A life beyond our circumstances
The woman at the well is one of my favourite stories in the Bible! It is such a dramatic account of redemption and transformation! It is like a beautifully choreographed play where the scene is set with Jesus taking His place centre stage, waiting at the well for the woman whose life He is going to change forever. Their exchanges sally back and forth, with the woman engaging, asking questions, and Jesus challenging her with each response, gradually revealing more of who He is, until He finally confirms that He is the Messiah. This is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone, and the only one where He discloses who He is. It is the perfect script at the perfect time. Nothing in this scene is accidental or unforeseen – it is a clear demonstration that God has a great plan for each of our lives, even when we can’t see past our own circumstances and it is an uncompromising model of His desire for intimacy with us.
We’re going to look at the first part of the story today.
We learn from the Scripture that this woman had had five husbands and the man she was living with at the time wasn’t her husband. There is no further information about why she has had five husbands and isn’t married to the sixth. Whatever the reason, life for the woman would have been tough. She would have had to endure emotional upheaval, financial insecurity and probable physical displacement each time she was divorced or bereaved. Ultimately, she would have had very limited options for survival after the departure of her final husband. As a single, probably mature lady, she could have turned to prostitution or begging, but chose instead the more secure, but still shameful option of living with a man without being married.
Such was her life that rather than come to the well to draw water in the cool of the day, in the morning or in the evening with the other women, where there would have been gossip, unfriendliness and maybe even outward hostility towards her, she had to trek to the well in the fiercest heat of the day, at noon (the sixth hour), when she knew no-one else would be there. At that time, she could draw from the well in peace, if not in comfort. She probably also tried to avoid eye contact with people when going to the market or walking down the street. We can imagine how much her circumstances would have dictated her lifestyle. She was living in chains.
How does Jesus bring this damaged woman into a place of feeling loved, valued and healed of pain? He engages in a dialogue, which prompts the woman at different points to consider her ways of thinking. John 4:4 sets the context. ‘It was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria to return to Galilee.’ This was the usual route to Galilee, but religious men of the day would take the longer route via Perea to avoid contaminating themselves with the Samaritans, who were Jews who had intermarried and then worshipped foreign gods. However, Jesus had to go this way because he had a divine appointment with the woman at the well. In fact, he sat waiting for her! He was already at the well when she arrived. Isn’t it reassuring that Jesus is always waiting for us to come to Him?
In verse 7 He asked the woman for a drink. He initiated the conversation. Jesus isn’t passive or indifferent. He is eager to talk with us. It was so socially inappropriate for Him to speak to this woman. They were alone, the Samaritans were seen as socially inferior and to cap it all, she was a woman! Does that stop Jesus? No, because His values are Kingdom values where men and women, as well as people of every nationality, colour and belief are equally loved. How awesome that He wants to be in dialogue with us and values talking with us, whatever our gender, origin or past!
In verse 9, the woman reproaches Him for asking her for water. She was blinded by her circumstances – the poor relationships between Samaritans and Jews. She put up reasons why they couldn’t converse. She tried to push Jesus away. She couldn’t see past her current situation. Do we do this, sometimes, when we are in a place of hurting? Rather than turn to Jesus and ask for help, we say, “Sorry, there are just too many reasons why I can’t talk to you right now”; but a better way is to say to Jesus, “You are bigger than my circumstances. Can we talk?”. Remember Jesus is waiting and He’s eager to hear from us.
When we turn away from one type of behaviour to another, we are repenting. The word repentance comes from the Greek word ‘metanoia’ which means ‘change of mind’. Repentance is the key to re-establishing our relationship with God when things go wrong. When we can’t see past our own circumstances, it is often because we are not relying on God, we are relying on ourselves. Although God can see our troubles, He waits for us to willingly hand them over! By repenting of holding on to them and by turning our gaze away from ourselves onto Jesus we are able to reconnect with God.
In verse 10 Jesus answered the woman, “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.” Jesus is saying “If you knew who I really am, you would ask me for what you need and I would willingly give it.” If we recognise and know in our hearts that Jesus is the Son of God, we can ask Him for His living water – His salvation, Holy Spirit and eternal life. What more could we want? Jesus is willing and able to give us everything we need.
In verse 11 she replies, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” In this Scripture, the woman is puzzled. She can’t see the evidence. Jesus doesn’t have a bucket, so how can He draw water? She’s not sure she can trust Him, but she’d like to know more. At this point the woman is still thinking in the natural, not the supernatural. She is taking a step closer to Jesus by wanting to know more and is probing Him. Can she really put her trust in Him?
Do we sometimes feel like that? We want to trust Jesus, but desire more proof? Is it wrong to have a dialogue of this kind with God? Not at all! In Mark 9:22-24 we know the story of the boy with the evil spirit. The father says ‘ “… it often throws him into the fire or into the water, trying to kill him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us”. “If You can?” echoed Jesus. “All things are possible to him who believes!” Immediately the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”.’ God wants us to be completely open with Him. When we struggle to trust, we can ask for greater faith.
In verses 13 and 14 Jesus explains about the gift He has to bestow. He said to the woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus explains that those who drink the water from the well will only be satisfied for a period and then they will need more water. By contrast, those who put their trust in Him will receive their own internal well-spring of life from God. We will not be satisfied by looking elsewhere for what only Jesus can provide. Jesus promises that He will refresh our souls by becoming a spring of water, continually bubbling up within us unto eternal life. What Jesus offers is not just a quick fix, it is the promise that He will be with us for ever.
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water”. She doesn’t comprehend the fullness of what Jesus is saying. She is still focusing on her physical needs, on not having to walk all the way to the well to get the water, but has nevertheless decided that she wants to try the water that Jesus is offering. She doesn’t want to be thirsty again. She wants fulfilment. In verses 16-17, Jesus provokes the woman’s conscience so that she can confront her sin in this place of safety. He says ‘ “Go, call your husband and come back here.” The woman answered, “I have no husband”.’ Jesus knows in advance what her situation is; He just wants her to bring her sin before Him, so that He can restore her. Jesus never forces His way in. He is saying ‘Tell me what is on your heart’. Jesus is looking for us to be completely honest with Him. The woman begins to open up but is too ashamed to tell Him the full story, so He completes it.
Jesus said to her (v. 18), “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” Isn’t Jesus gentle as He reveals to the Samaritan woman that He knows everything about her? He wraps his message with affirmations, acknowledging that she telling the truth. Even though her situation would, by the norms of the day, mean she should be cast out and despised, Jesus only upholds her. He doesn’t shrink from the full truth because He is truth – and tells her that He knows about her sinful life – but He doesn’t judge her. He treats her with compassion and sensitivity. He builds her up, He doesn’t tear her down or criticise her. How liberating for Her to know that her deepest, darkest secrets have been brought out into the open and that she has not been condemned!
Jesus knew every intimate detail about her past and yet still treated her with kindness, love, dignity and respect. It is so crucial to understand that our freedom, too, comes from complete honesty with Jesus. What we hide in shame blocks the profound love of Jesus from reaching deep into our hearts. Not because Jesus doesn’t love us, He does and He always will, but because we limit His access by the extent of our openness. If we only open the door to the hall, that’s as far as He will come. If we open the doors to all the rooms in our heart, including the cellar and the attic, He will gladly enter in everywhere.
It feels like there is a shift in the tone of the conversation in verses 19-25, as Jesus begins to reveal to the woman about moving from the old covenant to the new covenant. As the woman’s sin has been brought into the light, He is able to share more intimate revelation with her. He divulges that worshipping God will not be restricted to particular places (e.g. the mountain or Jerusalem), with particular practices (rituals of cleansing and sacrifice), but will be wherever people worship in spirit (focusing on spiritual realities) and in truth (on the truth of God’s word). At this point the woman states her belief in the power of the coming Christ, to which Jesus, fully confesses “I who speak to you am He.” What an amazing revelation! And tomorrow, we’ll look at the consequences of that revelation and how it changed the woman’s life!