This is the eighteenth and last message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4.
- This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know his testimony is true (Jn 21:24).
It is the scholarly consensus that John wrote his Gospel about 60 years after Jesus’ death. The passage of time is helpful to a writer because it brings perspective on what is really important out of past circumstances.
John apparently had two primary concerns that he wanted to address: He wanted to engender faith in the person of Jesus and he wanted to discredit the religious authorities who denied Jesus’ acceptance as the Messiah.
He has many stories to choose from his years at Jesus’ side. At the end of the book, John writes: “There are also many things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).
So why does John choose to describe Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well during a rest stop in a “back water” town? He devotes 42 verses to telling the story in a detail that would have been described after-the-fact by Jesus and the woman since there were no apparent eye-witnesses to the story? Why does this encounter stick with John for 60 years as one of the most important things that he’s witnessed in his time with Jesus? I have pondered this question for a long time.
Obviously the conversation says something that John considers important to his theme of faith in Jesus as the Savior of the world who gives power to become children of God to men and woman who believe in his name (Jn 1:12).
Here is a woman on the margin of society, a member of an ostracized ethnic and religious minority, despised in spiritual matters because of her gender, and apparently shunned by her own strictly traditional people as an adulteress. Jesus, with apparently every reason not to do so, talks with her and leads her to faith in him, restores her relationship with her neighbors and, through her, brings her whole village to belief in him as the Messiah. This all happened despite the prevailing prejudice that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (Jn 4:9).
We are too superficial in our reading of this story if we think only of the effect on the woman and the villagers of their encounter with Jesus. We have to consider the effect on John who writes the story.
John was no doubt one of those who came upon the conversation and were bemused that Jesus was speaking with a woman. The silent questions, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?” are likely in his mind since he describes them (Jn 4:27). It sets him to thinking and John needs to think about who Jesus is and what he is about.
John has connections to the most privileged religious class of Israel (Jn 18:15). Yet, John and his brother James have such a volatile temperament that Jesus gives them the nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17)
That nickname proves most apt when James and John come upon a Samaritan village that refuses to receive Jesus because he is headed toward Jerusalem. The Samaritans have no hospitality to offer Jews going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Lk 9:51-53). James and John want to call in a divine air strike and obliterate the entire village (Lk 9:54). Old prejudices die hard, but Jesus has no time for them. He rebukes the agitated brothers and moves on (Lk 9:55-56).
Even when Jesus pours out his heart to them about his impending betrayal and execution, James and John are locked in arguments with the other disciples over who is the greatest among them (Mk 9:30-34). Jesus has to call them back to the humility of service and childlike faith that he is seeking (Mk 35-37).
The brothers, however, ignore Jesus’ repeated descriptions of his unjust and painful death to come, and concentrate on their ambitious conniving. They try to box Jesus into giving them the most honored places in his kingdom. This provokes yet another angry argument with the other disciples (Mk 10:32-45).
James’ and John’s request indicates that they have completely misunderstood Jesus’ mission and refuse to hear what he has repeatedly told them about his manner of dying. It has to be heartbreaking for Jesus to know his closest associates would rather fight than surrender to him and his way of love.
But love is Jesus’ way, in fact his very nature (1 Jn 4:19). Love, the kind that lasts for eternity, is typically not an “at-first-sight” kind of thing. It has to soak in over time and over our aspirations, expectations and best intentions.
John was mending nets on the deck of the family fishing boat on the day Jesus called him (Mk 1:19-20). He was astounded at Jesus teaching, for “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). But what is that authority?
Matthew sees Jesus as the long awaited king of prophecy and the successor to David. Mark sees him as a prophet and martyr-messiah preaching and practicing action for spiritual renewal. Luke sees Jesus as God’s Son, the savior of humanity, who brings the kingdom of God to the ordinary lives of people.
The other gospels are written and in circulation before John sits down to write his. He has the benefit of a life-time of experience in putting the teachings of Jesus into practice as an evangelist and pastor. Those teachings are the distillation of truth to John. He writes to one of his churches in Asia Minor, “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both Father and Son” (2 Jn 9).
John must have reflected on what had led him from the deck of his fishing boat on Galilee to shepherd six congregations along the coast of the Aegean Sea. It was the reality of Jesus that moved him. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14). Jesus manifested God in common things–bread, water, light, life, word, shepherd, door, way.
John watched and listened to Jesus salvage the joy of a wedding celebration (Jn 2), help a leader of the Jewish nation understand God’s plan of salvation (Jn 3), transform a Samaritan woman and her town in a simple conversation (Jn 4), heal a hopeless cripple (Jn 5); feed a crowd of 5,000 plus with a boy’s sack lunch then describe himself as the Bread of Life (Jn 6), walk across the water to tell tired and struggling fisherman not to be afraid (Jn 6), extend an invitation to the thirsty to come to him and drink the living water of his grace (Jn 7), face down a crowd of rock-throwing vigilantes intent on killing a woman for her sins (Jn 8), heal the eyes of a blind man with his saliva and mud (Jn 9), use the principles of sheep herding to describe his ministry (Jn 10), bring his dead friend back to life (Jn 11), strip down and wash his disciples’ dirty, scuffed feet (Jn 13), take great care to explain his mission and encourage his disciples who were challenged to understand why events were unfolding as they were (Jn 14-15), reveal the ministry of the Holy Spirit to keep them connected with God after he left them (Jn 16), pray for his disciples to be one with his Father and him (Jn 17), endure a sham trial and torture with calm poise (Jn 18), be crucified on a Roman cross with his last expressed thought for John to take care of his mother, Mary (Jn 19), rise from the grave to comfort and instruct (Jn 20), and call the distraught disciples back to their place with him with a breakfast on the beach (Jn 21).
John concludes that love is the common element in these incidents and stories. He realizes that the authority of Jesus is love (Jn 15:9, 17:23). Jesus knew that he had come from the Father and was going back to him and also knew that he would be betrayed from within his inner circle. Yet, John marvels, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1).
On the night that John comes to understand that love he reclines back against Jesus and may even feel his heartbeat. From that night on he refers to himself as “the disciple that Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23, Jn 19:26, Jn 21:7, 20). He goes on to write that “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 14:7-8).
Who knew that the Son of Thunder, a man quick to take offense and to argue for his prerogatives, the would-be destroyer of Samaritan villages in defense of Jesus, would become a lover and a follower of Christ renowned for his gentleness? But that is what John becomes–the beloved of Jesus. Part of the becoming was watching Jesus tear down walls that afternoon at the well to set a child of God free. Water flows and love thrives in freedom.
Along the way, John stops thinking of God as the great, big “No-Trespassing” sign of Temple-centered, hereditary, “go-through-the-motions” religion and realizes him as “a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). “No one has ever seen God,” John writes. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (Jn 3:18).
John writes the story of the woman at the well to show that Jesus is not put off by who we are or what we have done. He is waiting to reveal the Father’s heart to her when she walks up for some well water. He gives her the Living Water because she says that she wants it. Her own heart is so full and satisfied that she doesn’t even take the water jar with her when she returns to the village.
John comes to know the same fullness by watching Jesus work with people like the woman. He writes, “From his [Jesus] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).
And you, what do you want? What is it that you thirst for as you walk through your daily routines? Why does that jar that you carry with you never seem to hold enough?
Jesus says, “Those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
“Sir, give me this water” is all you have to say with an honest heart to never thirst again (Jn 4:15).
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him.”
Under the mercy of Christ,