The story in John 4 about Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well reveals woeful truth about ourselves and wonderful truth about Jesus. And the wonderful truth that it reveals about Jesus gives hope to us in our woeful condition.
So don’t short-circuit the wonderful work of Jesus, for you and in you, by failing to see clearly how woeful your condition is without him. The reason the Bible tells us woeful news about ourselves is to make the greatness of grace and the greatness of salvation feel as wonderful as it really is. And that’s what this story is mainly about — not us, but him!
Jesus: Purposeful, Relational, and Superior
The truth about Jesus that I want us to focus on in verses 1–15 is:
- that he is graciously purposeful,
- that he is graciously relational, and
- that he is graciously superior.
The repetition of grace three times is intentional. It recalls the lodestar verses of John 1:14, 16: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” When you see the glory of Jesus in these stories for what it really is — the glory of the only Son from the Father — you experience grace.
And one of the first things we experience in this bright light is that without him we are like four-year-olds trying to understand the meaning of marriage with all of its intimacies. “Ma’am, I will give you living water!” “But, sir, you don’t have a bucket.” That’s us.
So let’s begin with the transition between chapters 3 and 4.
1. Jesus Is Graciously Purposeful
In John 3:34–35, John had just said, “He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” These are breathtaking words. God sent Jesus. Jesus speaks the very words of God. God gives him the Spirit immeasurably — and always has. The Father loves him. The Father has given all things into his hand. So Jesus is the God-sent, God-loved, God-speaking, Spirit-permeated, all-authoritative ruler of all things.
Now, as chapter 4 begins, we are told that Jesus left Judea in the South and headed for Galilee in the North, and that he went through Samaria. But, the way John tells us this raises some questions. He says, in verses 1–4,
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria.
The reason Jesus left Judea, John says, is because he knew that the Pharisees knew something. They knew that more people were following Jesus than were following John the Baptist (verse 1). Why did that prompt Jesus to leave?
Jesus Did Not Leave in Fear
The connection with chapter 3 is important because it rules out fear. One might think that Jesus thought that the Pharisees would see his rising popularity and attempt to crush it, so out of fear of the Pharisees, he ran. But John had just said in John 3:35, “The Father . . . has given all things into his hand.” Jesus is not the victim of human whim. Nobody can touch him without his permission. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
So he is not leaving Judea because he is afraid of the Pharisees. He is leaving for his own purposes. I can think of four possibilities. And all of them are probably true more or less — and in them all, Jesus is being graciously purposeful.
“Jesus is not a victim of human whim. Nobody can touch him without his permission.”
First, it may be a matter of timing. Yes, the Pharisees may have stirred up trouble to get rid of Jesus. But his hour was not yet come. “So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30; 2:4; 8:20). He knew the hour of his death, and how it would come. The Pharisees were not in charge of this. Jesus was. And the time was not yet. So he leaves.
Second, he may have left because the Pharisees may have used this popularity of Jesus to discredit John. John had embarrassed the Pharisees because he called even them to repent and be baptized. Not that they favored Jesus, but this would have been a good way to show that John was just a passing religious fad.
Third, Jesus may have seen that the Pharisees would have simply discredited both movements, his and John’s, because they were just splintered groups with no stable foundation.
Fourth, as a supplement to those three reasons for leaving, Jesus may have felt a divine impulse to go to Galilee by way of Samaria, because God planned a divine appointment there. Do the words “had to” in verse 4 only mean it was geographically shorter? Verse 4: “And he had to pass through Samaria.” It was possible to go to Galilee in a roundabout way, which some Jews did because they thought the Samaritans were unclean. But John said that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.” Is this because he had an appointment to keep?
Jesus Has a Multitude of Motives
It’s difficult to be sure which of these purposes were driving Jesus, or if there were others we are not aware of. But because we know “all things have been given into his hands” (3:35), we know he was not being controlled by circumstances, but was in charge of circumstances. Therefore, he was not merely responding. He was acting purposefully. And every one of those four purposes is a gracious purpose. It is gracious that he keep his appointed hour with the cross. It is gracious that he care that John not be publicly discredited more than necessary. It is gracious that he guard the unity of both movements, his and John’s. And it is gracious that he feel constrained to keep a divine appointment in Samaria with a serial adulteress.
One of the glorious things about having a sovereign Savior is that he is always multi-purposeful, and his purposes are always gracious for those who trust him. We named four possible purposes for why Jesus left Judea and headed for Galilee. Actually, there are thousands. Indeed, if we could see what God could see (which we never will, because we will never be infinite), you would see millions upon millions of purposes in every action of the Son of God.
God is never doing just one thing in what he does with us. He is always doing thousands of things that we cannot see. He never has only one purpose in what he does. He always has thousands of purposes in everything he does. He is infinitely wise, and everything he does relates to everything else that he does, sooner or later. For those who love him and are called according to his purpose, all of them — all of them! — work together for good.
So I simply draw your attention first to the fact that Jesus is graciously purposeful in this story — and always.
2. Jesus Is Graciously Relational
The main relationship — not the only one — in this story is the relationship between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria. And this week and next week (Lord willing), we will see how relentlessly gracious this relationship is. When we see Jesus, later in the story, knowing how many husbands this woman has had (4:18), we get the definite impression that nothing is happening by accident here. Jesus is seeking this woman’s salvation, knowing everything about her.
When Jesus says to her in verse 23, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him,” it’s hard not to think: Jesus is the hound of heaven. The Father is seeking (pursuing!) her worship. And he is seeking her through Jesus. This is John’s version of the prodigal son (Luke 15) — only here it is a prodigal daughter. And the Father is seeking her worship. So just like Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners in Luke 15, he is willing to share a drinking cup with a Samaritan adulteress. This is what I mean by being graciously relational.
Jews Avoided Samaritans
The key verse for the background of this relationship is verse 9: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” Why is that? Here is Don Carson’s description of the situation:
After the Assyrians captured Samaria [the capital of the Northern kingdom of Israel] in 722–21 BC, they deported all the Israelites of substance and settled the land with foreigners, who intermarried with the surviving Israelites and adhered to some form of their ancient religion (2 Kings 17–18). After the exile [of the Southern kingdom in Babylon], Jews, returning to their homeland . . . viewed the Samaritans not only as the children of political rebels, but as racial half-breeds whose religion was tainted by various unacceptable elements. . . . About 400 BC the Samarians erected a rival temple on Mount Gerizim. (The Gospel According to John, 216)
So we have ethnic, racial, and religious issues here that made Jews feel disdain for Samaritans. They were ceremonially unclean. They were racially impure. They were religiously heretical. And therefore, they were avoided.
“Jesus is the hound of heaven in gracious pursuit of us.”
To feel the force of what Jesus did in verses 6–8, it might help to compare it to the racial situation in my hometown fifty years ago. In Walgreens and Kresses and Woolworths, there were two water fountains on the wall with signs over them: “White” and “Colored.” You can scarcely imagine anything more demeaning than to build your entire plumbing system around the unwillingness to drink from the same fountain. What do you tell the children when they ask why?
Jesus Asks for a Drink
There was one fountain in Sychar. And the sign over it said, “Colored — Samaritan.” Verses 6–8 say,
Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well [literally, “on the well”]. It was about the sixth hour [noon]. A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)
Notice what he did. First, he went through Samaria. Second, he sent the disciples to buy food (presumably touched and prepared by unclean Samaritans) so that he could be alone. They didn’t all have to go. Third, he sat on the well to be fully conspicuous and unavoidable. Fourth, he asked a woman — whom he knew was an unclean, impure, heretical, disreputable Samaritan — for a drink. Not for permission to get a drink, but for a drink from her bucket.
He is standing by the fountain marked “Colored” watching a black woman fill her water bottle and then, for all to see, says, “Can I have a drink from your water bottle?” She says, at the end of verse 9, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” But more literally it says, Jews don’t “use together” with Samaritans. You can’t be asking me to use the same bucket. That isn’t done.
Jesus Pursues the Adulteress
Jesus is pursuing this unacceptable relationship. God is pursuing this woman. He means to have her in heaven. This is graciously relational. Everything is intentional. This is not just happening. This is design. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
He broke a centuries-old taboo. He sought to be alone in Samaria. He sat on the well. He spoke and did not remain silent. He spoke to a Samaritan. He spoke to a woman. He spoke to an adulteress. He asked for a drink. And the only vessel available was hers. “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . And from his fullness we” — we proud, angry, critical, lustful, greedy, worldly, lazy, fearful, unrelational — “have all received, grace upon grace.”
You may be the one who built the fountains fifty years ago, or tried to shoot Jews last week in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or you may be the ever-targeted Jewish person, or the one forced to drink from the other fountain — but at this moment, in this text, God, in Jesus, means for you to feel graciously pursued. God is seeking a gracious relationship with you. That’s what this well scene means.
He is graciously purposeful, and he is graciously relational.
3. Jesus Is Graciously Superior
Jesus has no more to say about the wall between Samaritans and Jews. He has smashed that wall with his own behavior, and he is on to more important things in verse 10: “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’” “Woman, may God open your eyes, because you are talking to the Son of God, who carries in himself the gift of God, and offers you, right now, living water.”
Verse 11: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?’” She doesn’t see yet. She is just like Nicodemus. Jesus said: “I have new birth for you (living water),” and he said, “Where is a woman’s womb big enough for me to crawl into?” She says, “You have living water for me (new birth); where’s your bucket?” This is a picture of us. Blind. Unable to see the glory of the only Son of God.
Jesus Surpasses Jacob
She senses some kind of claim to superiority here. So she says in verse 12, “Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Is Jesus greater than Jacob? Do you think he is greater? Why? He answers:
“God, in Jesus, means for you to feel graciously pursued.”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (verses 13–14).
“Yes, Ma’am, I am superior to Jacob. And my gift is superior. And my water is superior. And my well is superior. And my sons and daughters are superior — they never die.”
Jesus Offers More Than Water
Don’t miss the five things he says about the water that he gives — and offers you today.
It’s the gift of God (verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God”).
It’s living water (verse 10: “He would have given you living water”).
If you drink it, you never thirst again — that is, it’s always there to satisfy you when your longing soul is thirsty (verse 14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”).
This water becomes a spring — a well of water (verse 14: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water”). That’s why you never get thirsty again — not because one drink is enough, but because one true drink produces a well for an eternity of drinks.
This water gives eternal life (verse 14: “. . . a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”).
“My Superiority Is Your Salvation”
“Yes, Ma’am, I am superior to Jacob. But I am not arrogantly superior. I am graciously superior. My superiority is your salvation. You must decrease; I must increase. I have the water of life. You have thirst. And you need what I have to live. If you will drink — if you will believe on me as your ever-satisfying treasure — you will live forever.”
But she doesn’t see it. She doesn’t taste it. Verse 15: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’” I’d like that water because this bucket is heavy. Just like Nicodemus!
So we must wait. What will it take to break through to her? Jesus will not give up. You could wait till next week to taste and see — to believe and receive him. But you may not have till next week. So come to the water, you who have no money come buy and drink (Isaiah 55:1–3).