its resources and (2) the overabundant riches of the gift of God, which is (a) international in scope and (b) cross-cultural in character.

It is at each person’s place of need, where they hunger and thirst, that God seeks and satisfies them with a food and drink no one could have imagined, rooted in the divine mission of the Trinitarian God.

The appropriate response to God can be nothing less than true worship.


  1. Jesus’ return to Galilee through Samaria (4:1–6);
  2. First verbal exchange: Jesus’ request for water (4:7–9);
  3. Second exchange: “living water” (4:10–12);
  4. Third exchange: well of eternal life (4:13–15);
  5. Fourth exchange: the woman and her husbands (4:16–18);
  6. Fifth exchange: true worship and worshippers (4:19–24);
  7. Sixth exchange: the confession of Christ (4:25–26);
  8. Interlude: Jesus’ disciples, true food, and the harvest (4:27–38);
  9. “The Saviour of the world” (4:39–42).

Two motifs can be brought here:

  1. The motif of hospitality - so important in the entire OT;
  2. The motif of betrothal - also present in the stories of the OT that takes place by the wells.

Both motifs should be kept in mind in this story. On the one hand, there is the female/male dimension - the Samaritan woman and Jesus - central to betrothal narratives (Gen 24:11–18; 29:1–11; Ex 2:15–21). But, there is also the larger motif of the host/guest encounter between a Samaritan and a Jew.

Both motifs seems to point to the profound question of an encounter between the world and God. The initial ‘hostility’ - a lack of hospitality? - on the part of the Samaritan woman is met with Jesus’ overwhelming hospitality of offering her the “living water”. And the one who could not find a ‘suitable husband’ finally found the one she was always searching for.


The narratives point us back to 3:22–25. Apparently, the baptismal activity of Jesus also drew attention of the Pharisees (cf. 1:24).

4:2 - It seems that already in this earlier phase of Jesus’ ministry, the apostles were acting as the representatives of Jesus. In this case, it would prepare them for their ministry after the day of Pentecost onwards. From that day they administered baptism ‘in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 2:38; 10:48), not by their own authority but by the power given to them by the risen Lord.

The reason for living Judea might be related to the ‘investigating’ work of the Pharisees. Was Jesus trying to avoid the confrontation with the religious authorities at that early stage of his ministry?

Another possibility is in the word “left” that is also used in 4:28 and normally carries the meaning “abandoned” - (the woman ‘abandoned’ her water-pot). Was Jesus ‘temporarily’ abandoning Judea due to their lack of positive response to him?

Interestingly, from the court of Gentiles (John 2:13), Jesus goes to the land of ‘gentiles’ in Samaria to prepare a true temple and true worshippers for God.


Samaria lay between Judea in the south and Galilee in the North.

The statement that Jesus “had to” (ἐδει) indicates God’s plan of salvation. Jesus did not choose that rout because it was more convenient or shorter, but to bring the grace of salvation to Samaria (cf. “divine necessity” in 3:7, 14, 30; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9).

Jesus, the Saviour of the world, “had to” go through Samaria to begin the fulfilment of the promise given in Gen 12:3 - in Him “all peoples on earth will be blessed”.

For the origin of Samaritans see 2 Kings 17:24–41 - year 721 BC. The name comes from the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, which broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem in 922 BC (1 Kings 12:16–2). They adopted the worship of the God of Israel with the gods of Babylon (see 2 Kings 17:29–34).

Moreover, there were often violent conflicts between the two groups. In Ezra chapter 4, the Samaritans were against the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. They themselves worship at a temple built on Mount Gerazim. But in the eyes of the Jews it was an illegitimate temple and was destroyed by the Jewish king John Hyrcanus in about 129 or 108 BC.

Sychar - near the piece of land which Jacob gave to Jospeh - see Gen 48:22.

Jacob’s well is located around 300 meters from Joseph’s tomb. Jospeh was buried at Shechem (see Gen 33:19; Josh 24:32). Both sites are preserved till today. In the days of St. Jerome (c. AD 400) a church stood there.

The well was dug but it is supplied by underground stream, which is rarely short of water.

The sixth hour = noon time. The timing is in contrast with the encounter with Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night (3:2).

The statement that Jesus was tired points out to the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity. The Word indeed became flesh, like us.

4:7, 8

Women usually came to draw water in company of others and at a cooler time - morning and evening. Why did she come alone and at such an hour? Was there a problem?

Had the disciples been there, they would have drawn water for Jesus - a normal act performed by the students for their teacher. It is not stated where they went to buy the food. Most food in the area would be impure for the Jews - except for some dry kinds of food.

Thus, we have an encounter between a Samaritan and a Jew, between a woman and the man.

Jesus initiate the dialogue with a request for a drink.


The woman’s surprise is rooted in the deep-rooted and long-lasting conflict between the two groups. Moreover, for Jews a Samaritan woman would be a threat to their purity.

But, the Evangelist’s explanation points to the fact that Jews and Samaritans do not use vessels in common. Jesus would have to drink water using her vessel, which means a certainty of ceremonial pollution for Jesus.

The older version have “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”; but perhaps better is “Jews do not use the same vessels as Samaritans”.

The Greek word “συγχράομαι” means “associate with” but also “use dishes in common with”.


Jesus does not enter into a debate about the Jewish-Samaritan difference. He moves the topic into a different level. Jesus came to break the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14–18).

Water, in a land subjected to drought, like it happens very often in Palestine, is appreciated as a true gift from God.

But Jesus now speaks of a greater gift of God than the purest water can supply. In the sign at Cana (John 2:6ff) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (3:5) water has already figured in a spiritual sense.

Here, the water in Jacob’s well, symbolising the old order inherited by Samaritans and Jews alike, is contrasted with the new order, the gift of the Spirit (cf. John 7:37–39), life eternal.

The expression ‘living water’ refers to spring water or running water as distinct from the water collected in a cistern. See Jer 2:13 - God is the fountain of living waters versus people hewing cisterns for themselves.

But, God promised to change the hearts of the people (Jer 30:3; 31:31–34) by establishing a new covenant. God will cleans his people with “clean water” and will “put” his Spirit in them (Ezek 36:25–27).

Moreover, he will cause water flow out of the sanctuary in the new Jerusalem to bring life to the dried-up land even beyond Judah’s borders (Ezek 47:1–12; cf. Zech 13:1; 14:8).

See also Rev 7:16–17 and 21:6 - where Jesus leads and gives all those who thirst the water of life.

In Jer 2:13 running water, as apposed to stagnant water collected in cisterns, illustrates the fresh and perennial supply of God’s grace. This is also the meaning of Jesus’s words.

It is not that Jesus does not know who he is and therefore is acting inappropriately by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink.

It is the woman who does not know who Jesus is and so is acting inappropriately apparently refusing to give him a drink.

Jesus’ identity is Jewish, and his appearance is one of a thirsty and helpless traveler; yet the truth is that he is the unique Son of God, the very expression of the love of God.


Today the Jacob’s well is over 30 meters deep and Jesus apparently has no bucket. The woman thought Jesus meant the spring of fresh water.

The woman’s failure to comprehend Jesus’ words about the living water is comparable to Nicodemus’ failure to comprehend Jesus’ words about the new birth (John 3:4).

But, there is a change in her addressing Jesus: from “you” to a respectful “sir” - (Κύριε).


Anyone who can make such a promise and fulfil it must indeed be greater than Jacob. But she thought it to be unlikely. Her question introduced by the negative particle “μὴ” implies the answer “No”.

There is no reference to the digging of the well in OT narrative of Jacob. Perhaps, it is presumed by the context of Gen 33:18–20. Why would Jacob dig such a well if all neighbourhood was well provided with spring? Perhaps two reasons:

  1. Hostility from the neighbours (cf. Gen 26:15–33);
  2. Independence from others - having own well on one’s own piece of land make a family self-supporting and for the Jews who could not mingle with other nations that was very important.

Only one person in the Torah could fulfil such a promise and be greater that “our father Jacob”.

Notice that for the first time, there is a connection between the woman and Jesus, namely Jacob is both the father of the Jews and the Samaritans.

Who could that person be? God alone. The one who gave Israel water at Rephidim (Ex 17:1–7) and Kadesh (Num 20:2–13).

But, the woman was unable to grasp yet this meaning of Jesus’ words. She thought that nothing greater can be given to her than the water from this well.


That is an obvious statement. “This water” stands in contrast with the water that Jesus gives.

The rabbis compared the law to refreshing water. If John has in mind this symbolism, then it suggests that Jesus offers something superior not only to the water in Jacob’s well but to the legal religion of Jews and Samaritans alike.


It is worth noting that Samaritan liturgy for the Day of Atonement says of the Messiah that “Water shall flow from his buckets” (Num 24:7). Although that liturgy is much later date the promise that Jesus offers sounds similar. Is it a coincidence?

In 7:39, the Evangelist adds a comment regarding the water: “he said this with regard to the Spirit”. It is the Spirit of God dwelling within Christ’s believers that is a perennial wellspring of refreshment and life.

The soul’s deepest thirst is for God himself, who has made us so that we can never be satisfied without him!!!

Only the water (the Spirit) that Jesus offer can satisfy this thirst.

The fountain of living waters may thus be found resident in the personal life of men and women; with joy they may draw water from the wells of salvation (Is 12:3) and know that, as they partake of it, they are tasting the true heavenly gift, the life of the age to come.

One more thing - the participle “bubbling up” or “leaping up” agrees with ‘water’, not with ‘spring’.


The woman wants that water but her reasons is practical: (1) no more thirst; (2) no more coming here all the way from the town to draw water. Is her answer a way of chiding Jesus? Or although not fully understand, she is slowly becoming open to Jesus? Her response is parallel to John 6:34.


There is here an abrupt change in conversation - from water to her husband. The conversation becomes personal. The woman does not know Jesus and may not understand him, but he knows her. Perhaps with 4:15, the woman wanted to close the conversation, but Jesus’ request will help her to understand what he was speaking about.


“I have no husband” can be understood as a way to stop any further conversation. Her statement was true to an extent but it was not the whole truth - here we see how Jesus knows us. He proceeds to reveal the whole truth about her life. In Jesus’ response, “husband” is moved at the beginning.

She - “I have no husband”.
Jesus - “husband, you have not”.

We do not know why she had so many husbands. Were they divorcing her? (Deut 24:1). Did some of them died? (See Tobit 3:8). Is that the reason for her coming alone to draw water at noon? There has to be something not correct in her life, a sort of sin, that only Jesus and the woman was aware of.

Whether there is symbolic meaning to that story is not clear. Some see in those husbands religious syncretism of Samaritans. (1) The five husbands represent the pagan deities brought to Samaria by the settlers from Mesopotamia (2 Kings 17:24, 30 - but there were seven gods), and the last man would represent the God of Israel (2 Kings 17:31). (2). The five husbands represent the Torah - 5 books of Moses, and the sixth man - a worship of gods.

Whatever the symbolic interpretation may be the fact is that Jesus comes as the seventh man into the life of this woman.

If, we combine these two aspect: on personal level sinfulness of the woman - which we do not exactly know what it could be, an otherwise wider level the improper worship of God by the Samaritans, then we see here the aim of Jesus’ coming to that place and to the world: (1) to save humanity from sinfulness; (2) to teach us about the proper worship of God.

Jesus who was thirsty at the beginning of this story reveals that he is thirsty not for the water but for the salvation of that woman and for the permanent union between the Samaritans and the Father through his mediation.


Direct insight into the woman’s life yields fresh insight regarding the person of Jesus. A stranger who could read the woman’s life-story like an open book was not an ordinary man.

Her “Κύριε” could mean just “Sir” (4:11, 15), but in this case could already mean “Lord”.

Now, the Samaritans did not recognise the canon of post-Mosaic prophecy - the books of prophets were not accepted. In their belief, Deut 34:10 remains valid until the rise of the second Moses, the Taheb (essentially the Samaritan equivalent of the Jewish Messiah) or great prophet of the new age to whom they looked forward. Between the first and second Moses no prophet could be expected (Deut 18:15).

“Prophet” (cf. 9:17). In the Synoptics this term is applied both to John the Baptist (Mt 14:5; Mk 11:32; Lk 1:76) and to Jesus (Mt 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16) after witnessing to their preaching and action.

But, spoken by that Samaritan it could be mean much more. A man who could tell her all that she ever did could be no less than the expected one - the Messiah himself.


But now, she turns to the religious difference between the two communities. Which place did God choose as a place of worship?

Deut 12:5 - “But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there”. But this text does not specify the place. Moreover, the Samaritan edition read: “the place that the Lord your God has chosen”. God has already made a decision regarding the place and for the Samaritans it was Mount Gerizim overlooking Shechem (John 4:5–6).

Shechem was the first place where Abraham built the altar (Gen 12:6–7) and from Mount Garizim, the blessing was pronounced on Israel after the settlement in Josuha’s day (Josh 8:33; cf. Deut 27:12).

It seems also that the Samaritan Torah also has “Mount Garizim” instead of “Mount Ebal” in Deut 27:4.

On the other hand, the Samaritans pointed out that the first temple in Jerusalem was built by Solomon much later than the altar of built by Abraham in Shechem. Apparently nothing in the five Books of Moses points to Jerusalem as God’s choice.


Jesus’ answer indicates that the time of disagreement about the places of worship came to an end. A new order was now being introduced which rendered such questions out-of-date and meaningless.

“Believe me” or “believe in me” (dative case is here). This can be interpreted that Jesus not only ask the woman to believe in what he says but also in who he is.

Jesus points out that it is not “where” people worship God but “how” they worship him that matters. Moreover, Jesus speaks here about worshipping “the Father”.

Jesus spoke of God as his Father in John 2:16 and he addressed him as Father (cf. 11:41; 12:27–28; 17:1). He also taught us to call him “our Father” (Mt 6:5–15; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; cf. Mark 14:36). Thus, wherever Christian meet to pray, that place becomes hallowed ground.

The “hour” was already mentioned in John 2:4.

“You worship” is in plural.

The Samaritan woman was asking about the place of worship while she was standing before the true temple of God and the true revelation of the Father (cf. 1:18; 2:21).


Jesus declares the Jewish worship to be more intelligent than that of the Samaritans. But, in the biblical sense, knowing involves not just intellectual apprehension but also a kind of union between the knower and the known. So, perhaps, Jesus points to the difference in the quality of relationship between these two groups and God they worship. By virtue of their covenant, the Jews know the one God in a way that the Samaritans do not.

And then, he makes statement that “salvation is from the Jews”. This verse is an effective answer to those who consider John’s Gospel as anti-Jewish.

It is also important to note that it is “from the Jews”, and not “by the Jews” or “in the Jews”. Jesus embraces his own Jewishness and at the same time he is the fulfilment of the promise in Gen 12:3 that through Abraham’s descendants all the people of the earth shall be blessed.

Through the Jewish Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, the rest of the world is blessed (Luke 1:55; Gal 3:26–29).

See also Gen 12:3, 26:4; 28:14; Is 49:6, and finally Gal 4:4.


In John 4:21, the hour was coming, but in this verse this hour “now is”.

The true worshippers refers to the “children of God” (1:12) coming from both groups - Jews and Samaritans (who stood as an example of gentiles). They worship the Father.

Notice, that the conversation about the worship focused on “what” (neuter) you don’t know or know. Now, it is the person of the Father that is central in true worship. Only the Son can reveal such worship.

“In Spirit and truth”. Note that in John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13 - the Spirit is described as the “Spirit of truth”. But, note also that Jesus himself is the Truth (14:6).

Thus, the true worship is Trinitarian, as we say it during the Mass, “through Him [the Son], in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we worship you [our Father]”.

To worship in Spirit and truth means to worship God as revealed in Jesus, who is the Truth, and animated by the Holy Spirit, who imparts new heavenly life and understanding of Jesus’ revelation.

From this we also realise that spiritual worship cannot be tied to set places and seasons.


God is Spirit - God himself is pure/ perfect Spirit and so the true worship must be spiritual in nature. It is a necessity (δεῖ) to worship God “in Spirit and truth”. But, it does not mean that it is only interior or immaterial (3:5 - water; 6:53 - the Eucharist).

In 4:21–24, the verb “worship” is spoken seven times by Jesus!


The Samaritans awaited a messianic figure whom they called the Taheb or “restorer” and whom they associated with the promised prophet-like-Moses (Deut 18:15, 18; cf. Mal 3:24; Mk 9:11–13). The Jews on the other hand awaited the Messiah of David’s line. Thus, both awaited a Messianic figure.

Jesus fulfils both: he is the new Moses - the portray of Jesus in Matt and He is also the Son of David (see Mt 1:1; Rom 1:3).

The Samaritan woman seems to know what is the job description of the Messiah - “he will declare all things to us”. That what Jesus declared about her life.


“I am, the one speaking to/with you”. Here we find the famous (Εγώ εἰμι) (see 3:14 LXX). The God who spoke to Moses from a bush has now spoken to a Samaritan woman through the incarnate God.


The dialogue comes to an end with the arrival of the disciples (John 4:8).

A conversation of a rabbi even with a Jewish woman was considered a waste of time - the more a conversation with a Samaritan woman.

Two interesting questions are presented - were they at the back of the disciples’ mind?

(1) to a woman: “what do you seek?” (Cf. 1:38);
(2) to Jesus: “why are you talking with her?” (Cf. 4:23 - Jesus was seeking a true worshipper here).

Yet, they did not dare to ask them.


The narrator returns to the woman. She forgot the water from Jacob’s well because she has received the living water of which Jesus had spoken.

Her abandonment of the water-pot can be seen as a parable of the renunciation of the old ceremonial, practiced by Jews and Samaritans alike, on the part of those who through faith in Jesus have received the divine gift of eternal life (John 4:14).

If before, she had avoided the company of her fellow-citizens, she was a changed woman now. She goes to them to tell them the incredible good news she had just experienced.

“Come and see” (1:39, 46), the man who “told me everything that I did” - even if it is an exaggeration, the woman is right. Jesus knows everything she did, but revealed to her what was necessary to draw her to faith in him (cf. John 1:48).

“Can this be the Messiah?” - or “This is not the Christ, is it?” - from grammatical point the question expects a negative answer. Does the woman try to be cautious in front of their townsmen? A Jewish Messiah for both the Jews and the Samaritans? That is a huge thing. But, at the same time, the question introduces a possibility not considered before.

There had to be something in her testimony that moved them to leave the city and come to Jesus. The woman is a true missionary in this Gospel, similar to the man from Mk 5:20. Like Andrew and Philip in John 1, the Samaritan woman becomes a witness whose testimony leads others to Jesus.


There is a parallel between Jesus’ words to the woman and to the disciples. Jesus possesses different water and different food that people have. The water from Jacob’s well cannot compare with the living water of Jesus, the food the disciples brought from neighbouring area cannot compare to the food of doing the will of the Father. Later on we shall read that Jesus himself is the food - the bread of life (6:35).

Of course, it does not mean that Jesus does not need to drink and eat, but the Evangelist leads us to realise that “man does not live on bread [and water] alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (cf. Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3).

In the case of Jesus, to listen to the Father’s voice and to do his will were the joy and strength of Jesus’ life. And towards the end of his ministry Jesus could say to the Father that he had accomplished the work given to him (see John 17:4) and just before dying he says: “it is accomplished” (19:30).

Notice, that Jesus never speaks about his will or his work - it is always the Father’s will and the Father’s work that he came to accomplish.

Part of the work which the Father gave him to do was to communicate his blessing to the woman of Sychar, and through her to the other inhabitants of that place. The satisfaction which he now experienced through doing the Father’s will in this respect was greater than any satisfaction which bread could give.


The proverb in 4:35 probably has nothing to do with actual time of these events.

  1. Jesus was just in Jerusalem for Passover (2:13), and the actual harvest would be much closer than for months away.
  2. On the other hand, a suggestion that the incident took place in December or January - four months before the normal harvest - does not find support either.

“Still four months and the harvest is”. Perhaps, the proverb indicates that there is still plenty of time. But, on the other hand Jesus insists that the time has actually come.

The harvest is a biblical image for God’s eschatological judgement (Hosea 6:11; Joel 4:13; Mt 13:24–43). Jesus refers to the work to be done in the Father’s plan as the harvest, which continues up to “the end of the age” (Mt 9:37–38; 28:19–20).

The white fields are ready to be harvested. Jesus already can see what the disciples still cannot see, namely the Samaritans coming towards him.

There is a unity between the sower and the harvester - see 1 Cor 3:6–9.

Jesus himself was the sower. Now the disciples can share his joy by participating in reaping the harvest that sprung from his conversation with the woman and from her witness to the other Samaritans. Moreover, this type of harvest would not be consumed with the passage of time, as an ordinary harvest would; it would endure for eternal life.

But Jesus may have in mind another sower than himself - John the Baptist. John was the last in the succession of the prophets who had faithfully sown the seed of the word of God but had not lived to see the harvest (cf. Mt 13:16–17; cf. Heb 11:39–40). But behind all those prophets and the apostles is the activity of the Word of God - “I send you”.

Notice also that the first parable that Jesus spoke was about the sower (Mk 4:3–9; Mt 13:1–9; cf. Luke 8:4–8). Moreover, Jesus is the Sower and he is also the seed/grain (cf. Luke 8:11; John 12:24).

Finally, the disciples are called to reap the harvest that springs from the seed of Jesus’ death and resurrection.


The narratives returns to the Samaritans. The testimony of the Samaritan woman bore large fruit. The passage also explains what Jesus was just saying to the disciples about the harvest.

They believed in him because of her own testimony. What an amazing statement. One personal experience about Jesus can bring such fruit. They are the first-fruits of the harvest (cf. 4:35).


That the Samaritans invited a Jewish teacher to stay with them, shows how Jesus had won their hearts. Jesus indeed breaks the wall of division (Eph 2:14). Moreover, through hospitality, they welcomed the Word who came to his own (1:11).

The “harvest” was not limited to those who came out to see him because the testimony of the woman. Others came to believe in Jesus during his stay with them.

Interesting, the Acts speaks about another successful mission in the “city of Samaria” done by Philip (Acts 8:4–8). Was he sent to the same place that Jesus went before? In that case we have a concrete example for Jesus’ statement in John 4:38.

The witness of the woman led them to Jesus, but now they know him personally. And they proclaim their faith: Jesus is truly the Savior of the world.

When in the OT, God is described as “Saviour” it is usually applied to his saving work for his own people (cf. Is 43:11,13,15; even Mt 1:21 can be interpreted in this way). But, here the Samaritans, who host Jesus, declare that he is not the Saviour of Israel only, but of the whole world (1 John 4:14; John 3:16).

The Samaritan mission of Jesus, like the Samaritan mission of the Church, both represent the first outreach of the grace of salvation beyond the confines of Judaism (cf. Acts 1:8).

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