In Deuteronomy 4:2 we read the words which Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness near Suph, some 2,400 years ago: “You shall not add to the Word which I command you, neither shall you take away from it, so that you may keep the commands of Jehovah your God which I command you.” This is as relevant for Christians today, as it was to the Israelites who heard it first from the very mouth of Moses. We are not to add to the Word, or take away from the Word.
Yet, constantly in sermons and in writings taken from the Bible, one finds gross deviations from this admonition. It is commonplace that words or verses are taken out of context to support one point or other. But for well know stories and biblical passages, many seem to take on a life of their own, with added embellishments to enhance the initial modifications. They then become a form of spoken biblical folklore as few deign to seek the alternative understandings and truths therein and there from.
John 4:1-42 recalls the encounter with the Lord Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman as He was en route to Galilee from Judea. It is one of the most well known and often used passages of the Bible.
The Samaritan women is typically portrayed as a much maligned character, seen as “that woman!,” a person of immoral character, a hussy, a gold-digger, or whatever term is used in polite company to express a person of ill repute. What does the Bible say of her? Only the words of Jesus (v18): “you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.” From that, many jump to the conclusion that she is a fallen woman of serious ill repute, such that when the discipled arrived, they are shocked to see Jesus talking to “that woman!” This view, simply does not make sense.
This Samaritan was an elderly woman, for when Jesus speaks to her in v21, He addresses her as “Woman”, using the same word he uses to address His own mother in John 2:4. Jesus’ description of her marital status, also confirms that she was likely to be an elderly woman, given her history.
The idea that the Jesus or the disciples knew of her by reputation does not make sense either, for they were travellers just passing through Sychar, a city in Samaria. And as we are told in v9 “the Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” we can reasonably assume that they were not very familiar with the city, or its people. Being unfamiliar with the city, combined with the fact that the Jews and Samaritans did not talk, make it implausible they knew of the woman’s background before they arrived – let alone recognised her at a distance. Further, had she indeed had a notoriously bad reputation, she would hardly call Jesus’ words to her in v18 as “prophetic” (v19).
It is also said that the woman changed the topic of discussion after Jesus revealed her past to her; from herself to theology. This idea lacks credibility, given the Samaritan and Jewish differences and educational inequalities of the time, so there must be another more valid understanding for the v20 exchange.
And finally, as Jesus left, he did not admonish this Samaritan woman to “sin no more” as he did in John 8:11. Sin, therefore, is not the theme of this passage.
There is another interpretation for this whole passage which is simply more accurate and more aligned to the Word and to the character of Jesus, and from which we can learn.
But first, we need to look at the Samaritan women with new eyes and see her in a new light and the Book of Ruth gives us some clues as to the hardships of life in Biblical times for a widow. It was hard. Secondly, Jesus spent a lot of time preaching and teaching about divorce, for it was a problem in their society, for it was very easy for a man to divorce a wife – any excuse would do and a barren wife would be divorced or marginalised. Women were mere property in biblical times and this Samaritan woman would be no exception. It is quite plausible, for example, that her first husband, the husband of her youth, had died and left her childless and needing to fend for herself. It is also quite plausible also, she was under a generational curse such that she was in bondage which caused her to keep repeating bad marriage decisions. Such generational curses are still common in our “enlightened” society today, causing men and women to repeat the failures of their parents and ancestors. Let us instead take the words of Jesus Himself for guidance here from John 9:3 “Neither has this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God might be revealed in him.” Let us assume, that the Samaritan woman is there that God might be revealed in her.
Therefore, let us not speculate further on the reasons for her predicament, but instead recognised her for who she really was, a hurting old woman. “Hurting,” because any woman on her fifth marriage, in that society, could not have had an easy life. No one wants, after all, to have five husbands. It is only reasonable, therefore, to say that this elderly Samaritan woman was hurting inside, when she met Jesus.
As Jesus waited at the well in the heat of noon, a woman arrived and they talked (v7-15):
Jesus: “Give me to drink.”
Woman: “How do you, being a Jew, ask a drink of me, who am a woman of Samaria? (For the Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”
Jesus: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you, Give Me to drink, you would have asked of Him, and He would have given you living water.”
Woman: “Sir, you have no vessel, and the well is deep. From where then do you have that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his children and his cattle?”
Jesus: “Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
Woman: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not thirst nor come here to draw.”
Jesus started the conversation and drew her to Him spiritually. Now she wanted what Jesus was offering, water which would quench her thirst forever. No longer would she need to visit the well at noon! Trust has been established between the Samaritan woman and Jesus and although she could not imagine what Jesus meant by ”living water,” she knew it was worth having. She had recognised by this time, that this was no ordinary man, even although He was a Jew. Jesus continued (v16-17a):
Jesus: “Go, call your husband and come here.”
Woman: “I have no husband.”
Jesus now empathises with the woman (v17b-18), confirming back to her that she speaks the truth and the truth warrants no condemnation, for none is given or suggested here or elsewhere.
Jesus: “You have well said, I have no husband for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband. In that you spoke truly.”
Woman: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
The woman recognises now beyond doubt that this is no ordinary man – he has a prophetic anointing. He knows her past and he is talking to her inner hurt. This man is spiritual and with obvious spiritual insight. She continues (v20):
Woman: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
The Samaritan woman is not changing the subject here, but is expressing that single question which is on the heart and mind of all who hurt: “Where is God when it hurts?” She is revealing to Jesus that yes, she hurts inside. But she is really here asking Jesus in her own way, “Hey Prophet – you know about God, so tell me, where is God in my pain and suffering?” “What have I done to deserve this life?” “Where is God when it hurts?” The same questions we ask today.
Jesus continues (v21-25) and provides her the solution and solace eventually healing for and from, her present condition. Note the empathy in His words “Woman, believe Me.” Jesus is caring, reaching out to address her deepest needs and heal her deep hurts. Yes, it is also a theology lesson and one quite unlike any she would have heard before; it is in her own vernacular and without religious jargon or preaching. It is the Truth of the Word and when one receives and recognised the Truth, it is simply life changing and stops one in ones tracks, to marvel at its majesty. Jesus is telling her that soon the distinction of Jew or Samaritan will be redundant and she may worship anywhere, for God is spirit. Not only that, but there is no need to go and seek God, for God is seeking her and will be with her in spirit wherever she is.
Jesus: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you shall neither worship the Father in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know, we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him. God is a spirit, and they who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The woman then tell Jesus: “I know that Messiah is coming, who is called Christ. When He has come, He will tell us all things.” To which Jesus replies in the most amazing words she could ever imagine to hear, and gives her all she ever needs: “I AM, the One speaking to you.” Jesus tells her in clear plain language which she can understand: ‘I am the Messiah,’ ‘I am the Christ,’ ‘I am God,’ and I am speaking to you. For the woman, this was good news, news beyond belief. As the disciples arrived to be with Jesus, she left to seek out the men of the city and said to them (v29) “Come see a man who told me all things that I ever did. Is this One not the Christ?” One can almost hear the joy in her voice! As a result, the men “went out of the city and came to Him” (v30). This was no longer a broken woman; she was now the first evangelist for Jesus! For as John 4:39-41 tells us, “ many of the Samaritans of that city believed upon Him because of the saying of the woman, who testified, He told me all that I ever did. Then as the Samaritans had come to Him, they begged Him that He would stay with them. And He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word.”
We can see that whatever pain and hurt was in the heart of this Samaritan woman at the first meeting at the well, was clearly vanquished during her conversation with Jesus. She was fully healed and because of her testimony, many came to Christ.
This story is not about sin. It is about the loving grace of our God who sent His son to Calvary to redeem us. It is about a hurting old woman who received the truth from the Lord Himself and truth set her free as she was healed. It is about the transformation of a broken old woman into Christ’s first evangelist. It is about the healing properties of the spoken Word of God. It is about the power of personal testimony, which by itself and the work of the Holy Spirit, can bring unbelievers to truth in Christ. It is about a group of incredulous disciples who saw their Master use an old Samaritan woman to bring men to Christ, Samaritan men, of whom we have read in v9, have no dealings with Jews. It is about the glory of the Lord using the broken and the least, to grow His kingdom. It is about the power of the Word and the power of the Truth of Jesus. It is the Gospel of Christ.
Thank you for your revelation of Your Word in the story of the Samaritan woman. I pray that You will continue to reveal to me the still hidden truths of Your Word, that I may be educated in You, that I may know you better and that I may be more like You in every way. As you used the Samaritan women for Your Kingdom growth, please use me also. I lay down my will before you. Lead me Oh Lord along the paths of Your choosing, such that Your will, and Your will alone, reigns in my life.
In the mighty name of Jesus I pray, Amen and Amen.