Some will say it is not a prejudice but rather a preference, however I see this as a matter of semantics. In the story of Jesus’ witness to the Samaritan woman we see Jesus overcoming these prejudices and setting a blistering pace for us to follow.
The question may be asked, why this paper, and why now?” In my view the answer is simple. So often we “back seat” or “railroad” person for various reasons in the church. We see those who are not so educated being shoved aside to allow someone who is more educated, but probably not as gifted for that service, to take his place. (This may happen at my church only). Jesus in his witness to the Samaritan women gives us a first hand look at our treatment of others who we consider to be less than we are.
We will look at the background to this discourse, “what is the big deal about Samaria?”
In this paper we will also look at how John uses an earthly concept to reveal heavenly truths. More specifically we will look at John’s usage of water in his gospel. We will end with an application that may prove relevant to all of us as Christians.
Jesus was facing strong opposition from the Pharisees. They never liked his popularity and sought ways and means to turn up the heat on him. He therefore decided that he would leave Judea and travel to Galilee (John 4:3). Some scholars have suggested that this move was as a result of Jesus being an amateur in his ministry and never wanted to confront these Pharisees. So Jesus went through Samaria, which it is felt is a shorter distance on the way to Galilee. But this was a bit unusual because clearly there was strife between the Jews and the Samaritan. In the gospel of Luke we see this being played out in the story of the good Samaritan. “After Jesus had told the story and asked the lawyer who was a better neighbour he couldn’t bring himself to say the Samaritan, instead he said “the one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:37). This enmity is also seen in (verse 9) where the woman declares, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Lets take a moment and look at what was the cause of the Jews hatred to the Samaritans. “When the northern kingdom with its capital at Samaria fell to the Assyrians, many Jews were deported to Assyria, and foreigners were brought in to settle the land and help keep the peace” (2 kings 17; 24) (RSV. Bible notes). The inter marriage between those foreigners and the remaining Jews resulted in a mixed race, impure in the opinion of the Jews who lived in the Southern Kingdom. So the “pure” Jews hated this mixed race feeling they had betrayed their nation. What is also worthy to note is that “the Samaritans set up an alternative worship center on Mount Gerazim (4:20) to parallel the temple at Jerusalem” (ibid). This may have compounded the problem even further. F.F. Bruce notes that “in rabbinical literature specific prohibitions excludes virtually all contact between the two parties”(1986, p1240).
The question under consideration once again finds Jesus in conversation. In chapter three we see Jesus engaging Nicodemus, and the contrast here is amazing. D.A. Carson, noted New Testament Scholar intones:
Nicodemus was a Jewish male, a highly learned teacher, a Pharisee scrupulous in his adherence to all the tenets of the law, and as a member of the Sanhedrin a person of considerable public repute and authority. His new conversation partner by contrast is a Samaritan female, illiterate (necessarily so since women were shut out from educational opportunities), with a lifestyle in flagrant contradiction to the law, and therefore publicly despised and ostracized” (1991,p 216).
What is also striking, according to Bruce Nilne, the two dialogues shows Jesus’ remarkable ability to be “at home” with each and to present the good news of salvation meaningfully and attractively to them (1993,p83).
In this section we will not do verse-by-verse exposition because of obvious limitations however, we will seek to dissect the passage into relevant sections. The first thing of note is that the woman came to the well at about noon (verse 6). This is strange because the custom was of such that women drew water two times daily, one in the morning and another time at evening. This woman came at noon probably, as suggested by some scholars and rightly so in my view, to not attract any attention to herself. But she came and saw Jesus who without hesitation asked her for a drink.
This may have surprised her for she knew that she was (1) a Samaritan, a member of the hated mixed race, (2) known to be living in sin, and (3) was in a public place. No Jewish man with all his faculties in tact would talk or even be seen with such a woman. In fact on the issue of gender prejudice, “male Jewish attitudes at the time are reflected in the following rabbinic citations: one should not talk with a woman on the street, not even with his own wife, and certainly not with somebody else’s wife, because of the gossip of men, and it is forbidden to give a woman any greeting”(ibid). However, Jesus stepped out of the culture norm to take this radical approach to ministry.
In verse 7-15 Jesus discusses living water. This introduces an earthly subject and through the question of the woman leads to a spiritual message. The Evangelical Bible Commentary makes the point that Jesus’ request for a drink of water is rebuffed (verse 9), but he issues a challenge to the woman: if she knew who Jesus was she would see he is the supplier of living water” (1996,p852). R.V.G Tasker in his commentary on John makes the point:
The Samaritan woman is a time less figures – not only a typical Samaritan but also a typical human being. As she converses with Jesus, it becomes clear that like most men and women she is almost exclusively concerned with the provision of what will satisfy her physical needs, particularly thirst quenching water…the welfare of her soul not her primary concern (1977, p75).
Jesus uses this wonderful image of living water in a place where it is usually dry. But there are possibly Old Testament implications:
In the Old Testament many verses speak to the thirsting after God as one thirsts after water (Ps. 42:1; Ish. 55:1; Jer. 2:13; Zech.13:1). God is also called the fountain of life (Ps. 36:9) and the fountain of living water (Jer. 17:13). In saying he would bring living water that could forever quench one’s thirst. Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah (R.S.V. Bible notes).
The woman didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and like Nicodemus (though with probably more excuse) misunderstands Jesus’ allusion, thinking in merely physical terms of some magic water source which would dispense the need of labourious drawing (v11-12, 15) (Milne 1994, p84).
Jesus brings her into awareness that the water he offers is not physical but rather spiritual. “The deeper point is that Jesus brought to her awareness the relational desert in which she was living. His offer of a spring of water welling welling up to eternal life must have appeared wonderfully attractive” (ibid). Let’s hear the words of Dr. Leon Morris, well known New Testament scholar “For the sectarians ‘living water’ evoked memories of the law. Their idea that keeping the law is the central shines here. For John the expression signified the gift that Christ would give, the Holy Spirit” (1969, p341).
In the fourth gospel John uses water to mean a few things. From the earlier expositions we see where he uses water in reference to eternal life (4:10). In chapter 7 we see him using water in reference to the Holy Spirit. This is not by chance as John seems to use the concept of water as a theme throughout his gospel. Whether this is diliberate or not I do not know but it seems to me that in most major events water is used. Bruce Milne opines:
Dramatically, John tells us that on the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice ‘if anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, streams of living water shall flow from him’ (37-38)…It is deeply moving to visualize the saviour standing in the temple among the crowds of pilgrims probably in proximity of the alter where the water from the pool of Siloam was poured each morning, calling on all who would come too him and to receive the life-giving blessing of the spirit (1993, p120).
It seems apparent that this is the same imagery used in chapter 4 when Jesus met the woman at the well. C.H. Dodd, in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, makes the point “In John water served as a symbol. In the story of Cana it stands for the order of life which Christ changes into the wine of life eternal. In 3:5 it is associated with pneuma as the source of higher life” (1972, p312 emphasis added). He further makes the point that in Rabbinic tradition water was a frequent symbol of the Torah, as cleansing, as satisfying thirst, and as promoting life. “It appears that the evangelist has taken up this symbol and has turned it to depreciation of the ordinances of Judaism as commonly accepted in his time. The Torah is indeed water, but it is water belonging to the lower order of existence: it is not eternal life (ibid).
Let’s take another moment to note some other passages where water plays a part. At the very opening of Jesus’ ministry he turns water into what those present may have said is the best wine they have ever tasted. When we look at chapter five we see where the sick and handicapped came to receive their healing at the stirring of the water. Here again Jesus performs a miracle and changes the life of an individual. Also, for whatever it’s worth, at Jesus’ crucifixion his side was pierced and out came streams of living water. Well maybe it was just a little water, his public ministry began with water and in a sense ended with water.