Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. He sees diamonds in the rough. He crosses boundaries to find followers and those who would follow him have to be willing to cross some boundaries themselves. The story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) provides a surprising exemplar of faith and witness.
The general details of the story are well known. Jesus crosses racial and gender boundaries to engage a Samaritan woman who misunderstands his talk of “living water,” taking it to refer to H20, when Jesus has in mind spiritual renewal via the Holy Spirit. In v. 16, Jesus tells the woman to call her husband. Some have thought Jesus wants to shine a spotlight on her sinful condition, the idea being that she is a loose woman. But this is probably reading too much into the text. If she is a loose woman, the text doesn’t draw attention to it. New Testament Scholar Marianne Meye Thompson asks if her current situation indicates immorality or her desperation: “She needs the protection and support of a husband, but has settled for what she can get. Jesus calls attention to her problematic situation, but he does not condemn her. Subsequently, commentators and preachers have hasted to fill the void!” (John: A Commentary [Westminster John Knox, 2015], 103).
Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the woman’s history demonstrates to her that he is a prophet (4:19). A significant interpretive question arises in vv. 19-20. How should we interpret her response to Jesus: “Our Fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (4:20)? The most common explanation is that she is redirecting the conversation: “Ok, this talk about my love life is awkward, so let’s talk about anything but this! So, how about, I don’t know, proper worship location. Yes, that will do!” Another interpretation, and a better one, is that she realizes she has a prophet in front of her and wants to take the conversation deeper. In this approach, she is thinking, “I’ve got a prophet on my hands here, so let’s talk theology.” And the question of sacred worship space is an important matter. In fact, the basis of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans is a dispute over sacred space. The Jews refused an offer of help from the Samaritans when the Jews were about to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Spurned, the Samaritans set up their own holy spot on a different mount, Mount Gerizim (which is the mountain she is referring to), and eventually built their own temple, a temple that a later Jewish leader destroyed.
Worship is about how people connect with God and is a worthy discussion topic, not a diversionary tactic. Jesus’s response about the proper place of worship humbles and invites her simultaneously (vv. 21-24). He humbles her by pointing out her and her people’s ignorance, for Samaritans “worship what you do not know” (4:22). The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the OT as Scripture and therefore had only a partial picture of God and of the Messiah. More specifically they rejected a Davidic Messiah, which Jesus is. Furthermore, salvation is from the Jews in as much as the Messiah came from the Jewish people.
But Jesus’s next comment makes clear that salvation may be from the Jews but is not for the Jews only. The true worship that the Father desires is worship in Spirit and truth (4:23-24). By saying this, Jesus levels the playing field. All can worship in Spirit and in truth, and the Father is seeking such worshipers. The implication is that the Samaritan woman is invited to fulfill the role of worshipper of the Father.
The woman yet again takes the conversation to a deeper level, moving from place of worship to the role of the Messiah. She states: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (4:25). Samaritans did have an understanding of Messiah, but it was a deficient one. Jesus reveals to her that the Messiah she had been looking for is standing right in front of her.
On hearing this revelation, the woman does two significant, symbolic, things – she leaves behind and she goes to. First, she leaves her jar behind. She had come to this place seeking water; she left it with an understanding of, and longing for, the “living water” that quenches every thirst. Her left-behind jar is a symbol of leaving behind lesser and lower pursuits. Second, she goes and tells her people about her encounter with Jesus. She, in effect, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel, the first one to share the good news. She embodies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – to leave behind an old way of life and old pursuits and to go forth with a new message of hope.
The woman’s testimony to Jesus sparks a mass conversion of Samaritans, who came out to hear Jesus because of the woman’s witness to him. In a striking confession, the Samaritans proclaim Jesus as the “Savior of the world” (4:42). The Samaritan woman went looking for physical water and became a channel of the living water that Jesus came to give to all people.
It’s no accident that the patriarch Jacob is mentioned numerous times in this episode (4:5, 6, 12). Seeing the Samaritan woman through the lens of her famous ancestor helps to draw together all the threads of her story. Jacob was an unlikely candidate for a faith journey with God, yet he wrestled with God (Gen 32:24-32), was forever changed by the encounter, and became an agent of God’s ongoing plan. This daughter of Jacob does the same and provides a model for us. She is an unlikely candidate to be the recipient of the most extended conversation with Jesus in the whole NT. She risks a close-quarters encounter with the son of God. Jacob wrestled physically with God; she wrestles in intense dialogue, subjecting herself to significant risks, crossing numerous boundaries, and thereby opening herself up to one who knew her deepest secrets.
Like Jacob, who dared to ask God for a blessing before he would release him (Gen 32:26), this woman has some pluck. She hangs in there with Jesus in a heady conversation and doesn’t back down. She is neither docile nor dense. She asks the hard questions and presses for the truth even when it reorients her beliefs and life. She continues to strive with the Lord even as she receives the Lord’s rebuke. Yet she also receives his invitation – to be the kind of worshipper God desires. Most importantly, she is changed by the encounter, just as Jacob was. Jacob left the encounter with God with a limp (Gen 32:25, 31), a consistent reminder of his encounter with the Almighty. As Jacob left behind his ever-shifting life, she leaves behind her water jar, symbolizing the things she previously thought were priorities. She came searching for H20 and she found the one who could give her living water, spiritual renewal. Jacob went forth from his encounter with God with a story to tell. So too did the Samaritan woman, who called her own people to “come see the man who told me all that I ever did” (4:29).
In the Samaritan woman, we see someone who dares to engage, who hears, who questions, who doesn’t quit, who is willing to be challenged in her thinking and willing to change direction, and who is willing to tell others. Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. It’s just like him to use a Samaritan woman to give us a startling example of what it looks like to journey with him.