Receiving and Sharing Jesus (preaching resource for 3/12/23, Lent 3)

This post exegetes John 4:1-42, providing context for the  RCL's Gospel reading for 3/12/23 (Lent 3). It draws on various sources including "The Bible Expository Commentary" by Warren Wiersbe, "The New Bible Commentary", "The Parable of Joy" by Michael Card, and "The Gospel of John" by F.F. Bruce.

"Christ and the Samaritan Woman" by Colombel
(public domain via Wikimidia Commons)

In chapter 4 of his Gospel, John continues his account of what Jesus did to reveal himself as Son of God and Messiah. Toward that end, John describes four encounters Jesus had with nonbelievers whereby they came to faith, and with new believers whereby they grew deeper in their faith in Jesus. We learn from these encounters that Jesus invites all kinds of people to trust in him, thus challenging us to join with Jesus, the Lord of the harvest, in reaching out in the most unlikely places, to the most unlikely people, to share God’s unlikely saving love. In this post, we'll look at the first three of these encounters.

1. The Samaritan Woman (4:1–30)

1 The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

Because the Pharisees were inciting competition between Jesus and John the Baptist (John 3:25–30), though their claims were unfounded, Jesus left Judea and headed for Galilee—straight north through Samaria. Orthodox Jews typically avoided Samaria because of a long-standing, deep-seated hatred between Jews and Samaritans—a mixed race, part Jew and part Gentile, that grew out of the Assyrian captivity of the ten northern tribes. Rejected by the Jews because they could not prove their genealogy, the Samaritans established their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. This only fanned the fires of racial and religious prejudice.  

Why then did Jesus go to Samaria? John continuously reminds us that Jesus was on a divinely appointed schedule—led by the Spirit. What is on the divine schedule here?  Showing that salvation in Jesus is open to all—Samaritans and all other outcasts included!  

Jesus arrived at Jacob’s well in the heat of the noon day sun—not the usual time for a woman to draw water. This, and John’s other hints about her, suggest that she was a social outcast. The disciples went into town for food while Jesus deliberately waited at the well. He was weary, hungry, and thirsty. John not only presents Jesus as the Son of God but also as true human. Our Lord entered into all the normal experiences of our lives and is able to identify with us in each of them. 

Here Jesus meets and converses with this outcast woman. And as he does, note the progression in how she relates to him.  It involves four steps in a journey from doubt to faith:

a. Jesus: “a Jew”  (9–10) 

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

It was not considered proper for a man, especially a rabbi, to speak in public to a strange woman (John 4:27). But our Lord set social customs aside and reached out to her. It certainly surprised her when he asked for a drink of water. What was he really seeking? 

The information in John’s parenthesis at the end of verse 9 was for the benefit of his Gentile readers. Since the disciples had gone into the city to purchase food, it is obvious that the Jews did have some “association” with the Samaritans; so John was not trying to exaggerate. The phrase can be translated “Jews ask no favors from Samaritans” or “Jews use no vessels in common with Samaritans.” Why would Jesus, a Jew, want to use her “polluted” cup to get a drink of water? 

Jesus’ request was a way to ‘cultivate’ a relationship—to start a conversation so that he might then ‘plant’ truth about himself as the “living water”, her real need. Jesus was the Master at evangelism and  we can join him in that ministry of inviting people to faith in our Lord.

Jesus pointed out to her that she was ignorant of three important facts: who he was, what he had to offer, and how she could receive it. Here was eternal God speaking to her, offering her eternal life! The Samaritans were as blind as the Jews (John 1:26). But our Lord’s words had aroused her interest, so she pursued the conversation. 

b. Jesus: “greater than Jacob” (11–15) 

11 "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" 13 Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water."

Jesus was speaking about spiritual water, but she interpreted his words to mean literal water. Again, we see how easily people confuse the material and the spiritual. Furthermore, this woman was concerned about how he would obtain this water, instead of simply asking him to give her a drink. 

Of course Jesus is greater than Jacob—and greater than the well itself! To paraphrase his reply: “Whosoever continues to drink of this material water (or anything the world has to offer) will thirst again. But whosoever takes one drink of the water I give will never thirst again!”  Jesus freely gives the living water (salvation) to those who ask for it in faith.

The woman’s immediate response was to ask for this gift, but she did not know what she was saying. She had made progress, but still had a long way to go; so Jesus patiently dealt with her. 

c. Jesus: “a prophet” (16–24) 

16 He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." 17 "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." 19 "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." 21 Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

Here Jesus is holding up before her the reality of who he is (a Prophet like no other) and the reality of her life. Jesus was convicting her of his omniscience and of her sin. But at first she evades the issue—acknowledging him only as a ‘prophet’, and evading a guilty conscience by turning the conversation to the differences between Jewish and Samaritan religion (it is much more comfortable to discuss religion than to face one’s sin!). However, Jesus again revealed her spiritual ignorance: she did not know who to worship, where to worship, or how to worship. In this way Jesus leads her to not another religion but to true faith—faith in the one who indeed is of Jewish origin (Jesus was, of course, a Jew)—yet one who transcends religion—including that of the Jews. 

To a Jew, Jesus’ implication that worship would no longer be limited to the Jewish temple would be unthinkable. This shocking statement ties in with John 2:19–21 and Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:48–50. John’s Gospel reveals that in Jesus there is a new sacrifice (John 1:29), a new temple (John 2:19–21; 4:20–24), a new birth (John 3:1–7), and a new water (John 4:11). In Jesus, the Old Covenant Law (the Law of Moses) is fulfilled and set aside. And now, for Jew or Samaritan, or Gentile, the way of Jesus—the true religion—is in the Spirit of Jesus and according to the one truth that is Jesus. Worship is not about days, or places or rituals. It is of the Spirit (spiritual) and is centered on Jesus.

d. Jesus: “the Christ” (25–30) 

25 The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." 26 Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." 27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?" 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

In spite of her ignorance, there was one truth this woman did know: the Messiah was coming and would reveal the secrets of hearts (the Samaritans referred to the Messiah as ‘the revealer’). This seed of understanding had been buried in her heart until that hour, and now it was going to bear fruit. Our Lord’s response was, literally: “I that speak to thee, I Am!” He dared utter the holy name of God (‘I Am’), thus clearly stating that he was God. It is at this point that the story reaches its climactic point. Here the woman comes to faith – she surrenders to Jesus and believes in him. He indeed is the Christ (the Messiah) of God. 

Immediately (verse 28) she wanted to share her new understanding and faith with others, so she returned into her village and told the men she had met the Christ. Her knowledge and faith were limited, but God used her simple testimony, and many came out to the well to meet Jesus. Jewish rabbi’s of Jesus' day said, “It is better that the words of the Law be burned than be delivered to a woman!” But Jesus did not agree with that narrow prejudice. Here a woman (and a Samaritan woman at that!) is used of God as an powerful evangelist.

2. The Disciples (4:31–38)

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." 33 Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?" 34 "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor."

When the disciples returned from obtaining food, they were shocked that Jesus was conversing with a woman, and especially a Samaritan; but they did not interrupt. They were learning that their Master knew what he was doing and did not need their counsel. But, after the woman left, they urged Jesus to share the meal with them, because they knew that he was hungry. 

“I have food to eat that you know nothing about” was his reply and, as usual, they did not understand. They thought he was speaking of literal food, and they wondered where he got it. Then he explained that doing the Father’s will—in this case, leading the woman to salvation—was true nourishment for his soul. The disciples were satisfied with bread, but Jesus' satisfaction was in accomplishing the Father’s work. “I delight to do Thy will, O my God; yea, Thy Law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8).  

Jesus then changed the image from food to harvest, the source of the food. He quoted a familiar Jewish proverb about waiting for the harvest, and then pointed to the villagers even then coming out to the well to meet him, thanks to the testimony of the woman.  

The image of the harvest is a familiar one in the Bible, often applied to the ministry of evangelism. Both the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Tares (Matt. 13:1–30) relate to this theme, and Paul used it in his letters (Rom. 1:13; 1 Cor. 3:6–9; Gal. 6:9). When we plant God’s Word in the hearts of people who hear it, in due time we will reap the fruit of a follower of Jesus who has come to faith. 

No doubt the disciples had said, as they approached the city of Sychar, “There can be no harvest here! These people despise us Jews and would have no use for our message.” But just the opposite was true: the harvest was ready and only needed faithful workers to claim it. For some reason, when it comes to witnessing for Christ, it is always the wrong time and the wrong place! It takes faith to participate with Jesus in his ministry of evangelism, particularly when the circumstances look discouraging. Remember Ecclesiastes 11:4 and be willing to extend God’s love despite the circumstances. 

John 4:38 hints that others had labored in Samaria to prepare this harvest. We do not know who these faithful workers were, nor do we need to know; for God will reward them. Some archeologists believe that “Aenon near Salim” where John baptized (John 3:23) was close to Sychar and Jacob’s well. If this is the case, it may have been John the Baptist who cultivated and planted, and Jesus and the disciples who then reaped. The Samaritan woman had a big part too. 

Jesus’ disciples were learning a valuable lesson that would encourage them in the years to come. They were not alone in the work of the Lord, and they must never look on any opportunity for witness as wasted time and energy. It takes faith to evangelize, but God has promised a harvest (Ps. 126:5–6; Gal. 6:9). In a few years, Peter and John would participate in another harvest among the Samaritans (Acts 8:5–25). Those who sow the seed may not see the harvest, but those who reap will see it and give thanks for the faithful labors of the sowers. 

3. The Samaritans (4:39–42)

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."

Many of the Samaritans believed because of the testimony of the woman, and many more believed when they heard Jesus personally. So excited were they that they begged him to stay and he stayed for two days. During that short time, his word produced fruit in their lives. “Now we know!” was their happy testimony.  And note too that they proclaimed Jesus to be “the Savior of the world”. They had been converted only a few days, but they already had a missionary vision! In fact, their vision was wider than that of the Apostles! Here John is telegraphing the scope of the great commission: “And ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).


What a journey! What a Savior! He is the Son of God, the Messiah—the Savior of all men and women – from the least to the greatest. All are invited to receive him in faith as the One who alone is fully God and fully human, come for our salvation. Receive him, worship him in spirit and in truth, and share him with others. The harvest is ready to reap.