Jesus’s 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 people in her village believe 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 (2:11-12) and again publicly when he cleared the Temple (John 2:13-25). 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 in John 4:43-54 is a Gentile, albeit a God-fearer. These three responses relate to the initial question of the book from Jesus: “what do you want with me?” Nicodemus wanted a Jewish scholar, the woman looked for “living water” and the official needed healing for his child.
These three categories of people appear elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts 1:8 Jesus commands his disciples to be witnesses of 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 Gentile official’s son. 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.
While Nicodemus fades from the story, the Samaritan woman slowly understands 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. Like Nicodemus, she is never identified as a believer in John 4. Yet her village does in fact come to faith in Jesus as a result of her imperfect testimony.
Jesus makes several important theological statements to the woman at the well and she responds with questions (John 4:7-25). First, Jesus asks for water, and offers the woman living water which brings eternal life (4:7-18). This question seems literal; Jesus is thirsty, so he asks the woman to give him some water since he does not have anything with which to draw water. His request makes perfect sense on the literal level.
But Jesus quickly turns the conversation to “living water” which results in true spiritual life (vs. 10). As with Nicodemus and being “born again,” this “living water” is likely an allusion to the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Jesus may have in mind God’s provision of water in Numbers 20:8-11. In that case, God saved the lives of the people of Israel in the wilderness by providing them with drinkable water “gushing out of the rock.”
The prophets use the image of water in the wilderness to describe the coming age of peace and prosperity. Jeremiah 2:13 and Isaiah 12:3, for example, use the image of provided water in different ways. In Jeremiah, God provided water, but the people of Israel preferred their substitute water (false gods). But Isaiah sees a time coming when Israel will be in her land again drinking the water provided by God. Jesus is therefore telling this woman that he can provide her with the same life-giving water that will mark the eschatological age. The woman misunderstands, thinking “living water” means that Jesus has a source of fresh water that could help her to avoid coming to the well (vss. 11-15).
Second, Jesus offers some extraordinary knowledge which shows he is a prophet. It is possible that the woman’s response “I see you are a prophet” is sarcastic, since obviously a woman getting water alone at noon has some social problem which separates her from other women. The woman’s response is accurate, although deceptive. She has no husband, and may never have had an actual, legal husband. The noun (ἀνήρ) can refer to a husband or more generally a man.
Third, Jesus clearly states that he is in fact the Messiah (4:26). This is the main theme of the gospel of John. The writer tells us that he wrote so that the reader could know that Jesus is the Messiah; he is the one to whom the prophecies looked forward.
As with Nicodemus, Jesus confronts the woman with the truth and demands she decide what she will believe about Jesus. He tells her he is the fulfillment of the prophecy, therefore she must decide if she believes he is the Messiah or not.
How can the story of the woman at the well provide a model for evangelism? Does Jesus’s discussion with the woman provide analogies to modern evangelism and apologetics (as some claim)?