The account of Jesus and the Woman at the well is a well-known and often referenced passage among the gospels in the New Testament. It is one of those passages that has a few fairly obvious surface-level takeaways, nonetheless, very significant. If you have heard this story preached on it’s likely that the preacher has hit on a number of different truths we can take from this passage. These include:
- Jesus breaks down cultural barriers - Jesus came not only for the Jews, but he is ushering in a time when all peoples can know God through him.
- Jesus ignores gender barriers - Jesus reaches out to not only a Samaritan (who Jews despised), but a Samaritan woman - At this time Jewish men were not allowed to speak with women in public, especially on a one-on-one basis. Not only was she a woman, but she was an “unclean” Samaritan woman. She represents many, if not all, of whom Jesus is reaching (non-Jews, men and women, the rejected, the outsider, the “not good enough”)
- Jesus claims that he offers eternal life - in the form of “living water” that we may never thirst again. This is life abundant.
- Everyone who encounters Jesus has the chance to be a witness of the gospel - Even though it is likely this woman has a dubious past, God uses her in mighty ways as a witness of Jesus and many others come to know him through her testimony. Regardless of our past, gender, age, race, etc., we can all be used by God in mighty ways.
Before we jump into the passage let’s take a step back and look at how this passage is framed within the overall message and themes of the book of John.
The first words Jesus speaks in John are “What are you seeking?” The first words of Jesus in any gospel are not by accident. They inform the reader about the theme of the entire book. Though these words were offered to two men who were very literally following Jesus... they had just heard that this was the guy to check out, and they did. Jesus turned to them and uttered those words, “ What are you seeking?” In a very plain sense this seems like a reasonable thing to say. “What do you want? Can I help you?” But John is full of subtext and symbolism. There’s always more than meets the eye.
“What am I seeking? What do I want?” This is the question that frames our lives. What am I doing with my life? What am I after? Wealth? Friends? Family? Success? To be left alone? We all want something. Jesus’ invitation to these two men was “Come, and you will see.” Jesus invites all those who seek for fulfillment in life to come to him and find out exactly what it is they are truly looking for.
These opening words in John are strong enough to convince me that Jesus wants to answer this question for each of us. But, there’s more. When Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion he asks those who confront him, “Whom do you seek?” And again, the first words after his resurrection to Mary in the garden were, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” It is no accident that Jesus utters these words at the beginning of his ministry, the time of his arrest leading to his crucifixion, and at his resurrection. These words frame the sign-posts of this gospel and Jesus’ message: What do you want?
We all desire to live a life that counts. We all want to look back on our lives and say, “I’m happy.” We have an intrinsic desire to justify our own existence, be it through success, wealth, family, relationships or whatever that carrot is in your life. We want to find fulfillment and leave an impression on this world. Jesus knows this about you and he has something to say.
Secondly, and naturally, I’d like to point out that John 4 follows John 1-3. Crazy, right? In John chapters 1 - 3 we actually see Jesus lay out the entire gospel message (see my essay on John 1-3 for more details) in this order:
- Need/Thirst for Life, John 1:38 - “What do you seek?”
- We find life in Jesus, John 1:39 - Come and see/Follow me.
- Jesus brings life to those who are dead, John 2:1-12 Jesus turns water to wine.
- Jesus will do this by cleansing us from sin, John 2:13-17. Jesus battles sin in the temple (the body).
- Jesus will defeat sin and be resurrected, John 2: 18-22. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.
- Jesus gives this new life through spiritual rebirth (regeneration), John 3:1-15 Jesus explains how one receives forgiveness/eternal life.
- The Gospel is summed up, John 3:16. Seven, the number of completion, wholeness perfection... Jesus tells us the master plan, the title of this great book that God is writing. John the Baptist represents the last of the prophets, saying “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30)
Chapter 4 - Enter the Woman at the Well.
Jesus has just left Judea and is making his way toward Galilee and, tired from the journey, stops with his disciples near a town called Sychar, located in Samaria (most Jewish travelers went around Samaria altogether when traveling north from Judea). The disciples take off for town to get some food while Jesus stays at the well alone. This is where we meet the Samaritan woman.
Jesus asks her for a drink and the woman is taken aback because a male Jew has asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. This is a social faux pas on many levels. First, men and women didn’t typically speak to one another in public at all, let alone while alone together. Second, this woman would likely be considered “unclean” to a “good” Jewish man. Anything she touched became unclean, let alone sharing a drink from her bucket (the bucket and water itself would be considered unclean). This would be akin, and even more shocking, than a rich white man to share an ice cream cone with an african american woman in the old south while inviting her up to the front of the bus with him. So, her surprise is expected. She asks why he would ask for a drink from someone like her?
Jesus responds a little weirdly on first glance. He tells her that if she knew “the gift of God” and who he was she would ask him for a drink and he would give her “living water,” which in plain language simply means spring water, or moving water (not stagnant). We are so used to this being a spiritual term, but it wasn’t to her. And, what does the gift of God have to do with anything? At this point we have to remember that this woman has no idea who Jesus is, and we have to read along with this in mind. She isn’t thick-headed. If you were to offer a guy a cup of water and he responds, “Heh, if you knew who I was you’d ask me for a drink! I’ve got better water than you.” You’d probably be like, “Ummm, ok. So, uh, no water for you then? Why’d you even ask me for some?” Jesus looks like a one-upper. Oh you have a one-scoop ice cream cone? Cool. I have a 5-scooper.
But, she plays along. She calls him “sir” and tells him he doesn’t even have a bucket. Where’s this spring water you’re talking about? ‘Cause, you know, there’s this well right here. It’s served our people for generations. And, it’s the well of Jacob! It was good enough for him and it’s good enough for me. Are you better than Jacob? You seem a bit narcissistic.
Jesus responds by telling the woman that if she drinks this well water she’ll get thirsty again. Wow, real life-changer there. That’s kinda the way it works, Jesus. You get thirsty, you have a drink... later on you get thirsty again and have another glass. Jesus is probably coming across as a pretty weird guy to this woman about now. Once again, we read this passage knowing who Jesus is and what he’s really been getting at the whole time, but she doesn’t have any reason to think Jesus isn’t just a guy who’s a bit awkward up to this moment. Then Jesus gets to the point. He gets obvious.
Hey tells her, “BUT” if you drink of the water that I give you will never thirst again. The water I give will become a spring of water within you that wells up to eternal life. It’s pretty obvious now not only to the reader, but to the woman that Jesus isn’t just talking about types of water, but about something much deeper, and on a spiritual level. The story continues but we need to stop here and rethink this whole conversation up to this point.
Let’s assume you’ve just read this passage for the first time. This is the first time you’ve heard these words, just like the woman. On this first reading, many of the significant truths I listed above are already apparent: Jesus doesn’t care about the rules of who you should or shouldn’t talk to, he ignores social/gender barriers in order to reach out to this woman. He takes an interest in her, etc. But, now we know there’s more happening here. Now we want to go back and read it again, knowing Jesus has used the conversation about water to get to something truly significant. On a second reading we can read into Jesus’ words a bit more.
On this second reading, we notice that Jesus has asked for a drink of water... a handy conversation starter because he wants to use the metaphor of water to lead up to the bomb that he’ll drop in verses 13-14 about him giving water welling up to eternal life. We can see that he’s not only addressing her physical thirst for water, but some kind of “deeper” thirst in her life. A thirst for something that satisfies. He tells her that the “water” she drinks won’t do the trick quite like the water he gives. At this level we can quite safely make the leap that Jesus is trying to address a deep need in her, and in all of us, for the thirst of our hearts and lives to be quenched. Remember the theme of “What are you seeking?” We all have a thirst that we want to quench in this life. We all have this innate desire for meaning, for purpose, for intimacy, for self-worth, to matter, to measure up... to find the answer. We thirst, we yearn for significance and intimacy in life. Jesus seems to be saying that the “well” she uses to quench this thirst will always leave her wanting more. If the thing he is addressing is her desire for “life to the fullest” it’s easy to see how we might fit into that conversation. For many of us, life to the fullest may mean accomplishing your dreams, having a family, being financially successful, living a good life, serving others, expression through art, etc. We go to various wells in our lives to find satisfaction... and when we feel unsatisfied again we go back to the well for more. And, if necessary, we dig deeper until we find more water. Jesus tells her here that only he can satisfy this great thirst in her life.
This is pretty deep stuff. And, it’s true. If we seek a life of fullness, significance, purpose - this can only be found in Jesus Christ. This “second level” of the passage is where, in my experience, we’ve all stopped. Not that this level is found wanting. Discovering the thirst-quenching power of Jesus in our lives is a life-changer. But, there is yet a third level to this passage that changes everything. It doesn’t change the subject, it reveals it for what it is.
As I was reading this passage again and again, I was struck again with the idea that none of Jesus’ words are throw-aways. And, the biggest throw-away of this passage seemed to me to be when he asks the woman for a drink. I kept seeing it as a simple conversation starter, a way to engage the woman so he could really get to what he wanted to say. If she had had a football in her hands maybe he would have simply said, “Pass! I’m going long!” and walked back, handing her the football, saying, “Hi, I’m Jesus... quite the arm you have there. I can give you the football of life if you want it.” But, his choice of words weren’t arbitrary. Nothing he says is arbitrary.
Then it struck me. If Jesus is using water as a metaphor, maybe he’s been using water as a metaphor the entire time. What if he wasn’t using water to simply build up to his announcement that he’ll give her “water” for eternal life? Secondly, Jesus isn’t just a man. He’s God in the flesh. And, though Jesus was a man with physical needs like everyone else, what if in this passage he is very specifically speaking as God to this woman the entire time? Perhaps I need to read the passage in this light. Then this question entered my mind: “Is God thirsty that I can give him a drink?” Does God have a thirst that this woman can quench? Can she somehow satisfy a need that God has in himself? The answer to that is a clear and resounding no. She can’t. It’s also interesting to note that it doesn’t appear that Jesus ever got that drink of water he asked for. So, why did he ask for something he didn’t really want? After all, Jesus is the one who diverted the conversation to spiritual things and ruined his chances at an actual drink of water. Then it really struck me. Is there any example in scripture where God asks his people for something he really doesn’t need or desire? My mind jumped to Hebrews 10, which is about the insufficiency of the old covenant. The author quotes Psalm 40:
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book."The author then goes on to say:
"When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do you will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."The old covenant system of ritual animal sacrifice for the covering of sin was instituted by God, and yet God himself has told us that he does not desire or take pleasure in it. It also states in Hebrews 10 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” There’s an obvious connection here. Let’s go back to John 4.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, something he doesn’t expect to get. He asks for this drink from an “unclean” woman who “taints” everything she touches. Water is an important symbol throughout the old and new testaments. It doesn’t always carry the same symbolic meaning, but it often does. In many cases it is actually a symbol of death, punishment, or a cleansing or covering for sin. Water is the instrument of God’s wrath in the flood. It “covers” them and is used as the agent for justice. Jesus turns water into wine (wine being a symbol for life, water for death). Christians are baptized into water (the grave) and rise out of the water as a symbolic gesture of dying with Christ and being raised with him in his resurrection. It seems clearer now in the context of John 4 that water is a symbol for a sin offering or cleansing agent (representational of the old covenant, the Torah, the Law).
God has just asked this woman for an offering of death for life. When the Jews offered a sacrifice before God the offering was, of course, for this sins of the people against God, not God’s sin because he has none. This makes Jesus’ next statement much more relevant and clear. Her next words also become more significant: “How is it that you... ask me for a drink?” The meaning here being, “What can I possibly offer you? Why would you ask me for that?
Jesus responds to her first by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you...” I ask myself, what does it look like when a person really encounters God? I thought of Isaiah in the throne room of heaven. When you meet God you don’t offer him anything. You don’t whip out a gift or a nice bottle of wine. You don’t let him know what you’ve got for him. You are utterly crushed. Isaiah is God’s prophet. If there’s any guy who knew God and had the right to boast about his walk with God in his day, it was Isaiah. And yet when he encounters God he cries, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” The issue between Isaiah and God is his sin and Isaiah knows it. He can’t stand to be in the presence of God - it’s humbling to the point of humiliation. But God, through one of the seraphim, touches his lips and atones for his sin. His sin had to be dealt with and God was the one to offer atonement to Isaiah, not Isaiah to God.
If water is representational for atonement of sin, or covering of sin, Jesus’ words to the woman make much more sense. If she knew who she was standing before, the almighty God of the universe, the creator of the heavens and the earth, she wouldn’t even consider offering him anything, rather she would be overwhelmingly compelled to ask him for this water... for the cleansing of her sin, of her person. And not only is Jesus offering an atonement, but the atonement through “living water.”
As the woman responds to Jesus, let’s remember that this conversation represents something much deeper than what is apparent on the surface... what does this woman represent? She tells Jesus that he has nothing to draw this water with, that the well is deep. She defends her people and her well - Jacob and his sons used this well, as do we. What can you offer that’s better than this? She is defending the Old Testament covenantal sacrificial system, while Jesus is about to usher in a whole new covenant.
Jesus tells her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again...” She is in a never ending cycle that looks like this:
Thirst → Well → Water → Thirst → Well → Water → Thirst → Well → Water → ∞
She gets thirsty, needs to go back to the well, gets more water. She then grows thirsty again and needs to once again repeat the cycle. Let’s take another look at Hebrews 10:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
This woman represents the old pattern. Just as sacrifices were offered every year, and this only reminded them of their sin, never perfecting them... this woman goes back to this well time and time again and is reminded of her thirst that is never fully quenched. With this fuller context... Jesus isn’t simply talking about a general thirst that we have to live a full life, as we previously discussed. His purpose in offering us this living water isn’t to make life more fun, to give us the “edge” when going about our day, or even in feeling self-fulfilled. This thirst represents our desire to be reconciled to God through the atonement of our sin. If sin wasn’t in the picture there would be no thirst. Though a thirst to find true intimacy with God may not be related to any specific sin in yours or my life, the fact that we have that unquenched thirst is itself a result of the effects of sin on our lives. Sin has separated us from the source of all that is life and all that is holy. In order to be rejoined to our source of true life and rest our sin must be dealt with. In the Old Covenant this was done, though as a shadow of things to come, through ritual animal sacrifice through the high priest. Throughout scripture it is clear that the wages, the results, of sin is death. If God is life than death is all that is left. But, from the beginning God himself instituted a substitutionary system of atonement. Even going back to the garden of Eden with the first man and woman, God “covered” their nakedness with skins of animals (animals who died to cover them). This continues to be seen in the sacrifices of young, physically spotless animals for the sins of the Jewish people. It is best illustrated as a prelude to Christ in the passover story, where the angel of death passed over the homes of those who were covered by the blood of a lamb.
Jesus, in a sense, is asking us, “How’s that working for ya?” Whatever semblance of peace, rest or resolution men and women felt in the old covenant, they always had to come back for more atonement, more rest, to try again to no avail. Their sin remained.
And this is where it gets exciting. Jesus is changing and has changed all of that with his “but.”
“...but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The “water” that Jesus gives is his own sacrificial substitutional death for our sin. This covering for sin is not temporary. There is no need for another sacrifice tomorrow, or next year, or ever again. While the “shadow” offerings of the old covenant were by the means of a physically spotless lamb, this final and perfect offering is through the means of a morally and spiritually spotless man - and in fact, God the Son himself.
When Christ died for the sins of his people, he put that sin to death once and for all. There is no more wrath of God for that sin. It is finished. It is accomplished. Jesus has fully taken on the wrath of the Father upon himself in his death. And when he rose he conquered death and became the firstfruits of those who would belong to him, his church. And for the believer, we, too, died with Christ that day and rose with him and inherit the reconciled and righteous standing before God that Christ himself has. And, Christ has given us the permanent deposit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He is our helper, wisdom and spring. And, because Jesus’ perfect atoning work at the cross is final, and because his sent Holy Spirit is a permanent deposit upon the life of those who belong to Him, this living water never runs out... it wells up to eternal life.
Galatians 2:20-21 sheds a perfect light on this: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
A beautiful metaphor behind the well and the spring is also made clear here. The well represents the old covenant temple of God. God’s people would journey to the temple to offer their sacrifices year after year. This woman comes to the well day after day for water. It’s beautiful to see that Jesus does not say the water he gives will become a “well of water welling up to eternal life” but rather a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Men build wells, but a spring is a gift of God, not made by human effort. Digging a well for water is akin to seeking obedience to God’s law as a justifier for one’s self (to get the water), as if we could stand before God and say, “Accept me, look what I have done. Look what I have built. Look at this well I have dug.” On the contrary, the law cannot justify, but condemn only. For, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10) On the contrary, harkening back to vs. 10 of John 4, Jesus says that the gift of God is a spring of his own making. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never built a spring. I’ve never worked for it. Spring water is something I simply drink from; I receive it. Building a well entails a lot of hard work and effort, but the spring is something I can purely enjoy. Jesus is telling us that our best efforts for self-atonement are, at best stagnant, water that will never satisfy. Yet the gift of God is pure fresh spring water that can be received and enjoyed forever.
Jesus is the cycle-stopper.
The woman’s pattern/old covenant pattern looked like this:
Thirst → Well → Water → Thirst → ∞
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Desire for reconciliation/atonement of sin → Temple → Ritual Sacrifice → Desire → ∞
But Jesus, having fulfilled all righteousness and his sacrificial death, ends the cycle:
Old Covenant Pattern: Thirst → Well → Water → Thirst → Well → Water → ∞
New Covenant Pattern: Thirst → The Cross → Holy Spirit = Peace and Rest
Old Covenant Thirst → Well → Water → Thirst → ∞
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Desire for reconciliation/atonement of sin → Temple → Ritual Sacrifice → Desire → ∞
Thirst → Cross → Holy Spirit
↓ ↓ ↓
Desire for reconciliation/atonement of sin → Christ in Me → Finished Atoning Work
Jesus not only offers life to the full - what he offers is true rest from our striving. That well is no longer an external location we must journey to. The water is no longer something we have to draw up. Jesus is offering true rest, not by saying “you’ve done well enough. I accept your offering.”, but by saying, “I have offered myself, I’ve done well. And now you will have my peace, the reconciliation I bring as a gift to you. And, it’s free.”
There’s so much more here, but I’ll be spoiling what’s to come. We’ve only covered vss. 1-14 so far! There’s more! At this point in the passage, whether the woman knows what Jesus is really saying or not, she responds - she wants in. She wants this water. She doesn’t want to have to come back to this well anymore. This is a break in the passage. We’re beginning the second half of the scene.
When we share the gospel with someone, the message of the cross cannot stay an idea. For one to be born again a personal exchange must take place. We’re not buying into an idea... we’re meeting a person. When someone wants to respond to the gospel, it’s always necessary to, in a sense, get personal. We move from “here’s the information” to a person’s life. Jesus has just shared the gospel with this woman and she responds. And, as God tends to do, he gets personal.
Though I desperately want to, I won’t walk us through this next section three times as I did with vss 1-14. But, I do want to demonstrate how this “old-to-new-covenant” interpretation of this passage not only explains an otherwise awkward and confusing dialogue, but brings deeper significance to moments which seem a bit random. Sometimes when we read scripture, whether it’s one of Paul’s letters or an account from the life of Jesus, we sometimes can’t help but think, “Where did that come from?” Jesus (or Paul) sometimes says things that seem completely out of left field. What I’m discovering more and more, especially in the book of John, is that nothing is out of left field. If it seems to be, we just need to look deeper until we see it. The conversation we’ve just looked at is one of those occasions, as is the second half. Let’s look at it, once again, at face value.
Jesus and the woman have had a profound conversation and Jesus immediately tells her to get her husband. This isn’t too weird - in this day and age she would likely want to tell her husband about what has just happened so that he could play his part in this new idea she’s bought into. The woman, though, responds saying she has no husband... but Jesus knew that (he’s doing it again - asking for something that doesn’t exist). Jesus tells her he knows that she has had five husbands and she responds saying, “I perceive that you are a prophet.” Jesus has appeared wise and sage-like so far, but he hasn’t gone psychic on her yet. She understands now that Jesus is a prophet of God. She then decides to ask him about which mountain is the true mountain of worship - this mountain or the one in Jerusalem? Jesus responds with something about a time coming soon when we won’t worship God in either place. He kinda dogs on her a bit next by telling her she doesn’t even know the God she worships, but the Jews do. What? Then he throws out a whopper about how “true” worshipers, soon, will worship God in spirit and in truth... whatever that may mean. She asked about which mountain we should worship on, that’s it. He goes on to say that God is spirit (which she knows) and he needs to be worshiped in spirit... ok? I guess that kinda makes sense, but it’s a bit vague... even for the present-day Christian reader. You can tell she doesn’t fully get it yet either. She ends the conversation by saying, “Welp, anyway... I know the Messiah will explain all this stuff when he comes.” Jesus then tells her that he is this Messiah.
Many of the same common spiritual truths are arrived at in the same way as in the first portion of this passage. Jesus demonstrates his divine knowledge in knowing about this woman’s past husbands. He also hints at a time soon coming when all peoples will worship God in truth, regardless of where they live - they won’t have to come to Jerusalem at all. There will be no “wrong or right” place to worship God. As Christians, we recognize what Jesus’ work on the cross brought this about. When he talks about people worshiping the Father in spirit and truth, this makes some sense to us - it’s not about dos and don’ts; it’s not about where you live or where you worship, but about worshiping God in spirit and truth, for who he truly is. These are all true and significant things to recognize and celebrate. But, once again, the “third level,” as we’re calling it, brings a deeper meaning to this passage... as well as explaining some of the oddities. Let’s begin again in vs. 16, reading it through as we did the first passage from this level of God-meets-human.
When a person is convicted of his or her sin and responds to the gospel, God, through the Holy Spirit, exposes us. This isn’t a moment of shame or withdrawal, but of letting go and of confession. When one makes Jesus the Lord of their life, God’s love and his gift of atonement to us are the tip of that spear that pierced our hearts, but this is accompanied by the shaft of that spear - truth. We understand who we are... we understand our sin. We understand our great need for a savior - a savior who knows our sin and yet still, in love, makes provision for us. This is what we see unfold here.
When Jesus tells the woman to go get her husband, he is bringing up an embarrassing fact about her life - this isn’t an area of comfort for her. We don’t know anything for certain about these five husbands except for what is in the text. We often, with much conjecture, assume that this woman has been married five times and has been divorced five times (either for infertility, affairs, or not measuring up to her husbands standards - either way, she’s rejected). But, there is another interpretation of her history that fits quite well with what is emerging as the theme of this passage as a whole. It is equally possible that this woman has not been married five times, but that she has had five husbands. That is, she has had five affairs with married men... and the man she is currently with is not her husband. She is having an extramarital affair. She is seeking a covenant relationship (marriage) from outside the covenant. This woman is a Samaritan. She comes from a people who have branched off from the Jewish people and faith. They are a people who claim to know God, to worship him, and yet do so from outside the covenant relationship that God has with Israel as his people, as his bride. In the same way, she represents a people who seek relational intimacy with a God they are not in covenant with, just as she seeks relational intimacy with a man who is not married to her. This isn’t simply about a woman who can’t keep a man, but a woman who is seeking a God she doesn’t know in a way that doesn’t bring true union.
When Jesus recognizes her unmarried status, she fully understands that this man must be a prophet. Have you ever asked yourself, “If I could ask God one question, what would I ask?” Well, this is her moment. She’s now in front of a prophet of God and what is the one question she asks? She asks about which group of people worships God correctly. Are you guys right or are we right? Who’s in right relationship with God here, you or us? Honestly, if I were her, this would not be the question I’d ask. She could have asked any miriad of things... but she asks this one question that fits right in line with our theme. And, her question mirrors the well illustration. She goes to the well to quench her thirst, just as the people go to the Temple for worship and offerings. She is asking which Temple, which location, is the right one... where do we meet with God? She again appeals to the tradition she comes from - “our fathers worshiped on this mountain.” She tries to defend her system. And yet she’s curious.
Jesus responds by telling her a time is coming when she will neither worship him on “this” mountain nor in Jerusalem. Jesus is being a bit subversive as he tends to be. Though, he does answer her question quite explicitly next: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” He essentially tells her “you’re wrong and we’re right.” He tells her flat out that her people are not the covenant people of God. They do not know the one they worship. And it is here that we see the second “But” of Jesus in the passage... a turning point that mirrors and illustrates the first.
He tells her “that an hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” As Christians it’s easy for us to read this and assume we pretty much know what he means there... you know, God cares about the heart, not what building you’re in. This is true, but it’s not what he’s saying. We’ll remember that the theme-words for the first section of the passage were about water and the well or spring, but now Jesus has switched to using different language. At first I was thinking, “Come on! Use the same words! Don’t confuse me!” But, by changing his language from “type” or illustrative words to the real thing, he’s showing us the connection to what he was saying the first time around about the water and the spring.
If we go back to vs. 14, Jesus says that whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst again. If this water represents his atoning work on the cross and his death as a covering for sin, he’s tying our thirst into our need for justification, a justification that is provided by him alone. And, later in this same verse, he goes on to explain that because of this justifying work on the cross that reconciles us to God, “in him [in the believer] a spring of water welling up to eternal life” emerges. If the well was the location for the still water, the believer is now the location of the living/spring water welling up to eternal life. If the well represents the old covenant temple, the body of the believer is the temple for this spring of water. This is consistent with our understanding of our being the new temple of God. Ok, we’re tracking here. So, why the shift to truth and spirit in vs. 23? Jesus has just explained that through him we are reconciled to God and made alive, which is manifest by a spring of water within us. Just one chapter prior in John, Jesus has taught that one must be born again to see the kingdom of God, not of flesh, but of water and spirit. We are born out of, given new life because of, living because of the death of Christ (the water) and made alive by the Spirit. There is a one-to-one correlation between the metaphor of water and atoning death. What about truth? Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). When Jesus describes that the Father “is seeking” a people who will worship him in spirit and truth, he is describing those who belong to Jesus in the new covenant. We worship in spirit because we have the indwelling of the the Holy Spirit (the spring - which flows eternally and forever confirms life) and in truth because Jesus is truth. And both of these are made manifest through the atoning work of Christ upon the cross. “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In the same way that we understand that Jesus lived the life we ought to have lived, but couldn’t, and died the death we deserved, but didn’t have to... The Father can only truly be glorified fully in the type of worship that the son can give. And, we can worship him in spirit and in truth because Jesus did... and we have his righteousness, his truth. We worship God by his Spirit through Jesus Christ.
This whole passage is not simply about an encounter Jesus had with a woman which changed her life. This passage is about the changing over from the old covenant to the new. It exposes the inability for any of us to make ourselves right before God.
The biggest mind-blower in this passage for me was this: I’ve always thought about the “life to the fullest, life abundant” that Jesus talks about as my living the life I’ve always wanted. Sure, I want it to be a Godly life, but I want it to be about all the things I have wanted - significance, influence, success, legacy. Those things are my version of physical thirst - things I try to pull up out of that well. These are things which everyone I’ve ever known have sought for the means of their satisfaction, I’ve never even heard of another type of thing I may be truly seeking. The problem with this understanding is that this is not the life I have. But, if Christ brings this life abundantly, why don’t I have it? Why do Christians suffer? Why am I not the success I want to be? How do we explain depression in Christians? If I choose to view the life-abundant as a zesty-life, my theology is at odds with what seems obviously true. My life isn’t always zesty and amazing. I’m left asking myself a question that can only have one of two possible answers: either I’m not saved or I’m doing something wrong (because I’m supposed to have a different kind of Christian experience).
But, this all assumes that when Jesus promises to quench our thirst in a way the world never can, that he means it in the way I’ve just described. But, if this thirst that he quenches is actually our need for reconciliation through his atoning work on the cross, it all fits. The problem isn’t a lack of self-fulfillment, the problem is sin. The problem is a broken relationship with God. This is why Jesus promises a spring within us welling up to eternal life, not a fun life. This theological observation may make some of you say, “hmmm, that’s good.” But, it likely doesn’t feel like a life-changing revelation. But it is... it is a paradigm shift, not only for a non-believer hearing the the gospel for the first time, but also for the believer who often feels like his life just isn’t working out the way he thinks it should.
As I was pondering this idea I was struck with what, to me, is a life-changing truth:
I will seek to justify myself before God using the same object I use to justify my life in my own eyes.Let me flesh that out. What is that thing (or things) in your life that make you say: I won’t be happy until I have X; I’ll be disappointed in my life until I accomplish X; I’ll feel like a failure if I lose X; If only I had X; I will refuse to feel good about my life until... I know I have fill-ins for those Xs. Deep down inside we all have this desire to justify our lives to the world and to ourselves. No one wants to feel like a waste of space, like they’ve wasted their lives. We want to live extraordinary lives. While I think there is a root of good and of truth in this desire, we look for the answer in the wrong type of thing. Not just the wrong thing, but the wrong type of thing.
Here’s what gets me. Not only do we us “X” to justify our lives to ourselves, but also our lives before God... these are things that place conditions on whether we think God is happy with or disappointed in us. If the most important thing in your life is your career, relationships, having children, getting married, making money, achieving your goals, etc. you will be hard-pressed to find any sense of peace and rest in your life until you have attained those things. And, once you do you will be disappointed. This disappointment doesn’t arise because any of those things are bad, in fact they can all be very good things. You are disapointed because these are not the type of things that quench the thirst you are feeling. It’s like trying to hammer in a nail with a wink of your eye, or trying to paint a picture with a paper airplane. Maybe this thirst you and i have is for something much deeper.
I will continue to fail in justifying myself before myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely satisfied by my thoughts, my behavior or my achievements. I also know that I’ll never measure up to God’s perfect standard for my life. He is holy and I am not. It won’t happen.
But, you know who’s life does measure up? Jesus’ life. As Christians we can celebrate the truth found in Galatians 2:20 - let’s look at it again:
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."My life is no longer my own. I died that day with Christ at the cross. It is no longer my life that I live, but Jesus is living a life through me. I can be ok with myself because my life is no longer defined by how well I measure up, but by how well Christ’s life measured up... and he lived it perfectly. Likewise, this same Jesus is the one who has fully reconciled me to the Father. When he considers me, he considers the perfection of Jesus Christ. I am ok with myself because my life is now christ in me, and I am ok with the Father because the Father is fully pleased with his son, Jesus Christ - and I am in Christ. This is true rest. This is where peace is found.
No longer are we bound by the pressures of measuring up. My hope is that I can press into this truth more every day. This means that I can let go. What would it look like for you entire sense of wholeness, peace, and identity to be wrapped up in the perfecting work of Jesus Christ - based on his gift, not your work. It means placing your own expectations for yourself that provide self-worth on Jesus and saying it is finished.
John chapter 4 isn’t just about how Jesus reached out to a woman he met at a well. It’s about a paradigm shift from the old covenantal sacrificial system to the new covenant under Jesus Christ, a covenant of grace, substitution and ultimately true peace.
Written: March, 2012