Notes on John 4
4 is the only Scripture that tells us of this woman and of the amazing
happening in that Samaritan village. What happened there was a brief moment not
typical of Jesus’ ministry. (See Matthew
10:5,6 and Luke 9:52,53.) It was a
foretaste of salvation that would soon break out of the limits of the Jewish
people to the whole world. (In one English version the word world appears
the Gospel of John 78 times.) In their new faith in the real Messiah, it was
the Samaritans who said and rejoiced that Jesus is the Savior of the world. They were an early example of how fitting that
title is for Christ. His own did not receive Him (1:11), so let the Jews read
of this amazing response in
4:1-4 See the notes on
John 3 for comments on vv.1-4 about Jesus not baptizing. The Apostle does not
say why it was necessary for Jesus to go through
4:5,6 When Jacob was dying he gave a specific piece of land
to Joseph (Genesis 48:21,22; Joshua 24:32). That plot was in clear view of
The connection with Joseph
helps understand the Samaritans. They were the result of the inter-marriage of
Assyrians and those Israelites left in the land after the Assyrian defeat of
4:6-9 The sixth hour is noon, six hours after sunrise. At that odd time the woman came alone for water. Usually women would come as a group when it was cooler, such as early morning, but not in the full sun of day. (We do not know the weather that day, but it may have been December when it was not very hot.) The entire village knew this woman’s reputation, so she might have felt ostracized. The well was deep; Jesus had no equipment to draw water and he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink.
It was not Jewish custom for a man to speak to a Samaritan woman. She was quite surprised. Jesus’ request meant that he would receive water from her, probably using a dish she had drunk from. Jews would rather go thirsty than do that. John showed the social situation: “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” The disciples were in the town to buy food. This was a one on one meeting. With no other Jews around to show their discomfort with her, Jesus could speak to her by Himself. His request of her revealed that He did not despise her. He asked for a drink, and I am quite sure He drank from her utensil in front of her. This was so unusual it prompted her to ask how He could do such a thing.
4:10 The Lord does not explain why He does not share the prejudices of His fellow Jews. We must also remember that all of the narratives in the Gospels and the Acts are given to us in very condensed form. Nicodemus did not stay only enough minutes in his visit in John 3 for the few words recorded there to be said and then there were no more. What is highlighted here is Jesus’ response, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The Apostle John wrote of what is important.
This is John proclaiming the gospel! He loved to report Jesus using the verb give (6:27,32,33,63). Salvation is can be framed as a gift. Jesus claimed to be the giver of this gift. The gospel is a message of grace, and if salvation is to be by grace, then it must be a gift (Romans 4:2-4,16). This is consistent with John’s emphasis that he wrote this Gospel so his readers would believe Who Jesus is and trust Him for the life He gives (20:31). Christ is still giving the gift of life.
The Lord moved from one kind of drink, the kind in that deep well, to living water, the kind that sustains spiritual life. Bread also sustains life (John 6), making eating it an excellent metaphor for receiving salvation.
4:11,12 Her questions made sense. She was puzzled by the living water. The best quality water flows from a spring, which they sometimes called “living water”. She also noted His words about “Who it is that is saying to you.” So she asked if He was greater than Jacob. Later she asked if He might be the Christ (v.29)! This should show us that the Lord may not open the minds of those receiving the message all at once. Her response was not suspicion of deceit. He had no equipment to draw with, and the well really was deep, yet she sensed that He was serious. She too was serious to know what He meant. If He is greater than Jacob, He must be a very great man. Note her sense of history. There was a real Jacob who used that very well. He had left it for Joseph, and Samaritans considered themselves to be descendents of Joseph. She looked on that well as a gift to her people. Jesus offered to give living water. Centuries earlier Jacob had given a lasting gift to them. She wondered if Jesus spoke of a gift exceeding that. He really did.
4:13,14 Patiently the Lord showed He had in mind a different kind of water. In various chapters John records Jesus speaking in these analogies: a different temple (chapter 2), different bread (6), a different resurrection (11), a different kind of hearing (8), a different kind of shepherd (10), the true vine (15), and a king of a different kind of kingdom (19), etc.
It is not as a reward but as a gift that the Lord gives sinners the satisfaction they cannot have in any other way. It is the opposite of temporary pleasure of the kind Moses rejected in Hebrews 11:25. The water from Christ enters the person and becomes so much a part of the one He saves that it overflows. Joy in the Lord is not in short supply. “Living water” was a way people in Jesus’ day might refer to a constant flowing spring rather than a pool of still water. (Note Jeremiah 2:13.) A spring describes well the life of a Christian, a life eternally sustained by the Lord. John makes no mention right here of the Holy Spirit, but this will appear in 7:37-39. The new life is the promised benefit, given by Christ and produced by the Spirit.
4:15 Not knowing what He meant, the woman asked for this water. He had asked for something from her, now she asked for something from Him. There is already an element of trust in her words, yet with so little understanding. Christ was gentle with her.
4:16-19 Christ has been speaking only of eternal life. That life is not just unending existence, or even eternal happiness. It is life from God and God is holy. The life being offered clashed with the kind she has been living. She had been filling her life with what could never satisfy. The Lord gives a life that cannot fit in with its opposite, a life of sin. To have the water of genuine eternal life, she must turn from the false source of life. Thus Jesus brought up the subject of her husband.
Her reply is evasive, and yet painfully true. She had no one committed to her; the previous men were not true husbands either. We can only wonder what kinds of promises had been made to her and broken. Certainly her life was one of disappointment. John does not say whether she was the one leaving those men or if they left her. Her choices were contrary to the commandments of God. Her emptiness revealed her need.
The Lord showed that He knew her completely (Hebrews 4:13). He had said if she knew what He would give and Who He was, she would ask living water from Him. By showing how He could see into her life, He showed Who He was the same way He did with Nathanael in 1:48-50. The woman does not leave offended; she continues the conversation. He had given reason why she should take him even more seriously.
Jesus, a Jew she had never met before, could tell her what He knew about her
life, He must be a prophet. Prophets communicate things known only to God and
revealed by Him through them. The truthfulness of their message is one test of
their genuineness. She knew Jesus spoke the truth about her, so she was
convinced that Jesus was a Man from God! Nicodemus had drawn a similar conclusion
from Jesus’ miracles. In
4:20-24 This woman has a sense of history. She
refers to her ancestors again. Samaritans were convinced that
Since she saw Jesus as a prophet, she set before Him the tradition of her people, and wondered if this prophet of God will tell her who is right. She sensed that He would know. She received a full reply:
1) She was ordered to believe! Ethics is not limited to conduct; it would be a rejection of His imperative for her not to believe what He was about to tell her. In our day we may forget that God has the right to order us to believe whatever truth He has revealed.
2) It is not from her fathers that this will be settled, but by the Father who has chosen how to be worshipped. He is the Lord Who actively seeks that we should worship Him. By saying this, Jesus showed that the issue of right worship is settled by God, not by the creative imaginations of the worshipper.
3) The issue of where to worship the Father is about to become irrelevant. Wherever the Jews worship and wherever Samaritans worship will not matter, because worship will not be centered in a temple of the Jews or the Samaritans. When the new day of new covenant fulfillment arrived with the coming of Christ, the externals of old covenant worship became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
4) Samaritan worship was ignorant because they rejected all the Scriptures given by the Lord after the time of Moses. They did not recognize David or his sons as kings of God’s people. Their Israelite ancestors had set up alternative shrines in Bethel and Dan. This was the great sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat (1Kings 12:25-33). With that came a false worship of the Lord Himself, even setting up images to worship contrary to His commandments. When the revelation of God is rejected, ignorance is inevitable, and human invention will replace true worship.
Only the Jews had this more complete revelation from God. God commanded
the temple in
6) With the Jews it was different. They had the words of God (Romans 3:2). The salvation (in Greek it is the salvation, not merely salvation) is of the Jews because salvation can only come from God, and to the Jews He had given His gospel message. Through them came the Messiah.
A new day has already come because Christ has come. The temple on
8) Though the woman had raised the matter of geography, the Lord moved the subject to the One worshiped and to how God must be worshiped. The Father will be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Geography will be irrelevant.
In spirit – this probably is not a reference to the Holy Spirit, but
spirit in contrast to a physical building. Those who place very high priority
on constructing a church building should notice the emphasis the Lord made.
Worship happens in our spirits in any place we are. Formerly, the robes of the priest and the
furniture of the tabernacle or temple were required. Now all that is required
is that we physically gather to worship; plus He has required the use of physical
water for baptism plus bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper. There is no appointed architecture for church
buildings and no word that we ought to have one. I am writing this in
10) In truth – because error about God leads to a false worship of God. The Samaritan rejection of so much Scripture resulted in confusion. Christians must strive for as accurate a knowledge of God as we can find in God’s written Word. Error in doctrine is another term for confusion in the mind.
Summary: Notice what the Lord did! He told her her religion and her people were wrong. Some would say this is not the way to do effective evangelism. In John 4 there was no miracle for her to see; Jesus’ evangelism was effective in a simple proclamation of truth and frank rejection of error. Soon she would not be faced with a choice of two places of worship. She was a Samaritan woman face to face with the Messiah of Israel. He called her into worship in spirit of the Father Who is Spirit, and instructed her in truth, the foundation of all worship.
4:25,26 I do not assume that the woman mentioning the proper place of worship was her attempt to change the subject from her mixed up life with many men. She spoke of Christ as a prophet seriously and thus as a man with answers. Now she changes the subject from prophet (of which there were many) to Messiah (and she was expecting only one). Her description of the Messiah was that He would explain and reveal truth (“tell us all things”). That is what Jesus had been doing with her in her personal life and in the matter of worship. Her statement in v.25 could easily be taken as a question as she wondered if Jesus might be that Messiah. This is the very opposite of avoiding Him because her deeds were evil. She was coming to the light (3:19-21).
Jesus told her He is the Messiah. This is most unusual. With the exception of private conversation with His disciples and the question the Sanhedrin pressed on Him just before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:63), there is no record of the Lord telling anyone else that He was the Messiah. (See Matthew 16:13-20.) This open admission to a woman, a Samaritan woman, not one of His disciples, and a person He probably would not see again in His days on earth, is remarkable. Her believing acceptance of all He had said to her, including correction of her people’s teaching, was rewarded with more (Hebrews 11:6). The Lord said, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given …” (Luke 8:18). How He responded to this woman is a wonderful example of this!
4:27-30 We ought to read this very carefully. Jesus’ disciples were amazed that Jesus was talking to a woman. It was not just that she was a Samaritan. Scholars report from ancient writings how much men looked down on women; then we see in Scripture, especially in Jesus’ friendship with Mary and Martha, that He treated them in fellowship and conversation the same way He did men. (Furthermore, we should not miss that the Lord never appointed a woman as a leader in the church, or as an apostle.) It is not that Jesus simply said something to her, but that He carried on a normal conversation with her.
She went into the town. Leaving her water jar may be a sign that inviting others to come and meet Jesus was her priority. She could walk faster without it, and she intended to return to where Jesus was. To her people she did not announce that Jesus is the Messiah, but she opened the question that He might be. Her invitation “come and see” is like 1:39 & 46. In evangelism we are not able to open the eyes of the blind, only the Lord can make men see. But we are given the privilege to invite others to come and see. Thus evangelism by nature is simply presenting Christ. Her admission that Jesus could reveal her past would make her fellow Samaritans marvel. No wonder they wanted to see who this man was.
4:31-34 The Lord did it again! He used a common word for a more important meaning. The disciples spoke of ordinary food. They had gone into the town for that food (4:8) and had returned with it, while Jesus had remained behind tired and thirsty. He said He had food to eat. As has happened so often in this Gospel, they wondered if He meant food of the same kind. That was His opportunity to speak of the food of doing the will of God. This cannot mean that doing the will of God is a duty and no more. Since it is given in the analogy of food, it must mean that, just as food satisfies a physical need, doing the work of God is satisfies the soul.
4:34 He spoke of finishing the work the Father had given Him. It is only in this Gospel that the words “It is finished” appear (19:30). His finishing indicates complete obedience because He fulfilled all the Father assigned. The evangelism at the well in Samaria and Jesus’ work on the cross came together as composite work. When we think of food, we rarely think of it as a duty to accomplish; we consider food something to meet a basic need. Man was created to work (Genesis 2:15); to do nothing is to be deprived of satisfaction. (See Proverbs 12:14 & 22:29.) Thus work in itself is a wonderful gift. The Lord Jesus, instead of presenting His work on earth as an unwelcome burden, spoke of His service as a gift from His Father. As food sustains, serving brings joyful satisfaction. The Apostle Paul spoke the same way in Romans 1:4; 12:3 & 6; 15:15,16; & 1 Corinthians 15:10.
4:35-38 The Lord spoke about His work and our work! We have no role in any atoning labor, but we are not limited to being observers only when it comes to delivery of the message. We are participants in it (2 Corinthians 6:1; John 20:21). In His analogy of reaping a harvest He said, “I sent you to reap…” Just as the food He spoke of was the will of the Father, not regular food, the reaping He means would not be in agriculture but the souls of man. This is much like “I will make you to become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).
A number of difficulties are connected to this passage, though there is simple truth being taught:
We should be humbled when we run into difficulties of interpretation, and everyone does! We should not turn away from a text when this happens but seek in it what we can be sure of. This text teaches much:
Now, who did the hard work in relation to the Samaritan harvest? I do not know. Was the Lord referring to some previous work of John the Baptist, or was it a reference to His own work at the well while the others were shopping for food? I simply do not know. This we do know: The Lord gave very helpful teaching here that is very clear in general application, even though it is difficult to discern its specific reference in that day.
Samaritan harvest In no other place in the Gospels do we read
of a town that responded like this one, no not in
4:43-45 The Lord left a place (Samaria), where every word He spoke was accepted as the word of a prophet of God, to go back to His own people. There in Samaria He was accepted as the Messiah and acclaimed as the Savior of the world. Back among Jews, His welcome was from the curious. They had seen the signs mentioned in 2:23-24, and they had an appetite for more (v.48). The “welcome” was weak; the honor was absent. A prophet has no honor at home (Matthew 13:53-58).
Earlier in Cana an urgent problem (2:3) required
immediate attention and this was the situation again. This time an official who
was undoubtedly a servant of “King” Herod had a very sick son. We do not know
if this man was a Gentile, though it is possible. If so, John 3 and 4 report
encounters with a Jew (Nicodemus), a Samaritan, and now a Gentile. John may
have been showing a foretaste of the development in the Book of Acts. The
official (sometimes called a royal official) pleaded for Jesus to come and heal
his son. The stories of miracles in
4:48 The Lord objected that Galileans were so enamored with signs and wonders. Many in our day are preoccupied with such things to the point of neglect of the gospel message. In God’s ways, the thing signified is much greater than the sign that does the signifying! A bride who thinks more of her ring than her husband is a fair analogy of the distortion of miracles the Lord so often encountered. The Jews had a deep cultural and religious defect when it came to signs and wonders, a problem that Paul (a Jew) pointed out in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Signs were often given but not always, to authenticate a prophet (7:31; 9:17; Mark 6:14,15; Luke 7:11-17). Once authenticated, the proper issue should be: what does that prophet say from God? By a preoccupation with signs, their good purpose was obscured as the means to it became the chief fascination. Those who study John should meditate carefully on 2:23-25, a text that throws light on 4:48, and some other reports of faith such as 8:30,31. (See Appendix 8A The Popularity of Jesus.) The Lord reacted to the prevailing distortion concerning this aspect of His work, but He reminded opponents (5:36; 10:32) and disciples alike (14:10,11) that miracles made clear to all Who He was. In his closing remarks, the Apostle John connected faith to miracles (20:30,31). Faith in Christ was his desired goal and the basis of his choice for the very few miracles he reported. If attention is held to the sign, the sign has been abused. If attention is turned to Christ, the sign has served its purpose. No Gospel concentrates on the significance of signs to the degree that this one does.
The Lord was talking with a man in
anguish. He did not make him wait long for a word of hope. Jesus declined his
plea to go to
4:51-54 The servants traveled to Cana to find him
and when they did, he had good news before arriving at home. They compared
times and found that the word of Christ given at 1:00 PM was the time the fever
left. In this way Jesus, of not very far away
Christ was back in