The Woman at the Well
- Main Text: John 4:1-42
- Accompanying text: Psalm 42:1-3
After meeting with Nicodemus Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside on baptising tour while John the Baptist was also baptising nearby. An argument broke out between the Baptist’s disciples and a Jew over purification and proselyte baptisms, which were regarded as new births from paganism into Judaism. In that context were the baptisms performed by Jesus and his disciples effective? John the Baptist settled the matter: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’…Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all” (John 3:28-35 ESV). Jesus is greater than both Judaism and the Baptist, and he or she who is baptised from above is blessed.
What happened next involved the Samaritans, a faith-group that represented a kind of half-way house between paganism and Judaism. “The rift between the Samaritans and the Judeans dates from an early period. According to 2 Kings 17 the Samaritans were the descendants of the Mesopotamian peoples who were forcibly settled in the lands of northern Israel by the king of Assyria in the wake of the exile of 722 B.C. They combined the worship of Yahweh with idolatrous practices. The construction of a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and the establishment of a rival, hereditary priesthood dates from the fourth century…The Samaritans, however, viewed themselves as the faithful descendants of Israel and saw the Judeans as apostate. They accepted only the Pentateuch as Scripture; in their version Mount Gerizim is described as the chosen place of the sanctuary (Dt 11:29-30; cf. John 4:20)…The Samaritans, like the Jews, expected a Messiah to come. They revered Moses as the true prophet and…cherished hopes that a prophet like Moses would one day restore both themselves and their sanctuary. They described this Messianic figure as the Restorer”. 
“Under the bright noonday sun, the Samaritan woman comes, hears, believes and becomes the first woman preacher in human history…Middle Eastern village women avoid the heat of the day by carrying water from the well very early in the morning and just before sundown. For propriety’s sake, they always go to and from the well as a group. Furthermore, the jars are heavy when full and very difficult for a woman to lift onto her head alone. The woman in this story appears at the well alone at noon. Only a ‘bad woman’ would be so blatant. She is either a social outcast or knows that travellers can be found at the well at noon and wants to contact them…The text assumes that Jesus and his disciples had…a bucket, but the disciples had taken it with them to the city. Jesus could easily have requested that they leave it behind for his use. But he had a plan.
By deliberately sitting on the well without a bucket, Jesus placed himself strategically to be in need of whomever appeared with the necessary equipment. The woman approached. On seeing her, Jesus was expected to courteously withdraw to a distance of at least twenty feet, indicating that it was both safe and culturally appropriate for her to approach the well. Only then could she move to the well, unroll her small leather bucket, lower it into the water, fill her jar and be on her way. Jesus did not move as she approached. She decided to draw near anyway. Then comes the surprise…Jesus asks for a drink”. 
Thoughts re application today
One of the many amazing points in this story is that Jesus, the Word who is God, the Saviour, the Creator of all things, asks for help!!! Not of the Father or of the Spirit or of his disciples, but of a woman from a different faith tradition. The Word had become flesh for us, was fully God and fully human, and, in his humanity, he was thirsty in the heat of the day. Is this instructive for us? Does it suggest that we should be willing to ask for help and, in receiving it, engage in redemptive conversations as the Spirit leads us?
How did John know the details of this story? Presumably he had gone with the other disciples to get food. Possible explanations are that either Jesus or the Samaritan woman told him. Or could one of those who were contacted by the woman have told him later?
In this story there is “an amazing sequence of events. First, Jesus steps over the terrible patriarchal social conventions and relates to the woman with equality, dignity and respect. Second, he engages her in interesting conversation for a lengthy period. Third he shows that he knows. And fourth he opens his heart to her, giving her one of the most profound insights into worship that you will ever hear. The healing transformation that all this has on her is extraordinary…
What is thrilling about this is the way that the woman is able to face her past without any shame. Her story has been so dysfunctional and difficult. She has had repeated, painful failings of committed relationships with resulting feelings of rejection and shame. Most of us try to hide the worst parts of our lives. Not only are we ashamed but talking about it just brings back our pain. This is different. Jesus has taken the woman to a completely new place. She can face her past with freedom and without regret. Her story has been reframed and she has been healed. She says to her neighbours, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.’ That is not a woman hiding in shame. The pain of the past has gone. What went wrong in her life is still part of her story. But her freedom from the shame has become the reason to invite others to meet Jesus”. 
- 2 Kings 17
- Acts 1:8
Footnotes and references
- The Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture, Published by Zondervan in the USA, 2005:1727.
- Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, published by SPCK, UK in 2008:201-202.
- Ian Galloway, Called to be Friends: Unlocking the heart of John’s Gospel, published by Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2021:71.