While in Samaria, Jesus spoke with a woman at a well. That may not seem like a big deal today, but it was then. Why was this conversation so significant?
On their trip home to Galilee, Jesus and the disciples traveled through the region of Samaria (John 4:4).
One of the few details we know about this trip was a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. Why was this discussion significant and recorded in God’s Word?
What should we learn from Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well?
Who were the Samaritans?
The Samaritans’ roots in the land went back to the 700s B.C. when Assyria conquered the northern 10 tribes of Israel. When the Assyrians conquered a people, they would often relocate them to reduce the chances of an uprising.
After emptying the land of the Israelites, the Assyrians relocated Babylonians and others “and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel.” They then “took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities” (2 Kings 17:24).
These displaced people became known as Samaritans.
One of their beliefs was that gods were connected to geographical areas. Because these people now lived in land connected to Israel’s God, the Samaritans decided to learn some Israelite practices and mixed them into their pagan beliefs (verses 26-29).
Hundreds of years later, they were still practicing a syncretistic religion that had similarities to Judaism, but was quite different. One key difference was the Samaritans’ belief that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was to be the center of worship.
The Jews abhorred Samaritans because of their ethnicity and their practices and avoided all contact with them.
But, as we’ll see, Jesus did not share this approach.
Jesus at Jacob’s well in Samaria
While traveling through Samaria, Jesus became “wearied from His journey” (John 4:6) and stopped at Sychar, a town near Mount Gerizim. The disciples went to buy food while Jesus rested at Jacob’s well (verse 8).
While Jesus was relaxing at the well, “a woman of Samaria came to draw water” (verse 7).
From His appearance, she knew this resting traveler was a Jew, and she expected He’d treat her as every other Jew had—by ignoring her.
But then He did the unexpected.
He talked to her.
He asked her for a drink.
Probably no Jew had acknowledged or spoken to her before. But here was a Jewish man speaking to her and asking for a drink from her pitcher.
Confused, she asked Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (verse 9). John added a note of explanation: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
Instead of correcting Himself and turning away, He kept talking to her.
Jesus offers her “living water”
Jesus responded by confirming He knew exactly who she was. But she didn’t realize who He was. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (verse 10).
He was telling her that a Samaritan woman could not only communicate with the true God (she was doing it right then and there!) but access His Spirit.
Consider the implications of His words. Judaism had become a very closed religion—limiting access to God to circumcised Jewish men. Though it was possible for a gentile male to enter Israel through circumcision, it was a painful process that few went through.
In essence, Jesus was saying that this Samaritan woman could access God and receive His power—if she desired and asked for it. By saying that, He contradicted centuries of antagonism between the Jews and Samaritans.
However, she didn’t comprehend what He was actually meaning. She took His words about “living water” very literally, thinking He was talking about well water (John 4:11).
Jesus responded, “Whoever drinks of this water [from the well] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him [the Holy Spirit] will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (verses 13-14).
He was not only saying this woman could have access to God. He was also saying she had the potential to produce spiritual fruit and live forever. In other words, salvation would be available to her—and by extension, to all gentile men and women.
But, again, she interpreted this literally (verse 15). In order to jar her out of thinking physically, He told her something that no Jewish stranger could possibly have known about her (verses 16-18).
Jesus reveals the nature of true worship
Jesus’ knowledge about her personal life led the woman to realize there was something different about Him. She concluded He must be a prophet (verse 19).
She then took the conversation more seriously and pointed out the main difference between her religion and Judaism: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain [Mount Gerizim], and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (verse 20). She was struggling to reconcile His words with one of the obvious differences between their religions.
How could this Jewish man say she could access God without worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem? She had probably never even been to Jerusalem.
Jesus responded by revealing monumental truths.
The significance of the conversation goes far beyond that time and place. “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (verses 21-24).
Jesus was saying that, for true believers, it would be irrelevant whether they prayed at the Jerusalem temple, Mount Gerizim or any other place. Instead of location, God is looking for those who worship Him “in spirit and truth.” In other words, with a correct attitude and understanding.
She probably didn’t fully grasp everything He was saying, but interestingly, her mind went to the messianic prophecies (verse 25).
In one of His earliest and most unambiguous revelations of His messianic and divine identity, He responded, “I who speak to you am He” (verse 26). A more direct translation of His answer from the original Greek would be, “I AM speaks to you”—a use of one of His divine names from the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14; John 8:58).
Did this conversation reveal Jesus to be a radical?
Throughout this conversation, Jesus upended many of the assumptions of His own people. Some may have looked at all this and concluded that Jesus was a radical.
Jesus was no radical.
What Jesus challenged were the unscriptural traditions the Jews had added over the centuries. In His inspired Word, God never forbade men to speak to women. He never told Israel to avoid all forms of social contact with gentiles. He never intended His people to look down on others with disdain.
Men developed these ideas.
From the perspective of men, His conversation with this woman may have been seen as radical. But from the perspective of God, there was nothing taboo or questionable about God in the flesh conversing with a human being made in His image.
What was the significance of the conversation?
After the conversation, this woman spread the word to her city and, amazingly, many of the Samaritans listened to Him and actually came to believe He was “the Christ” (John 4:42). The Bible doesn’t tell us what became of this woman after that. But the significance of the conversation goes far beyond that time and place.
Up to that point, God had primarily worked with Israel. However, He had already revealed, even in the Old Testament, that His ultimate purpose was to open salvation to all people (Psalms 67:2; 72:11; 86:9; Isaiah 25:6-7; 56:7).
Through this conversation and a parable He told later about a good Samaritan whose character outshone that of respected Jews (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus was laying the groundwork for a truth He wanted His Church to know—that God was going to call gentiles to Himself. This would become clearer over a decade later through a unique vision given to Peter in Acts 10.
When Peter fully grasped it, he summarized it like this: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean . . .
“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (verses 28, 34-35).
In a sense, Peter should have already grasped this. Jesus had already revealed through this conversation that it was lawful in God’s eyes to keep company with non-Jews and that access to God would be open to people from all nations.
Sometimes it takes time to unlearn wrong beliefs and prejudices.
After Peter and the other apostles recognized God’s will, the Church began to baptize and accept gentiles, including Samaritans, into its ranks. Though it took years, they finally came to grasp the implications of this conversation and their need to remove the shackles of false ideas.
If our beliefs and thinking contradict the will of God, we must be willing to change if we truly desire to . . .
Walk as He walked.