The Woman at the Well : Christ Speaks to the Problem of a Guilty Past
January 14, 2001
Listen to this Sermon
Two strangers met beside a well on a hot afternoon in Samaria. One was a woman. The other was a man. We don’t know the woman’s name. The man was Jesus. Their brief conversation changed her life.
Today we are beginning a series called “Conversations with Jesus.” Each week we will meet someone who met Jesus face to face. Some of the stories will be very familiar and others will probably be new to you. These ancient encounters are valuable for what they reveal about Jesus and what they teach us about the common problems of life. Although 2000 years have passed since Jesus walked on the earth, his words remain incredibly relevant. Times change but the human heart remains the same. We have the same hopes and fears and dreams and doubts. And we struggle with the same problems: uncontrolled anger, foolish choices, misplaced priorities, hypocrisy, guilt, indifference, frivolous curiosity, misguided ambition, limited faith, convenient excuses, nagging doubt, compulsive busyness, broken dreams, and personal failure. Sometimes I hear people talk about making the Bible relevant. What an odd notion that is. All you have to do is make the Bible clear. Tell it like it is and it will be so relevant that we may not want to hear it.
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is very familiar. As I have studied it this week, I have been struck by how simple and profound it is. A man meets a woman in a seemingly chance encounter. In a few brief moments her life is changed forever. There are lessons here about racial prejudice, religious hatred, and dealing with moral outcasts. This story also conveys valuable truth about how to do evangelism.
As we begin, I should note that this is the longest recorded conversation anyone ever had with Jesus. It is longer than any recorded conversation with any of his disciples.
It was a hot day and the sun beat down on the man’s head. The sweat poured off his brow as he walked along the dusty road. It was probably mid- to late-July when the temperature can top out at over 105 degrees. To make matters worse, he had been traveling with his friends since sunrise. Now the sun was directly overhead. They were hurrying to make their way through this part of the country as quickly as possible.
He came to a well with a rock ledge built up above the ground in the typical manner of the Middle East. He sat on the lip and thought to himself, “O, if only I could have a drink of water.” At precisely that moment, the woman came along. It wasn’t the normal time, and it was unusual for a woman to come to a well alone. But this woman was different. The Bible says she came from the tiny village of Sychar. We know basically where Sychar was. It was in Samaritan territory, nestled between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Sychar was built at the confluence of two trade routes, one that came up from Jerusalem on its way to Capernaum, and one that came west from the Jericho region toward the Mediterranean Sea. Sychar was thus located at a very strategic point in central Palestine.
The well was about one-half mile outside the village near the point where the two trade routes came together. It was called Jacob’s Well, after the patriarch who had first dug it some 2000 years earlier. Weary travelers from throughout Israel knew it as a place where they might drink from the spring flowing some 150 feet below the surface.
As the woman looks at Jesus and he at her, four invisible walls stand between them. There is a religious wall, a gender wall, a racial wall, and a moral wall. Yet our Lord found a way through all of them. He found her … and then she found him!
I. Contact 4:1-8
The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) (John 4:1-8)
Geography is all-important in understanding this story. In Jesus’ day there were three regions stacked on top of one another. There was Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea in the south. The easiest and quickest way to get to Galilee from Judea was to go due north right through Samaria. Verse 3 says that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria. Now why did he have to do that? The answer is, he didn’t. There was another route he could have taken. Some pious Jews would go east, cross the Jordan River, enter the region of Perea, then go north, re-cross the Jordan River, and they would be in Galilee. This was out of the way but it meant they wouldn’t have to go through Samaritan territory.
A little history will help us at this point. The Jews and the Samaritans disliked each other. It all went back to 722 B.C. when the Assyrians conquered Israel and took the northern ten tribes into captivity. They brought in Gentiles from other areas to settle in that same region. Eventually those Gentiles with their pagan ways intermarried with the Jews who had been left behind. Over the generations those people were called the Samaritans, and they developed their own religion that was partly based on pagan ideas and partly based on Judaism. Eventually they built their own temple at a place called Mount Gerizim. And they developed their own language and their own version of the Old Testament (which contained only the first five books).
The Jews looked down on the Samaritans as religious and racial half-breed heretics. It’s hard for us to understand the animosity that existed between these two groups. If you think of the Bosnians and the Serbs or if you think of the Palestinians and the Israelis, you’ve got the right idea.
Now that brings us back to verse 3. Why did Jesus “have to” go through Samaria when the Jews either didn’t go there at all or passed through as quickly as possible? The answer is simple and profound: Jesus went because he intended to meet this woman. He knew she would be coming to the well at precisely the moment he was sitting there weary from his journey. Nothing happens by chance in this story. Every detail is part of the outworking of God’s will. And that, I think, is a hugely important point. The woman isn’t looking for Jesus. All she wants is water. But Jesus is looking for her. You have to go to Samaria if you want to reach Samaritans. He doesn’t avoid Samaria and he doesn’t hurry through it. Though she does not know it, this woman has a “divine appointment” with the Son of God.
From this we can take a very important principle for evangelism. Reaching people for Christ is not always comfortable and may at times be difficult. But you have to go where people are if you want to reach them at all. Comfort is not the issue. The firefighter goes into the burning house to rescue those inside. He can’t stand outside and say, “Come on out before the house burns down.” Jesus intended to save this woman so he went where she was.
She came alone to the well at noontime. This was potentially dangerous and somewhat unusual. Women normally came together to the well in the morning or the evening. It was something of a social event. The fact that this woman comes alone may mean that her checkered past was well known to the villagers. Perhaps she had been ostracized by the other women of Sychar.
The conversation begins with a simple question from Jesus: “Will you give me a drink?” He is tired and thirsty and she has the water he needs. But he has the water she needs. He was thirsty and knew it. She was thirsty and didn’t know it. The woman did not come to the well seeking Christ, but he came to the well seeking her. In his approach we see the great heart of our Lord Jesus is without prejudice. It matters not to him that others would not go to Samaria and others would not speak to this woman. He welcomes all and shuns none.
Luke 19:10 tells us that the Lord Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. This story tells us what that means. John 4 is all about sovereign grace. He found her. She didn’t find him. The same is true for all of us. You will never come to Christ until Christ first comes to you. What happens in this chapter looks like a chance encounter but it was nothing of the kind. The time and place and all the circumstances had been arranged by God before the world began.
II. Challenge 4:9-15
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.) 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.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 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” (John 4:9-15).
There is a triple surprise in these verses. First, that a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. Second, that a man would speak to a woman he didn’t know in public. Third, that a Jew would drink from a Samaritan’s cup. When the woman saw Jesus, she knew he was a Jew by his dress and probably also by his accent. She knew he was a stranger just passing through. In the first century it was almost unheard of for a man to speak to a woman in public in those circumstances. And to ask for a drink of water was even more unusual since the Rabbis taught that it was a sin to touch a utensil that a Samaritan had touched.
When Jesus offers her “living water,” he is being deliberately ambiguous because the phrase could also mean running water. He is trying to incite her curiosity without making her suspicious. “You came here for water. I’ve got water you’ve never dreamed of before.” He is leading her step by step to saving faith. First, he leads her to see her need, then he reveals who he is, then he offers her something that could change her life. He is offering not to quench her thirst but to banish it once and for all. This is what is called a “teachable moment.” I am struck by the fact that Jesus returns again and again to the central issue: “Do you know who I am? If you knew my true identity, you could ask and I would give you water that leads to eternal life. And not just a drink of water but a gushing spring that will well up within your heart.”
Behold in these verses the simplicity of salvation. In verse 10 Jesus says, “You would have asked and I would have given you living water.” That’s all salvation is. It’s asking God to save you and receiving salvation in return. Think about that. Heaven itself is yours for the asking. Just ask for it! That’s all. Just ask Jesus with a humble heart to save you. Salvation is yours for the asking.
And there is a reminder of the vanity of all earthly things. Anyone who drinks of the water of this world will thirst again. We all know what it is to be thirsty and we know that the body can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water. When I was just starting out in my Christian journey there was a song that became very famous called “Fill My Cup, Lord.” One verse in particular was written about this story:
Like the woman at the well I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy
And then I heard my Savior speaking,
“Draw from the well that never shall run dry.”
And the chorus was very simple:
Fill my cup, Lord
I lift it up, Lord.
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.
In verse 15 the woman even says, “Give me this water!” She didn’t understand what he meant but she wanted what he had.
III. Confrontation 4:16-18
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 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” (John 4:16-18).
On one level it appears that Jesus is being insensitive. Why bring up anything about her past? Is Jesus trying to embarrass her? The answer is no. But his instruction to call her husband made her very uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to go into detail so she simply replies, “I have no husband.” Now that was true but it wasn’t the whole story. She knew she was hiding the truth but what she doesn’t know is that Jesus knows it, too. And so he proceeds to reveal the rest of the story. This woman has had five husbands and the man she is living with currently is not her husband. In a sense this is the ultimate reality check. How could a woman in that day have had five husbands? Even today that would be very unusual. Did they all die? That’s unlikely. Had she been divorced five times? Probably. Was there promiscuity involved? Most likely. Certainly she is currently living in a sinful relationship with a man outside of marriage.
The words of Jesus are a verbal slap in the face, and yet it was the most loving thing he could have done for her. There is an important spiritual principle at work here. Without conviction of sin there can be no conversion. God sees behind the mask to the reality within. Until we come to grips with the sickness of sin and our own willful disobedience to God, we cannot be saved. Is Jesus being cruel? No more than the doctor who prescribes surgery to save your life. Unless he removes the tumor, you are certain to die. Will the operation be painful? No doubt, but weighed against death the pain is part of the healing process. In another place Jesus described his mission this way: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Just as a doctor must sometimes seem to hurt in order to heal, even so the Great Physician of the soul must wound us with the truth about ourselves in order to heal the sickness of our sin.
By asking about her husband, he exposes this woman’s lifelong pursuit of happiness. Evidently she has entered one failed relationship after another. And each time she said, “This is the man. This time I’ll be happy.” And each time she was disappointed. Now she won’t even risk marriage. But the words of Jesus reveal a deep-seated loneliness, a hole in her heart that no man could fill. Far from being irrelevant, these words of Jesus go to the core of her problem—and of ours. We’ve been raised to believe that if you only find the right man or the right woman, you’ll be happy. So we jump from one relationship to another, or we take a quick trip to Temptation Island, desperately hoping against hope that this time things will be different, this time we’ll make it, this time we’ll be happy. Yet no human relationship can satisfy our needs. We are spiritual beings made for a relationship with God. There is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside the human heart that no man or woman can ever fill. We were made to know God, and until we know him through Jesus Christ, we are doomed to restlessness and despair.
Let me pause to ask a question at this point. Does Jesus love this woman? Yes, he does. He knows the truth and still offers her eternal life. Here is the wonder of God’s grace. Only someone who loves you can look at your past without blinking. Real love means knowing the truth about someone else and reaching out to them anyway. He’s not ashamed of her past but he cannot help her until she gets beyond the shame and admits the truth.
She is almost but not quite saved. She is near the kingdom but not in the door yet. Jesus laid bare what she thought she could keep hidden. That always makes sinners uncomfortable. She wants to change the subject, which is what she does.
IV. Conversion 4:19-26
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:19-26).
It is now clear to this woman that she has met a most unusual man. Because he knows her past, she thinks he must be a prophet. Since he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, she begins to engage in a theological debate. In that day the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerizim. So she wants to know which mountain is the right one for worship. Jesus doesn’t bother debating with her. He simply tells her that a time is coming when geography won’t matter. What God wants are people who worship him in spirit and in truth. And he doesn’t condemn her faulty theology or say, “You’re stupid to worship at Mount Gerizim.” That wouldn’t do any good and would probably make her angry and end the conversation.
One of the great truths to come out of this story is that God is greater than geography, race, class, sex, and religious tradition. True worship is not about where or how or even when. It’s about who you are and who God is. God wants worship that is based on truth and a wholehearted personal commitment to him. There is good news and bad news in that statement. The bad news is that religious activity doesn’t really count. Going to church, being baptized, giving money, praying six times a day, following the Ten Commandments, having a Quiet Time every day, those things, as good as they are (and they are truly good things) don’t count with God when it comes to salvation. The reason they don’t count is because anyone can go through the motions and still have a heart filled with anger, bitterness, profanity, hatred, lust, greed, envy, and pride. The worship God accepts must be based on the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and offered to him from a humble heart of faith. But there is equally good news in that statement. If what God wants is spirit and truth, any one can qualify. Salvation is not limited to the Jews. The Good News is meant for everyone. This is God’s “Equal Access” provision. Salvation is not about going to the right mountain. It’s about going to Jesus for salvation. And anyone can do that anywhere at any time!
Slowly the truth is dawning on this woman. She has heard that the Messiah will some day come to the earth. Imagine her surprise when Jesus says, “I who speak to you am he” (verse 26). This is an amazing statement from our Lord. Here he plainly claims to be the Messiah. And he does in a unique way. In the Greek it reads something like this: “The one who speaks to you, I AM.” But “I AM” was the name by which God revealed himself to Moses (Exodus 3:15). Jesus is claiming identity with God. No doubt this woman was blown away. She came for some water in the middle of the day and she ends up meeting the Water of Life face to face.
V. Changed Life 4:27-30
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him (John 4:27-30).
The woman is converted between verses 26 and 27. How do we know? Because she leaves her water pot and goes to tell the others in town. As I read these verses I am struck by how little the woman understands. All she says is, “He knows me.” That’s not exactly the Apostles Creed. And “I think he is the Messiah.” That’s not exactly the Four Spiritual Laws. In point of fact, she’s not a very likely witness at all. Most of us would want our new converts a bit better trained than that. But God uses those who are willing to be used. Notice her invitation to the people of Sychar. She doesn’t say, “You must be born again,” but a much gentler, “Come and see.” That’s what Philip said to Nathanael in John 1:46. No threats, no promises, just come and see for yourself. Her invitation is sincere, non-threatening, and open to everyone. When Jesus gives you living water, you want to share it with someone else.
We come to the end of the story in verses 39-42: Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. 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 Savior of the world.”
Here is a wonderful lesson in the power of the gospel. One woman with inadequate knowledge and just a mustard seed of faith brings her whole town to Jesus. Talk about Evangelism Explosion. This is it! And she never attended any classes or read any books. She met Jesus, he transformed her life, and she couldn’t stop talking about it. Sometimes we wonder how little a person can believe and still be saved. Or we ask, “How much do you have to understand in order to go to heaven?” Evidently the answer is, not much. And we wonder, “How much can a person be wrong about and still be saved?” I think the answer is, quite a bit as long as you are solid on two things: 1) That you are a sinner, and 2) Jesus is the Savior you need. If you know you are a sinner and you are willing to trust Christ as your Savior, you can be saved. There is plenty of time to fill in the rest of the details later.
No Second-Hand Faith
A little phrase at the end of verse 42 tells us that the hated Samaritans figured out something the Jews never quite got right. They understood that Jesus was indeed “the Savior of the world.” They heard this woman’s testimony, then they heard Jesus, then they believed in him. In the end, you can’t be saved on second-hand faith. You aren’t going to go to heaven because your mother was a godly woman or your father was a missionary. You’ve got to make a decision on your own. You can live off your parent’s faith or your wife’s faith or your children’s faith only so long. Sooner or later, you’ve got to step forward and say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus. He is my Lord and Savior.”
And that leads me back to a crucial phrase in verse 10: “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.” Ponder those three little words: “If you knew.” “If you knew who I was, you would ask and I would give you eternal life.” Do you know who he is? If so, will you ask him for Living Water? If you want to go to heaven, all you have to do is ask. That’s how simple salvation is. It’s like asking for a refreshing drink of cool, clear water.
Let me summarize some of the things we learn from this wonderful story:
a) No one is too sinful to be saved.
b) No one is so lost that the Lord cannot find him.
c) No one can be saved without facing his sinful past.
d) No one who faces his sinful past will be turned away by Jesus.
e) No one who meets Jesus will ever be the same again.
Jesus is ready to give us Living Water. It’s free for the asking. Are we ready to receive it?
What a story! What a Christ! What amazing grace! Amen.