So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
Translation: Then he comes into a city of the Samaria named Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to Joseph his son, and Jacob's well was there. Therefore Jesus, wearied by the journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
Background and situation: In 922 BC, the ten northern tribes of Israel seceded from the union, and took the name with them. Israel--the northern kingdom--lasted almost exactly 200 years. It was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. In order to decrease the possibility of future rebellions, the Assyrians moved some of the people out, and others in. The region became known as Samaria.
In 587 BC, the Babylonians conquered the remaining southern kingdom, Judah, and marched its leading citizens off to exile in Babylon. Soon after, the Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Persian leader, Cyrus the Great, allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
The exile had lasted about 50 years. In these intervening 50 years, as Ezra put it, the residents of Samaria had become "the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"--the two tribes that had constituted the southern kingdom (4:1).
The returning exiles decided to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The Samaritans asked to help, but were rebuffed by the Judeans. In a fit of pique, the Samaritans appealed to Cyrus and argued that allowing the building of Jerusalem's temple would inspire religious nationalism among the Judeans. Persia withdrew its support.
The Judeans proceeded with the project anyway. They disregarded the message cancelling support, and, instead, appealed to Cyrus' earlier permission--rather like Robert Kennedy at the time of the Cuban missile crisis who recommended disregarding Khrushchev's second, more hostile, message and appealing to the Soviets on the basis of Khrushchev's earlier, more conciliatory, message. The dispute over the temple set hostilities between Judeans and Samaritans in concrete.
Despite the mix of nationalities in Samaria, the Samaritans considered themselves descendents of the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah. This gave them a direct line to Jacob and Joseph. Somewhat ironically, the Samaritans actually held to a more conservative form of Israelite religion than did the Judeans. They worshipped Yahweh, preserved a line of Levitical priests, and accepted the Torah as their holy book. (They did not accept the Writings or the Prophets.) Samaritan religion, in other words, turned out not to have been influenced by other religious traditions as much as the Judeans thought they were.
The Judeans, however, considered the Samaritans mongrels and half-breeds, thought their priesthood didn't count, and believed the Samaritan Torah was textually corrupt. The mutual hostility occasionally broke out into violence. In 110 BC, a Judean army destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and burned Shechem. The Samaritans, for their part, twice disrupted the passover in Jerusalem (6 BC and 9 BC).
By the time of Jesus, Judeans, if traveling from Judea to Galilee, might cross over to the other side of the Jordan River in order not to set foot in Samaria. That Jesus entered Samaria at all is a significant statement all by itself. Moreover, he goes to a town which is heavy-laden with cultural and religious symbolism as evidenced by references to Jacob, Joseph, and Jacob's well.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Translation: There comes a woman out of Samaria to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me to drink," for his disciples had gone into the city so that they might buy food. Then the Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Judean, being beside me, a woman of Samaria, ask for a drink?" (For Judeans have no dealing with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, 'Give me to drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given to you living water." She said to him, "Lord, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Then where do you have the living water?" Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his sons and his cattle?" Jesus answered and said to her, "All the ones drinking out of this water will thirst again, but whoever might drink out of the water I will give, that one will never thirst forever, but the water which I will give to that one will become in them a well of water gushing up into life eternal." The woman said to him, "Lord, give to me this water so that I might never thirst, nor come here to draw."
Jesus breaches the cultural-religious divide through a simple encounter. He does not make a speech to crowds, or go on some campaign through the region. He arrives unobtrusively, without an entourage. (His disciples had gone into town to buy food through the established market system.)
It was at the sixth hour, or "about noon." In the previous chapter, Nicodemus had come to Jesus "by night." Themes of light and dark abound throughout the fourth gospel. Here, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman takes place at high noon, in, you might say, the "fullness of light." This augurs well for the ensuing dialog.
The Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Jesus strikes up a conversation. In that culture at that time, it was unthinkable for a Jewish man to speak with a Samaritan woman. What's more, considering the association of wells as places for "courting and sparking"--think Jacob and Rachel--there are even some sexual overtones to the encounter.
The Samaritan woman appears taken aback. She wonders how it is that a Judean, "being beside me, a woman of Samaria," would have the temerity to ask her for a drink. Jesus moves the conversation to another level. They are no longer talking about a mere drink of water, but a "gift from God." He references his own identity, and shifts the conversation so that she is challenged to ask him for water.
No fool, the Samaritan woman wonders how she can ask Jesus for water when he doesn't even have a bucket. And where, pray tell, are you to get "living water"--flowing water, in other words, not well water?
She refers to "our ancestor Jacob." On the one hand, if "our" means Samaritan, this is an affirmation of her own national identity. On the other hand, if "our" means "you Jesus and me," then she is affirming the common ancestor she shares with Jesus. The former is more likely, as if to say: "I may be a second-class human being in your eyes, but I am a daughter of Jacob, and this well comes to me from him."
Jesus again takes the conversation in a spiritual direction. The water from this well does not permanently quench thirst, he says. Then, his language turns effusive. The water that comes from him "will become"--genesetai, a creation reference--in them a fountain of water gushing up into life eternal"--pege hudatos allomenou eis zoen aionion.
As in the Nicodemus story in chapter three, Jesus seems to be at one level in this conversation, while the woman seems to be at another. Yet, unlike the pharisee Nicodemus--"a leader of the Judeans"--this half-breed Samaritan woman opts to continue the conversation. "Lord, give to me this water so that I might never thirst..."
The difficult history of Samaria:
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
Translation: He said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered and said to him, "I do not have a husband." Jesus said to her, "You spoke well: 'I do not have a husband,' for you had five men, and the one you have now is not your man. What you have spoken is true." The woman said to him, "Lord, I see that you are a prophet."
The woman tells Jesus, "I do not have a husband." Jesus seems impressed with this statement. He tells her that she has spoken well--kalos eipes. He goes on to note that she has had "five men and the one you have now is not your man." Why the compliment? Why did Jesus say the woman had spoken well when she said she did not have a husband?
The "husbands" are symbolic. After their conquest of the region in 722 BC, the Assyrians took about 30,000 native Israelites out of the region and imported people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24) into Samaria. As people are wont to do, they intermarried with each other and with the native, Israelite, population.
These peoples are the woman's "five husbands." The one she is currently with, who is "not her husband," is Rome. Herod the (so-called) Great had ruled the region on Rome's behalf from 37 BC to 4 BC. During Herod tenure, about 6000 foreigners had been relocated into Samaria, but they were not allowed to intermarry with the local population.
Moreover, at Herod's death, rule of Samaria passed to his son, Herod Archelaus who ruled from 4 BC to AD 6. Archelaus proved a disappointment to the Romans and they replaced him with the Roman, Quirinius, following AD 6. Following 6 AD, then, Samaria was under the direct rule of Rome.
The passage is not about the woman's sexual life. Nor it is about her marital history. In all of the four gospels, Jesus never expresses even a scintilla of interest in anyone's sex life, except to stick up for so-called "sexual offenders" when they are criticized or derided by others.
Jesus compliments the woman because, as he said himself, "What you have spoken is true." She has no husband. Samaria has had relations with five peoples, and is currently occupied by another who wants nothing to do with her.
Jesus redefines the woman and Samaria. She is not an outcast, half-breed, heretic--she is a truthteller! The Samaritan woman acknowledges and ratifies Jesus' interpretation of her national history. "Lord, I see that you are a prophet."
20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Translation: "Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place to worship God." Jesus said to her, "Trust me, woman, that the hour comes when you will worship to the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, for salvation is out of the Judeans. But an hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such (to be) the ones worshipping him. God is spirit, and it is necessary (for) the ones worshipping him to worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I have known that Messiah comes, the one called Christ. When that one might come, he will show to us everything at once." Jesus said to her, "I am, the one speaking to you."
The Samaritan woman, in response to Jesus' non-judgmental and open attitude, pursues the conversation further. She brings up a fundamental point of contention between Samaritans and Jews, i.e. worship at Mt. Gerizim as opposed to worship at the Jerusalem temple. The woman wants to know: Who is right?
Jesus addresses her as "woman," the same term he used with his mother at the wedding at Cana. This is not a perjorative, but rather a term indicating equality. (To call Mary "mother" in chapter two would have been to affirm a heirarchical relationship--parent and child--rather than the relationship of equality expressed by "woman.")
The time of geographically localized worship--Mt Gerizim or Jerusalem--is coming to an end, says Jesus. Both Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem are associated with national identity. In the future, people will worship "in spirit and truth." That is, they will worship beyond geographical location and beyond nationalistic pride.
Wes Howard-Brook argues that the "we" of "we worship what we know" relates to the Johannine community, c. AD 90. He argues that, throughout the fourth gospel, it is the Johannine community who not only "knows," but also "does." The time for "true worship" is "now here" in the Johannine community.
Jesus spoke of "water and spirit" to Nicodemus. To the Samaritan woman, he speaks of "spirit and truth." "Spirit," you might say, is the bridge from water to truth.
Psychologically, "water"--a feminine symbol--would have an association with the concept of nation. It is the nation's women who give birth to the nation in the first place. "Truth" is worship that moves beyond all national boundaries and historical traditions. Making that transition is the work of "spirit," and it will apply to both Samaritans and Judeans.
The Samaritan woman says that she knows the Messiah is coming--interesting since the concept of a "messiah" did not enter Samaritan thinking until the 16th century. In the first century, the Samaritans looked for the taheb--the "revealer"--the one who, as the Samaritan woman puts it, "will show to us everything at once."
Jesus responds "I am"--ego eimi. Ego eimi--"I am"--is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:28). In the fourth gospel, this is the only time that Jesus directly acknowledges that he is the Messiah. Moreover, this acknowledgement is not expressed to a Judean, or Galilean, but to a Samaritan, and not to a man, but a woman!
The Samaritan woman becomes an evangelist:
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
Translation: And upon this, his disciples came. And they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Nevertheless, no one said, 'What do you seek?' or "Why are you speaking with her?' Then the woman left her waterpot and went into the city and said to the people, "Come, see a person who spoke to me all which I had done. Is this not the Christ?" They went out of the city and were going to him.
The disciples return--literally, "upon this, his disciples came." Their sudden appearance feels somewhat intrusive. Firmly tradition-bound, the disciples are shocked to see Jesus speaking with a woman. They ask no questions because they are embarrassed to have witnessed the episode.
They don't even ask "what are you seeking?", which is what Jesus had asked John's disciples in 1:38, his first words in the fourth gospel. Too bad the disciples got there after Jesus had already said to the Samaritan woman that the Father was "seeking" those "who worship in spirit and truth"--beyond national and gender boundaries, in other words. The disciples would have profited by hearing that!
The woman left her water-jar. The same word is used to describe the "jars" at the wedding of Cana. Does this represent her leaving behind her tradition? She goes into her town to say "come and see" to her fellow Samaritans. Again, reminiscent of chapter one, these are the same words Jesus had spoken to two of John the Baptist's disciples.
From the beginning of this encounter, the woman's awareness gradually grows. Jesus has moved, in her eyes, from Judean, to prophet, to Lord, to, quite possibly, "Messiah," and, just in case this is so, urges her fellow Samaritans to "come and see."
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
Translation: Meanwhile, the disciples were asking him, "Rabbi, eat." But he said to them, "I have food to eat which you do not know." The disciples were saying to one another, "No one brought him anything to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is that I might do the desire of the one who sent me and might bring his work to completion. Do not you say, 'It is yet four months and the harvest comes?' Behold! I say to you, lift up your eyes and see the fields, that they are radiant white to harvest now. The one reaping receives a reward and gathers together fruit into life eternal so that the sowing one and the reaping one might rejoice together. For in this, the word is true, 'Another is the sowing one, and another the reaping one.' I sent you to reap that which you did not labor. Others had labored, and you have entered into their weariness."
Having returned from buying food at the local market, the disciples urge Jesus to eat. Jesus speaks to the disciples as he has spoken to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, i.e. at another level: "I have food to eat which you do not know."
Nicodemus' comments had been concrete and questioning. The Samaritan woman is wary, but intrigued. Both, at least, had participated in dialog. In contrast to both Nicodemus, and especially the Samaritan woman, the disciples do not engage in dialog with Jesus, but speak only to one another, and, like Nicodemus, maintain a literalistic and concrete view. This is not surprising. The disciples regularly prove to be as clueless as everybody else.
Jesus encourages the disciples to "see," which is a synonym for "faith" in the fourth gospel. "'Behold!' I say to you, lift up your eyes and see the fields, that they are radiant white to harvest now." (The NRSV's uninspired translation: "But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.") There are three references to "seeing" in that brief sentence.
In verse 5, the place of this encounter is identified as "the field (xora) that Jacob gave to Joseph." Now, in verse 35, "the fields (xora) are ripe for harvesting." If the disciples would only look up, they would see Samaritans coming out to them!
Moreover, the harvest is already happening. The reaper (Jesus) is already "gathering together fruit"--sunagei--"in order that the sower-together might rejoice and harvest." The sower--God--rejoices at the "gathering together" of fruit. The disciples are to participate in work which others, namely Jesus, have already started.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word.42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Translation: And out of that city, many of the Samaritans trusted into him through the word of the woman's witness: "He said to me all that I did." Then, when the Samaritans came to him, they were asking him to remain with them, and he remained there two days, and many more trusted through his word. Also, to the woman they said, "We trust no more through your speaking, for we have heard and we have known that this is truly the savior of the world."
As is typical for the fourth gospel, the role of witness--"testimony"--is lifted up. "Many trusted" in Jesus through the "word"--logos--of the woman. Thus far in the fourth gospel, the only other person said to make a trustworthy witness is John the Baptist. The Samaritan woman thus joins some lofty company.
The Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them. The word is menein--"stay" or "remain"--and it is one of the key words in the fourth gospel. It reflects the mutual-indwelling between Jesus and his people, now here extended across ethnic and religious boundaries to Samaritans.
Many more people "trusted" because of Jesus' "word"--logos, again. The Samaritan woman is honored even more. Not only is she a trustworthy witness, like John the Baptist, but both she--and Jesus!--are said to have the "word." This is high praise indeed!
The Samaritan woman had been the mediator between her people and Jesus. They no longer need her testimony because they have heard from Jesus himself. Now, they "know" that Jesus is the "Savior of the world." This is the only use of the word "savior" in the fourth gospel.
Thus, not to put too fine a point on it, the first people to proclaim Jesus as "savior" are half-breed foreigners. The full title--"savior of the world"--is found only here and in 1 John in the entire New Testament. Moreover, it was a title which belonged to Caesar.
Words associated with Samaritan identity are sprinkled all through this text--Jacob, Joseph, Jacob's well, Mt. Gerizim, father, fatherland. When Jesus "remains" with the Samaritans, and speaks "the word" to them, the Samaritans move out from being bound by their historical and national self-definitions which separated them from others. They move into the "light" of the "savior of the world" who dissolves and transcends these boundaries and "gathers together" all people.