Woman at the Well

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Recently in Bible study we went over John 4—the woman at the well. The story is well-known*. Jesus and His disciples are traveling through Samaria, a region filled with, strangely enough, Samaritans whom the Jews don't like because they're genetically and religiously an amalgamation of Jews and pagan Gentiles. Jesus is too tired to go into town, so His disciples leave Him at Jacob's well while they get lunch. A woman comes to get water in the heat of the day (suggesting she is avoiding the other women in the town who come in the morning). Jesus strikes up a conversation.

First they talk about water. Jesus asks for a drink; the Samaritan woman is surprised He's talking to her. He starts talking about living water (a play on words, as natural living water is the running stream at the bottom of the well, but He's talking about the Holy Spirit). She misinterprets and thinks the idea of never going thirsty is fabulous.

Jesus changes the subject and starts talking about her home life. How she's had five husbands and is living with some guy she's not married to. She changes the subject and starts talking about where is the proper place to worship God—in the mountains of Samaria or in Jerusalem. Jesus explains that salvation is from the Jews, and before long, God-followers will worship in spirit, not a specific geographical location. She starts talking about the Messiah, and Jesus says He is the Messiah. Then the disciples return, incredibly confused, and try to give Jesus a sandwich.

There are a lot of speculations about the way their topics of conversation jump around. The most common I've heard is that the woman was uncomfortable talking about her sinful life and so changed the subject. But the other night, some things really struck me. Maybe this story is confusing because it's so often been dissected by men, even though it's a story very much about a woman.

The woman is surprised that Jesus is talking to her. He's a rabbi; she's a Samaritan woman living in sin. So did she change the subject from personal to theological because she was uncomfortable?

Maybe a little, but I think there's another reason. It can be incredibly hard for a woman to get the attention of a Bible scholar (even her pastor) to ask a hard question. When she finally does, she's often dismissed. I've run up against this a number of times. It's only recently that I've had pastors who can look me in the eye and give me a thoughtful answer—or an honest "I don't know."

I think the woman changed the subject because she'd been thinking about this for a long time, but she'd never had opportunity to ask anyone who might know. How often would a Samaritan woman have the chance to ask a Jewish scholar a theological question? Verse 9 would indicate never! So, I think the primary reason she changed the subject from her personal life to her theological question wasn't because she was uncomfortable, but because Jesus' words identified Him as a prophet. Miracles identify God's messengers. The miracle of Him knowing about her identified Him as a prophet who was well qualified to answer other God-related questions.

In verse 25, she seems to change the subject again. Jesus is talking about worshiping God in spirit and truth, and she starts talking about the Messiah. Specifically, "When he comes, he will tell us all things."

I don't think this is a change of subject. I think she was disappointed in His answer because it didn't make any blessed sense. Worship in spirit? After God gave Moses such specific laws? What does He mean that we won't have to worship in a place? Of course we have to worship in a place!

So, here the poor woman was, finally able to ask a real Jewish prophet the question that had been burdening her heart for ages, and He talks gibberish. Typical that the rabbi wouldn't take her seriously. Oh well, she seems to say. Someday the Messiah will come, and then I'll get my questions answered.

But He is the Messiah. And she believes Him, even if she doesn't quite have a handle on the whole "worship in spirit" thing. And so she goes back to town and testifies to the miracle that indicates He is at least God's prophet if not the Messiah, Himself.

But there's something else I see in verse 25. Despite her heritage and her sin, she believes in and relies on the promise of the Messiah in a personal way. Like the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28, even if every theological scholar, teacher, and preacher ignores her, she knows the Savior is for her, too.

The Messiah is for all of us. The Messiah is a loving teacher who will answer all our questions in time. Until then, check out We have over 3000 articles on various topics. And if you can't find exactly what you're looking for, you can send in a question that will be answered by one of our 200 volunteer writers—including a couple of Jewish scholars.

* Sorry

Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well, 1900
Photo Courtesy of: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

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Published 8-27-13