Illustration by Henry Hofmann,
some time before 1910
For other illustrations click here
Key text: “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” (John 4:10).
Main point: Jesus offers the gift of salvation to all; his gift is universal and transcends racial, cultural and social barriers. Those who receive it confess their sins and acknowledge him as Lord and Savior.
In the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans were divided. The division was deeply embedded by a history of conflict, hatred and prejudice. More than 500 years earlier, the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah and taken many of the people into captivity (605-586 BC). As was the custom of those nations, Babylon transported masses of Jews from Judea and the surrounding areas, and settled them in the kingdom of Babylon. However, Israel was not left completely desolate; the poor people were left to work the land (2 Kings 24:14; 25:12).
Even earlier, the same thing had happened with the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and the Assyrians brought other people in to repopulate the land (2 Kings 17:24-29; 2 Chronicles 30:1-10). While the Jews were exiled in Babylonia, the people left in the land—Israelites and Gentiles—intermarried, and that created the Samaritan people. They were partly Israelite but partly not.
After the Persians conquered Babylon, they allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. However, Nehemiah refused to allow the mixed people of the land to have any part in the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:20). The returning Jews denied them any part in the rebuilding of the temple. This deepened the animosity between them (Ezra 4:1-5).
As a result, the Samaritans built another place of worship. Their beliefs came to include monotheism, the Law of Moses (they accepted the Pentateuch but not the other books), and they built a temple at Mt. Gerizim as the one appointed place of sacrifice and worship.
The Jews destroyed the Mt. Gerizim temple in 128 B.C., adding more bitterness to the already strained rivalry. Many Jews would travel between Galilee and Judea by crossing the Jordan River and circling around Samaria rather than polluting themselves with Samaritan dust, even though this would require more travel time than the more direct route through Samaria.
The Samaritans were no band of angels, either. Both sides had made reconciliation an impossibility, that is, until Jesus arrived at Jacob’s well. The Samaritan woman, by any stretch of the imagination, is what most would call today a “hard case.” Among the several strikes she has against her from the start are:
- She is a woman. In the ancient world, women were an oppressed group. It was deemed inappropriate for a man to talk with a woman in public, even with his wife, let alone a stranger!
- She was of a despised race. In racism no words need be exchanged— piercing eyes and body language can fill the air with hate, like heavy smoke from a burning fire.
- She was a social outcast, even from among her own people. That is why she went to the well at midday, rather than morning like everyone else.
- Her religious persuasion was false. Hypocrisy and distortion marked her religious upbringing.
Many would venture to say there is no hope for this woman. She was dealt a bad hand at birth and she had only managed to compound her problem. Thank God for Jesus Christ and the gift of salvation that he brings! This is a story of hope for every “hard case.” The love of God beckons all who thirst to drink from the spiritual well of Jesus and never thirst again.
Questions for Bible study
Read the following verses and respond to the questions:
1. John 4:1-14
a. What success were the disciples of Jesus having, and who took an interest in what they were doing? Verses 1-2. Do you think the Pharisees were happy with what Jesus was doing? Why not?
b. What does Jesus learn about? Verse 3a. What does he decide to do in response? Verse 3b. Locate Judea and Galilee on a Bible map.
c. How will Jesus get to Galilee? Verse 4. Locate the region of Samaria on a map. Is this the only route to Galilee? Consult the Introduction of this study.
d. On his journey, where does Jesus stop? Verse 5a. What is so special about this place? Verse 5b. See Genesis 33:18-20. Sychar was a small village near ancient Shechem and Mt. Gerizim (Judges 9:7).
e. What else was there? Verse 6. What time was it when Jesus sat down to rest? (Scholars debate whether John uses Hebrew or Roman time.)
f. Who comes by, and for what purpose? Verse 7a. What does Jesus ask her for? Verse 7b, c. Where are Jesus’ disciples? Verse 8.
g. What is the Samaritan woman’s reply? Verse 9. What is John’s note at the end of the verse attempting to explain?
h. What is Jesus’ response to her racial and cultural concerns? Verse 10.
i. What literal meaning does the woman give to Jesus’ offer? Verse 11. Archaeologists have found that Jacob’s well is more than 100 feet deep. One would need a container and a rope to draw water. The woman also knows that a Jew would not use a Samaritan’s “unclean” vessel to draw the water.
j. What does the woman doubt concerning Jesus and his offer? Verse 12.
k. How does Jesus’ reply counter her doubts of whether Jesus is greater than the patriarch Jacob? Verses 13-14.
2. John 4:15-26
a. What conversational transition does Jesus make in response to the woman’s desire for Jesus’ offer? Verses 15-16.
b. What abrupt answer does she then give? Verse 17. What is Jesus’ detailed response to her? Verse 18. Do you think the woman is amazed that Jesus knows this? He just arrived that very hour!
c. What does the woman think of Jesus up to this point? Verse 19. What religious question does she now ask of this holy man? Verse 20.
d. What response does Jesus give? Verses 21-24. Explain.
e. What stunning revelation does Jesus make to her? Verses 25-26. Why?
3. John 4:27-42
a. What reaction do the disciples have when they return? Verse 27. Why? Where is the woman going, and what does she do? Verses 28-30. Why does she leave her jar behind, and what is motivating her to speak out?
b. What is Jesus’ reply to his disciples, and what literal meaning do they give to Jesus’ words? Verses 31-33. What did the disciples miss out on?
c. How does Jesus help them focus on their true mission? Verses 34-38.
d. What were the harvest results of Jesus’ encounter with one person? Verses 39-42. Can you identify the two evangelistic cycles of cultivating, planting and reaping as found in this chapter? Note: Jesus begins cycle one and the Samaritan woman begins cycle two.
1. Do you believe that Jesus teaches each of us to stick to our own kind? Are we to share the gospel only with those who are most like ourselves? Is Jesus so radical that he wants us to leave our own comfort zones and reach out beyond racial, cultural and social barriers?
2. What motivated the Father to send his Son to die on the cross for sinners? What motivated Jesus to lay down his life for us? What motivates you to share the gospel with those who are lost?
3. Describe how your local church is involved in Jesus’ Great Commission of cultivating, planting and reaping God’s harvest. How are you helping?
Jesus’ mission to the lost is a radical commission: for the church to share God’s love with unbelievers. It means leaving our comfort zone and making ourselves vulnerable in order to love people who are different from us.