Jesus meets the woman of Samaria by a well in John 4

The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 3 is John 4.5-42, probably the longest reading in the lectionary! It is strange contrast with readings a few weeks ago from the Fourth Gospel which were only a few verses. We are continuing with our progress through the catechetical pattern of the readings in Lent, looking at encounters between Jesus and different individuals:

  1. Lent 2: Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3.1–17)
  2. Lent 3: The woman of Samaria (John 4.5–42)
  3. Lent 4: The man born blind (John 9.1-41)
  4. Lent 5: The raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-45)

The story is well-known—but common interpretations of the story are worth examining carefully. The woman is in some sense an ambiguous figure, but perhaps not in the ways we might expect. To start our reflection, we ought to remind ourselves of the contrasts with the encounter in the previous chapter:

John 3John 4
Takes place in JerusalemTakes place in Samaria
Location is the cityLocation is the countryside
Happens at nightHappens at noon
Focuses on a manFocuses on a woman
The man is a JewThe woman is a Samaritan
He is socially respectableShe is a social outcast
Nicodemus initiates the dialogueJesus initiates the dialogue
Nicodemus descends into misunderstandingThe woman comes to faith
Nicodemus fails to see Jesus as the world’s saviourThe woman and her village see Jesus as the saviour of the world

Both these dialogues also hinge on the use of double entendre, with a specific example (being born again, having water to drink) as well as the shared theme of light signifying understanding.

Our reading begins at verse 5, half way through a paragraph—but the opening verses are fascinating in setting the scene. The Fourth Gospel here sets the context with some detailed and realistic historical detail: the Jesus movement has grown out of the John movement, and has now overtaken it in importance and therefore as a threat to the power and influence of the Pharisees. (The note that Jesus himself did not baptise is a fascinating parallel to Paul’s baptismal reticence in 1 Cor 1.14.) The geographical note also follows on from the previous chapters where he has been in the South. It is not, of course, true that ‘he had to go through Samaria’; pious Jews would avoid this by travelling up the Jordan valley in order to avoid contact with the Samaritans whom they regarded as unclean. So this is a statement of divine necessity; Jesus ‘must’ go there to have this encounter.

The opening actions combine symbolic significance with practical realism. The well is where Jacob met Rachel in Genesis 29, and so goes back to the origins of God’s people Israel, named after Jacob’s alternate name after he wrestled with God at the River Jabbok in Genesis 32—so it is freighted with significance in relation to identity and origins. Many commentators see this as hinting at this encounter as a kind of ‘betrothal narrative’, because of Jacob and Rachel, and because Jesus is the seventh (so perfect) man in the woman’s life, after the previous five and the sixth she is with now (so Origen and Augustine). I confess I am not convinced about this reading, since there is no evidence in the text itself of this numerical thinking, and no actual language of betrothal. The double meaning is found around the image of water.

Alongside this, Jesus is simply tired out from his long journey—human, ‘word made flesh’ Jesus—and so sits down. The text says ‘It was about the sixth hour’ which most translations assume means ‘noon’, though Chris Knight argues that this could have meant 6 pm following the Roman system of counting hours:

The Greek of John 4.6 states that this was ‘about the sixth hour’, although some translations give this directly as ‘noon’. However, there were at least two ways of counting hours in the first century and a number of commentators have suggested that John’s gospel uses a different timing system to the Synoptics. The Jewish system referenced the hours from sunrise and sunset. With a typical sunrise of about 6am, the first hour would end at 7am, with 7am also being called ‘the first hour’. Similarly, ‘the sixth hour’ would be midday. The Synoptic gospels use this system throughout.

An alternative system counted hours from midnight, the start of the Roman ‘civil’ day. The sixth hour indicates 6am, but the hourly count restarts at noon so the phrase also indicates 6pm. This is often referred to as the Roman or ‘modern’ system.

I am not sure I am convinced about this, since (apart from anything else) you would then need to explain why there are no others drawing water.

The narrative style is highly characteristic of this gospel, with two parenthetical comments interrupting the flow—the first to explain the absence of the disciples in v 8, and the second to explain the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans in v 9, continuing the combination of both looking quite Jewish as a narrative whilst also explaining its Jewishness.

Jesus initiates the dialogue, and in doing so crosses two massive social boundaries—of men talking to women in public, and a Jew talking to a Samaritan. The surprise of this is confirmed by the woman’s own response. There is a long tradition of also believing that the woman is immoral and shunned by her fellows, which is why she is alone and coming to the well at noon—but Chris Knight I think rightly questions this. There are many reasons why someone might need to get more water during the day, and the discussion of her situation does not mention immorality. Jesus has already crossed large enough barriers in beginning the conversation.

As in the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus changes the direction of the conversation and moves from the mundane to the spiritual. But as a contrast with Nicodemus, the woman offers a feisty response, giving the exchange a sense of verbal jousting, in which the two partners vie for control, not unlike Jesus’ conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7.

The discussion of ‘living water’ seems to slightly jar to the modern reader, until we realise that in Greek this metaphor is the equivalent of our ‘running water’. This allows the woman to bring the conversation back to mundane questions of the physical need for water—but also allows her, for the time being, to continue in her misunderstanding, as she reinforces the association of this place with Jacob/Israel.

The theme of water as a spiritual metaphor is prominent here, and made more so by the context. Water has already been associated with the Spirit in John 3.5, and will be explicitly identified with the Spirit in John 7.38–39, with which Jesus’ comment here has strong parallels. Jesus is the giver of this water; it is ‘living water’, which is both alive and brings life; and it flows from within.

Jesus now switches the conversation in the other direction, from the spiritual to the mundane. The mention of the men in the woman’s life has commonly been interpreted as pointing to her dubious moral status—but Chris Knight rightly challenges this:

The social and human context of marriage in the first century was very different to ours. With an average life expectancy of only about 25 years and an average age at first marriage of about 30 years for men and about 20 years for women, early death of a spouse was not unusual. Divorce was also not uncommon, often requiring little ‘cause’. But divorce was instigated almost exclusively by the husband, not the wife. The livelihood and economic security of most women at this time (outside the rich elite) lay largely in their husband and children, especially if there were no close relatives who could or would support her. Re-marriage was therefore common after a spouse’s death or a divorce and was often the only way for a woman to survive a husband’s death without resort to prostitution, especially while any children were still young. Even if the woman had a surviving male relative, re-marriage would largely be a further business arrangement enacted by this relative and driven by economic necessity, rather than being the woman’s own decision.

What this does illustrate is Jesus’ supernatural insight into her life, and it is this which shifts the focus of the conversation and leads into the woman’s move from misunderstanding to understanding. It is a good lesson for our conversations too; as we listen to what the Spirit is saying, we too might be given insight into things which lead to a breakthrough in conversation.

The woman opens up the key question of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, but Jesus’ response offers a fascinating shift. On the one hand, he is uncompromising in asserting that ‘salvation is from the Jews’, unwilling to concede to her in the inter-religious conflict. However, he then goes on to assert that this question will be transcended, making an implicit connection with water and the Spirit; salvation might be from the Jews, but it is for a much larger group.

What then follows is a fascinating contrast with the dialogue with Nicodemus. In response to the woman’s direct expression of messianic hope, Jesus offers a direct revelation of who he is. Although we do not count it as one of the Johannine ‘I am’ statements, it takes exactly that form ‘I am, the one speaking to you.’

The question of discipleship is now introduced, as the disciples themselves return from their (mundane) mission. Note again that they are not surprised that Jesus is talking to someone known to be immoral, but that he has been talking to a woman. 

There is some debate in commentators as to whether the woman really has made the full journey to understanding, in part because of her question (rather than statement) to her compatriots ‘Could this be…?’ Yet there are strong markers here of discipleship language.

First, her invitation to her peers is ‘Come and see’, the language of discipleship invitation that we first heard from Jesus in John 1.39, itself an echo of John the Baptist’s ‘behold’ in John 1.36. Jesus’ own invitation is then taken up by those first disciples in inviting others, as Philip calls Nathanael to ‘Come and see’ in his turn (John 1.46). For churches that are failing to grow, this is very often the thing that is missing—a culture of invitation—and the thing present in those that are growing.

Then the woman draws people in because of her ‘testimony’ (John 4.39), and they in turn testify that they have believed—not just that this is the Jewish Messiah of expectation, but that he is the saviour ‘of the world’ (kosmos), providing another connection back to John 3.16.

The discussion with the disciples has several striking features. First, note the rather bizarre and extreme nature of Jesus’ metaphors here—the Father’s will is the food that Jesus eats! This will be worth bearing in mind when we read the extreme metaphors of eating in John 6.

Secondly, the language of fields ripe for harvest is an eschatological image of judgement and division that we also find in the Synoptics (for example, Matt 9.27–38) which now has a missional dimension. And the distinction between those who sow and those who reap is one Paul again picks up in 1 Cor 3.6.

So this is a story of ambiguity and reversal, but perhaps in not quite the way we might expect. Susan Hylen (in Imperfect Believers) comments:

There is a great reversal here, but it is not the usual one of the excluded sinner graciously offered forgiveness. It is the story of a woman who is spiritually more astute than the great Pharisee Nicodemus. It is the story of a Samaritan woman whose witness to Jesus brings her whole village to the true worship of God.

For a video discussion of the issues here, join James and Ian:

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17 thoughts on “Jesus meets the woman of Samaria by a well in John 4”

  1. However, the academic consensus is that it is a betrothal scene. Apart from the striking similarities of location and circumstance to previous betrothal scenarios the passage is laden with marital allusions.

    For example the expression ‘living water’ I suggest is a reference to the ritual bath a Jewish bride took before her wedding, referred to as such in the Joseph and Aseneth story in the Pseudepigrapha. There is a similar link with ‘living water’ and a bride in Song of Solomon 4:12, 15, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed … a garden fountain, a well of living water.” The Greek expression for “living water” is the same in all these three references—that is, in John 4, the Septuagint version of Song of Solomon, and the Joseph and Aseneth story.

    But perhaps more significantly, the Samaritans worshipped five false gods (Josephus refers to them), see: 2 Kings 17:24‒34 —but also worshipped the true God but at the ‘wrong’ Temple. So five ‘husbands’ (Hebrew = baal = false god) plus a sixth different one. It seems the woman got the message (no change of subject): John 4:19–20.

    The Samaritans were the remnants of northern Israel taken away by Assyria, but God promised a return. John 4:25–26 seems to be an allusion to the LXX of Isaiah 52:6. Thus it seems Jesus was saying his presence as the bridegroom messiah was that promise fulfilled—and she had understood that.

    My paper on this is at:

    • Some have commented that this passage is so brilliantly constructed (Calum Carmichael comments: “The evangelist is using Old Testament tradition with consummate effect”) that some question the very existence of the woman—that John is employing ‘social identity theory’ (in this case the woman represents her people, the Samaritans [note John 4:28–29] —in other words, northern Israel) —and that the woman (like others, e.g., Nicodemus) is a construct.
      I don’t buy that.
      I agree with Chris Knight that the passage is not to do with her morality—but I wonder where his source is for suggesting: “But divorce was instigated almost exclusively by the husband, not the wife.” A woman could initiate a divorce but only the husband could issue the certificate—sometimes the two things are conflated.

      • I am no expert in this area, and there is scholarly debate on the wife’s right to instigate the divorce. Michael Satlow in his Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, says: ‘Some (most?) Jews in first-century Palestine may also have allowed a woman to initiate a divorce’ and adds in a footnote that: ‘This issue is the focus of much scholarly discussion. The standard view is that “Jewish law,” even that which predates rabbinic law, gave the right for initiation of divorce solely to the husband. The primary evidence for this position is Josephus Ant. 15.259-60, which explicitly states that a divorce initiated by a wife is contrary to Jewish law. Much other evidence, however, suggests that the right of divorce was mutual.’ The one example he quotes (actually from 134 CE) depends on the interpretation of what he calls tangled Aramaic syntax.
        The passage from Josephus states: ‘But some time afterward, when Salome happened to quarrel with Costobarus, she sent him a bill of divorce note and dissolved her marriage with him, though this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a husband to do so; but a wife; if she departs from her husband, cannot of herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away. However, Salome chose to follow not the law of her country, but the law of her authority…’ Salome, like Herod, chose to follow Roman law, where this was normal.
        There were ways for a Jewish woman to obtain a divorce even without formally instigating the law proceedings, but inducing the husband to do so. Leon Morris in his New International Commentary on John’s gospel (1971) states that: ‘A woman could not divorce her husband in Jewish law. But under certain circumstances she could approach the court which would, if it thought fit, compel the husband to divorce her (see, for example, Mishnah, Ket. 7: 9, 10). Or she might pay him or render services to induce him to divorce her (Git. 7: 5, 6).’ [I have not yet checked those references he gives.] Some Jewish marriage contracts did have written into them the woman’s right to initiate divorce – suggesting this was not a standard right.
        Overall, not a straightforward issue. It depends really exactly what is meant by the woman instigating proceedings. In my Psephizo article on the woman at the well, I did say ‘almost exclusively’ to try to cover the complexity and uncertainty. But I hope the above explanation is helpful.

        • Just a further note on the Mishnah references given by Morris. Ket 7.9-10 gives specific circumstances (eg. a husband’s disfiguring disease) in which the wife can ask the court to force the husband to divorce her, but it is still the husband who initiates the actual proceedings, although the wife acted first in going to court to force her husband to do this. Git 7.9-10 concerns a wife who is prepared to fulfil certain conditions (eg. payment of a certain amount) to induce her husband to divorce her. There are arguments both ways as to who really initiates the divorce in these cases, but the husband still seems to be the one who initiates the formal proceedings, even if forced or induced to do so.

          • The misunderstandings within the Christian community about Jewish marriage, divorce, and remarriage underpin the confusion about the New Testament teaching.
            One interesting aspect is the “law of the husband” in Romans 7: 2 [the ‘law of marriage’ is an incorrect translation] —referring to the husband’s sole right to issue the certificate of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to enable the wife to remarry. Google: ‘agunah’. Paul in Romans 7:1–4 is making a significant theological point which passes most commentators by.
            I suggest the Samaritan woman was agunah—she could not legally marry the man she was currently living with.

        • Hi Chris,

          Thanks for this reply. I am familiar with Satlow’s work. The Aramaic document he cites is XḤev/Se 13 (P. Se’elim 13) – see link below where I consider that and others.
          As he points out some cite Josephus but he is not always a reliable source. Leon Morris is not a specialist in the area and citing rabbinic sources can be misleading.
          And as you point out the confusion is in the terminology. A wife could initiate the divorce in the sense that she can declare she wants out of the marriage – and simply leave. That is a divorce. But negotiating the certificate to enable a ‘legal’ remarriage was a different ball game.

    • I lived in South Asia where interaction between men and women was closely watched and supervised. Any couple in this position would have been married off pretty quickly. Their culture would assume marriage was a part of the conversation. I assume this reflects the culture of Jesus’ day more closely than ours does.
      I think the marriage motif is a sub-theme, but is present.

  2. …you would then need to explain why there are no others drawing water.

    The text does not actually say that there were no others there:

    ‘A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” ‘ [John 4:7 ESV]

    That she was alone is inferred from assuming that the sixth hour was noon. So it seems somewhat circular to say that the sixth hour means noon because there was no-one else there.

    Perhaps there were other women coming out, but they hung back seeing the Jewish man sitting there. So, the woman who came up showed a bold character. “I need water and I’m not letting the presence of this man stop me.”

  3. Interesting progression in the way Jesus is referred to here: a Jew, Sir, a prophet, the Messiah?, the Saviour of the world.

    • Which ties in nicely, Erik, with the original conclusion, and the ‘raison d’etre’ of John’s Gospel, at John 20:31.

  4. COLIN’S first comment on this thread is quite insightful
    Concerning “Living water” I would suggest a broader study of the Scriptures.
    Proverbs 10:11
    The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.
    Proverbs 18:4
    The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters, and the wellspring of wisdom as a flowing brook.
    Isaiah 12:3
    Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.
    Isaiah 44:3
    For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring:
    Isaiah 58:11
    And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
    Isaiah 59:21
    As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.
    Ezekiel 47:1-12
    Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar. Then brought he me out of the way of the gate northward, and led me about the way without unto the utter gate by the way that looketh eastward; and, behold, there ran out waters on the right side. And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins. Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.

    Zechariah 14:8
    And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be.

    I found also that. “This mountain” i.e. Mt Gerizim whose Temple was founded by Sanballat the opponent of Nehemiah a fascinating history

  5. Thank you Ian, very thought provoking!

    I agree with the criticism of seeing the woman as an outcast, or notorious, but I also think we need to be careful not to miss something important.

    I’m no Greek scholar but the word ἐποίησα (v 29 and 39) seems to be variously translated as: did, have done, should do, have made and committed. I think there is a sense that the woman acknowledges her situation to be one of her own making.

    For this reason I wonder whether we can consider her to be a ‘model penitent’, someone who, with David, acknowledges their sin, and does not try to hide it (e.g. Ps 32:5), and this is the type of person Jesus has come to seek and to save.


  6. The last time I preached on this passage, because the lectionary is in a three-year cycle, was in March 2020; the Sunday before lockdown. Some papers were speculating that some sort of lockdown might be imposed, so I spent the sermon reassuring people that every place is now a place of worship, if we worship in Spirit and in truth, and that if the doors of the church were locked, the church would not be destroyed but only redeployed. This Sunday I will remind God’s people of three years ago, and ask them what they learned about worship over that time period.

  7. An extra point to confirm she wasn’t an immoral outcast seems to be the fact that she can go back to her village and people will listen to her and even be moved to follow her. People would be afraid of associating with her if she wasn’t respected somehow


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