John 4: Woman at the Well

What does the word make you think of?
Maybe a roaring waterfall.
Have you followed a single drop from top to bottom?
Or a river bubbling over pebbles, sparkling in the sun.
Simply watching water refreshes our spirit.

And when we are dirty, water washes us clean.
I’ve still got a photo of baby David playing in the bath!

When we are hot and thirsty, water refreshes us.
Like drinking from a stream when tramping in the mountains.

When you and I want water, we just turn on the tap.
In some places, they have to dig wells in the ground.
It was like that in Bible times. [1]

Today we’ll meet a woman who met a man at a well.
Her life was never the same again.
Let’s read her story.[2]

4 Jesus had to go through Samaria on the way. 5 Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. 7 Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” 8 He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.

9 The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”
10 Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
11 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
15 “Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.”
16 “Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her.
17 “I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied.
Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband— 18 for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet.

John 4:4-19

They had a long way to go that day,

So they started early.
As they walked, the sun rose higher.

In the distance, the ground shimmered – it looked like water.
It wasn’t: just sand and stone.
At their feet, the ground was cracked.
Every step made a cloud of dust.
Their mouths were dry.

About the middle of the day,
They approached a small town called Sychar.
Outside it was a well.
Maybe a few small trees.

Jesus sat down.
It was good to rest his feet.
His friends went into town to buy lunch.

At that time of day, most people stayed in the shade.
Jesus wiped the sweat off his face.
And then he heard footsteps:
Someone was coming.

The Woman of Samaria, by William Dyce, 1860

The Woman of Samaria, by William Dyce, 1860

A woman with an empty water jar.
When she saw Jesus, she stopped.
She didn’t expect anyone to be there.
She pulled her shawl down to hide her face
Before she came to the well.

“Please give me a drink.”
She jumped and clutched her jar.

A strange man speaking to a woman.[3]
A Jew speaking to a Samaritan.[4]
That wasn’t normal.
“Why are you asking me for a drink?”

The man answered,
“If you knew the gift that God has for you.
If you knew who I am.
Then you would ask me for water.”

She was confused.
How could this man give her water?
He didn’t have a bucket.
She picked up a stone and dropped it into the well.
It was several seconds before the splash.

“You see, the well is deep and you have no rope.[5]
This well is 2000 years old.
Everyone knows there’s never been any other water around here.
Let alone better water.”

Every day she comes here to get water.
She lets down her bucket.
She pulls up the rope.
It hurts her hands.
The jar is heavy.
She feels tired.

And now, here is this man.
He is talking about a different sort of water that will satisfy for ever.
“Never be thirsty again!”
What does he mean?

She doesn’t understand.
She doesn’t know who he is,
But his words about this new water give her a new thirst.

So she turns to him and asks,
“Please sir, give me this water!”

Jesus replies “Go and get your husband.”[6]

I hear a long silence.
She hangs her head and thinks about her life – married five times.[7]

Maybe she had been unfaithful.
Maybe she was just unlucky.
Perhaps she couldn’t have children and her husbands divorced her.
Maybe they were much older and they all died.

We don’t know.
But we can guess she was lonely and unhappy.

Other women came together to get water in the evening when it was cool.[8]
She probably didn’t feel welcome.
In that culture, a woman without a husband, maybe without children,
Was a woman without respect.

When people talked about husbands,
She wanted to run away and hide.

Somehow this strange man was different.
She raised her head and looked at him.
His eyes were kind.
They seemed deeper than the well, and they looked deep into her.
She told him the truth about her life… and found he already knew.

A prophet was someone
Who saw deeply into people’s lives and brought God’s message.
Now the woman realised this man was a prophet.

Let’s pick the conversation up in verse 25.

25 The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus told her, “I Am the Messiah!”
27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” 28 The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

John 4:25-29

They were waiting for the Messiah.

A man from God who would put everything right that is wrong.
Mend every broken heart
Bring new life and new hope and set his people free.

They had been waiting a long time.
As the woman had been thirsty for a long time.
Her soul was dry and dusty.
Her heart was cracked like the ground.
She felt unfulfilled, a failure, worthless and unclean.

Can you recognise yourself in this woman?
Is she a picture of you?
She sometimes is of me.

All of us have done bad things.
Said stupid things that hurt people – I have.
We try to forget, but we can’t.
We pretend to be strong and successful.
Inside, we often feel weak and afraid and ashamed.

I’ve tried to prove I’m a valuable person by getting good marks at school.
When my heart feels restless, I travel overseas.
Some of us look for a man or a woman, a new house or a new job – then life will be good!
Or we fill our emptiness with Facebook and YouTube.

In the end, things like these
are like that distant shining in the desert.
It looks like water, but turns out to be sand.[9]

If I give my heart to them, I start to feel empty and dry.[10]
And that reminds me of my deeper thirst:

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
Psalm 42:1-2

We all thirst for God,
Although some of us never admit it.
Maybe we are too proud to ask for a drink.

I admire this woman because she had the courage
To tell the truth about herself.
And as she admitted who she really was,
She began to discover who Jesus really was.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1866

Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1866

I imagine her looking into Jesus’ eyes.
She sees that he knows all about her.
He knows all the mess of her life – and he does not turn away.
He sees her failure and shame – and he still cared about her.

She’s been disappointed so often she hardly dares to believe.
But she can’t stop her heart beating faster in hope.
Can it be?  Could he be?
Has the Messiah come to her?

I see her eyes like twin wells.
Like springs that overflow with tears of joy.

She forgets her jar and runs back to her village.
She has to tell others about this man.

Let’s read how they respond.

39 Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I ever did!”40 When they came out to see him, they begged him to stay in their village. So he stayed for two days, 41 long enough for many more to hear his message and believe. 42 Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

John 4:39-42

Did you notice how the woman’s understanding grew?[11]

At first Jesus was just a stranger, a foreigner, a Jew.
Then she called him a prophet – a messenger from God.
Then she asked, “Could he be the Messiah?”  – the answer to her dreams.
Now half the village knew Jesus was the Saviour of the world.
The one who gave true life and set them free.

As the woman admitted who she really was,
she discovered who Jesus really was.
And she received his gift of living water.

“Living water” was running water, flowing water, like a river.[12]
It meant God’s Holy Spirit, as we saw last week:

God washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.
Titus 3:5

A few chapters later in John, Jesus said:

“Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” When he said “living water,” he was speaking of God’s Spirit.
John 7:37-39

When the Samaritan woman came to Jesus and believed in him,
She found that his words were true.

Her soul was dry and dusty, tired and thirsty.
Now God’s Spirit gushed up like a fountain inside her.[13]
This water satisfied her thirst.
It washed away her shame.
Then it bubbled over and flowed out like a river[14] to bring new life to all around.[15]

She experienced for herself the promises God had made long ago:

I will pour out water on the thirsty land.
I will pour out my Spirit.
Isaiah 44:3

I will turn the desert into pools of water.
I will turn the dry and cracked ground into flowing springs.
Isaiah 41:18

You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:11

That’s a picture of this woman’s heart.
Once it was dry and dusty and broken.
But now – do you see that distant shimmering?
It’s a fresh sparkling stream.
Do you see those splashes of colour?
They are new flowers in the sand, blossoms from the cracks.

What a change!

Can you recognise yourself here?
Do you want your life to look like that?
Have you found the living water?

Or are you still trying to get water from a dry well?
Hard, hot work, for a few dirty drops.

Have you reached out, desperate for a drink, and found your hands hold only sand?
Are you thirsty for something more?[16]

Jesus knows.
He sees your heart.

Just as he said to the woman of Samaria,
Jesus still says today,
“If you ask me, I will give you living water.”

To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.
Revelation 21:6

We don’t have to work hard to get it.
We can kneel down at this water
and drink as long as we want.

We can jump into the river of life
and wash away our sweat and sin and shame.

When I was a teenager,
I sometimes felt lonely and ashamed, like the Samaritan woman.
So I loved this song:

Jesus said, “Come to the water, stand by My side,
I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied;
I felt every teardrop when in darkness you cried,
And I long to remind you that for those tears I died.”

Come to the water.
Drink from the well that will never run dry.

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.
Jesus says,
“Come to me.  Ask me, and I will give you living water.”[17]

A river of life to satisfy your thirst.
A rushing waterfall to wash you clean.
A bubbling spring to refresh your soul.
A fountain of blessing to renew the world.

Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life.
Revelation 22:17

With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
Isaiah 12:3


When have you most needed a drink?
What makes you feel spiritually dry or thirsty?
Do you sometimes feel ashamed or unclean?
Have you looked for water that didn’t last?
Where have you found living water that satisfies your soul?

[1] “The theme of water runs like a silver thread through the early chapters of John’s gospel.” (Lightfoot)
[2] Listen to St Augustine’s sermon on this passage here.
[3] The Greek playwright Euripides said, “A nice woman should never stand in gossip with young men”.
[4] The Samaritans were despised half castes, the offspring of Jews and forced immigrants from the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:24 ff).  They had different beliefs from Jews, accepting only the five books of Moses as Scripture.  The Jews said that a Samaritan woman was unclean from birth, as if continually menstruating.
[5] Fourth century Christian pilgrims reported that Jacob’s well was 100 feet deep.
[6] There is a deeper layer of marriage relationship imagery in this story.  John the Baptist has just called Jesus the bridegroom (John 3:29).  Several Old Testament figures met future wives at wells, including Jacob (Genesis 29:2) and Moses (Exodus 2:15).  Most similarly to this story, Abraham’s servant asked for a drink from a woman with a jar to identify Isaac’s future bride (Genesis 24:10ff).  And throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as the bridegroom of Israel.  So the answer to the woman’s possibly sarcastic question, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?”  (4:12) is “yes” in ways she didn’t realise.  Jesus is the spiritual bridegroom of every soul.
[7] Contrary to some preaching, there is little evidence that the woman was a prostitute or even immoral.  Unlike with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Jesus makes no mention of sin or repentance.  See “Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well” and “The Witness at the Well”.
[8] “…outside the city by the well of water, it was towards evening, the time when women go out to draw water.”  (Genesis 24:11)
[9] G M Hopkins wrote a poem “ Heaven-Haven” that begins,
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail.
[10] “They have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:3).  “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
[11] The despised nameless Samaritan woman who met Jesus at noon is a contrast to the respected, learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night in chapter 3, and – in that conversation – showed little sign of understanding.
[12] “Living water” was a Jewish symbol of God’s wisdom or law, and has also been taken as a Christian symbol of baptism, a theme of the previous passage (John 3:22-26, 4:1-2).
[13] The Greek word for “gushing up” (4:14) also described a crippled man leaping and springing up in Acts 3:8, 14:10.
[14] Like the life-giving water flowing from the Jerusalem Temple in the visions of Ezekiel (47:1ff) and Zechariah (14:8).
[15] Rabbi Aqiba said, “The disciple who is beginning is like a well who can give only the water it has received; the advanced disciple is like a spring giving living water.”
[16] The Hebrew word nefes means both soul and throat, the seat of thirst and the source of words.
[17] As he says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you are weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest.”


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