It’s easy to forget that Jesus was flesh and blood like you and I. He was fully God, certainly, but also wholly human. For example, he felt heat and hunger – just like you and me. Today’s passage tells us Jesus and his disciples were travelling through Palestine – from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. A journey that took them through the region of Samaria. A journey that left Christ and his companions thirsty, hot and hungry in the midday heat. So its no surprise that while his friends went for some food, Jesus needed to sit down by a well and ask a passer-by for a drink. But what is surprising is who he asked for water. Not a rich and respectable Jewish man, like Nicodemus last week – but a woman from Samaria.
You see, a Jewish teacher like Jesus was not normally expected to address a woman. At that time a woman’s testimony was not even recognised in court. So by speaking to this woman in Sychar, Jesus was challenging cultural conventions and ignoring a widespread social taboo. Even more shockingly, this woman was a Samaritan. As verse 9 tells us, Jews like Jesus did not normally “associate with Samaritans”. Some Jews believed that to come into contact with a Samaritan made them ritually unclean. Many even avoided Samaria at altogether, and took a long detour along the East Bank of the Jordan to avoid journeying through Samaritan territory. Samaritans were seen as mixed-race people to be kept at arms-length. First century Jews and Samaritans viewed each other with suspicion and kept their distance from one another.
Living water: God’s amazing grace
But Jesus did not keep this Samaritan woman at a distance, did he? Because in verse 7 he asks her for a drink of water, and then in verse 10, offers her “living water” in return. As you probably know, our bodies are approximately 70% water, and really don’t run well without it. Extreme dehydration can cause dizziness, fatigue and even death. Drinking enough water is an essential ingredient of a healthy life.
But the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman wasn’t liquid water, like we might get from a tap or buy in a bottle. The Samaritan woman makes this mistake in verses 11 and 15. She assumes that Jesus is simply offering her access to a supply of clean water that will make her daily trips to the well unnecessary. A supply of water that would quench her thirst but nothing more.
So Jesus makes it clear that the water he offers her is something even more precious than what comes out of a tap. Something even more essential that H2O. He offers her “living” water that will “well up to eternal life” (v.14). Incredibly, Jesus is offering salvation to this Samaritan woman. He is offering to give her God’s Spirit – a Holy Spirit who will transform her life forever. Jesus’ offer of living water is astonishing, infinitely more valuable than a lifetime’s supply of fresh water – he was offering her God’s forgiveness and friendship for eternity.
What makes Jesus’ offer even more astonishing is that it was offered to a woman with a difficult past. A woman who didn’t deserve what was being offered to her. Because in verse 17 the woman admits that she has no husband, and Jesus replies that she has actually had five husbands, and is currently with a man who is not her husband.
This woman clearly had a complicated personal history, and seems to have been something of social outcast. That may explain why she was collecting water on her own in the heat of the day. It seems this woman wanted to avoid meeting other people, perhaps because she was ashamed of herself or unpopular with her peers. This woman’s chequered past makes it clear that Jesus’s offer of salvation to her was an entirely gracious one – a totally free gift from God.
The wonderful truth of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus makes the same offer of salvation to each and every one of us. Jesus knows every detail of our past failures, he knows every twist and turn of our complicated and messy lives – yet still he offers us God’s grace and mercy. It’s a wonderful offer we would be foolish to refuse and wise to embrace.
A person not a place: Worship God through Christ
If you follow the news, you will have noticed that so many of the world’s trouble spots come down to a conflict over territory. Nations squabble over space for their people to live in, or to gain access to natural resources of a particular area of land.
Two thousand years ago, the major geographical dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews was religious in nature – where was the right place to praise God? It was this controversy that the Samaritan woman raises with Jesus in verse 20 of our reading. She says “our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem”. She believed Mount Gerizim in Samaria was where God should be worshipped, while the Jews claimed their Temple in Jerusalem was the most holy place.
Jesus’ reply to the woman’s question cuts through this centuries’ old controversy. Because as well as inviting the woman into a relationship with God, Jesus’ wants her (and us) to understand how she can develop and deepen that relationship too.
“The time has now come”, says Jesus, for God to be worshipped “in spirit and in truth” – not at any specific site or city. Now that he has come, God can be approached anywhere through him. To honour and serve God, people don’t need to know the right place, they need to know the right person.
You see, to worship God the Father “in spirit” means to worship him wholeheartedly, as his adopted children. And only Jesus can make this possible by placing his Holy Spirit within us. A Holy Spirit who helps us to honour and serve God wherever we may be located – and whatever our personal circumstances or social status. In contrast to other religions, Christianity says we don’t need to go to a special place like Jerusalem, Mecca or the river Ganges to truly worship God. If we come to Jesus, his Spirit will help us honour God wherever we may be – at home, at church, at work.
But as well as worshipping God in spirit, Jesus says we need to worship his Father “in truth”. To worship God “in truth” means to serve God with a correct understanding of what he is like and what he wants us to be life. To worship God “in truth” is to live our lives his way, to let our lives be guided by what he has revealed – not by our own spiritual speculations or selfish interests. And it is in the life and words of Jesus that God’s character and God’s commands are revealed most clearly to us. To trust and obey the Lord Jesus is the way to worship God in truth. To truly know and serve God the Samaritan woman needed to know Christ – and so do we today. We need to get familiar with him in the Gospels, and build our relationship with him in prayer.
So, as I draw to a close, what are the implications of this passage for us today? What can we learn from Jesus’ surprising conversation with the woman at the well?
Firstly, we need to accept Jesus as the Christ. During the course of her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman’s eyes were gradually opened to who he really was:
- At first she saw him a simply a tired and thirsty man.
- Then she saw him as an intriguing religious teacher.
- His supernatural knowledge of her past then convinced her that he was a prophet.
- Finally, she came to realise that he was actually the Christ, the God-given Saviour of the World!
We too need to recognise Jesus for who he really is: It’s no good to dismiss him as simply an historical figure; It is mistaken to merely call him a moral teacher; and its inadequate to simply give him the status of a prophet. We need to accept that Jesus is the Christ, sent by God the Father to die and rise again for our salvation. We need to put our faith in him for forgiveness and a right relationship with the living God.
One final lesson for today is that if we have come to Christ ourselves, we need to tell others about him – we need to announce the good news! Because if we were to read on a couple of extra verses in our passage, we would see that after meeting Jesus the woman dropped everything and ran to tell her town about him! (v.28-29). Because of her testimony, many in that Samaritan town came to believe in Jesus. Many came to recognise him as the “Saviour of the world” (v.42).
This woman’s example should inspire us to tell our friends and family about Jesus. Let’s take opportunities to explain the relevance of our faith to our lives, and be courageous enough to invite our neighbours to church – to this place where we are all learning to worship God in spirit and in truth. After meeting with Jesus at a well, just one Samaritan woman was used by God to bring salvation to her whole town. Think what Christ could achieve in Ashton and Mouldsworth through each of us today!