Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 4.5-42

3nd Sunday in Lent A

Other texts:

This text is about transformations -- a theme that reoccurs throughout the opening chapters of John. Jesus changes water into wine. Jesus proclaims a change from the physical temple into the temple of his body. Jesus teaches that those born of the flesh must be transformed into those having been born of the Spirit. Now Jesus transforms conventional expectations and challenges the status quo.

One of the difficulties with this text is that it can be understood at many levels -- from a simple historical account of a chance meeting between two people to a parabolic-type story filled with symbolism.

A second difficulty with this text is that there is so much stuff in the lengthy reading that can lend itself to fruitful preaching. One can't cover all the themes presented. I will try and highlight some of them below. One theme I will be suggesting throughout these notes that this might be a model for a "seeker" situation. Although the woman wasn't "seeking" Jesus, he made it a seeker situation. He tells her what she should be seeking. She "finds" what has been revealed to her by Jesus. Part of her "finding" is to share the news and invite others into the same experience.

Brown (John, Anchor Bible) outlines our text in the following way:


Although v. 4 is not part of our lection, it is significant for the verb dei -- "it is necessary." Normally, it is not necessary to go through Samaria when traveling from Judea to Galilee. Many Jews would take the longer route that bypassed the unclean land of Samaria. On a literal level, we might guess that Jesus was in a hurry and didn't want to take the longer route. On a symbolic level, the word dei is often used of God's plan or will = what Jesus must do. Was this a "chance" meeting or part of God's plan?

The town of "Sychar" is unknown in the OT. It has been suggested that it is a corrupt spelling of "Sychem" ("Shechem" in Heb.), perhaps influenced by the "ar" of Samaria. Jacob bought land at Shechem (Gn 33:18-20). Although not mentioned in the OT, there is a "Jacob's well" near the city -- about 250 ft away -- and both are located near Mt. Gerazim. (Another suggestion is the modern village of Askar.)

The fact that Jesus was tired from his journey and needed to sit down to rest indicates his humanness. The same word for "tired out" (kopiao) is used twice in 4:38 in reference to working or laboring for the harvest. These are the only instances of the word in John. Evangelism (harvesting?) can be tiring and wearisome work. To use another evangelical image, the impression I get from many church people is that they expect the "fish" to just jump into the boat, rather than working at catching them.

The sixth hour = noon. The heat of the sun may have also contributed to Jesus' tired state. Normally, water would be drawn in the cooler morning or evening (Gen. 24:11). The trek to draw water was usually done as a group of women (1 Sam 9:11). It may be stretching the text a bit, but the suggestion might be made that the Samaritan woman was in the habit of sleeping in. She's not a morning person. She was lazy and couldn't get to the well at the earlier time. Another suggestion is that because of her immoral behavior (which is not necessarily indicated by the text), other women did not want to associate with her, so she had to come when it was likely that no one else would be around.

There a number of striking contrasts between the woman and Nicodemus from last week.


Jesus' request: "Give me a drink," was a violation of social customs. First of all, as the woman indicates, Jews would not drink out of a Samaritan cup, since they considered all Samaritans unclean and anything they touched would be unclean. (More about some reasons for the hatred between Jews and Samaritans later.)

Secondly, it was improper for a man to talk to a woman in public. This is supported when the disciples return in v. 27. They "were astonished" (the imperfect of thaumazo implies more than just a sudden shock or momentary surprise, but ongoing amazement and wonder) that Jesus was speaking with a woman.

Perhaps more threatening than any of Jesus' other acts, he breaks down the socially acceptable dividing walls between males and females and between Jews and Samaritans. He completely transforms the social mores of his day. Perhaps "being born from above" involves a whole lot more than just our relationship with God. Paul is clear in Galatians 3:27-28 that baptism (new birth) makes all people equal -- including Jews and Samaritans, men and women. In addition, their conversation dealing with marriage, (sexual relationships?), and worship are topics not usually discussed between strangers.

Jesus issues two challenges to the woman: (1) knowing whom it is who is speaking to her; and (2) asking him and he would give her living water.

"Living water" has both an earthly meaning and a deeper, spiritual meaning. On the literal level, it means running water as opposed to still water as in a cistern. This is how the woman (mis)understands the phrase. On the deeper level, there are three possible meanings:

  1. The revelation that Jesus gives. In the OT, water is used of God's wisdom that grants life (Pr 13:14; Is 55:1; Sir 24:21).

  2. The Spirit whom Jesus gives. In John 7:37-39, a connection is made between drinking, living water, and the Spirit, which the believers will receive.

  3. A reference to baptism (or immersion or birth) in water and the Spirit (4:1-3), that brings a new life and status. 1 Cor 10:1-5 connects baptism with drinking.

I wonder, "Why does the woman need to ask for this gift of living water? Couldn't Jesus just give it to her?" I get a little uncomfortable with "asking language" -- it can easily lead to salvation being based on something I do. On the other hand, the only reason she would ask -- open herself to this gift -- is because Jesus has offered the invitation to ask. We don't normally answer the phone unless it rings, or open the door unless someone knocks. Such responses are evoked by the ringing or knocking. So also the woman's response to Jesus was evoked by his words to her. Jesus seeks to turn her into a seeker, seeking what she didn't even know she needed, and what, at first, she misunderstands.

In Matthew 6:8b Jesus says: "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him," which, I think, implies we still need to ask. Why? We don't ask because God needs our request, because God already knows what we need. Perhaps God wants us to ask because we need the benefits of asking. By asking, we recognize our need. By asking, we recognize the source of our help and can offer the proper praise and thanksgiving.

As in some other instances in John, the woman utters a truth without knowing it: "You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you?" She thinks not. We know he is.

Jesus makes some parallels between the well water and his living water.

I think that we are always in need of earthly images to convey divine truths -- ways to try and understand the incomprehensible through what we do comprehend.

He helps her ask for the water, which she does. This was the second of Jesus' challenges. She still doesn't know who he is and continues to have an earthly understanding about the water. Her desire for the water seems to be motivated by the thought that she wouldn't have to come to the well anymore. Some people will do anything to get out of working. What does Jesus do with our requests that are wrongly motivated?

I think related to this is the Church's attempt to offer its good treasure from God to the world. Our language about what God offers: justification, sanctification, forgiveness, grace, etc., may be just as confusing to the world as "living water" was to this woman (or "born from above" was to Nicodemus). What will "speak" to this woman? What will speak to the unbelieving world? How do we help the world know what to ask for?


I note that right after she asks for living water, Jesus tells her to go and to invite and to bring others to him. Could this be the living water? Going and inviting and bringing others to Jesus? Could it be that the way we receive living water is by giving it away? Water that we try to keep is no longer living water. It becomes like still and stale water in a cistern. Only water that is flowing out is "living water".


Jesus pushes her towards his first challenge and begins to help her understand who he is. He asks her to invite her husband. On one level, I find this a strange comment. What does her husband(s) have to do with asking for living water or eternal life? Jesus special knowledge of her situation, leads her to see Jesus as a prophet. (A similar situation occurred with Nathanael in 1:48.) This may be all that is intended by Jesus' question.

However, in addition, this woman could be an example of someone who has come to the light, and whose deeds are exposed (3:20).

Contrary to popular perceptions, neither the text nor Jesus seems to indicate that she was an immoral person.

What if each of those marriages ended when the husband died. She would have buried five husbands. She would have gone through five funerals. The pain and suffering and loss in her life would be great -- perhaps too great for her to commit herself in marriage to another man. Maybe this is why she wants to come to the well alone. Her pain is too great to talk about it with anyone else. Maybe this is what has sapped the life out of her.

What if each of those marriages ended when an abusive husband got tired of her and threw her out of the house and divorced her. What if she had spent her life being victimized by these men and then was discarded like garbage? Maybe she had become so distrustful of marriage that she wouldn't go through the ritual with the sixth man. Could the bruises on her body keep her from associating with other people? Could the terror in her mind keep her from talking to anyone about her suffering? Is that why she is alone? Is that what has sapped the life out of her?

On another level, there may be great symbolism in her answer of five husbands.

2 Kings 17:24 indicates that after the fall of the Northern Kingdom: "The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities." People from five nations were resettled in Samaria.

A little later in 17:29, we are told "every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities they lived". Could the five husbands symbolize the five nations and their gods? [Note that 17:30-31 lists seven gods worshiped by the five nations.] The sixth "man" of the Samaritan woman could symbolize their worship of the LORD, who was not really their god because they continued to worship and serve these other gods. They weren't "married" to the LORD -- they were just "fooling around" with the LORD as well as other gods.

In addition, the Hebrew word for "husband" is "ba`al," which also means "god" as well as the specific god, "Baal". However, this is not the word used in 2K 17:29, but "elohim".

If such symbolism is meant, then the sin is idolatry -- a topic that often produced oracles from a prophet, and would naturally lead to discussion about proper worship.

As another approach, I have often had people, when they learned I was a minister, suddenly become "religious" in their conversation. E.g., "I try to keep the Ten Commandments." "I know I should go to church more often." Etc. This is what the woman does after recognizing Jesus as a prophet. Also, the proper place to worship is a less personal topic than talking about her husbands. It indicates a growing awareness of who Jesus is -- he is one who can offer an authoritative decision on this divisive issue. The proper place of worship was just one of the issues that separated the Jews and Samaritans. Another issue was the inter-marriage of the leftover Jews and the five imported nationalities. Related to this is the issue of their idolatry after conquest by the Assyrians. The Samaritans, according to the Jews had perverted the race and the religion. The Jewish high priest burned the Samaritan temple on Gerizim in 128 BC. That didn't help smooth over relationships between the people.

The word for worship (proskuneo) is used 11 times in John. Nine of those are in 4:20-24. Another instance is in the text for next week 9:38, where the formerly blind man, whose great sin was thought to have caused his blindness, believes and worships Jesus. The final occurrence is 12:20 where some Greeks have come up to worship at the festival. They approach Philip about meeting Jesus. One aspect of the worship in spirit and truth is that it includes sinners, Samaritans and Greeks.

Especially if the five husbands represent idolatry, the main worship issue is not where, but whom. Three times Jesus mentions "the Father" (vv. 21, 23) -- a term the woman had used of Jacob (v. 12). (Prior to these uses, the term occurred at 1:14, 18; 2:16; 3:35 -- all in reference to God as Jesus' father.) How does God become our Father -- the one we are to worship? Last week's text tells us that we need "to be born from above" or changing the passive to an active verb: "God becomes our father." The transformation from being of flesh to being of spirit needs to take place for us to worship "the Father". This is true for the Pharisee Nicodemus, other Jews, the immoral/idolatrous Samaritan woman, and for all of us.

The time of this transformation is coming and is now (4:21, 23). We still have our favorite "places" of worship -- Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, Baptist churches, etc., but I see a movement towards recognizing that we are all worshiping our heavenly father.

How is worshiping in "spirit and truth" different other types of worship? (Both "spirit" and "truth" are possible understandings of "living water".) Can one worship God in "flesh" and "dishonesty"? Probably. My bias would interpret "fleshly" worship as something we do -- and if worship is centered on our actions, then we are more likely to be dishonest -- trying to hide our true, sinful selves from the righteous God -- or turning our emotional contrition for sins into a new work to win God's favors. Spiritual worship is centered on what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. Whether or not we "feel" anything, if we had heard the Word and if we have received the sacrament; God has come to us with divine love and forgiveness. The "requirement" for receiving God's forgiveness is to be truthful about our sinfulness -- our unworthiness to receive anything from God -- our inability to earn anything from God; and believe the truth about God's love for the world that sent Jesus not to condemn us but to save us.

How should we understand 4:22? Who are the "you" (plural) who worship what they don't know? Who are the "us" who worship what they do know? Is John saying that the Jews worship what they know and the Samaritans are the ignorant ones? Does John mean to imply that the Christians worship what they know and all others, Jews and Samaritans, are ignorant of the true worship?

If we make the "you" the Samaritans, their ignorance may come because they used only the five books of the Torah. They did not accept the prophetic books or the other writings. Thus, their picture of the coming one is incomplete. The promise of the savior is given to the Jewish people -- and from them, Jesus Christ came. Our savior is Jewish -- (not a northern European Lutheran <g>).

Early in the gospel there was ignorance. John did not know (oida, as in v. 22) who Jesus was (1:31, 33) until the Spirit revealed Jesus to him. Is the same true for all of us? We can't really know Jesus without the revelation of the Spirit? Without that Spirit and knowledge, we are unable to properly worship the Father?

John also has Jesus saying: "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony" (3:11). What we are to know also comes from Jesus' words.

The woman begins to recognize who Jesus is -- possibly the coming Messiah. However, the Samaritans did not expect a Messiah in the sense of an anointed king of the house of David. These promises were given in the writings the Samaritans did not accept. Brown (John) writes about their beliefs: "They expected a Ta'eb (= the one who returns), seemingly the Prophet-like-Moses" [p. 172].

It is questionable whether a Samaritan would have used the term "Messiah" or "Christ". However, these certainly are terms of John's confession about Jesus.

In v. 26, Jesus responds with ego eimi = "I am". Jesus, who is speaking to her is the "I am" -- possibly referring to the name of God in Exodus 3:14 -- part of scriptures accepted by both Jews and Samaritans.


Earlier we were told that the disciples had gone into the city to buy food (4:8). This presents a little bit of a problem, considering that the only cities around them were Samaritan towns and I don't know if a Jew would be willing to buy from a Samaritan -- or a Samaritan to sell to Jews. That would be just as radical as Jesus asking the Samaritan woman for a drink. Their "shopping trip" may indicate that Jesus asks his followers to do things that are not always socially acceptable.

The disciples return. They are astonished at Jesus' talking to a woman, but they don't bother to ask him why or what they were talking about. Such pre-judging, without asking proper questions wouldn't happen in our day and age, would it? <g>

We can only guess why the woman left her water pot in v. 28, but it could lend it self to the interpretation that she was so excited about Jesus, she just couldn't wait to tell the whole town -- just like the evangelical excitement people have when leaving our worship services -- NOT. Although her (Greek) words are different from 1:46, the invitation is the same, "Come and see." Considering that she also confesses that he told her everything she had ever done, (Jesus as the exposing light of the world), coming and seeing could be a frightening experience.

Her question (expecting a negative answer) about Jesus being the Christ may be a question readers might wonder after his socially unacceptable actions of talking to a woman in public and asking to drink from a Samaritan's cup. Would God act like that? Answer: Yes, God did. We would also have to assume, "Yes, God does."


The disciples are just in the dark about Jesus' bread as the woman was about living water. Certainly no one in a Samaritan area would have brought Jesus, a Jew, bread to eat. 4:34 is quite similar to Dt 8:3, which Jesus quoted during his temptation: "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD." I don't know if it is exactly the same, but I have found that when I get totally immersed in something, it is easy to go without eating -- and I usually like to eat, as my girth illustrates. Are we to be so absorbed in doing God's will that food becomes secondary?

I think that John is clear that for Jesus "to complete his work" refers loving his disciples and the world so much that he will die on the cross for them. The word for "complete" is teleioo. Some other uses of this and closely related words: John 13:1b: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (telos)." John 19:28, 30: "After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished (teleo), he said (in order to fulfill [teleioo] the scripture), 'I am thirsty.' ... When Jesus had received the wine, he said, 'It is finished (teleo).' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." That completed the work God gave him to do.


Jesus says, "Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting." If they took that literally and looked around, whom would they see? About then we are told that many Samaritans from the city come to Jesus. Are they the field the disciples are to be harvesting? They are ripe!

Who are the others who have labored so that the disciples might reap the harvest? Maloney (John, Sacra Pagina) believes that they are John the Baptist and Jesus [p. 141]. However, within the immediate context, I wonder if Jesus and then the woman might be looked at as the sowers. She has gone into town and sowed the word that she had received (or experienced) from Jesus. She has done the work of inviting people to Jesus (and the disciples who were now with him). Did the disciples also stay with the Samaritans for those two days, teaching them, telling stories about Jesus, etc.? Was that part of their harvesting the seeds that others had planted?

This reminds me a little of the analogy William Easum gives in Dancing with Dinosaurs. He suggests that the dinosaurs ate only the vegetation that was right at their eye level. With their massive appetites, they quickly devoured all the food they could easily see. Then he writes: "Still, food was plentiful if the dinosaur merely bent down to reach the vegetation. But perhaps the dinosaur's neck was too stiff to bend down to the vegetation, or the dinosaur was too nearsighted to see the vegetation. Perhaps dinosaurs became extinct because of their unwillingness or inability to see what was happening all around them" [p. 15]. Do you think that he could be making an analogy to the church?

If the harvest is plentiful and ripe as Jesus says, and if our population is continually increasing, then why are the numbers decreasing in so many congregations? Perhaps we haven't been willing to look around and see what is right outside our doors. Perhaps we haven't been willing to put forth the labor and share the labors (4:38) to bring in the harvest. Whatever the reasons, the one Samaritan woman who has just met Jesus, who misunderstands what he says, who has questions about his identity, brings more people to Jesus than the (relatively) long-time disciples do. A statement that I have raised before and will probably do again stresses that it's not just what we believe, but what difference it makes that we believe. Another question I ask congregational members, "If you aren't inviting people to church, why not?" There are ways we can help you become more comfortable in talking about your faith and church with others. Are you willing to learn? Is there something we need to change about the way we worship so that you will invite others?

Related to the ripe harvests, Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Church) presents an interest twist to our thinking about the ripe harvest:

The problem with many churches is that they begin with the wrong question. They ask, "What will make our church grow?" This is a misunderstanding of the issue. ... The question we need to ask instead is, "What is keeping our church from growing?" What barriers are blocking the waves God wants to send our way? What obstacles and hindrances are preventing growth from happening? [pp. 15-16]

In one of the congregations I served with roughly 300 members, I asked, "Why don't we have 800 or 1000 members?" One answer was, "There aren't enough people around for us to grow that large." My response: "There are 17,000 unchurched people in the county. There are lots of prospective members around." Another answer, "We're too new. We've only been here for 25 years." My response: "Another church in our conference began the same year. They have a smaller population base, and they have over 900 members." (The reason for the other church's growth, according to some of the members was, "They are closer to South Dakota where there are more Lutherans.")

At another congregation with about 200 members; they say that a major goal is membership and spiritual growth. However, I have asked members, "How would you like to part of a 1000 member congregation?" All the responses have been negative. "I don't think I'd like that." "No, we don't want to grow that large." It is clear that their mission is not spreading the gospel to an unbelieving world, but survival. Their main concern is about themselves and feeling comfortable in a "not-too-large" congregation. It is likely that with such an attitude, they will sabotage any efforts to grow into a 1000- or even a 300-member congregation.

I believe that the biggest hindrance to the growth God wants to give our congregations is that there aren't enough workers like the Samaritan woman -- willing to tell the whole city about Jesus. Willing to invite the people to "come and see." Willing to testify to what Jesus had done for her. I had a council president tell me that the members of the congregation will not invite others to come to church. How do we change such attitudes? How can our members help an unbelieving world know what questions they should ask? How can we help seekers know what they should be seeking for?


Faith is believing the word -- the woman believes something about Jesus because of what he has said to her. The town's people believe something about Jesus because of the woman's words. They then come to believe much more about Jesus from his own words (vv. 39, 41). I wonder what Jesus would have said to them over the two days he stayed with them -- or what the other disciples might have said. We aren't told. Perhaps we might ask, "What would we need to have Jesus to tell us, so that we might believe that he is truly the savior of the world? What would we need to have Jesus tell us so that this belief would make a difference in our lives? What would we need to have Jesus tell us so that we are passionate about telling others and inviting others to experience the power of the savior of the world?"

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364