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written by Constance Morgenstern

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Study/Thoughts behind the song

"The Woman at the Well"

In my mind, this rich, rich passage from John 4:1-42 has always been the “Woman at the Well” story. She—the unnamed woman at the well—is certainly central to the events, but we especially need to consider what this story shows us about Jesus.

Jesus is on a roughly 60-mile journey from Jerusalem to Galilee, presumably walking, and cutting through Samaria. The Samaritans, although descended from Jewish ancestors, did not share the same religious practices, and there was emnity between them and the Jews. Talking together or sharing drinking vessels would not happen.

So, picture Jesus—tired, thirsty, and bucketless—waiting at Jacob’s well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. His disciples had gone into town to buy food, and the woman arrives with her water jar. That the time is reported to be about noon suggests that she could be something of an outcast. Women routinely went to draw water early, to escape the day's heat and to better meet friends.

When Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, it surprises in several ways. As we said, she was a Samaritan (see John 4:9). In addition, she was a woman (verse 27), and possibly an outcast because of her relationships with a number of men (verses 17-18).

Yet, Jesus does ask for a drink, from her. Next, he says that she should rather be asking him for the water he has to give—living water from God.

And this is such a revealing thing about who Jesus is. Jesus is humanly tired and thirsty—probably hungry, too—but his focus is on the spiritual hunger and thirst he has perceived. This comes out later when his disciples return with food, and Jesus says, in verse 34, that his food is to finish God’s work—harvesting, bringing people into eternal life. We know that Jesus wanted his followers to tell others about him (see Matthew 28:18-20 for starters), but verse 34's way of expressing this is beautifully compelling! More than earthly food, reaching souls feeds Jesus. (It reminds me of the rejoicing in heaven Jesus describes in Luke 15:7 and 10, rejoicing when even one sinner repents.)

Jesus shows us evangelism in a most organic, whole-self way. We could say that he was authentic. Even tired and thirsty, he spoke the truth he knew—not just as he preached to crowds, but as he just talked with this possibly outcast, Samaritan woman.

Oh, the wideness of God’s grace in Jesus!

(Most Christians know and appreciate the wonderful verse John 3:16, which preceeds this story and shows Jesus' view of his mission to the whole world. For his disciples—and us—however, envisioning grace to everyone is more difficult. We've seen how Jesus' conversation with this Samaritan woman surprised his disciples. Later, as the early church expanded, Acts 10:1-11:18 tells how God did some miraculous convincing with disciple Peter to get the church to welcome non-Jews!)

Back in our story at the well, Jesus goes on to explain to the woman his offer of “living water.” He tells how it quenches “thirst” permanently and becomes a spring that wells up to eternal life. I love the imagery of a spring: Reliable. Renewing. Active. Freshening. (It feels like descriptions of the Holy Spirit!!)

Now the woman, at first, is still thinking about earthly water, but she’s immensely intrigued by never thirsting again or having to draw water so often. Yes, she would accept this!

Their continued conversation is interesting, and you can see if you agree with my thoughts on it. To me, it feels a little out-of-the-blue (purposefully so?) when Jesus tells her to come back with her husband. Her answer, “I have no husband,” feels like half-truth, as if she’s not proud of her history. When Jesus, however, straightaway tells her about her past five husbands and that her present man isn’t a husband, she declares him to be a prophet. Then, she (a bit abruptly?) starts talking about the differences between Jewish and Samaritan beliefs. But Jesus talks about “true worshipers” who honor God “in spirit and in truth”—which transcends the religious divisions between them.

The woman says that the coming Messiah will explain all this.
Jesus says, “I am he.”

Wow! Jesus is not only skilled, but intense in his purpose to reach her spirit! And this really touches my heart as a female. It's not just that Jesus cared about this woman's eternal life, it's also that he conversed about theological matters with her. And when he admits, fairly plainly, that he is the Messiah—which didn't always happen—we can cherish the moment, too.

In our story, after Jesus' statement, his disciples return to the well with food they have bought. The woman then leaves her water jar to go tell everyone in town how Jesus inexplicably knew her past. Could he be the Messiah??? People follow her back to the well. I do imagine Jesus watching the people approaching as he tells his disciples of the spiritual “harvest” underway.

The woman’s testimony drew people to Jesus. At their urging then, he stayed two days, and many Samaritans believed in him as the Christ.

I love that the woman did this! Hers, too, was an “organic evangelism,” telling honestly what happened when meeting Jesus.

A former pastor of mine liked this quote from Daniel Thambyrajah Niles: “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread.” In this story, my guess is that the woman found it uncomfortable to mention her “past.” Yet, she clearly referred to it when she ran back to the townspeople, telling how Jesus’ knowledge of it made her wonder if he was the Messiah. Or course, his seeing her as a person, I think, was part of her enthusiasm! In any case, she functioned here as Jesus’ disciple. So many lessons and challenges here for modern Christians!

A few:
—to be more sensitive to spiritual thirst around us. It’s out there, especially now!

—to respond to that spiritual thirst, even when it's in people we don't expect!

—to authentically tell our own stories of encounters with Jesus. (People do have these encounters, but our culture has discouraged their telling—which is exactly why they can be powerful. For myself, I do remember an evangelizing visit from a run-of-the-pew church-person that still stands out to me 40+ years later!)

Take a look at these verses, and consider how they relate to this story:

1 Peter 3:15

Colossians 4:5

2 Timothy 4:2

What do you think of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23? Does the Apostle Paul’s admitted variety of approaches in evangelizing suggest inauthenticity, or reflect, as he says, his drive to win over more people?

For myself, I don’t think his varied approaches reduce authenticity. All of us have diverse experiences in life, which we can draw on to help relate to people in many circumstances. And, as Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, we are shown this: He did want to reach her with belief, and he met her where she was.

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