Image of a statue of the woman at the well with a grassy landscape in the background.

Jesus Empowered the Woman at the Well (John 4)

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The account of the Samaritan woman at the well found in John 4 is rich with imagery and theological lessons. It addresses salvation, the Messiah, the and role of the Holy Spirit, but it also provides a foundation for the worth and role of women. It is a story for those who feel downtrodden, outcast, and worthless….for those who think they are not good enough to be who Jesus called them out to be.

(Bible study on the Woman at the Well is available here to go along with this article. Spanish version available here. Or you can get the full study, “Jesus Empowers Women” which includes this lesson and four others.)

The Setting for the Woman at the Well

The account takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 2 of John, we see Jesus’ first miracle recorded, turning water into wine. In chapter 3, the Pharisee Nicodemus pays Jesus a visit under the cover of night. He has questions about who Jesus is. Jesus has answers. In the second half of Chapter 3, John the Baptist confirms that eternal life comes only to those who believe in Jesus. Shortly after this event, Jesus and his disciples start their trek to Galilee, but by the way of Samaria. It is here where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman. Her reaction to His message (a message that echoes John’s words to his disciples) is the one we would have hoped from Nicodemus, the learned teacher. But it is the Samaritan woman who begins to spread the good news.

An Unusual Detour

If someone was traveling from Judea, where Jesus was at the time, to Galilee, their shortest option would be a route through Samaria. However, pious Jews often took the long way around through Perea adding a few more days to their trip. Why? Because they didn’t get along.

In the 8th Century BC, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took them captive. (Note at this time Israel was divided into a Northern Kingdom, Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, Judah). However, some Israelis remained in the land, and when the Assyrians brought in their colonists, this group of Israelis intermarried with them. The result was a mixed ethnic group who became known as the Samaritans.

In the 7th Century BC, the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and they were taken captive as well. However, 70 years later the Persian Empire (the new conquerors) allowed 40,000 plus Jews to return to their homeland. Upon arriving, the Samaritans were not too happy and they undermined their efforts to rebuild their nation. And the full-blooded Jews who returned rebuked the intermarriages that had occurred between Israelis and their pagan conquerors.

Fast forward over 500 years later, and that mutual resentment and animosity only grew. Not all Jews avoided traveling through Samaria, but pious Jews made every effort to do so. As a Rabbi, that would have been the expectation of Jesus. So when the scriptures say that he had to pass through Samaria, we should pay close attention, because he is about to do something unexpected.

And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

John 4:4-5

Jesus Talking to a Woman

At this point in the narrative at the beginning of chapter 4, some of the disciples, if not all, must have been a tad bit annoyed at having to travel through Samaria. While going shopping in town, little do they know that Jesus is about to commit another faux pas. He begins to talk to a woman, alone.

What is the big deal, right? That is how we may feel about this from a modern, Western perspective. Women talk to men who are not their husbands alone all the time. But in that part of the world, at that time, that was a big no-no. There were some cultural rules and in verse 7, any other Jewish male would have withdrawn from the well and given the woman her space (about 20 feet). Jesus not only does not withdraw, but he asks her for water!! Whoa!!

Understand that Jesus is not sitting at some bench a little distance from the well. When it says he was “sitting beside the well” in verse 6, he is sitting on the well, on the large donut-shaped stone placed on those types of wells. In the middle of this stone is an opening that allows room for a bucket and he is sitting beside that opening. In other words, when he starts talking to her, he is very close to the woman. This is nothing short of scandalous.

And then he kind of gives her a command to give her water per verse 7. To our ears, it may sound rude, but at that time it had the opposite effect. He is elevating her to his level. By speaking to her, by asking her for a favor, he is validating her. That is why the woman responds in verse 9 with, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria.” How is it that He is talking to a woman? And how is it that He is talking to a Samaritan?

Who is the Samaritan Woman at the Well?

Who is this woman? Any person who had seen a woman come to the well at noon (the sixth hour as found in verse 6 is noon time), would have deemed her a woman of questionable character.

Women come to the well in groups either in the morning or before sundown when the sun is not too oppressive. They come in groups for safety and for reasons of morality. A woman can’t get herself into trouble or be talked about for inappropriate behavior if she is always in the company of other women. You get my drift.

But the Samaritan woman is coming at noon. Alone. Her “defiled” reputation is confirmed in verses 16 through 18. Jesus knew who she was…he didn’t need to pick up on the cultural queues. But knowing, he still chose her to be the one He revealed himself to.

Correcting with Love

Jesus is not afraid of pointing out her sin or questionable circumstances (verses 16-18). He asks he to go call her husband, and she replies that she has none. Jesus praises her for being truthful but uses it also as a way to establish that her current circumstances were not godly. Note, that we don’t know for sure if she intentionally sinned.

Divorce was almost always initiated by the husband so she was just as likely to have been a victim of men’s whims. Regardless, her circumstances were ungodly, but by this point in the conversation, he had made her feel safe. He had elevated her, given her worth. The Pharisees would have condemned and shamed her and left her to lick her wounds. But Jesus elevates her, corrects, and then elevates again. It is a beautiful example for us today of how to properly correct someone with love.

The Theology in Their Conversation

Jesus does not only break every cultural and social norm by talking to the Samaritan woman, but he also articulated new revelation that would have been revolutionary to Jewish worshippers at the time. We will get into some of those revolutionary truths, but first, let me comment on Jesus’ decision to have this type of deep conversation with the Samaritan woman.

Most, if not all, Jewish Rabbis at the time would have thought it beneath them to try to expound matters of theology (religious truths, the study of God) to a woman. Those were conversations to be had with serious students of the law and women were not invited to that table. By even entertaining those types of conversations with her, he elevated her from a place of shame to a place of honor.

Fountain of Living Water

In verses 10-15, Jesus tells the woman he is the fountain of living water. Where would a student of the law and the prophets have heard that phrase? In Jeremiah 2:13.

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.

Jeremiah 2:13

In Jeremiah, the LORD is YAHWEH, God. Jesus, in his conversation with the woman, is confirming his divinity which would have shaken the foundation of the Jewish elite like the Pharisees.

Worship in Spirit and Truth

Where did worship occur at the time? At the temple and before that, the tabernacle. That is what Jesus is referring to in verse 21. The temple and the tabernacle were the only places one could have access to God and truly only one person had true access, the High Priest who would go into the Holy of Holies once a year.

But now he is letting her know that the time is coming when all will be able to have access to God, to be able to worship him in Spirit and in truth. It is a prophecy of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Messiah

Jews had been waiting for the Messiah for hundreds and hundreds of years. The desire for the Messiah would have been particularly intense during the Roman occupation, during the time of Jesus. Here in verses 25 and 26 Jesus reveals to her that the Messiah, the promised seed, is finally here. What a tremendous revelation to a simple woman from a town in Samaria, but she was not simple to the Lord.

The Confused Disciples

The disciples return and walk into a very awkward conversation. By this point, they had been with Jesus long enough to know he doesn’t operate according to social norms. And yet, they marvel as stated in verse 26, but dare not comment or question his methods.

Just by reading the text, you should be able to get a sense of just how strange it was for Jesus’ disciples to see him talking alone to a woman and a Samaritan. Jesus is turning everything upside down and they are witnessing the start of a revolutionary cultural and social shift.

The First Evangelist in the Bible

When the disciples return, the woman leaves to tell the people what she has just learned. The text in verse 29 reads “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did, Can this be the Christ?”

So while she is out spreading the Gospel, Jesus hangs back with the disciples and gives them a lesson on sowing and reaping souls for eternal life. Jesus says in verse 35, “the fields are white for harvest.” The irony, and probably intentional on Jesus’ part, is that the Samaritan woman was out doing just that.

Verse 39 says explicitly that “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” She didn’t let her reputation of ill-repute stop her from spreading the good news.

How Jesus Empowered the Samaritan Woman

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is as much about introducing Jesus to the world as it is about elevating women and the downtrodden. He empowered her to freely be able to share the Gospel. We may gloss over the message of how he is empowering her if we read it with a modern, Western worldview instead of understanding the social status of women (and outcasts) at the time. While the Old Testament provided many examples of great women like Deborah, Esther, and Ruth, the Intertestamental period (the time period between the book of Malachi and the Gospels) was not kind to women in Jewish scholarly thought and writings.

In His encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus begins to set things right as far as the role of women is concerned…a role that exists beyond the boundaries of the home. It is an encouraging story for us women and one we should hold dear to our hearts.

(Much of the background on biblical culture was obtained from the book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes)

Want to dive deeper into this story? Download the Woman at the Well Bible Study from Etsy (available also as a Spanish BIble Study). Or you can get the full study, “Jesus Empowers Women” which includes this lesson and four others.

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