In the Fourth Gospel of John, a Samaritan woman has an encounter with Jesus, who is resting at Jacob’s well after journeying from the region of Judea (Jn. 4:3-26). During the encounter, after what seems to be a simple request for a drink, Jesus engages this Samaritan woman in a conversation that quickly goes from the temporal (physical drink) to a metaphorical wellspring that leads to eternal life. This deep and theological conversation culminates with Jesus revealing Himself to her as Messiah; he who is called Christ (Jn. 4:25-26). From this information alone, it is safe to presume that this was no ordinary conversation. Even more so, this Scriptural passage contains religious and cultural elements that the author perhaps presumes his audience is aware of and for this reason it was unnecessary for the author to explain the rudiments behind the text. However, many today are most likely unaware of what lies behind the author’s text in this passage. Therefore, a brief exploration into the historical social-cultural backdrop of the text should lend to a better understanding of what the author was communicating. It is important to note that this paper will aim to draw light upon those particulars that are found only through research. In other words, this paper will not completely exhaust everything the passage is communicating rather it will attempt to reveal those elements that the author presumed his audience perhaps already knew.
The author behind the Fourth Gospel is believed to be the beloved disciple who is mentioned five times within the Gospel itself (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). This beloved disciple is identified as the apostle John; however, “the Fourth Gospel itself does not disclose the name of its author [and] in this respect it is the same as the other three canonical Gospels.” Although Johannine authorship is not universally accepted, there is both external and internal evidence that scholars have relied on to argue the claim, which is not the aim of this paper. Regardless, this essay assumes that the apostle John is the author behind the Fourth Gospel account.
John states his purpose for writing the Gospel toward the end of his account in chapter 20, where he unapologetically writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30-31 ESV). Realizing John’s purpose, then, must not be left out during the process of interpretation and it must be accounted for. Fortunately, he has spelled it out for his readers, that is, John’s overall purpose for including the account of Jesus and the woman of Samaria in his Gospel is, first and foremost, evangelistic.
John has theological interests that need to be taken into account as well. Gary M. Burge writes, “To a greater extent than the Synoptics, each section of the Fourth Gospel contributes to a central theme: the appearance of the Son of God in human history.” In other words, one of John’s central theological themes is that God is being revealed to humankind in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, the last point before moving into the analysis involves John’s Christology. Throughout his Gospel, John stresses the deity of Jesus, “the λογός was God” (1:1) as well as his humanity, “the λογός became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Both of these theological interests will assist in a deeper interpretation of John 4:3-26. There are, of course, other elements involved in John’s writing, such as the symbolism of water that John is fond of; however, what has already been presented is sufficient in propelling this study forward.
The study begins where John writes that “he [Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria” (Jn. 4:3-4 ESV). In first-century Palestine, Samaria was the region located north of Judea and south of Galilee on the western side of the Jordan River. Originally, its capital city was also called Samaria; however, Herod the Great rebuilt the city in first-century B.C. and renamed it Sebaste in honor of Augustus Caesar. The core Hebrew inhabitants of this region are presumed to be the descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh; however, the Assyrians resettled the area with foreigners (2 Kgs. 17:24-41) after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The inclusion of these foreigners into the land eventually resulted in an admixture to the core Hebrews with non-Israelite groups from the Assyrian and Hellenistic empires. In fact, “by the 1st century A.D., the region of Samaria was inhabited by a number of different ethnic groups, the exact percentages of which are not known.” Consequently, this means that there were two kinds of Samaritans in the land and the distinction between the two is significant. First, there were the whole group of geographical-Samaritans who were called such because they just happened to live in the region and second, there were the religious-Samaritans. It is the latter group that this passage is interested in.
In the following verses, John focuses in on the location of the encounter with greater detail by drawing the reader’s attention to a town named Sychar. Interestingly, scholars have agreed that John introduces this town as if it were unknown to the readers of the Gospel; however, this doesn’t diminish Sychar’s importance. The generally accepted consensus among scholars is that the key to Sychar’s significance resides in its close proximity to the ancient city of Shechem (the Samaritan capital). J. Ramsay Michaels writes that “Even though Sychar is not Shechem, it is nearby, and the traditions evoked by the story are associated with Shechem by Samaritans and Jews alike.” This is important because Shechem is where Abraham arrived at the oak of Moreh and the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen. 12:6-7 ESV). In addition to Sychar, John also mentions the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph, and that Jesus rested at Jacob’s well (4:5-6). These locations are essential because they directly tie the inhabitants of the land (the religious-Samaritans) back to their patriarch Abraham. This is clearly evident later on in the passage where the woman states, that “our” father Jacob (in the lineage of Abraham) gave “us” the well (4:11). Simply put, the well is considered a “Samaritan artifact and holy place, linking the Samaritans to the patriarchs and the biblical narrative.” However, it will soon be revealed that the Jews did not feel the same way as their northern neighbors, and vice versa.
John writes that upon the sixth hour (noon), a religious-Samaritan woman came to Jacob’s well to draw water, which is when she encountered Jesus who was resting alone while his disciples had gone away into the city (4:6-7). There are several implications that can be looked at within these verses. First, in that culture, water collection was a responsibility reserved for women and in a world that isolated women socially, they used it as an opportunity to meet and talk. Historically, water collection occurred during the early morning or at dusk in order to avoid the Mediterranean heat. The fact that this Samaritan woman was there alone in the mid-day heat reveals that she had isolated herself for reasons that Jesus uncovers later on in the encounter.
Secondly, John’s Christology shines through where he mentions that Jesus was wearied from His journey from Judea. The apostle’s point here is that this Jesus was very much human, and he communicates this by drawing attention to Jesus’ fatigue. Recall that this Jesus was the very same λογός that was God (1:1) and became flesh (1:14). To be blunt, John just stated that this God-Man was physically tired.
Thirdly, John points out that Jesus was alone with this Samaritan woman, which raises a gender barrier issue. Gender prejudice between male Jewish attitudes in first-century Palestine are exemplified in the following rabbinic citations: “One should not talk with a woman on the street, not even with his own wife, and certainly not with somebody else’s wife, because of the gossip of men,’ and ‘it is forbidden to give a woman any greeting.’” Jesus clearly breaks this gender barrier down with the very act of being alone with her and then by saying to her, “Give me a drink” (4:7), which, incidentally, also shows John’s emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, that is, God incarnate was thirsty because He took on real flesh.
After Jesus’ greeting of “Give me a drink,” John shifts the focus onto the woman’s reply. The woman simply questions Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans)” (4:9). Her question actually has two implications to it. One relates to ritual purity while the other is the more obvious and concerns racial tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, which John clearly points out. Both will be addressed.
In regard to ritual purity, Michaels states that “To ‘have nothing to do with’ can mean either to have no dealings in a general sense, or specifically to not ‘use vessels together’ in situations where ritual purity is at stake. The second option seems plausible because it is a question of drinking from the same cup or jar.” Michaels concludes by stating that “The added comment is fully consistent with the woman’s question, and by it the writer assures us that in fact she had a point: Jesus is ‘a Jew,’ and if ‘Jews will have nothing to do with Samaritans,’ then he is in danger of violating Jewish custom.” Michael’s interpretation has been refuted by some scholars; however, it should be noted that this wouldn’t be the first time John has pointed to ritual purity within his gospel (2:6; 3:5). Therefore, it is something to consider as part of the exegetical process.
John’s second implication within the woman’s response is clear, that is, there is obvious tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. Previously discussed was the inclusion of foreigners into Samaria after the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians (2 Kgs. 17:24). Recall that this led to a mixed race of people and from the standpoint of the Judaeans in the south, “[this] meant a loss of both racial and religious purity.” However, there were other events that helped wedge the two groups apart.
The Samaritans restricted their Scripture to the Pentateuch, which is made up of the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Now, being that King David and his son stand outside of the Pentateuch, the Samaritans had, “no loyalty to the account of David’s decision to build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem (1 Ch. 17:1-15).” Consequently, and possibly in response to being refused to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple (Ezr. 4:1-3), the Samaritans constructed their own temple at Mount Gerezim around 400 B.C., which widened the religious divide between them and the Jews. This is the mountain and place of worship that the woman and Jesus are referring to in verses 4:19-21. However, there are other events that involved both the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerezim and the Jerusalem temple that left a scar in the hearts and minds of both religious groups.
During what Christians have termed as the intertestamental period was John Hyrcanus, the son of Judas Maccabeus’ brother – Simon. In 128 B.C., Hyrcanus, “destroyed a temple the Samaritans had built in their territory on Mountain Gerizim.” This, undoubtedly, fueled the tensions between the two groups; however, the Samaritans were not completely innocent either. Over a century later, between 6 to 9 A.D., the Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem during Passover by scattering dead men’s bones in it. Clearly, the tension between the Samaritans and the Jews was no minor issue.
Up to this point, a good amount of historical background has been discovered with a few significant perspectives put forth on John’s Christology, all of which is intended to reveal just how meaningful this encounter was, not just for this Samaritan woman but also for the religious-Samaritans as a whole. Certainly, by now, it should be clear that Jews were not openly received in this region. Yet, here was Jesus, a Jew, alone with a Samaritan-woman, asking for a drink of water at Jacob’s well while his Jewish disciples went into a Samaritan city for provisions. In light of what has been discovered, it should be blissfully obvious just how significant these seemingly small things are, which is quite possibly why John has included them in this account. From this point forward, the focus will be set on John’s theological interests.
As the conversation continues, Jesus answers the woman by stating, “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” (Jn. 4:10). This passage is the heart of the entire conversation. The gift of God that Jesus is referring to here is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Kruse points out that “In the OT God is described as the source of ‘living water’ (Jer. 2:13, 17:13) and also of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 44:3).” Additionally, Kruse also points out that the woman, “would not have picked up these allusions even if she knew the Samaritan Bible, because it contained only the Pentateuch.” This, perhaps justifies her befuddled response (Jn. 3:11); however, it must be remembered that this is merely scholarly supposition; but in Kruse’s defense, it is based upon fact. The second portion of this passage, “who it is that is saying to you,” is significant because it is Jesus (God) that is speaking to her. Jesus, here, is claiming deity, which is a major theological theme in John’s Gospel. Eventually, the conversation is able to fully transition from the temporal over to the eternal and Jesus is finally able to communicate to her that it is He who can give this ‘living water’ that will lead to eternal life, which is, yet again, another major theological theme in John’s gospel. However, Jesus doesn’t completely reveal Himself to her just yet.
As the conversation deepens into the theological realm, John reveals Jesus’ omniscience in the fact that He knew everything about her. This isn’t the first time that John makes this point. Recall that Jesus also knew everything about Nathanael, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (Jn. 1:48). However, Nathanael’s response was immediate confession whereas the Samaritan woman replies, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (Jn. 4:19). Again, it must be remembered that the religious-Samaritans did not share in the same Scripture as the Jews, which meant that they didn’t know of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others that stand outside of the Pentateuch. Instead, their expectation of a prophet was found in Deuteronomy 18:18, which they identified as the Taheb, “I will raise up for them a prophet [Taheb] like you from among their brothers.” Interestingly, by referring to Jesus as this prophet, she is, in some way, acknowledging Jesus as the Samaritan-messiah.
Worship on the mountain has been already covered; however, Jesus does point out something quite significant where He states that “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know” (Jn. 4:22). Here, Jesus is pointing out that “worship on Mount Gerizim was worship based upon ignorance [whereas] Jewish worship in Jerusalem was based on knowledge because it was in line with the revelation of God to his people.” To reiterate, the religious-Samaritan’s rejection of the Scripture outside of the Pentateuch kept them in a state of ignorance. Furthermore, Jesus also acknowledges that salvation was to be through the Jews and not the Samaritans; however, Jesus then focuses on the universal offer of the Gospel by stating that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (Jn. 4:23). God’s grace certainly shines through here.
In response, the woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming. . . When he comes, he will tell us all things” (Jn. 4:25). Possibly, in saying that “he will tell us all things,” what Jesus was saying was all too difficult for her to understand; however, what happens next is the climactic moment of the encounter. In response, Jesus replied, “I who speak to you am he” (Jn. 4:26). This, of course, is the overall theological theme of John’s Gospel, that is, God just revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Although brief, the research presented in this paper has uncovered some of the historical and social-cultural circumstances behind John 4:3-26. Most likely, John’s original audience were well aware of the information presented in this essay; however, as mentioned in the introduction, today, most are, sadly, ignorant to the backdrop. As a consequence, an unawareness to what historically lies behind the text has the ill-effect of stripping away some of author’s significance for the reader. Fortunately, there are resources that can be implemented for the purpose of revealing the absent backdrop to the original text due to modern ignorance, some of which has been presented in this paper. All and all, what has been exposed is that even a brief exploration into the social-cultural backdrop of John 4:3-26 has lent to a better understanding of what the author was communicating. This is not only true for this passage, it is, in fact, true for all of Scripture.
Recall that John’s overall purpose for including this account of Jesus and the woman of Samaria in his Gospel is, first and foremost, evangelistic in scope. It should be noted that the whole of John’s writing falls under this purpose, which is stated in 20:31. This means that this passage is intended to lead the reader down an illuminated pathway that hopefully ends in reconciliation back to God through His son Jesus who is the Christ.
The Samaritan woman is no different than any of us. For we all are lost until we are found and we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). In other words, like the Samaritans, both the religious and the geographical, before Christ – we worshipped what we did not know and we did so in ignorance to the εὐαγγέλιον (the Gospel!). God the Father knew this, which is why He sent the λόγος – so that all who believe in Him would be saved (Jn. 1:12). However, like the woman at the well, we all have questions and Jesus is more than eager to answer them – just as He did with this woman. If anything, the Samaritan woman shows us that its ok not to fully understand at first. It’s ok because Jesus fully knows us (Jn. 4:18) and He is ready with a more than sufficient response (Jn. 4:21-24). Finally, the Samaritan woman shows the unbeliever that it is perfectly reasonable to ask those critical questions. She was curious and she wanted to know – Jesus, are you Taheb? Are you Christ? This, of course, is the question that John is leading up to with his Gospel. Still, if one is going to ask Jesus – are you the Christ? Then one must also be prepared for Him to say, “I who speak to you am he” (Jn. 4:26). The question then becomes – Who do you say that I am?
. Colin G. Kruse, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 4, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, ©2008), 27.
. Kruse, 24-7.
. Gary M. Burge, John: From Biblical Text . . . To Contemporary Life, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, ©2000), 29.
. John P. Meier, “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Samaritans: What can be Said?” Biblica, 81, no. 2 (2000): 202-232, accessed May 18, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614262
. J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing), 235.
. Ibid., 236.
. Ibid., 242.
. Burge, 142.
. Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1993). 83.
. Michaels, 239-40.
. Ibid., 240.
. Milne, 83.
. Ibid., 85.
. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN.: B&H Publishing Group, ©2009), 19.
. Kruse, 139.
. Kruse, 131.
. Kruse, 134.
. Ibid., 135.
. Kruse, 136.
Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. Nashville, TN.: B&H Publishing Group, ©2009.
Burge, Gary M. John: From Biblical Text . . . To Contemporary Life. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, ©2000.
Kruse, Colin G. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 4, The Gospel According to John: an Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Academic, 2008.
Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Samaritans: What can be Said?” Biblica 81, no. 2 (2000): 202-232. Accessed May 18, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614262
Michaels, J Ramsey. The Gospel of John: The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010.
Milne, Bruce The Message of John: Here Is Your King! The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1993.