© Rosemary Bardsley 2009

John 4 is a relatively quiet chapter between the intense dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and the full-on debates with the Jews recorded in Chapters 5 to 10.

It would seem from 4:1-3 that Jesus deliberately avoided confrontation for a time. When he learned that the Pharisees had heard the (false) rumour that he was personally baptizing more disciples than John, he left Judea and returned to Galilee . This action is perhaps the first of several deliberate moves on Jesus’ part to ward off any premature action on the part of the Jews that would interfere with his ministry and bring forward his death before the appointed time.

Note the comment that Jesus himself did not baptize people. Given the later fragmentation of the early church into leader-oriented schisms [see 1Corinthians 1:10 -17], suggest reasons why Jesus did not personally baptize those who followed him:



As we read the report of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman we notice a number of significant facts:

A.1 The divine appointment – 4:4

It was common for travellers from Judea to Galilee to cross the Jordan and travel up the eastern side rather than head directly north through Samaria . Strict Jews avoided contact with the Samaritans wherever possible to avoid ritual uncleanness. Jesus, however, went through Samaria . John comments ‘he had to go through Samaria ’. The fact is that he didn’t have to, indeed it was normal not to. When we read this verse in the old King James Version it says “he must needs go through Samaria ”. In the Greek text the same ‘must’ is used as in “the Son of Man must be lifted up” ]John 3:14 ] and ‘‘the Son of Man must suffer’ [Mark 8:31 ]. It is also used of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus [Luke 19:5].

Here we have a divine appointment, a divine necessity. Here Jesus deliberately goes through Samaria because he must. The only thing that happens here is his meeting with the woman and then with the men from Sychar. But ‘only’ is perhaps too small and too limiting a word for this encounter, for, as we shall see, there is something that happens here that throbs with the very heart of the Gospel, and that displays the true nature of both the Saviour and the salvation he brings to us.

A.2 The evident real humanity of Jesus – 4:5-8

These verses reveal three acutely human needs: the need to rest, the need to drink, and the need to eat. Jesus was tired from the journey, so he sat down to rest. Jesus was thirsty, so he asked the woman for a drink. Jesus was hungry, so his disciples went to buy food. We also see here human dependence and interdependence. The one who created all people, here depended on the help of others. He shared our real humanity. He suffered our real needs. He identified with our need for each other. Even though at one level he had no need for any of this or for anyone’s help [see verses 31-34] yet he deliberately did not step beyond the boundaries of his real humanity to supply the needs of his real humanity.

Read Matthew 4:1-11. Comment on Jesus’ refusal to by-pass his essential humanity in order to serve himself.



Read Hebrews 2:9-18. Comment on the necessity for the real humanity of Jesus Christ, including the suffering the real humanity experiences.



A.4 The removal of the barrier 4:7-9

When Jesus asked ‘Will you give me a drink?’ the woman immediately recognized that this man was breaking the traditional boundaries that segregated Jew and Samaritan. As she correctly pointed out, Jews did not associate with Samaritans. The quest for ceremonial purity that forced strict Jews to take the long trans-Jordan route from Judea to Galilee also prohibited them from drinking from the same vessels as the Samaritans.

In his simple request Jesus discards this recognized boundary anticipating the grace of the gospel which eliminates all ritual-based, performance-based and identity-based divisions. He also expresses the universal application of the gospel of grace: it is not just for the Jews, it is for the Samaritans also. God is not just the God of the Jews, he is the God of the Samaritans also. While ‘salvation is from the Jews’ [verse 22] it is not exclusively for the Jews.

Note about the Samaritans:

Samaria was the capital city of the northern kingdom after the division of Israel in c930BC, and the centre of its idolatrous worship. After the destruction of this kingdom in 722BC and the removal of most of the Israelites from the land, Assyria transported and settled other vanquished people into the region. When the southern kingdom was conquered by Babylon [a series of attacks on Jerusalem stretched from 609BC to 587BC] only the poorest and least significant of the population were left in the land. These Israelites, left behind after the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks, intermarried with the foreigners. In addition, when the Babylonian exiles were freed to return to Jerusalem [538BC onwards] some of these intermarried with the now mixed-race inhabitants of the land, as well as with the surrounding non-Jewish peoples. These mixed marriages were opposed by Ezra and Nehemiah.

These part-Jewish people became known as ‘Samaritans’. They had, at times, a rival temple on Mount Gerizim , which they believed was the place appointed by God for sacrifice; at times during their history they syncretised the worship of Jehovah with idolatry; they accepted only the five books of Moses as the Word of God; they looked for the return of Moses, as a kind of Messiah. They were not rejected to the same extent as the Gentiles were, but considered as schismatic by orthodox Jews.

A.5 The unseen spiritual dimension [4:9-26]

In a conversation in many ways quite similar to his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus leads this woman to an awareness of the unseen spiritual reality of which she seemed largely unaware until he opened her eyes. Consider:

In both conversations Jesus uses the words of the other person as a catalyst to deliberately turn the conversation into a spiritual challenge aimed at confronting the person with his/her need for spiritual life.



Both Nicodemus and the woman initially understood Jesus’ words in a straight, literal, physical sense. Nicodemus thinks he is talking about physical birth; the woman thinks he is talking about physical water.



Both see the impossibility of the physical action that they think Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus knows it is impossible for a man to enter his mother’s womb and be reborn; the woman knows that this stranger cannot give her water because he has no bucket.



Jesus points both to the unseen, spiritual dimension of which he is really speaking. There is a ‘birth’ – a coming to life – which is spiritual, not physical. There is ‘water’ that eternally sustains and satisfies spiritual life, not physical life, so that one is never spiritually thirsty ever again.



To both Jesus points out the inadequacy of their understanding of spiritual truth. Nicodemus, Jesus says, though a teacher of Israel , cannot even understand physical truth, let alone spiritual truth. The woman, along with the Samaritans generally, has a worship based on ignorance.



To both Jesus defines the only basis of true spiritual understanding. To Nicodemus Jesus referred to being born of the Spirit; to the woman Jesus referred to drinking the living water that he would give. Both images refer to the one spiritual reality.



To both Jesus identifies the permanent and eternal outcome of true spiritual understanding: eternal life.



To both a challenge is issued to believe in the real identity of Jesus: to Nicodemus Jesus stressed the necessity to believe ‘in him’, that is, to believe in the name of God’s one and only Son. For the woman the challenge is in Jesus’ statement that he is in fact the expected Messiah.



In both of these encounters Jesus draws us away from a ‘flesh’ oriented perception and into a ‘spirit’ oriented perception. He challenges us, whether we identify with the godly, religious Nicodemus or with the adulterous, worldly woman, to see reality through his eyes, to see and to ask our questions from God’s perspective, not from our earth-bound perspectives.

How do we get into the kingdom of God ? How to we attain eternal life? How do we find spiritual satisfaction and contentment so that we will never be spiritually thirsty again?

      • Not by our physical birth [John 3:3-8].
      • Not by our religious heritage [ 4:19 -24].
      • Not by our physical location or the physical location of our worship [ 4:21 ]
      • Not by anything that is ‘flesh’ or generated by ‘flesh’ [3:6; 4:23 -24].

Our relationship with God must not and cannot be grounded in anything physical. God is spirit: he cannot and must not be worshipped on the basis of the physical. He can and must be worshipped only on the basis of ‘spirit’ and ‘truth’. This relationship with God which is called ‘worship’ in John 4, and entering the kingdom in John 3, is possible only to those who have been ‘born again’, those who have been revivified, given life, by the ‘living water’ given by Jesus Christ.

Identify how and to what extent you perceive your relationship with God to be grounded in something physical. What physical things?



A.6 The hidden identity of Jesus [ 4:10 -26]

While there are these similarities in Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman there is one significant difference: In conversation with Nicodemus Jesus made several references to his hidden identity [the one who came from heaven, Son of man, God’s Son, the Light], but he did not once actually state that he was this divine person of whom he was speaking. In conversation with the woman he himself mentioned none of his divine titles, but when the woman mentioned the expected Messiah, he deliberately stated that he was that expected one [ 4:26 ]. Here in Samaria he does what he refused to do in Judea . Here to this outcast, this sinful Samaritan woman he gives the one key spiritual truth which the leaders of the Jews, as we will see in the next chapter, were not able to receive. And she begins to believe [ 4:28 -30,39,42].

A.7 The work and will of God [ 4:31 -38]

Jesus’ response when the disciples urged him to eat demonstrates yet again the flesh/spirit, physical/spiritual contrast so much in focus in John 3 and 4.

There are two realities here: yes, Jesus is physically tired and thirsty and hungry; yes, he does need to eat food, and the disciples are justified in urging him to eat. But that is not the only reality, indeed that is not the most important reality. Jesus had not come through Samaria simply because it was the short route to Galilee . He came through Samaria to do the will and the work of God: to keep his divine appointment with this Samaritan woman, and as we will see shortly, to talk with the men of the town for two days and bring them to true faith and salvation.

About this divine work, this spiritual reason for his journey through Samaria , and for all such work that confronts people with God’s truth and challenges them to believe, Jesus makes the following comments:

      • This work of God, involvement in this will of God, is Jesus’ ‘food’ [verse 34]. This is what he is here for, in doing this he is fulfilled and satisfied and sustained. To do this generates more joy than a good meal. [Compare Psalm 4:7].


Reflection: Study this commitment of Jesus Christ to the work and will of God in John 5:17,36; 9:3-5; 10:25 ,37-38; 17:4; Hebrews 10:7,9-10.





      • This work of God, this will of God for the communication/revelation of his truth that generates true faith, is present and urgent [ 4:35 ]. While the physical harvest from the farms necessitates waiting while the crop grows and matures and can happen only at that time, the spiritual harvest is always present, always there. Here in this Samaritan town, where the Jews would not even expect it, there was a spiritual harvest, ripe, waiting. Waiting for that confrontation with God’s truth that would result in true faith. The disciples didn’t see this; all they saw was a place to stop for lunch. Physical. Earthbound. Flesh. But Jesus saw this other reality: Spiritual. Eternal.
      • Involvement in this work and will of God harvests a crop ‘for eternal life’ [ 4:36 ]. The physical, earthly harvest is only temporary. It has to happen again and again, season after season. The work has to be done over and over, and its result is consumed and is no more. But this work, involvement in this will of God, results in a crop that endures for ever. There is a permanence in this spiritual harvest that can never characterize the physical. Again we see the clear cut differentiation between flesh and spirit.
      • Involvement in the work of the spiritual harvest is a cause of joy [ 4:36 ].
      • Involvement in the work of the spiritual harvest is a shared task [ 4:36 -38]. It is not just the work of the harvester – the one who communicates the final truth that brings a person to faith. It is also the work of the sower – those many people throughout the history of God’s self-revelation, and those many people who over the years have spoken the words of God to this individual. Together all of these have laboured to this end, to this outcome: that now, at this point in physical time, this person receives eternal life, this person ceases to be flesh only, this person is born of the Spirit, this person acknowledges Christ and is removed from condemnation and wrath into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

A.8 The belief of the Samaritans [ 4:39 -42]

These few verses seem so ordinary, so unspectacular, that it is very easy to miss their power, and their stark contrast with the general unbelief or superficial belief of the Jews.

These Samaritans simply believed. Firstly, on the basis of the testimony of the woman. Secondly, because of the teaching Jesus gave them over two days. They believed what Jesus told them: ‘… we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world’ [ 4:42 ].

Like the Jews they were expecting a Messiah: unlike the Jews they accepted Jesus as that Messiah.

Like the Jews they were expecting the Messiah to be a Saviour: unlike the Jews they understood that Jesus was the Messiah, the Saviour, not for Jews only, but for the whole world.

Like the Jews they heard the claims of Jesus: unlike the Jews that did not demand miracles to validate those claims.



Apart from his ability to tell the Samaritan woman her life history [ 4:17 ,29] Jesus did nothing miraculous in Samaria . The Samaritans believed simply on the basis of his teaching [ 4:41 -42].

In 4:43 -54 we find that it was a different matter when he returned to Galilee :

      • The Galileans welcomed him because they had seen all that he had done at the Passover Feast in Jerusalem [ 4:45 ].
      • He returned to Cana , where he had turned water into wine [ 4:46 ].
      • The official asked for miraculous healing for his dying son [ 4:47 ]
      • Jesus said ‘Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe’ [ 4:48 ].
      • The official and his household believed in Jesus because of the miraculous healing of his son [ 4:53 ].

We have already looked at the issue of miracles in Study 3. Here in this brief reference in 4:43 -54 we see the interplay between the two purposes and the two perceptions of Jesus’ miracles. There is on the one hand purely physical purpose and perception: Jesus, in his deep compassion, healed the official’s son because he was dying, and this physical aspect of the miracle is all the official was focused on as he begged Jesus to do it. He was, at this stage, believing only that Jesus had the ability to do this physical thing. He was not interested in the deeper, bigger question that focused on the spiritual issue ‘Who is this man?’ On the other hand, both Jesus and John designate Jesus’ miraculous healing of the son as a ‘sign’ – something that points to a greater and more significant reality beyond itself. Having arrived home and found his son well, and having asked his servants about the exact time of the healing, it is then that the official begins to look beyond the physical to the greater, spiritual, reality, with the result that ‘he and all his household believed’ [4:53].