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The Woman at the Well — Extraordinary Encounters with Jesus

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John 4 is a remarkable account. In the previous chapter, Jesus engages the religious professional Nicodemus (John 3:1–15). But in chapter 4, Jesus talks with a woman at the opposite end of that spectrum—a religious, social, and moral outsider. Strikingly, the friend of sinners crosses the established social boundaries in order to show Himself to be the Savior of the world.

As the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matt. 5:13–16), Christians need desperately to learn from Jesus’ approach. Jesus came not with a ministry of admonition but with a mission. He came to save sinners. We can learn some vital things about the art of evangelism from our Lord by tracing the various talks that occur in John 4.

The Talk of the Town

If we had arrived in Sychar the day after Jesus departed for Galilee (John 4:43), we would have noticed the town buzzing with energy. We can imagine how a conversation with a local might go…

“What happened here? How did this come about?” someone visiting the town asks.

A local responds, “Well, Jesus of Nazareth has been here for the past couple of days.”

“Okay,” the visitor says, “but how and why did He ever come here in the first place?”

The local replies, “Interesting you ask. One of our more notorious residents, a lady, just a couple days ago came back into the town, calling out in the bazaars and in the thoroughfares, ‘Come and see a man! Come and see a man!’ And some of the men in the town said (somewhat cynically), ‘I wonder if this is man number seven!’ But it was apparent that the man about whom she was speaking had engaged her in conversation at the well—and had had a dramatic impact on her. And, as you can see, this Jesus of Nazareth has turned many of our lives upside-down! We’ve believed Him to be the Savior of the world on the basis of this woman’s testimony.”

Our Lord is kind. He is gentle and lowly in heart.

When we read the account in John 4, there’s no denying that Jesus left an indelible mark on that Samaritan town. What was it about Jesus’ conversation with the woman that urged her to proclaim Christ so persuasively to her neighbors? John records the exchange in verses 7–26.

The Talk at the Well

Verse 27 helps us understand just how dramatic Jesus’ encounter with the woman was. The disciples, we’re told, “marveled” at the scene. They were surprised, first, that Jesus was talking to a woman. Rabbis would never teach the law to a woman! One rabbinical prayer even goes like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has not made me a woman.” Further, it was a Samaritan woman with whom Jesus spoke. The Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with surrounding cultures. The dignified Jews would have viewed them as social and racial half-breeds. So, strike one: gender. Strike two: race. And strike three: her way of life. Standing before Jesus was an immoral woman who had “had five husbands” (John 4:18)—a number high enough to indicate that infidelity, not widowhood, was the root of her problem.

John tells us that it was “about the sixth hour,” or noon (v. 6). Usually, people went to the well early in the morning or later in the evening, avoiding the heat of high noon. Indeed, going to the well was a social morning occasion—a time for the women of the village to catch up with one another. Yet the Samaritan woman broke both of these customs—an indication that she was outwith the ebb and flow of polite society in her town. Yet no doubt these details in John’s account point to God’s providence. We aren’t held in the grip of blind, deterministic forces. God governs all things to fulfill His purposes . It was God’s purpose that He would encounter a particular Samaritan woman, by herself and in the midday heat—even if she hadn’t understood to that point what brought her there.

When Jesus then began His conversation with this woman, He didn’t do so with some great theological interlocution. Instead, He began naturally, arousing her curiosity. “Give me a drink,” Jesus requested (v. 7). He was going to show the woman that while she assumed she could meet His needs, she was actually the one in need. She needed water—and Jesus is the eternal fountain (John 4:10; see also Ps. 63:1; Isa. 12:3).

The woman, however, was still thinking in physical terms, as verses 11–15 make clear. Jesus therefore redirected her focus. At the conversation’s pivotal juncture, Jesus pressed through what Rico Tice calls “the pain barrier.” In every spiritual conversation, we must decide whether we’ll confront the person with eternal realities or not . Jesus, knowing this, brought the woman face-to-face with her sin (vv. 16–18), pushing through the pain barrier with a simple request: “Go, call your husband, and come here”—to which she responded, “I have no husband” (vv. 16–17).

If Jesus had been a Pharisee, He would have spared the woman no shame in forcing her to confess her wrongdoings. (See John 8:2–11.) But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, He completed the story for her, not requiring her to articulate her sorry, shame-filled past. Why? Because our Lord is kind. Jesus is “gentle and lowly in heart ” (Matt. 11:29).

Aware that her sin had been uncovered, the woman then asked a question about worship: “Are we to worship at Gerizim or in Jerusalem?” In other words, she was wondering where a person should go to offer an atoning sacrifice for sin. And Jesus responded in kind, essentially saying, “I have great news for you: it’s not about where you’re going to go to find God; it’s about God coming to find you.” (See John 4:23–26.)

No man or woman is sinful beyond the Savior’s reach.

To this obscure, nameless woman, Jesus revealed what He’d chosen up to this point to conceal from others: “I who speak to you am [the Messiah]” (v. 26). And Jesus’ disclosure of His identity paved the way for her confession of faith.

The Talk of the Disciples

Verses 27–38 then detail Jesus’ talk with His disciples, which followed. The drama unfolds by way of a misunderstanding:

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” (John 4:31–34)

It isn’t too harsh to suggest that the disciples were more interested in sandwiches than with salvation. At least one of them, we might presume, would have picked up on Jesus’ allusion to manna in the wilderness—to God’s spiritual provision for His people. But none of them seem to have understood the point Jesus was making.

So, Jesus issued a wake-up call: “Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (v. 35). Already the Gospel seed sown in the woman was bearing fruit in the harvest of advancing Samaritans (v. 39). Now, through this simple word picture, Jesus reminded His disciples of His central mission and message: the proclamation of God’s kingdom and the necessity of repentance and faith (Mark 1:15).

Jesus, the World’s Redeemer

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman reveals at least this: He isn’t simply the Messiah of narrow Jewish expectations; He is the world’s Redeemer. Our Lord seeks not only the devoted religionist of chapter 3 but also the disenfranchised woman of chapter 4. And what unites these two individuals is what unites all of us: our need for a Savior. If Nicodemus teaches us that none are so righteous as to not need a Savior, the Samaritan woman reveals that none are so bad to be beyond the Savior’s reach.

This woman’s need was the same as ours. She needed to hear and to heed God’s cry to sinners:

Turn to me and be saved,
   all the ends of earth!
   For I am God, and there is no other. (Isa. 45:22)

Christ, who is the salvation of God, would hang on the tree—covered in shame—in order that one day, redeemed sinners might stand with Him in glory.

This article was adapted from the sermon “A Woman at a Well” by Alistair Begg.


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