Unexpected love

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 noon. 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.) 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.) John 4:4-9

Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman.

Theodore J. Hartwig

When reading stories from the life of Jesus in the gospels, we often find Jesus sparring with the Pharisees. The purist Pharisees accused him of flaunting Jewish rules and traditions. Among their charges, they faulted Jesus for welcoming tax collectors and sinners and even eating with them. In their own minds, they thanked God that they were not like these other people.

Not only did Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners, but, even worse, he disregarded Jewish conventions about associating with women. He freely spoke with them, praised them, and defended them against their detractors.

In John’s gospel, there are four notable examples of the free and easy way in which Jesus associated with women. We might call them the four gems from John.


At the end of his gospel, John writes that Jesus did many other additional things that are not recorded in his gospel. Given limitations of room on his writing material of papyrus, John had to be selective in his choice of stories and the space he devoted to them. About 80 percent of this fourth chapter records Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. It is one of the most beautiful accounts of mission work in the New Testament. Knowing this heightens one’s attention to several words and expressions in the story.

It begins with the notice that Jesus had to go through Samaria. The “had to” becomes meaningful when we know that in their trips between Galilee in the north and Jerusalem in the south, the Jews normally took the longer route around Samaria by way of the Jordan River to the east. Today, it would be like traveling from Nebraska to North Dakota by way of Iowa and Minnesota.

As John notes, Jews took the roundabout route because they did not associate with Samaritans. So we might guess that John used the compelling “had to” because, at the time, Jesus insisted that he and the other disciples return to Galilee by way of Samaria. Jesus knew, as they did not, what beautiful gospel fruits would result from this journey. For us, this little insight weaves a golden circle around the “had to.”


The next significant expression in the story is “tired as he was.” To catch its flavor in John’s original text, the words could be rendered in a free translation stating that Jesus was “all tuckered out” or “totally bushed.” These words are another testimony that Jesus, though without sin, was a genuine human being in the full sense of the word. He was so tired that he remained alone at the well and sent his disciples into the nearby town of Sychar to buy food.

What happened next is noteworthy and significant. Jesus was alone at the well with the Samaritan woman. Contrary to Jewish behavior, Jesus initiated a discussion with the woman. This conversation with a woman would have been far less abnormal if one or more of his disciples had been present. Even more to the woman’s surprise, his request was directed not merely to a Samaritan but to a Samaritan woman.

Farther on, John adds a significant detail. John identifies the time of the day as the sixth hour (ESV) or noon. Normally, the women in the village would draw water at the well on the outskirts of town in the late afternoon when the day was cooler and when they could enjoy sharing the latest news with one another. But this woman came at noon when she knew she would be alone. The other women were not at the well. Her timing hints at her sordid reputation in the town and that she wanted to avoid conversation with the other women.

When Jesus eventually talks with her about this reputation, he speaks in a more kindly way than others might have chosen. He was not cruel and condescending. He does not tell her that she has had five affairs with men and is now living with a man who might become number six. He softens his probe into her past.

Astounded by his words, the woman responded with a concern about the right place to worship. At first we might think that, in her embarrassment, she is trying to change the subject. But there may be more to the question. She is now a different woman. Jesus had spoken to her of the living water he gives. This man—by his outward appearance, by the tone of his voice, by his willingness to speak with her and do it so kindly—as well as his sweet gospel message of living water had turned her into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).


Now she is eager to know where she can be healed of her sinful past, whether in Samaria or in Jerusalem. She expresses confidence that when Christ comes, he will explain everything. In his one and only self-revelation recorded in the gospels, Jesus now tells the woman that he is the Christ.

At all other places where the disciples speak of Jesus as the Christ, he tells them not to reveal his identity until he is risen from the dead. Why did he make this exception with the woman? A simple gospel-centered solution may be that her expectation of Christ differed radically from those of the general public, including the disciples. They all expected a political Christ who would restore the kingdom of Israel to the glory it had during David’s time. She was not trapped by that expectation. She knew that Christ would bring spiritual restoration.

The Pharisees, the Jews in general, and perhaps even the disciples, were wrong; she was right. She would receive Jesus’ self-revelation the right way. Her faith and testimony at the close of this story are confirmation that she belongs to Christ. She hurries into Sychar, does not shrink any longer to speak openly to the assembled townspeople, and becomes an instrument to a bountiful harvest of believers.

John, the author, had good reason to write at length about this episode from the life of Jesus. The Lord’s short, unusual request of a Samaritan woman for a drink of water led to an amazing result. His conversation at the well with a woman is truly one of the four gems from John in this genre of Jesus’ uninhibited association with women.

Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

This is the first article in a four-part series on the gems of John.


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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

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