Jesus often used every day items and situations to teach a spiritual lesson. Here in John 4 He starts a conversation about physical thirst and turns it into a lesson on spiritual thirst. The discussions main point is answering the question “How do we satisfy our spiritual thirst?”
Verses 3-8 sets the stage. Jesus is traveling from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north as you can see in the map below. Most Jews who made this journey did so by crossing over the Jordan River to the east. This made the trip longer but they purposely chose not to take the direct route because that would lead them through Samaria. As we’ll see the Jews had quite a dislike for Samaritans.
Jesus became tired like any other normal person and stopped at Jacob’s Well at noon during the hottest time of the day. His disciples went on to buy food for the day and left Jesus alone. A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water and Jesus does something quite radical. He asks her for a drink.
At this time in history it was not socially acceptable for them to even talk. Read verses 9-14. What she probably expected from the encounter was just awkward silence so she was surprised Jesus spoke to her. Racism is not new. Samaritans were a mixed race. Their ancestors were Jewish but they had intermarried with other cultures and so most Jews looked down upon them as half breeds. In effect, Jesus said to her “You’re surprised I asked you for water? Well, if you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for living water!” She didn’t know who He was yet nor did she know about the free gift of God; that forgiveness is freely given.
She doesn’t understand what He’s getting at so she reminds Him that He has nothing to draw the water with. It took Jacob and his men lots of work to dig this well and now this Man thinks he was going to extract water with no tool whatsoever. Did He think He was greater than Jacob? She doesn’t realize yet that He’s not talking about normal water. The water He’s talking about is VERY satisfying. It is a constantly flowing fountain or spring that will feed a well in the human heart resulting in eternal life such that they will never thirst again.
To help her understand He directs her to her real thirst in verses 15-18; her spiritual thirst. She is beginning to see now that Jesus is talking about something out of the ordinary but she still thinks it has something to do with drinking water. She knows she would like never to be thirsty again because then she wouldn’t have to come out here to draw water anymore! Jesus draws her attention to her spiritual need by asking her to go and get her husband. He knew the lifestyle she had led, that she has had 5 husbands and is now living with someone. He was directing the conversation to her life of sin and need of forgiveness. Her real thirst wasn’t for water but for a life with God. Thankfully this is the drink Jesus is offering.
In verses 19-20 we see that she is starting to realize that Jesus is unique. She sees Jesus as a prophet, someone who gets direct revelation from God and passes it on to others. Then she asks Him a technical question. Some think this was a defensive strategy on her part to get the focus off of her sin while others see it as genuine concern of wanting to know how to worship correctly. We don’t know her true motives but regardless, Jesus takes the time to answer her question about worshipping in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim.
The Samaritans had different beliefs than the Jews. They believed only the first five books in the Bible, the ones written by Moses, were really from God. Of course they believed they were the “true” descendants of Abraham tracing their lineage through Joseph. Mt. Gerizim was very important to their worship because they believed Noah’s ark landed there after the great worldwide flood. They also thought the Ark of the Covenant, the container that carried the commandments written on stone tablets given to Moses, was buried somewhere on the mountain. There are still a few hundred Samaritans living in Israel even today.
Jesus answers her questions in verses 21-24 but quickly gets the discussion back to her sin and thirst for God’s forgiveness. He explains that God chose to bring salvation through the Jewish people. They are the chosen nation. God used Jews to write the Bible. Jesus was a Jew. All of His disciples were Jews. The Jewish race descended from Abraham was specially selected by God to be a light to the nations and through them the whole world has been blessed. See Genesis 12 for the origin of these promises to Abraham and Romans 9:3-5 where Paul lays out the special blessings given to the Jews.
Jesus also explains that soon it will make no difference where a person worships. The building is just an external. What we wear to worship is external. Whether we sit or stand when we pray is external. The food we eat is external. Having fellowship with God has nothing to do with external rituals. Sin it not removed by being in a special place or doing a special religious activity. God looks at the heart. And specifically to see if that heart is trusting Him alone. He wants people to worship in Spirit and Truth. God is a Spirit so He doesn’t reside only in a special building. Even though we like to call our churches “God’s house” the fact is there is nothing special or magic about the actual building we meet in for worship. We also need to worship God in Truth. Plainly said, there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong. We need to worship God according to what He’s told us is true, not whatever we think or feel is right.
Jesus’ comments spark the woman’s memory in verses 25-26. Even in her sinful lifestyle someone somewhere had planted seeds of God’s truth. She knew, probably from Deuteronomy 18:15-18, that God had promised to someday send a Messiah who would fully explain divine truth, and in so doing, rescue the world. Jesus responds so simply but so powerfully by saying “I who speak to you am He”.
Their discussion abruptly ends when the disciples return from getting food in verses 27-30. They were surprised to see Jesus was talking with her. Not only because she was Samaritan but also because it was improper for a man and a woman who were strangers to talk alone in public. She leaves the scene but immediately goes and shares her discovery with others. The fact Jesus knew all about her made an impact and she offered the suggestion this might actually be the Christ they had been waiting for. Instead of just bringing her “husband” as Jesus requested, she was bringing a large group from her town.
Meanwhile, in verses 31-34 Jesus explains to His disciples what was going on and why He was speaking with this Samaritan woman. They had returned from getting food and urges Jesus to eat. He told them He had food they didn’t know about. They were confused and thought maybe someone else had given Him some food. His disciples didn’t realize Jesus was again turning a common situation into a spiritual lesson. His food was to do God’s work.
He explains to them it is similar to a farmer’s harvest in verses 35-38. Most of their crops took around four months after planting the seed before it was ready to be harvested. Jesus was telling them they didn’t need to wait! Look, the crop is ripe for harvest now! People need to be reconciled with God whether they are Jewish, Samaritan, Asian, or American! It is obvious to see the spiritual hunger of the world.
The sowing or planting seeds here represents telling people God’s truth. Similar to how someone had planted seeds in the Samaritan woman’s life that she should look for a Messiah God would send. The reaping, gathering fruit, or harvesting represents being used by God to lead someone to a saving faith in Jesus as their Savior. God has promised great rewards for being willing to go out and gather in the harvest. Jesus also called this being fisher of men (Mark 1:16-18). Paul referred to it as being ambassadors for God telling people how they can be reconciled to Him through Jesus’ death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). Instead of a Grim Reaper, we are to be a Him Reaper!
As harvest was a time for great salvation, so can those who plant the seeds and those that help reap the harvest rejoice together over souls that are saved from sin. Jesus is sending His disciples to reap what others have sown. Moses, the Old Testament prophets, even the work this Samaritan woman is doing in her own village is all preparing the way for the disciples to go and lead people to a saving faith in Jesus. Ultimately of course it is God that does the planting, the watering, causes the growth, and receives all the credit when someone is born again (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). We are but privileged God would use us in this awesome process.
This story has a beautiful ending in verses 39-42. Jesus stayed with these Samaritans for a couple days. Many people came to believe in Jesus as their Messiah because of, at least at first, the woman’s testimony. But once they got to experience Jesus for themselves they said they didn’t just believe because of what she said anymore. They heard for themselves and were convinced Jesus is the Savior of the world. As for me personally, nothing convinces me more concerning the truth of Christianity than the character of Jesus. But don’t take my word for it, experience Jesus yourself!
Our spiritual thirst is to have a relationship with God. The Bible says that relationship has been broken because of our sin. The only way to satisfy our spiritual thirst is to be reconciled back to God but the question is how to remove that sin standing in the way. There is absolutely nothing we can do to clear our sin from our account. That was the purpose Jesus had in coming to earth, to die for your sins as a substitute in your place. Now He is offering this drink as a free gift without cost (Revelations 21:6-8). How do you drink it? It is by trusting in Jesus as your Savior that you drink of this eternal life giving water.
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ “