Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is a favorite story for preachers. Here Jesus meets with a woman of ill-repute and crosses cultural and social boundaries to share the gospel with her. As a result she returns to her village and many place their faith in Jesus. There are some obvious preachable points in the story which make for a rousing missionary conference sermon, encouraging evangelism and reaching out beyond one’s normal social circle.
That is all very good, but that is not why John has placed this story in his gospel. John tells us that his purpose in writing his Gospel is so that the reader might know Jesus is the Messiah and have life in his name. This story contributes to that purpose. Jesus has revealed who he is with a private sign at the wedding at Cana and again publicly when he cleared the Temple (John 2). After these two signs, he encounters three people who illustrate three ways in which people reacted to Jesus. Nicodemus is a representative of the Jews, the woman at the well represents the Samaritans, and the Official at the end of chapter four is perhaps a Gentile, albeit a God-fearer. These three responses are in some ways related to the initial question of the book from Jesus – what do you want with me? Nicodemus wanted a scholar, the woman looked for “living water” and the Official needed healing.
These three categories of people appear elsewhere. Luke describes the commission of Jesus ion Acts 1:8 as preaching the gospel “in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In John 3-4, Jesus has presented himself as the Messiah in Judea to Nicodemus, in Samaria to the Woman at the Well, and to the “ends of the earth” by healing the official’s son (4:43-54).
Each of these people misunderstand who Jesus is, to Nicodemus he is a teacher, to the Woman he is a prophet, and to the Official he is a healer. Each becomes a witness in the Gospel of John, and each “believes” and influences others to believe as well.
While Nicodemus fades from the story, the Woman at the Well slowly begins to understand Jesus, first questioning his motives, then accepting his offer of water, then believing he is a prophet, and finally that he is the messiah. Like Nicodemus, we are left wondering if she becomes a believer (she is never called a believer in the text). Yet a village does in fact come to faith in Jesus as a result of here imperfect testimony.