The Woman at the Well:
Reaching Across Party Lines to the Samaritans in Your Life
By Greg Wright
I. Historical Background.
Good morning, and welcome to Grace Baptist Church. We are continuing our studies in the Gospel of John, and today we will begin to look at the fourth chapter. The fourth chapter brings us face-to-face with one of the scariest words in Christian life and practice. It’s not scary to go to church in the United States, unless you happen to be preaching. Then it might be just a little scary. It is not scary to sing hymns and pray. But there is something that we are all called to do in the Christian life, and for some of us, it can be downright intimidating. We are all called to share our faith. We are all called to evangelize. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks us to give an account for the hope that is in us.
We do, indeed, have a hope, and this hope is so large that it transcends the sad things that happen around us. In the next few days, after the votes are all tallied, there are going to be a lot of sad people. There will be winners and losers, and the losers will, in many cases, be regarding the future with anxiety and dread. Meanwhile, the problems and challenges that we face as a nation are so huge, they are greater than any candidate or party is going to be able to solve alone, regardless of who gets elected. Added to that, we live in a nation that has so despised and so ignored God that our land is almost screaming for judgment. So if we are not dreading the actions of newly elected politicians, we are dreading the judgment that will come as a result of their actions and the actions of people in general, as the ongoing decline of morality and justice in our nation continues.
Nevertheless, a Christian can have hope, even in the darkest of times. For if we are thinking rightly, our hope does not rest upon what we have acquired and accumulated. Our happiness does not depend on which party controls Washington. Our confidence does not rest upon our military might. Our assurance does not rest upon the cleverness of a party or candidate. Our hope rests upon the character of God, the same God who has promised to save all who savingly receive Jesus as Lord. Moreover, He has promised to lead us, to comfort us, and to guide us through this life and into the life to come.
As we live in the light of the hope that reigns in the hearts of believers, people are going to want to know why. Why do our hearts not rise and fall with the stock market. Why are we able to rejoice, even while terrorists around the world work night and day to develop new ways to harm our people and undermine our influence?
And if they ever do succeed in smuggling an instrument of mass destruction into our country, who knows where will it be deployed?
As questions like these arise, we must be prepared to tell people about Jesus. The purpose of my sermon this morning is to help us to be better prepared to share the gospel. I will not be using my own evangelistic ideas. Nor will I be referring to any of the popular evangelistic methods and strategies of our day. No, I will simply be analyzing the conversation that took place between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who came to Jacob’s well when Jesus passed through Samaria. We will consider fourteen aspects of personal evangelism that were demonstrated during Jesus’ conversation. Now it would not be realistic for me to expect you to remember fourteen points. However, it is my hope that as you hear or read this sermon you will remember at least one aspect of Jesus’ approach, something that Jesus did, that you will be able to incorporate into your own efforts to share the gospel.
Meanwhile, just as we are a divided nation today, as we come to the fourth chapter of John, we are dealing with a divided nation there, as well. Samaria is divided from Judea. Samaritans despise Judeans, and Judeans despise Samaritans. Yet, as we will soon observe, Jesus was able to reach across the aisle, as it were, to his neighbors on the other side.
1 Kings 12 describes how these two peoples came to be divided. Israel used to be one undivided nation, and it stayed that way through the reign of Solomon, but Solomon had enslaved the people. He had forced them to work in his mines. When Solomon died and people sought relief under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, this son threatened to make things even worse. He spoke roughly to the people, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:14) The word scorpions probably referred to a certain kind of whip that had many tails with hooked knobs of metal. So Rehoboam was not going to make life any easier. In fact, he was going to make life even worse.
The people had had enough. As a result, under Jeroboam the ten tribes of the northern kingdom split away, while the two southern tribes remained with Rehoboam. Thus, the northern kingdom came to be known as Israel, and the southern kingdom came to be known as Judah.
To keep the people in the northern kingdom from returning to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, Jeroboam set up golden calves for them to worship, and he did this at Bethel and Dan. Omri, the sixth king of Israel built the city of Samaria. Later, the word Samaria came to be associated with the entire northern kingdom, as seen in 1 Kings 13:32, and by the time you get to 2 Kings 17:29 the inhabitants are called Samaritans.
The northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 721 B.C., and most of the people were taken away. Only the poorest people were left in the land. Meanwhile, exiles from many nations were resettled in Samaria. They brought their idols with them, and they intermarried with the remaining native Samaritans.
When the Jews returned from captivity, the Samaritans wanted to participate in restoring Jerusalem and the temple. But they were turned away. When they were rebuffed, they instead set out to frustrate the very work that they had originally wanted to help.
Eventually, those Samaritans who wanted to retain their Jewish roots built a temple on Mount Gerizim and made it their center of worship. They also chose the first five books of the Bible to be their scriptures. They even had a messianic expectation of their own, believing that 6,000 years after creation a restorer would arise and live on the earth for 110 years, after which the righteous would be resurrected to paradise and the wicked would be tormented in everlasting fire.
During the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, John Hyrcannus I, who was the second ruler of the Hasmonean kingdom, destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerizim. However, by the time Jesus arrives, Samaritans are still worshipping on this mountain. And even today, there is supposedly a village of around two hundred Samaritans who continue to worship there.
Of course, Jesus was a Jew, and as a Jew, He was very much aware of the things that separated Jews from Samaritans. But He was also aware of something that characterized both parties – both groups consisted of sinners who needed to be saved. In a few minutes we are going to see how Jesus reached, as it were, across party lines, to save some Samaritans. Let this story remind us that today, even as we are, ourselves, consumed with political issues, we must be ever looking for opportunities to reach across party lines (across the aisle) for the sake of the gospel.
Christians are right to be concerned about political issues. In fact, I am very concerned that if more Christians do not become politically active, we are going to lose the freedom to share the gospel, the freedom to preach the gospel, and the freedom to home school our children. Already, in Canada, Christians are not free to preach against homosexuality. They call it a hate crime. That could happen here.
So politics is important, even for Christians. Nevertheless, we want to be careful to not get people so agitated over political issues that we cannot share the gospel with them. Rather, we must look for opportunities to share the gospel with all kinds of people.
II. Jesus’ Evangelism of the Samaritan Woman.
A. Jesus looks for opportunities.
That is what Jesus was doing in chapter four; He was looking for opportunities. Our story begins with Jesus’ arrival in Samaria. In John 4:1-6 we read:
Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), 3 He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. 4 And He had to pass through Samaria. 5 So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; 6 and Jacob's well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
You will remember from the last time I spoke that John the Baptist had already been preaching in Samaria, while Jesus was still preaching in suburban Judea. When it became known to the Pharisees that Jesus was drawing more people than John, Jesus was probably concerned that the Pharisees might use this information to undermine their ministries, so Jesus decided to move to Galilee. Since Samaria lay between Judea and Galilee, Jesus decided to travel through Samaria, rather than take a much longer route around it.
Not only that, but when He gets to Samaria He decides to sit down at a well, a public place, where Samaritans will be coming to draw water. Already we begin to see Jesus’ heart for the Samaritan people by the place where Jesus chooses to sit. He could have sat in all kind of places, but I believe he chooses to sit beside Jacob’s well, because he knows people will come there for water, and when people come, there will be opportunities to share the gospel. In the same way, we need to try to place ourselves in situations where opportunities to share the gospel will arise.
B. Jesus humbles Himself.
When an opportunity does arise, Jesus acts upon it with great humility, as we shall soon see.
In verse 7 we read, “There came a woman of Samaria to draw water.” Now, it is unlikely that this woman was expecting to have any kind of conversation with Jesus. Many Jewish men would not speak to their own wives in public. How much less would they speak to a Samaritan woman? How surprised she must have been when Jesus said, “Give me a drink.”
Her response is what we would expect under the circumstances. In verse 9 she asks, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” Then we find this comment in parentheses: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
That Jews have at least some dealings with Samaritans is brought out in verse 8 where we read that the disciples had gone to town to buy food. From whom were they going to buy food? Samaritans. In spite of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Samaritans were not considered to be unclean in the same way that the Gentiles were unclean. There were certain kinds of things that could be purchased from Samaritans, including certain kinds of food.
So in what sense do Jews have no dealings with Samaritans?
John MacArthur brings out the surprising insight that the word dealings could actually mean utensils. In other words, as surprised as this woman was that Jesus would speak to her, as surprised as she was that Jesus would ask her for water, she was especially surprised that Jesus would want to drink from the same utensil – the same water pot – from which she had been drinking. Yet, since Jesus did not have His own water pot, there was no other option.
So where it might have seemed presumptuous to us, at first, that Jesus would ask this stranger for water, it was, in fact, an act of great humility.
Similarly, if we are serious about sharing the gospel, we should try to approach potential converts with an attitude that reflects humility.
C. Jesus leads the conversation.
Once Jesus has broken the silence, He tries to lead the conversation towards redemptive ends. In verse 10 He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
Now to this woman, living water probably meant something like fresh spring water – water from an ever-replenished source, as opposed to water that was still and stagnant.
The term living water is found in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 17:13 we read, “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.”
However, because the Samaritan canon does not include the book of Jeremiah, it is doubtful that she was familiar with the verse.
Nevertheless, Jesus is able to lead the conversation in a direction where redemptive issues can easily be discussed. In the same way, if you want to share the gospel, it is important to try to lead the conversation in a direction where there can be a natural transition into redemptive issues.
D. The woman misunderstands.
Indeed, the woman misunderstands what Jesus means, as she shows in verse 11, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water?”
She is still thinking of natural water, not the kind of water Jesus is offering. Nevertheless, Jesus shows great patience in dealing with her.
In the same way, we should expect to be misunderstood when we present the gospel. Gone is the day when most people in America have a basic understanding of what Christians believe. Many people do not even know the basic Bible stories. Much patience is going to be required.
E. The woman defends her beliefs.
Not only does the woman misunderstand Jesus, but she also confronts Jesus with the presumed legitimacy of her own faith and practice. In verse 12 she says, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?”
What is she saying? She is saying that Jews claim the Patriarch Jacob as their own; yet it is this same Jacob that Samaritans claim as their Father and who dug this well in their land. And if she were living today, she would go on to say, “We have just as much claim to Jacob as you do. Now stuff that in your pot of living water, if you can find one.”
When people want to get you off their back regarding religious issues, they do similar things today. They say things like: I’ve been baptized; I’ve been confirmed; I go to church; I have my own church traditions and follow those. You have yours; now, bug off.
F. Jesus explains that He has something better.
Jesus responds by explaining that He has something better. In verses 13 and 14 He says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
Somehow we have to do the same kind of thing. When people tell us about their works-based righteousness, their church attendance, and their rituals, we have to tell them that we have something better. It is sad that we have to do this with people who no longer believe in objective truth, and we have to do this with people who believe that all religions are equally legitimate paths to God.
But how can we tell them that what we have is better without putting them off? How can we tell them in a manner that will not make them want to walk away?
I think the key word here is thirst. There is a thirst in every heart that only Jesus can satisfy. Oh yes, people do try to satisfy their thirst with other things. If only I had a better job I would be happy. If only I were out of debt I would be content. If only I had a better marriage I would be satisfied. Surely these things lead towards happier lives, but do they truly satisfy the soul’s deepest longings?
I know what it is to be truly thirsty. Many years ago my son and I were on an overnight canoe trip in which we ran out of drinking water. On the second day we had milk in the morning, and he found a soda somewhere for himself, but I had no other drink for the rest of the day. It was a hot day, and at the end of that day when we arrived at the place where we turned in our canoes, I was the thirstiest I had ever been in my life. I ran to the store as quickly as I could and bought bottled water. But when I drank it the water was almost like poison to me – the water was carbonated. It was a poor substitute for what I really needed. As fast as I could, I gave the carbonated water away and bought real water. That was the best tasting water I ever had.
Thanks be to God for real thirst. Thanks be to God for the kind of thirst that will not tolerate substitutes. Thanks be to God for the kind of thirst that will be satisfied with nothing less than Jesus Christ.
The people around us are thirsty for living water. We have the privilege of helping them to understand how thirsty they are.
G. The woman misses the point.
But once again the woman at the well misses the point. In verse 15 she says, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.”
She does not want Jesus. She wants an easier life. And many people make professions of faith for the same reason. The disciplines of the Christian life tend to lead to prosperity. People who behave like Christians are kinder to their wives and children, so they have happier home lives. When they are not spending their paychecks on booze and drugs, they are more likely to be able to buy groceries and pay bills. Many people want Christianity for the fringe benefits, but they do not necessarily want Christ.
Similarly, this woman wants this living water so she will not have to come to the well. She fails to comprehend what her greatest need is. It is up to people like us to help people to see that the greatest problem they have is their sin problem.
H. Jesus reveals her greatest need.
Because this woman does not understand what her greatest need is, Jesus has to help her to understand it. When the Holy Spirit does this, we call it conviction. In conviction, the Holy Spirit causes us to know our sins and to feel bad about them. This is very important work, because if we do not understand how sinful we are, we will not understand how much we need a Savior. Conviction creates thirst, and conviction makes us more aware of the thirst we already have. Jesus’ next statements to the woman are designed to create thirst.
In verse 16 Jesus says, “Go, call your husband and come here.”
Oh no, she thinks to herself. This guy is getting too personal. I do not need to open up to this Jew about my personal life. So in verse 17 she tries to evade his question by answering, “I have no husband.”
Cleverly, Jesus manages to confront her with her sin in a way that is more declarative than confrontational. In verses 17 and 18 He says, “You have correctly said, 'I have no husband'; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”
This is one of those places where the guideline What would Jesus do breaks down. We cannot always know, the way Jesus knew, the sin in a person’s life when we deal with them. But we do know that all people have sinned, and we do know that none of those sins are forgiven unless they have Jesus.
I. Jesus keeps her from evading her guilt.
Like most people, when she was confronted with her sin she wanted to change the subject. Thus, in verses 19 and 20 she says, “Sir , I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Political differences provide a great resource for changing the subject. I have been reminded in recent days that while a person might be reluctant to give his opinion on issues pertaining to history, literature, philosophy, or science, when it comes to political issues he is ready to speak his mind with confidence.
And these kinds of distractions work, do they not? Of course, politics is important. Politics has to do with how people are governed, and we should be governed according to principles that are reasonable and moral. But don’t let people interrupt your attempts at evangelism by getting you off on politics.
That’s what the Samaritan woman tried to do with Jesus. She tried to distract Him with a divisive religious and political issue – the place and country of worship. Do we worship on Gerizim or in Jerusalem?
I am happy to say that in the story before us, Jesus is able to lift the conversation above these kinds of distractions. In verses 21 through 24 He says, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
I think we come closer to comprehending these verses if we try to understand them the way the Samaritan woman understood them. We are to worship God in spirit, as opposed to at Gerizim or in Jerusalem, and we are to worship God in truth, as opposed to the false notions about God that the Samaritans had.
The place where you worship is not the most important thing; it is the devotion of your heart that counts. The God who is spirit desires to be worshipped through the spiritual affections of devoted hearts. And the God who is truth desires to be worshipped according to that truth. God has revealed Himself through the scriptures, and the only conception of God that is acceptable is that which is revealed in the scriptures.
J. Jesus prevents her from making light of His comments.
Well, the woman’s attempt at changing the subject did not work. Jesus is still there to irritate her, and the nagging issue of her sin is still there as well. So she tries, as it were, to make light of Jesus’ comments.
She is too polite to say this, but it is as if she were thinking, “You say all this stuff, but why should I listen to some Jew I’ve never met before. I don’t have to listen to you. I am going to wait for a better teacher. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll understand and appreciate the Samaritan perspective more than you do.” Thus, in verse 25 she says, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”
In other words, “I don’t want to hear these things from you; I want to hear them from Him.”
The words that Jesus said to her in response would change her life forever. I wonder how their eyes met. I wonder how the sounds around them faded into the background, as if all creation stood still. I wonder what kind of primeval tones resonated and echoed in her heart as she recognized the voice of God and heard Jesus say, “I who speak to you am He.”
Suddenly, the disciples return – great timing guys! This is one of the most aggravating things that happens in evangelism. You have the person’s attention; the conversation is going well; you are at a crucial point in the that conversation; conversion seems eminent; when suddenly, out of the blue, you hear, “Hi ya’ll; how yuh doing?”
I am happy to say that the disciples were more discreet. In verse 27 we read that “they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, ‘What do You seek?’ or, ‘Why do You speak with her?’”
Sometimes you will be interrupted just when you think you are on the verge of a seeing a person converted. But do not be discouraged. The God who permitted you to be interrupted has a reason for it. And when it comes to the salvation of the lost, nothing will frustrate God’s ultimate plans.
Sometimes the person just gets up and leaves. The return of the disciples must have created some kind of distraction, because before anyone could say “It’s supper-time,” the woman had left her water pot and gone. In verses 28 through 30 we read, “So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, [yeah, that’s right, to the men] 29 "Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?" 30 They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.”
This is so weird. This woman was probably one of the shiest women in Samaria. As a known adulterer, she probably had few if any friends. Hardly anyone cared what she thought or said. But even if she had had a good reputation, people just did not care to hear from women in those days.
I can imagine someone confronting Jesus about this, saying, “Jesus, how could you let this happen? We do not even allow a woman’s testimony to stand in court, and here you have let this woman proclaim the most important truth of our time, the arrival of the Messiah.
You know what, I think Jesus knew what He was doing.
In this case, when this woman rose to leave, it was to tell others. People might leave the conversation for many reasons. Some might be overwhelmed. Some might just need time to process what you have told them. But do not be discouraged. While it might be easy for them to walk away, it is going to be much harder for them to push your words out of their minds.
And sometimes there is fruit. The awakening that followed is described in verses 39-42:
From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all the things that I have done." 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of His word; 42 and they were saying to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world."
The Samaritan woman brought people to Jesus. Many believed because of the words of Jesus that were spoken. Today we still bring people to Jesus, only today it is not Jesus in the flesh but Jesus revealed in the Word. And today people still believe because of the words of Jesus that are written and because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit that makes these words come alive to their souls.
Keep in mind that the Word of God is not a bunch of dead letters. As we read in Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
N. Sowing and reaping.
More awakenings would follow, and Jesus uses this opportunity to talk to His disciples about reaping and sowing. In verses 31 through 38 we read:
Meanwhile the disciples were urging Him, saying, "Rabbi, eat." 32 But He said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33 So the disciples were saying to one another, "No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?" 34 Jesus said* to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. 35 "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. 36 "Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. 37 "For in this case the saying is true, 'One sows and another reaps.' 38 "I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor."
Jesus tells the disciples that accomplishing His father’s work is like food to Him. Just as food satisfies our natural longings and cravings, just as food is filling and gratifying, Jesus finds doing His Father’s work to be deeply satisfying. Part of His Father’s work is sowing and reaping. Both the sower and the reaper will receive eternal wages when the harvest is brought in. Jesus may be referring to John the Baptist as the sower. After all, John had been baptizing in Samaria prior to Jesus passing through. John’s ministry was in decline. But the harvest was only beginning.
There may be times in your own life when you feel like all you are ever going to do is sow seed. You have been sowing in your family; you have been sowing among your friends; you have been sowing at the grocery store; you have been sowing at the soccer field; and your heart leaps at the possibility of seeing results someday. You want to see fruit. But for now, all you get is condescending smiles.
Keep sowing. You will be rewarded someday. Meanwhile, the harvest continues to break forth in unexpected places. Who would have ever expected to see an awakening in Samaria? But it happened there. And if it happened there, it could happen in your home and community too.
Let us pray: Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this detailed example of how Jesus shared the gospel. Please help us to learn from His strategy and method. And please help us to take this gospel, even outside of our own comfort zones, for your sake.