Gospel: John 4:5-15, 19-26, 40-42

Conversing About The Wellspring Within

When was the last time you got in a conversation with a stranger? What was the conversation about?

Many well-traveled Europeans complain about Americans. We, Americans, like to have conversations with strangers we meet anywhere unfamiliar to us. Usually the conversation is "small talk," discussions about the weather or a favorite sports team, or about family. Europeans find this American trait an annoying habit, a waste of time, and an invasion of their privacy. Small talk with stranger is not part of Continental culture.

Even more than Europeans, people in the time of Jesus frowned upon strangers sharing small talk. So, the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman would have shocked the ancient reader. But, like so many other times, Jesus willingly stepped over social convention to evangelize. Even the hated foreigner. Even the woman. Even the one of questionable morals.

Popular Translation

5-6 About noon one day, Jesus came to a well near a Samaritan town. The town was at the foot of the mountain where the Samaritans worshiped God. The well was on a plot of land the ancestor Jacob gave to his son, Joseph.

Tired from his long walk, Jesus sat down at the well by himself. 7 Then, a Samaritan woman came to get water. "Give me a drink of water," Jesus told the woman.

9 "How dare you ask me for a drink!" the woman shot back. "You're Jewish and I'm a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans hate each other so much they won't even eat together!"

10 "If you only knew what God gives and who asked you for a drink," Jesus said, "you'd ask him for a drink. And he would give you water that makes people come alive!"

11 "Sir, you don't have a bucket. And the well is deep," the woman replied, "So, where will you get this 'living' water?"

13 "Everyone who drinks the water from this well will get thirsty again," Jesus answered. 14 "But the person who drinks the water I will give won't ever get thirsty. Instead, the water I will give him leads to eternal life, like the leaping water of a spring."

19 "Oh, I see you're a prophet," the woman said, pointing to the holy mountain. 20 "Our ancestors worshiped God on this mountain. But you say Jerusalem is the place where we need to worship."

21 "Trust me," Jesus replied. "The time will come when people won't worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 23 In a way, the time is already here! God's Spirit will lead faithful followers to worship the Father. And when they worship God, these followers will know as he really is. The Father wants such followers to worship him. 24 God is found in the Spirit. The faithful must worship him by the power of his Spirit. And, knowing who is really is, they must worship him."

25 "I know the Messiah will come," the woman said. "Whenever that person comes, he will tell us everything we need to know."

26 "I'm telling you everything you need to know," Jesus replied. "I am the Messiah!"

40b For two days, Jesus stayed with the Samaritans. 41 Many more people trusted him because of what he said. 42 In the end, they told the woman, "We now trust Jesus, not because of what you told us, but because we've heard him ourselves. And we are convinced he came to save the world!"

In this short version of the woman at the well, Jesus used the symbolism of water to present the Spirit. In the process, he revealed himself to the woman. And she responded in faith.

Literal Translation

5 Then, HE came to a city (in) Samaria, called Sychar, near the (plot of) land which Jacob gave to his son, Joseph. 6 The well of Jacob was there. So, JESUS, having become tired from (his) travels, sat (down) at the well. (It) was the sixth hour. 7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. JESUS said to her, "Give me (something) to drink." 8 For his disciples had gone into the city, so they could buy food. 9 So, the Samaritan woman said to him, "How (could) you, being a Jew ask from me, being a Samaritan woman, to get (you) a drink?" [For Jews do not share dishes with Samaritans.] 10 JESUS answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God and who said to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would ask him and he would have given you living water." 11 She said to HIM, "Sir, you have no pail and the well is deep. From where do you have living water? 12 You are not greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well, and drank from it himself, (as well as) his sons and his cattle, (are you?) 13 JESUS answered and said to her, "Anyone drinking of this water will thirst again. 14 But whoever drinks from the water I will give him will never thirst into the age. But the water I will give him will become a spring of water rising up into eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so I will not thirst or come here to draw (water again)."

4:6 "the sixth hour" Hours of the day were counted from dawn. If dawn was about 6:00 A.M., the time referred to in the verse was noon.

4:9 "do not share dishes..." In the time of Jesus, Jews ate in the Greek style, reclining on the ground around a short table. Taking bread in the right hand, a Jew would dip the bread into a common dish (like eating chips and dip). Refusing to share a common dish was an insult and a rejection of fellowship. So, the phrase could denoted a divide that was ethnic in nature. It could even refer to the notion that Samaritan women were unclean. Any association with them would make a Jew unclean. Notice the connection of "kosher" between meals and racial hatred.

4:10 "living water" referred to an artesian spring.

4:11 "Sir" could also be translated "Lord." The word can either refer to polite address or to the title of faith Christians give to Jesus. In the context of the dialogue, polite address is preferred.

4:12 The force of the woman's statement implied a rhetorical question. It was a challenge to Jesus.

The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman would astonish his contemporaries for three reasons: the hatred between Jews and Samaritans, the moral status of the woman, and gender segregation. Jesus addressed racial prejudice in 4:19-20,22 (see below). Jesus also challenged the woman to conversion in 4:16-18 (not discussed in this study). In the Mediterranean culture of the first century, the daily flow of life meant to separate the sexes, especially in the routines of a common village. For example, in the morning and evening, women would gather together so they could fill water jars from a common well in the middle of the marketplace. During mid-day, however, only men would conduct business in the market place.

As the story began deep in Samaria, Jesus visited Sychar ("Shechem" according to many scholars, the ancient capitol of Samaria). Tired from the trip, he sat down at the Jacob's well and requested a drink from a Samaritan woman drawing water. Surprised, the woman objected. [4:6-9] Why? Not only did society separate genders, many Jews believed Samaritan women were unclear from birth. Association with a Samaritan woman would make a Jewish man unclean, intermarriage would automatically excommunicate him. The fact Jesus sat alone with the woman increased her suspicions.

In response to the woman's question, Jesus jumped from the material to the spiritual. "If you only knew...you would ask" indicated the woman lacked spiritual insight. The "gift of God" could be the "living (or life-giving) water." "...who asked you...you would have asked him..." revealed the unique spiritual stature of the person before the woman. [4:10] The knowledge of the woman, God's gift of life-giving water, and the unique identity of Jesus set up the dialogue in the following verses.

Still thinking in the material, the woman answered Jesus' "if...then" statement with a reference to the well and a presumption of his status. Jesus didn't have a bucket to lower into the deep well so he could get a drink. [4:11] But did the woman believe the well fed by standing water or by a natural spring (i.e., "living water")? In the Greek, John referred to Jacob's well as a spring (which it is not). Using this misunderstanding, he advanced the dialogue between the spiritual Jesus and the material-minded woman.

If the well was too deep, how could Jesus offer water he could not fetch? Was he greater than the ancient Jacob, one of the patriarchs? [4:12] At the core of the debate lie two questions: 1) What was Jesus' living water? and 2) Who was Jesus?

Answering the first question, Jesus compared the water from Jacob's well with his living water. Water from Jacob's well satisfied physical thirst. Lack of this water would cause thirst again. But the living water Jesus offered truly satisfied, because it gave eternal life. Jesus painted the image an artesian spring, water leaping up in an inexhaustible supply, leaping up into life everlasting. [4:13-14]

The woman understood only in part. She desired eternal life, but only as a continuation of her present existence. [4:15] She did not realize that the reception of God's gift required her to look to the giver. Here John answered the second question: Who is Jesus?

19 The woman said to HIM, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain. But you say that the place where it is necessary to worship is in Jerusalem. 21 JESUS said to her, "Trust me, woman, that the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. For indeed, the Father seeks (out) such (followers) worshiping him. 24 God (is) Spirit, and it is necessary (for) the ones worshiping to worship in Spirit and truth." 25 The woman said to HIM, "I know that Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ. When that (person) comes, he will announce everything to us." 26 JESUS said to her, "I AM, the one speaking to you."

4:22 "we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews" This statement recognized the unique status of the Jews as the Chosen People. God acted through the Jews in the past. In doing so, he revealed himself, so the believer could "know" (i.e., experience) him. Since God's action was his saving activity, Jesus could say "salvation came from the Jews."

4:26 "I AM" was one of John's titles for Jesus that could be woven into a discourse. It echoed the title God gave to himself on Mt. Sinai, "I AM WHO AM." The title referred to the presence of God in Jesus and became one of the bases for declaring Jesus divine in the early Church.

Who is Jesus? The woman saw Jesus as a Jewish prophet, one who worshiped God at the Temple in Jerusalem. She, however, was a Samaritan who had her own worship center. [4:19-20]

Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim (4000 ft above sea level) in sight of Jacob's well. In their revolution against the Syrians, Jews conquered the area and destroyed a Samaritan temple in 128 B.C. Excavations of the mount indicate a Roman temple and a Christian church also existed there. The self-proclaimed descendants of the Samaritans still worship on the mountain top every Passover.

By 1) answering the woman's objection to the place of worship and 2) revealing God's gift, the Spirit, Jesus defined himself. Yes, the Jews, not the Samaritans, had the true religion because God saves through the his Chosen People. [4:22] But, the time was fast approaching when the location of worship would be irrelevant. Indeed, in the presence of Jesus, the time had arrived. [4:21,23a] The best parallel of John's "true worship" would be the concept of God's Kingdom found in Matthew, Mark and Luke; it is present in the person of Jesus, yet, still coming in the future.

"...true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth..." [4:23b] The twice-repeated phrase "Spirit and truth" needs explanation. The word "Spirit" referred to the God's inner dynamic power. (Centuries later, the Church would identify this power as the third person of the Trinity.) The word "Truth" had two meanings. Truth either referred to God himself; in this case God was the true God (true as in the only God, the faithful God). Or, truth referred to the revelation of God; in this case truth is the instrument that communicated God to his people.

For John, placing "Spirit" and "truth" together made them equal (Spirit=Truth). So the phrase "Spirit and truth" can mean "the Spirit is Truth (i.e, God himself)." Or, it can mean "the Spirit is God's instrument that reveals the true God and the truth about him."

John 4:23b-24 mixed both meanings. On the one hand, the Spirit was God's instrument of revelation. The Spirit sought believers to worship the Father [4:23c "...the Father seeks such people to worship him..."]. The Spirit empowered believers to worship the Father [4:23b "true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth...]. In these two ways, the Spirit established a relationship between worshipers and the Father through revelation.

On the other hand, Jesus clearly identified the Spirit as God. Those who worship God can only do so through the Spirit. [4:24] In other words, God the Spirit must live within the believer before he or she can truly worship God. The Spirit would be the inner dwelling spring of living water leaping up to eternal life.

Now the woman knew. Gender, nationality, and moral standing did not matter. Only the Spirit mattered. God's people would worship through the Spirit (instrument of revelation) and in the Spirit (God himself). However, only the Messiah could reveal the Spirit. Only the Messiah could tell the woman "everything" (that is, show her the Truth). [4:25]. So, she asked indirectly, "Are you the Messiah?"

Jesus responded not only in the affirmative ("Yes, I am the Messiah"). He also revealed his true nature to the woman: "I AM, the one talking to you." The phrase "I AM" echoed the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, which had its roots in the verb "to be." One cannot equate the Hebrew verb "to be" with the verb "to simply exist (as a thing)." In the Hebrew, the verb meant "to be doing (something)" It denoted action, for action proved existence. When Jesus told the woman "I AM," he showed her God alive and acting in the world. And, he extended to her God's inner life, his Spirit. [4:26]

40 So, when the Samaritans came to HIM, they asked HIM to stay with them. And HE stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, "No longer because of your words do we believe. We have heard (him) for ourselves. And we know that this (man) is truly the Savior of the world!"

Through his response the woman came to faith [4:42] along with others in the town. [4:39] But, their faith ultimately did not rely on the witness of the woman. The people's direct experience with Jesus brought them to proclaim who he was and enjoy the gift he offered them. [4:42]

Catechism Theme: Prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Testament (CCC 1217-1222)

In the story of the woman at the well, Jesus symbolized the Spirit as a free-flowing artesian spring. The Church carries that rich symbol into waters of baptism.

Images of water in the Old Testament represent God's gift of life and his guidance. When God breathed his Spirit over the water in Genesis 1, God empowered water to give life and provide abundance. God saved Noah and his family through the destructive waters of a flood. He led his people through the waters of the Red Sea. He guided the chosen across the water of the Jordan River to the Promised Land.

Closely connected to the activity of the Spirit, images of water in the New Testament represent cleansing and God's gift of new life. As water and blood flowed from the side of Christ on the cross, that same water and blood washed one clean through the Spirit (see John 19:33-34). Like the waters of gestation in a mother's womb, the Spirit gives new life; "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body... and we were all given to drink of one Spirit." [1 Corinthians 12:13]

How does water remind you of God's life-giving Spirit?

One small conversation became a moment of revelation and salvation. A few chosen words overcame social prejudice and bridged God to a lost soul. Our moments of small conversation can connect others to God only if we allow God to speak through us.

How can you get out of God's way and allow his Spirit to speak through you in your everyday affairs?