Samaritans, The Woman at the Well, And The Background Of John 4

The Gospel of John is one that greatly helps us understand exactly who Jesus is.  John has a higher Christology than the synoptics and was the last written.  In the Gospel of John, we have many key doctrine such as the personification of God’s Word in the person of Christ, as well as a synthetic parallelism with the book of Genesis to link the idea together[1]

One of the most popular accounts in the Gospel is the interaction that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-26.  When one reads this account there are many feelings that one may experience. First and foremost is continues the theme of the previous two stories about gentiles coming to faith[2].  Secondly it depicts Jesus fleeing persecution from the Pharisees because he was getting more disciples than John the Baptist[3].  One also sees a series of social and historical clues that the average reader of scripture may not catch[4].

One thing that is certain is that this interaction is pivotal in the ministry of Jesus.  He was interacting with a woman that was at a well alone, he was in Samaria, a theological discussion about proper worship breaks out, and lastly, we have one of the most clear declarations that Jesus makes about his identity[5].  Through it all our Lord puts aside the various prejudices of the day to show love, mercy, and the blueprint on how to evangelize[6].

Who Are the Samaritans?

To understand this passage, it is necessary to understand who the Samaritans are.  Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom which fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC[7].  When the Assyrian government conquered the Northern Kingdom, they deported many Israelites and gentiles came into the land.  The foreigners came in, married the Israelites, and mixed their religion with the religion of Israel[8]

There is a tradition that states that the Samaritans were the descendants of Shechem.  We read about Shechem in Genesis 34 and Sirach 50, and he raped Dinah who was the daughter of Jacob.  The Samaritans denied this accusation and claimed to be the descendants of Joseph via Manasseh and Ephraim[9].  The each claimed to be the faithful Israelites and called the other apostates.

Ethnic origin was definitely a contributing factor to the hostility between the two.  However, it was also strained because of the religious differences between the two.  As a result, Samaritans avoided Jews and the Jews avoided the Samaritans[10].  Samaritans believed that God was to be worshipped on Mount Gerizim.  Eventually this would be moved to Shiloh, so they broke the command that was given to them.  From a scripture standpoint they only acknowledged the Pentateuch as scripture and did not accept the prophets or the writings.  There were conflicts between the two groups as well which involved each other’s Temple.  John Hyracanus led an Army into Samaria and destroyed their Temple.  The Samaritans also killed pilgrims to Jerusalem on occasion and also tried to defile the Temple in Jerusalem.

John 4:1-26

It is not the intent of this article to provide a thorough exegesis or exposition of this passage in John’s Gospel.  However, it is helpful to go through verse by verse as much as possible to give the vital background information that is important to the interaction.  There is so much contained in the verses that goes unseen by the average person in the pew, but lends itself to a whole new understanding of the text.

John 4:1 begins with Jesus and his disciples left Judea in route to Galilee.  John is careful to say that he had to go through Samaria in verse four.  Josephus gives us some information on such a journey.  This would have been a three-day journey if one would go through Samaria[11].  There was a longer way which consisted of following crossing the Jordan river into the town of Perea[12].  It had been previously thought that the situation between the Jews and Samaritans was so bad that Jews would not pass through.  However, Josephus tells gives us much evidence sayings that many Jews travelled through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem.  This was the preferred route for many[13]

In verses 4-6 we read that Jesus and his discipled came to the town of Sychar at the sixth hour of the day, at the site of Jacob’s well.  Sychar is most often identified as the village of ‘Askar.  This village is on the base of Mount Ebal which is opposite of Mount Gerizim. However, others identify it with Shechem which is about 250 feet away from the well while the former was closer to a mile[14].

 The site of Jacob’s well is one that is still prominent today.  When one goes on a tour of the Holy land this is one of the sites that one may choose to.  As far as archeological sites go, its location is certain.  The well is deep with some estimates being between 85 and 100 feet deep[15].  The well is unique in that the water is not stagnant but taps into a running stream that still yields water[16].  John tells us that Jesus stops at this well at the sixth hour (Jn. 4:6).  This translates to noon and the heat of the day was having an impact on our Lord.  He was hot, tired, and rested at the well.  It was not uncommon in those times to start a journey at sunrise.  The journey was done by walking and was exhausting.  It was also common to retreat inside around this time to take cover from the heat of the day.  One would refresh themselves with food, drink, and a nap. 

It was at the time that the Samaritan woman enters the picture (Jn. 4:7).  With everyone taking shelter to avoid the heat, she does the opposite and goes to the well.  This broke the standard convention of doing things.  Going to the well was a social time and women would often go to the well in a group, and they would go in the morning to avoid the heat of the day[17].  The fact that she was alone indicates that she was a social outcast, and that would be revealed later on in the chapter. 

In the ancient world a well was a place of encounter.  There are examples of this in the book of Genesis.  In Genesis 24 there is the encounter that the servant of Abraham had with Rebekah and Genesis 29 with Rachel[18].  To put it bluntly, sometimes one would go to the well to finds a spouse.  When the Samaritan women arrived at the well while Jesus was there was the scandal of the day.  Jewish men did not talk to women in public, and a Samaritan woman was even worse as they were considered unclean[19].  Nevertheless, Jesus looms past cultural norms and asks for a drink.  Understandably the woman is surprised since a Jew is not only alone with her at the well but is speaking to her.  John hints as this when he stated “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans) in verse nine.  Though this is the case there were some exceptions made, as his own disciples demonstrated, for food[20]

What follows is a conversation about living water.  This happens when the Samaritan woman balks at Jesus’s request for water, and Jesus responds with his statement about living water in Jn 4:10.  In a stunning move she asks if Jesus thinks he is better than Jacob, since Jacob gave a well with running, i.e., running water[21]

In the technical sense “living” water is water that is clean or fresh, but there is more at play.  Early Jewish literature, such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees among others, depict water as a life-giving symbol[22].  Still other place such as 4 Ezra and the Apocalypse of Abraham depict living water as anything living.  This can also include plant life and is a symbol of restoration and life[23]There was also a Rabbinic tradition that spoke of the Torah as God’s gift of living water.  John expertly uses double meaning and his audience in the first century would have caught it.

In verse 12 we get a glimpse at one of the disputes between Samaritans and Jews.  The Samaritan woman brings up Jacob as being the father of the people.  The Jewish people would also claim the same.  The Jewish teaching of the time was that the Jews were pure bred so to speak, while the Samaritans contained much non-Jewish blood.  Josephus points this out at length in his Antiquities.  Josephus essentially calls the Samaritans dishonest and says that when the Samaritans stand to benefit from something they say they descend from Joseph[24].  The Samaritans do claim to be descended from Joseph, but through his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.

 Jesus makes a big claim in 4:14 about anyone who drinks of his water will never thirst again.  The full passage of John 4:14 states, “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (ESV).  This would have sounded familiar to Jewish audiences since it brought to mind Sirach 24:21. The woman takes Jesus literally here and wants this water, so she does not have to carry the large vessels on her head during the heat of the day.

The conversation takes a turn in 4:16-19, but there are some historical nuances that are important.  Jesus asks the woman to bring her husband and she says she does not have one.  To our modern ears this sounds like not much is happening.  However, the wells were our watercoolers in the office and places where conversation happened.  Wells were also places that could be gone to find spouses (See Ex. 2).  The question that Jesus asked her about her husband could have been construed as a flirtatious act by the woman[25].  Married women also traditionally worse a head covering, and she may not have been wearing one.

The woman has no husband, and Jesus tells her what is in her past.  She has had five husbands, and this was a problem in the time.  People would think there was something wrong with her if she was divorced or widowed that many times.  It was rabbinic tradition that one should not marry more than three times[26].  She was also living with someone, and Jesus brings this to the forefront.  This was taboo during the time and there were no such thing as common law marriages.  Marriage in that time carried with it economic protections for the wife, but since there was no marriage, this was not the case.

 The Samaritan woman sees the truth and declares that Jesus is a prophet.  The Samaritans only saw the Pentateuch as inspired they looked to Deuteronomy 34:10 as a source of messianic prophecy.  The believed in a Messiah like figure known as the Taheb.  This was the prophet that would arise that would be greater than Moses.  With no other claims of a prophet, this makes Jesus the Messiah figure the Samaritans were waiting for. 

The woman then goes into another issue that divided Jews and Samaritans, and that is the issue of worship (Jn. 4:20-26).  The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim.  This was a historical mountain and is said to be the mountain that Abraham climbed to sacrifice Isaac.  The Samaritans built a temple of the mountain that was destroyed by John Hyrcanus.  Though the temple was destroyed the mountain was still viewed as sacred[27].  The rift was so strong between the two people groups that Samaritans were not welcome in the Jerusalem Temple. 

In his conversation with the Samaritan Woman Jesus brings to mind Psalm 145:18 which says that the Lord is near to those who call on him in truth.  Though Jesus affirms the correctness of the Jewish version of salvation (Jn. 4:22) this is not a barrier.  Jesus speaks of the future when people will worship in the Spirit and truth.  This is something we take for granted in the 21st century.  At this time, it was believed that all prophecy had ceased, so this prophecy from Jesus would have been heard loud and clear by his listeners.  John 4:23 also brought to mind Wisdom 6:16 which discussed Wisdom seeking those who are worthy.  Jesus being personified wisdom saw this poor woman as worthy. 

In verse 25 we read about the woman discussing how the Messiah is coming and how he will teach.  This is important because the Samaritans believed that the Messiah would come in the form of a teacher and would not be a Davidic king[28].  Jesus uses the language of the divine name from Exodus “I am”.  As a Samaritan the woman knew the story of Moses and already said that Jesus was “the” prophet.  There was also a common idiom is speech during the time where the hearer waited for a dramatic time to make the final reveal.

Conclusion

John 4:1-26 is a very important piece of scripture where Jesus gives an evangelistic outline and seeks one whom society has ostracized[29].  Delving into the backgrounds and investigating the culture and ethnic groups is vital in understanding the interaction.  It brings a whole new meaning and allows one to feel what the Samaritan woman is feeling and how much love our Lord has for her. He has that love for us.

 
Bibliography

Borchert, Gerald L. John 1–11. Vol. 25A, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

Bourgel, Jonathan. “John 4:4–42: Defining A Modus Vivendi Between Jews and The Samaritans.” The journal of theological studies 69, no. 1 (2018): 39–65.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to The New Testament. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991.

Chalmers, Matthew. “Viewing Samaritans Jewishly: Josephus, the Samaritans, and the Identification of Israel.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, no. 3 (2020): 339–66.

Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Haenchen, Ernst. “4:1–42 Jesus Among the Samaritans.” In John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 1-6, edited by Funk Robert W. and Busse Ulrich. By Haenchen Ernst, 213–31. Philadelphia: 1517 Media, 1984.

Harris, Murray J. John. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015.

Harrison, Everett. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Nashville: Southwestern Company, 1962.

Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.

Keener, Craig. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Martin, Francis, and William M. Wright Iv. The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Matthews, Victor H. “Conversation and Identity: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 40, no. 4 (November 2010): 215–26.

——— Um, Stephen. The Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel: Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006.

. The Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel: Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006.


[1]. Andreas J. Kostenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 44.

[2]. Francis Martin and William M. Wright Iv, The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 80.

[3]. Ernst Haenchen, “4:1–42 Jesus Among the Samaritans,” in John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 1-6, ed. Funk Robert W. and Busse Ulrich, by Haenchen Ernst (Philadelphia: 1517 Media, 1984).

[4]. Victor H. Matthews, “Conversation and Identity: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 40, no. 4 (November 2010).

[5]. Murray J. Harris, John (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 88.

[6]. Jonathan Bourgel, “John 4:4–42: Defining A Modus Vivendi Between Jews and The Samaritans,” The journal of theological studies 69, no. 1 (2018).

[7]. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020), 780.

[8]. Matthew Chalmers, “Viewing Samaritans Jewishly: Josephus, the Samaritans, and the Identification of Israel,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, no. 3 (2020).

[9]. Duvall and Hays, The Baker Illustrated Bible, 781.

[10]. Harrison, Everett, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Nashville: Southwestern Company, 1962), 1080.

[11]. Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 582.

[12]. Keener, Craig, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 36.

[13]. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 216.

[14]. Keener, Craig, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds, 36.

[15]. Harrison, Everett, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1080.

[16]. Carson, The Gospel According To, 217.

[17]. Duvall and Hays, The Baker Illustrated Bible, 961.

[18]. Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 201.

[19]. Duvall and Hays, The Baker Illustrated Bible, 962.

[20]. Keener, Craig, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds, 38.

[21]. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to The New Testament (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 343.

[22]. Stephen Um, The Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel: Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006), 15.

[23]. Stephen Um, The Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel: Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006), 16.

[24]. Josephus and Whiston, The Works of Josephus, 280.

[25]. Keener, Craig, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds, 39.

[26]. Carson, The Gospel According To, 221.

[27]. Duvall and Hays, The Baker Illustrated Bible, 962.

[28]. Ibid.

[29]. Kostenberger, Encountering John, 45.

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