I am often so in awe of the Bible. It is an ancient document, astonishingly well-preserved, spanning several centuries and then zooming in to a story of an hour one day to bring the God of heaven and earth to an ordinary routine of survival.
Let us look closely at a cameo encounter in John 4: 1-21. [Please read the story first, to know what it is all about before we discuss the details. Jesus departs Jerusalem to avoid a controversy about baptism.]
From north to south Palestine is not even 200 kilometers long. Within those 200 kilometers there were in the time of Jesus three definite divisions of territory. In the extreme north lay Galilee; in the extreme south lay Judaea; and in between lay Samaria.
There was a centuries-old feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, the cause of which we will shortly see. The quickest way from Judaea to Galilee lay through Samaria. Using that route, the journey could be done in three days. The alternative route was to cross the Jordan, go up the eastern side of the river to avoid Samaria, re-cross the Jordan north of Samaria and then enter Galilee. This route took twice as long. Jesus had to pass through Samaria if he wished to take the shortest route to Galilee.
It is obvious that Jesus makes the point of travelling through Samaria. His disciples must have been very trusting to follow Him on this short cut. On the way they came to the town of Sychar. At a fork in the road there was the well known as Jacob’s well.
This was an area which had many Jewish memories attached to it. There was a piece of land, which had been bought by Jacob (Genesis 33:18-19). Jacob, on his deathbed, had bequeathed that land to Joseph (Genesis 48:22). On Joseph’s death in Egypt, his body had been taken back to Palestine and buried there (Joshua 24:32).
There was absolutely no contact between the Jews and Samaritans.
The background to this feud can be found in Nehemiah while he was conducting the project of building the wall. Assyrians captured the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:6) of Israel with their capital in Samaria. They never returned to their native land. Usually the weaker ones stay behind in such a sweep of taking people captive by a hostile nation. After many years some of the captives trickled back, but the majority disappeared into captivity and the history of other nations.
The people living in the territory of the northern kingdom brought other nations into Israel (2 Kings 17:24). They began to inter-marry and did not stay pure as the Law of Moses prescribed. Orthodox Judaism condemns marriage with a Gentile. The child is dead for the family. Doing this they lost their right to be called Jews. Judah was in exile in Babylon. They did not inter-marry. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the exiles returned to build the wall. Samaritans (scattered Jews from the northern kingdom) wanted to help with the rebuilding process. Nehemiah refused their help because of their impurity. In Nehemiah 13:28 is the example of the Jew who married the daughter of Sanballat (a Horonite). In 129 BC a Jewish general destroyed the Temple at Samaria. They became very bitter and held on to hatred for the next 450 years. The Rabbis fed the embitterment, keeping the stories of transgressing the Law alive.
Let us get back to the story in John 4.
Midday in the Jewish day of 6am to 6pm was 12pm. The disciples went tot buy food. This is in itself a miracle. It was highly unlikely for a Jew to buy food in Samaria. The barriers were going down.
The well itself was more than 30 meters deep. It was not a springing well of water, rather into which the water percolates and gathers. But clearly it was a well so deep that no one could gain water from it unless he had something with which to draw the water.
The well was about a kilometer outside the town. It was not the water source of the town. The woman came alone, which is significant. She was an outcast. Usually the women of the community visited the water source together for a chat. It was the only time for socializing in a long day of many duties. The very fact that she was drawing water from this distant well shows how she avoided her neighbours and how they avoided her.
Jesus asked her for water. He should not even have talked to her. Jewish men did not talk to women in public, not even their own family and certainly not to a Samaritan woman. There was a group that was called the “Bruised Pharisees”. They used to shut their eyes on seeing a woman and walked into walls and street obstacles.
The story in John is a brief report of the conversation. Maybe there was much more to it. Why did this woman trust this man? It could have been the consequence of more words He spoke to her or the kindness in His eyes that she was so unfamiliar with.
Jesus was ministering in the reality of His humanity. He was tired. John stresses His deity, but here also His humanity. For Him life is an effort, as for us.
The warmth of His sympathy was in stark contrast to the ordinary religious leaders. The woman would have fled at the sight of one of them. Jesus did not condemn, although He exposed her life. She trusted Him and found a friend.
Jesus breaks down barriers. She was Samaritan and a woman. On top of everything she was a woman of notorious character. No decent man would even come close.
It is an amazing story of the Son of God who is weary and thirsty. The holiest of men is listening to her sorry story, breaking through the barriers of nationality and custom. The gospel goes global.
God loves in practice, not only in theory.
The conversation is conducted in the same pattern as with Nicodemus. A statement of Jesus is misunderstood. It is repeated somewhat differently to be more vivid. It is misunderstood again. Then He compels the person to come to his own conclusion and face the truth. It is effective Jesus-style teaching, coming to the right conclusion yourself.
He contrasts the literal meaning to spiritual meaning. Water was mostly running water. A living stream was better. The well was far from it. She asked where on earth Jesus was going to get running water to give her. People carried a skin bucket or something to draw water with. Jesus had none. The woman knew He could not draw water and still He talked of giving her water.
Water had a symbolic meaning throughout Scripture. The thirsting of the soul for God and quenching the thirst with living water is a theme in the Old and New Testaments. (Revelation 21:6 and 7:17) The wells of salvation are mentioned in Isaiah 12:3. Psalm 42:1 talks about thirsting for the living God. Isaiah 44:3 promises water on the thirsty land. To drink freely from the water of life is an invitation in Isaiah 55:1. Jeremiah complains about the broken cistern (2:13) because it cannot hold the living waters. Ezekiel had the vision of the river of life (47:1-12). A cleansing fountain is mentioned in Zechariah 13:1 and the waters through Jerusalem in 14:8. Water in all its forms are promised to give life and sustain the spiritual quenching of the soul. It is spiritual essence and the source is God.
Wisdom was seen as the living waters of the law. The Rabbis saw living waters as the Holy Spirit. The soul-thirst could only be quenched with water from God. The woman clung to crude literalism because she did not want to see.
Quenching thirst forever was a Messianic claim according to Isaiah 49:10: They shall not hunger or thirst was prophetic words of Jesus Himself over Himself.
The woman is jesting about eternal things in their physical sense. She knew of her spiritual thirst and could not believe that she found the answer. Every person has that longing and wants to fill it with many things. Only God will satisfy that longing.
My heart breaks for the way in which our enemy can use this longing to terrify people into so many counterfeit solutions.
Suddenly the small talk is over. Jesus takes the sword of His word and pierces her soul. The talk about the husband opens up her wounds. She is shocked that He gets personal. She is seeing herself in the light of His gaze.
She is facing the complete disaster of her own life. She experiences Christian revelation: revealing God and ourselves. All Christian life begins with a sense of sin so that we can awaken to our need for God. We cannot in any way deal with sin ourselves.
Jesus is prophet here. He brings her to God and God to her. He reveals her sin but also the solution to all the longing for true worship.
In Samaria, Mount Gerizim was glorified as the place of important historical events: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Melchizedek appeared to Abraham, altar of Moses. They tampered with historical texts to swing this mountain in their favour. It is a desperate move to cling to worship. They wanted to share in the holiness of Jerusalem.
Realization of sin brings a deep need to reconcile with God. Where could this take place? She was confused. Her real question: where can I find God?
Jesus’ answer: God is everywhere. Man-made rivalry for the physical places of worship is about to disappear.
The Lord will be awesome to them,
For He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth;
People shall worship Him,
Each one from his place,
Indeed all the shores of the nations. (Zephaniah 2:11)
In Malachi (1:11) it was like a dream to offer incense in every place in honour of God.
Next time we talk about the wondrous implications of this conversation to the act of worship.