The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).John refers to her as the Samaritan woman (also in John 4:7). He uses the term that she would use to describe herself. The term “Samaritan” literally means “keeper”, as in “keeper of the law”. Jews used the pejorative “Cuthim”, after the foreign city of Cutha, to imply that they were the foreigners in the land, and not “true” Israelites (see my earlier blog on the origins of the Samaritans). It’s remarkable, then, that John, a Jew (though one with Hellenistic leanings), uses the term “Samaritan”. John’s irenic use of the term is underpinned by one of the major themes of his Gospel, which is that the Word had come to the whole world, not just the world of the Jews.
John lays down a pattern that we ought to follow. By using the words that a person uses to describe himself or herself with, we respect their sense of self identity. If a person self-identifies as “gay”, “Mormon” or "black" or whatever, it seems to me to be something of a violation to substitute my words for theirs, even if I don't share the values that these terms sometimes convey.
The Samaritan woman certainly recognizes Jesus’ self-identity by baldly stating You are a Jew…. Let’s get this clear; Jesus was a Jew. He was not an Aryan, a Greek, and American or something else, despite various attempts by some (for nefarious reasons) to co-opt him into a non-Semitic ethnic identity. Jesus does not correct her on this issue because, frankly, she is right. She thought he was a Jew; he thought he was a Jew and everybody else at the time thought he was a Jew. If you have a problem with the fact that Jesus was a Jew, I can only appeal to you to stop fighting the evidence and get over it. He was.
The Samaritan woman’s surprise at Jesus’ request is articulated in her question How can you ask me for a drink?. She was undoubtedly aware of the taboos around food that the Jews operated under, because the Samaritans shared most of them. According to the Jewish Rabbis, food given by Samaritans was considered unclean, but there was a concession for food bought from them. To her, then, Jesus’ request was odd, made odder by the fact that he had even spoken to her at all. Jesus crossed several racial and ethnic boundaries here; something that was not lost on her.
When John notes that …Jews do not associate with Samaritans, he is being diplomatic in the extreme. The fact of the matter was that they hated each other, and there had been a long a bloody history of animosity between them.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”Jesus answers her question with a riddle and though I have a couple of theories about why, none appear conclusive. Perhaps John is giving us a stylized and truncated version of the original conversation, because he brings us right to the point and omits to tell us if Jesus actually got the drink that he asked for. Perhaps, sensing the woman’s receptiveness to his message, Jesus deliberately steered the conversation in another direction, forsaking his physical needs to capitalize on the opportunity, which would align the discussion he had with his disciples later on in the passage (John 4:31-38).
Jesus’ startling response to the Samaritan woman, which would be a conversation-stopper in most circumstances, parallels his response the opening question of Nicodemus (a Jew) in the preceding chapter (John 3:1-3). Again, this signals to me that John’s Jesus is concerned with treating Jew and Samaritan even-handedly.
The riddle concerns the gift of God, who it is who asks and living water. It is difficult to overlook a Trinitarian formulation here, with such clear allusions to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
(Note that John does not use the term “Trinity”, which was first used by Theophilus of Antioch in about AD180, then Tertullian in AD211, some 120 years after the writing of John’s Gospel (depending on the date of the latter), but the concept is derived from the basic ingredients presented in the NT; there is One God; the Father is wholly God, the Son is wholly God and the Holy Spirit is wholly God; and yet the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other.)
The gift of God is God Himself. He becomes the gift to those He loves, just as husband and wife become their gifts to their spouses in a marriage. The promise of God’s intimate presence amongst His people is a common trajectory in Biblical scripture; for example, Ezekiel’s oracle ends with the statement “And the name of the city from that time on will be the LORD is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). John, of course, sees this intimate relationship brought into tangible reality by the presence of God in Jesus, “made flesh” in the world (John 1:14).
Jesus refers to himself as who it is who asks. This statement might echo Jesus’ role in John 14:16-17, in which Jesus describes Himself as the One who asks the Father for the Holy Spirit.
The living water, like so many things in John’s Gospel, is a both thing and a metaphor. The thing refers to water that is fresh and flowing, not stagnant. Jews were concerned at keeping water “live”, by keeping it moving. Sometimes they would puncture their cisterns so that there would be a notional flow of water through them. Demons, according to Matthew (Matt 12:43), could not cross “living” water. It was the “thing” that brought refreshment, life and cleansing, and it becomes the metaphor for what the Samaritan woman really needs. The water from the well will serve her for a day, but the “living water” that Jesus promises will serve her for life. It’s a metaphor for God the Holy Spirit, who refreshes, animates and cleanses the Church; the Holy Spirit is, quite literally, the life-breath of God, and He is God’s gift of Himself to the Church. That might seem quite a religious and esoteric thing to say, but think of it like this; the Holy Spirit is the very life of God, and this God-life is what gives life to the church.
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and flocks and herds?”This is where commentators differ. Is she a simple rustic, who has missed the point and cannot see beyond the immediate circumstance of the well; or does she engage Jesus in some intellectual sparring? I tend to believe the latter. This is a remarkable exchange; else John would not have bothered to write it down. What I think is happening here is that the woman is remarking on the immediate, visible circumstance, and the underlying truths behind them, which are best understood when they are viewed against the historical conflict between Jew and Samaritan.
Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep Can this woman lift her gaze? Is she captive to the daily drudgery of lifting and fetching water for her man, who could be too selfish to marry her? Perhaps, but her question could be a double-entendre. She could be flirting by equating “this well” to her own sexuality. It would be unlikely that a Jew would arouse her interests, unless she had got bored with the attentions of the Samaritan men she knew. More likely, she is teasing Jesus’ for his Jewish religion, which she would have regarded as being too limited to draw from the well of Jacob.
I believe that she could see beyond the physical well; however all she could see was her Samaritan religion, which, she thought, was sufficient to her and her community (Jacob’s “sons and flocks and herds”) The problem with her religion was that it was bankrupt, which was patently apparent from its failure to sustain a Temple, or to sustain a faithful relationship with God. What she needed, indeed, was some new and living water, to refresh, animate and cleanse her.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”If I am right about the Samaritan woman’s perceptiveness, then she and Jesus are talking on the same wavelength. Both see how bankrupt her religion is. She has likened it to her journey to the well, carried out with tedious monotony, and with always the same result. The journey to the well, day in and day out, was not enough to heal the divisions in the land or to make that vital connection to God that was now broken.
The well is not enough, yet Jesus promises something more in himself; it is something that He has within His gift. He doesn’t promise say “join my religion and it will sort you out” (as the Jewish missionaries to Samaria would have said), but he gives her a personal guarantee. Faith in Christ is not about signing up to a religion, or a program, but believing in Jesus, the person, who gives us his personal guarantee.
…the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up… The gift of the Spirit will be something experienced continually within the very being of those who receive it – like a spring of water welling up within them. The verb used for “welling up” (Greek hallomai) means literally to “jump up”, and in the only other places where it is found in the NT it has that literal meaning (Acts 3:8; 14.10). It is a vivid metaphor for the activity of the Holy Spirit within those who believe in Jesus, reminding us of the experiential as well as the cognitive side of the Christian faith. The fulfillment of this promise (with its future-tense verbs “I will give”, “will never thirst”; “I will give”, “will become”) awaits the coming of the Spirit following Jesus’ exaltation (John 7:37-39). (Kruse)
And now for something completely different. John 4:14 is partially quoted in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. In the film, it appears as part of an inscription on a crusader’s shield in a clue to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. The film infers that eternal life might be gained by drinking from the Holy Grail, which Indiana Jones and his father both do, though the “eternal life” they imbue only survives within the confines of the grail’s secret location. I enjoyed the film, but I do no think that Jesus had this in mind; this “eternal life” is not dunk from a physical grail, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and it is certainly not constrained by locale.
Finally, this last point is actually important in the context of John’s Gospel. Up to this moment in time, the connection to God and the source of life were regarded as being located in the Temple (in Mount Zion for the Jews and in Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans). Jesus brings that connection and that life out of the Temple such that it can be reached by all persons, wherever they are. In John’s idiom, the true connection to God is made in Jesus, not in the Temple.
To be continued…
• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996
• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.
• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003
• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003