After his encounter with Nicodemus, an insider, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, an outcast. His tone is more gentle with her and the encounter is laced with grace. Instead of a late night visit, this meeting takes place in the blistering heat of the midday sun beside Jacob’s well. Jesus is parched and tired after walking for at least six hours. Breaking all social, religious and gender taboos of the day, he strikes up a conversation with the woman about water, a precious commodity in this desert region. Instead of shunning her, Jesus artfully exposes the desperate thirst in the woman’s heart, the driving force behind her disordered life. If her soul was a bucket, it was leaking badly.
John 4:1-26; 39-42
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he….”
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”
Rain can soak a leopard’s skin but it does not wash out its spots.
Superficially, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman couldn’t look more different. He has a designer life as an insider– a prosperous, respected, moral Jewish male. To use last week’s metaphor, his proverbial deck is well scrubbed. The woman by contrast, is a half-caste Samaritan defiled with Gentile blood and pagan worship practices, a female, socially despised and immoral. Her deck is in complete disarray– faded, cracked and warped. Rain could have soaked her skin but it would never have washed out its spots. No strict Jewish man would have come near her, as the woman points out (John 4:9). Only a woman full of shame would have visited the well at noon to avoid the virtuous women who filled their buckets early in the morning. We can surmise that this woman was rejected, used, disgraced and unloved if her string of sexual partners is anything to go by (John 4:17;18).
Not a son of his culture, but the Son of God
Group identity is nothing new to the planet! It was particularly rife in Jesus’ time. Humanity has always been divided into the haves and have-nots; insiders and outsiders; the virtuous and disgraceful; the powerful and the oppressed; those who are holding their lives together, and the junkies whose lives have unravelled. The African continent is repeatedly torn apart and impoverished by bitter conflicts and separation between different groups. But even though Jesus is fully aware of this woman’s nationality and her sexual immorality from the outset (John 4:17), he ignores typical distinctions based on gender, class, morality and ethnicity. Jesus is not a son of his culture, but the Son of God, a God who cares more about the heart than the outward appearance of a person (1 Sam 16:7). Instead of snubbing or recoiling from the woman in disgust, he connects with her by requesting a drink of water. This would have been an outrageous gesture for a Jewish man. But in Jesus’s eyes, Nicodemus the pious Jew, and the unclean woman from Samaria, are equally lost. Both need to be born again. Both need the living water that transcends all human categories.
Looking for water, finding Life
In the Limestone Hills around Sychar, life literally depended on finding water, and John 4:13; 14 is the pivot of this encounter: Jesus identifies himself as living water– God’s free gift to ALL who are thirsty. Jesus describes himself as an internal and eternal water source that wells up inside a person, giving life (John 4:14). The image is of a spring inside your body which keeps filling up and spilling over no matter how much of it you drink! This is an astonishing claim for anyone who knew the Jewish Scriptures.
The shock value is that Jesus is clearly identifying himself as Yahweh’s promised Saviour. Centuries before, Yahweh had promised that his people would draw water with joy from wells of salvation (Isa 12:3). He promised to pour water on a thirsty land, streams in the desert and an outpouring of his Spirit on future generations to enable them to flourish, like green grass in a lush meadow, like poplars planted by flowing streams (Isa 44:3; 4). Isaiah prophesied that Yahweh would bring his people home from captivity to “neither hunger nor thirst,” to be led beside springs of water and no longer to be scorched by the desert sun (Isa 49:10). The apostle John himself writes the last prophetic book of the Bible, Revelation, in which he identifies Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the source of this living water on the day of His return:
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:16-17)
Meditate for a minute on this emotive picture of Jesus, the divine Shepherd-Lamb leading his people to life-giving springs, wiping away every tear from their eyes and erasing every misery. This is the image Jesus ascribes to himself as he talks to the woman!
Imagine the climax of this encounter when the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
And, without a moment’s hesitation, Jesus replies, “I, the one speaking to you– I am He …” (John 4:25; 26).
Looking for love, courting disaster
“I am he!”Jesus’s declaration was outrageous…unless of course it was true. Being able to tell a person their life story without any prior knowledge sounds a bit like something only God could do.
The woman may have been good at drawing water from Jacob’s well, but her soul was thirsty to the point of dehydration. She was looking to men to satisfy her thirst, perhaps in search of the one true love that would leave her feeling whole, significant and secure. Why else would she be shacking up with partner number six? (John 4:18) Yet, she was unloved and rejected despite their attention. Jesus knew all this about her without her saying a word.
He knew that her soul was a leaky bucket that kept drying up no matter how much she filled it with ‘love’. Today we might call it an addiction or dysfunction of some sort, but Jesus directs her to the thing that drives all addictions, even those that appear healthier than the woman’s. He puts his finger on the root of all our cravings which ultimately lead to disillusionment: FALSE WORSHIP. One of the most stark forms of false worship is the devotion to excess that we call greed, gluttony, jealousy and lust; the “I want more” reckless mentality which is rife in our world. Runaway desires that eventually lead to bondage, and ultimately to death. The endless seeking of pleasure…fame…approval…love, only to find disillusionment… emptiness…thirst…broken relationships. Jesus gently confronts the woman on this soul thirst (John 4:16; 17; 18). To mask her pain and guilt, the woman tries to sidestep the issue with a theological question about the proper location of the temple, a hot topic that still rages today (John 4:17). Jesus doesn’t dismiss her red herring, but rather uses it to reveal the disorder behind the woman’s leaky bucket. The cause (rather than the symptom) of her thirst is FALSE WORSHIP.
CS Lewis puts it well, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” The Four Loves.
The Samaritan woman is a serial adulterer– a worshipper of her own desires, instead of the God who created and loved her. She is searching for redemption and love in all the wrong places.
But we cannot hold Scripture at arm’s length. We must ask the Son of God to direct the spotlight on our own hearts too. If Jesus is right, then false worship is the cause of our leaky bucket syndrome too! Every appetite can quickly become an object of worship that controls us, whether it is a socially acceptable desire, such as achievement, wealth, family and affirmation, or a less acceptable obsession like sex, drugs, anger or alcohol. If the beginning of soul emptiness is idolatry, the end is always slavery, as “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Peter 2:19). That is why Nicodemus is only a short walk from the woman at the well.
My grandfather was a humorous old Scot who spent five years of World War 2 in North Africa building bridges and roads for the Allied forces. At one point they marched for two days through the scorching desert and my grandfather nearly died of dehydration. The reason was that he had filled his water bottle with whisky, intensifying his thirst with every sip! This incident obviously left its mark on him because he often issued a grave warning to us grandchildren, “Whatever you do, NEVER EVER put whisky in your water bottle!” As though this was the greatest temptation we would face in life! My grandpa’s point was relevant to this devotion though: If we drink from a leaky bucket, we will find ourselves thirstier than ever. It is a simple matter of cause and effect, because we were created to worship the only true God.
If the cause of leaky buckets is false worship, Jesus proceeds to tell the woman about true worship. He says that true worshippers worship God the Father “in the Spirit and in truth”. The Father is seeking those whose worship is sincere and Spirit-filled, not those who are trying to put on a religious show (John 4:24). The real disgrace is not people like the Samaritan woman whose lives are in a mess, but those who play church to look respectable. Jesus sees into our hearts and cannot be fooled by empty rituals or super spiritual pretences of any kind. That is a form of false worship, and its deceptiveness makes it more perilous than any other kind. The picture Jesus gives of true worship is a beautiful reminder that God does not care about ethnic, gender, cultural, intellectual or denominational differences in his people. Those who put their trust in the Messiah must worship the Father as one, in the truth of the gospel, in unity and diversity, regardless of man-made distinctions (Gal 3:28).
But wait a minute, where does the woman’s temple question fit in? (John 4:20)
It’s not about location!
As Jesus predicted (John 4:21), the Jerusalem temple and the temple at Mt Gerizim were soon destroyed, in 70AD and the second century respectively. But Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that it doesn’t matter, because soon worship of the invisible God will no longer be tied to a physical location in Jerusalem or anywhere else (John 4:23-24). With hindsight we can know why: In the Old Testament, the Temple was the meeting place between God and sinful people. It was the place for sacrifice and atonement for sin. The Holy of Holies was the ‘dwelling’ place of God on earth. John tells us at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and made his ‘dwelling’ among us (John 1:14). Jesus calls his body the new Temple of God that will die and be raised to life (John 2:19; 20; 21). Everything the temple embodied, was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross! He paid the final sacrifice on the cross. He was the perfect atonement lamb. He split the temple curtain in half to give us access to God the Father. He was the High Priest who reconciles us to God. He was the Jewish Messiah from the line of David. In other words, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus becomes the symbolic Temple of God, the supreme and final meeting place between God and sinners. The physical building becomes obsolete.
And it is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection that every Christian becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us (1 Cor 3:16). God’s living people are now God’s dwelling place on earth, not a physical building in a special location or an ethnic nation! This is a truly revolutionary announcement by the Messiah.
Looking forward to the new Creation, there will be no temple building, because the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev 21:22). All those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will enter (Rev 21:27). Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “I am He.” True worship is about the person (Jesus) and the way in which we worship (in the Spirit). It is not about a physical temple or church building. Worship of the Father takes place in the lives of ordinary Christians filled by the Holy Spirit.
Live it out!
Thirst is not quenched by a stagnant pool
Jesus’ lack of prejudice, his gentleness and insight, his scandalous grace and the masterful way he directs the Samaritan woman to himself via the vacuum in her soul, are a prototype of how we should share the gospel with love. The eager response of the woman and people of Samaria is my favourite part of the story (John 4:39; 40; 41; 42). Only the Holy Spirit could have caused such a faith-filled harvest. Phillip, John and Peter later became missionaries to Samaria to build on the work of Jesus and the woman at the well (Acts 8:5-8; Acts 8:14-17). Anyone can make disciples through their sincere testimony. Discipleship starts by knowing Jesus and drinking deeply from his well every day of our lives. Only then will the living water spill over into love for others. The thirst of the world cannot be quenched by a stagnant pool. Is your spring flowing with oxygen?
A shamed wife becomes beloved
The story of the Samaritan woman stuns me each time I read it. Especially in the light of Isaiah 54, which I read this morning in my own time with the Lord. When Jesus removes the woman’s disgrace, he fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy about the restoration of Israel, Yahweh’s unfaithful ‘wife’. Stunningly, she (Israel) is called “the wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young only to be rejected”. (Isa 54:6) Could there be a more apt description of the woman at the well? Perhaps you can relate to this loneliness or the pain of broken relationships. Because of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, God says to anyone who is drinking from a leaky bucket, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 22:17).” “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth…for your Maker is your husband— ” (Isa 54:4;5). Only Jesus, the great Bridegroom, can quench your spiritual thirst! Everyone who comes to him in faith and repentance is his radiant Bride, no matter what your past. But you must come and take the gift of living water for yourself.
Pray Ephesians 5:25-28:
Thank you Jesus, that you are the great Groom who will return to take me home as your Bride, holy and blameless in your sight. Father, thank you that because of Jesus, who gave up his life for me on the cross, I am cleansed and spotless, radiant and without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Help me to see myself like this and not to feel condemned by my sin in my weak moments. Thank you that you will never leave me or reject me because of your everlasting covenant with me. Help me to drink deeply of your living water and to quench my thirst only in you. May your living water spill out of my heart into love for those around me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Worship as you listen to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of the hymn Come Thou Fount. (click here)
I would highly recommend the following books:
- Encounters with Jesus, by Timothy Keller.
- Addictions—A Banquet in the Grave, by Edward T. Welch.
- The Dynamic Ministry of Women in Early Christianity http://subspla.sh/ctpxc6k
Further food for thought:
CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”
N.T Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church
“One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.”
“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.