Exegetical Notes -- John 4.5-42



A. Comparison of texts:

v. 9 - Jews do not associate w/ Samaritans (NIV)

- Jews have no dealings w/ Samaritans (KJV)

- Jews do not share things in common (NRSV)

- Jews, of course, do not associate w/ Samaritans (NJB)

v. 14 -- the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (NIV, similarly in KJV, except ''springing up'')

- the water I shall give will become a spring of water within, welling up for eternal life (NJB)

- ''gushing up to eternal life'' (NRSV)

v. 29 -- Could this be the Christ? (NIV, NJB)

- He cannot be the Messiah, can he? (NRSV)

v. 42 -- KJV adds ""this is indeed the Christ"" though it''s not found in the Greek or other English texts

B. Greek Criticism: In v. 5: most mss. read ""Sychar."" A Syriac text reads Shechem, and Jerome equated Sychar with Shechem. The reading of Sychar is problematic: there is some ancient evidence of a place called Sychar, there are no connections to the region of Samaria. Askar is about a mile north of Jacob''s well, but the development of that name is much later historically and even then it served as a military base; finally, Askar already has a well and therefore would not have needed to make a journey to Jacob''s well. It is more plausible that the site could be Shechem since it is only 250 ft. from Jacob''s well.

v. 14: hallesthai -- ""leaping up"" is used to talk about quick movement by living beings,

like jumping; this is the only time it''s used for the action of water, though its Latin

counterpart, salire, has both meanings. Hallesthai is found in LXX with ""the spirit of God"" as it falls on Samson, Saul, and David. This appears to be the background John connects this living water to the spirit.

C. Rough Translation: 5 He came to a city called Shechem, near the piece of land Jacob gave to Joseph, his son 6 and there was Jacob''s well. Therefore, Jesus having become tired from the journey sat at the well. The hour was about the sixth. 7 A woman of Samaria comes to draw water. Jesus says to her, ""Give me a drink."" 8 For the disciples of him had gone away into the city, to buy food. 9 the Samaritan woman therefore says to him, ""How do you, being a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?"" (for Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, ""If you knew the gift of God and knew who it is saying to you, ''Give me a drink,'' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."" She said to him, ""Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where then will you get this living water?"" 12 are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well, and he himself drank from it, and his sons and his cattle?"" 13 Jesus answered and said to her, ""Everyone drinking of this water will thirst again: 14 but whoever drinks of the water which I will give, by no means will thirst ever again. But the water which I will give will become in him a well of water springing up to life eternal. 15 The woman says to him, ""Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst nor have to come back there to draw."" 16 He said to her, ""Go call your husband and come here. 17 the woman answered and said, ""I don''t have a husband. Jesus says to her, ""You are right, ''I don''t have a husband;'' 18 for you have had five husbands and now the one you have is not your husband; this truly you have said. 19 The woman says to him, ""Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain and you say that in Jerusalem is the place to worship."" 21 Jesus said to her, ""Believe me, woman, that the hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the father. 22 You worship what you don''t know; we worship what we know, because salvation is of the Jews. 23 but an hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and truth; for indeed the father seeks those who worship him; 24 God is spirit and the ones worshipping in spirit and truth, it behooves to worship. 25 the woman said to him, ""I know that messiah is coming, the one that is called the Christ; when that one comes he will announce to us all things."" 26 Jesus said to her, ""I am, the one speaking to you."" 27 And on this his disciples came, and marveled that he was speaking to a woman; no one however said, ""What are you looking for?"" or ""why are you talking to her?"" 28 The woman then left her water pot and went into the city, and said to the men, 29 ""Come see a man who told me all things which I did; is this not the Christ?"" 30 they went forth out of the city and came to him. 31 in the meantime his disciples asked him saying, ""Rabbi, eat."" 32 but he said to them, ""I have food to eat which you do not know."" 33 therefore the disciples said to another, ""Didn''t anyone bring him something to eat?"" 34 Jesus said to them, ""my food is to do the will of the one having sent me, and to finish his work. 35 do you not say, ''it is four months and the harvest comes?'' behold I tell you, lift up your eyes and behold the fields, because they are white to harvest. 36 Already the reaping one receives wages and gathers fruit to life eternal that the one sowing and the one reaping may rejoice together. 37 for in this the word is true that another one is sowing and another one is reaping. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor. 39 and out of the city that many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman witnessing, ""he told me all things which I did."" 40 when therefore the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to remain with them; and he remained there two days. 41 and many more believed because of his word 42 and to the woman they said, ""no longer because of your talk do we believe; for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this man is truly the savior of the world.


A. Genre: According to Alan Culpepper, et al, this story can be classified in two ways, both of which are closely related. First, he calls the story a ""development of type scene, character, irony, and theme."" (Gospel and Letters of John) What he means by ""type scene"" is that the readers will recognize the genre from past or known associations. However, common to Gospel narratives (e.g., parables), these known stories or scenes often present a different or previously unknown twist. There were several well scenes in the Hebrew Scriptures that parallel this story, at least in basic elements. So this story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well would be at least a familiar story line. Second, it is also a recognition scene (anagnorisis). This is John''s use of plot development common to Greek tragedies. The use of anagnorisis is also a biblical method whereby characters discover something not previously known. In this story, the woman encounters Jesus as messiah for the first time. Raymond Brown, similar to Culpepper, also outlines John''s use of drama as follows: ""Misunderstanding (vs. 11), irony (12) the quick changing of an embarrassing subject (19), the front and back stage (29), the Greek chorus effect of the villagers (39-42) -- all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting."" (Anchor Bible)

B. Personal interaction/questions & observations: My first observation is that this lection is divided wrongly. It should either begin with verse 1 of this chapter, but especially with verse 4: ""But he had to go through Samaria."" This, for me, introduces the story theologically from the perspective of Jesus, and for us, pastorally and ethically. I cannot dismiss from this story the imperative of making this journey (Gr. edei -- imperfect of dei, ""be necessary;"" edei- could be rendered ""had to, should, it was necessary""). Several questions also come to surface. What was the significance, if any, of the hour? If it was, as many hold, at the noon hour, was it because she was not included at the well with other women in the morning hour, the usual time to draw water? Or if it was, as others hold, later in the evening -- at or around 6 p.m. -- what would be the significance? It was known that rabbis did much of their teaching in the evening. Was this an early evening lesson on life at the well? Finally, a key question that informs preaching for this text, it says that they asked them to stay and Jesus stayed there two days. Where did he stay? Two more days also means two more nights. What place would be more fitting than in the home of his new friend and her ""significant other.""

C. Organization: The passage contains five scenes: 1.) 4.1-6 -- establishing the setting; 2.) 4.7-26 -- Jesus'' conversation with the woman of Samaria; 3.) 4.27-30 -- the disciples return and the woman leaves; 4.) 4.31-38 -- dialogue with Jesus and the disciples; 5.) the woman returns with her villagers. (Texts for Preaching) This story begins for me with Jesus seeing the need to go through Samaria. Though it was not a common route for Jews to take and one the disciples apparently didn''t want to, Jesus knew the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It was the road he had to take in order for him to encounter and confront. He had to encounter the people of Samaria and thereby reveal the inclusive, forgiving realm of the gospel. And at the same time, he had to confront the structures of hatred and prejudice that existed in that region. The conversation that begins rather benignly takes us through sequences of dialogue, both between Jesus and this woman and between Jesus and the disciples. The result for all those involved -- including the entire village -- is redemption, salvation, and transformation.


A. Immediate context: This story lies within a series of texts that presents Jesus as ""the giver of life."" The previous chapter deals with Nicodemus (3.1-21), the testimony of John the baptizer (3.22-30), and the discourse of ""the one who comes from heaven (3.31-36). The passage after is about the royal official''s son being delivered from death (4.43-54). This is the second sign of Jesus in Galilee found in this Gospel. Then the subsequent passages tell of further healings and ministry.

B. Organization of the compositional whole: This story falls in the overall composition of the Gospel. As alluded to above, this Gospel can be identified by ""a threefold division of plot in terms of the Gospel as a biography of Jesus, Word of God: a narrative of origins (1.1-18), a narrative of the public life or career of Jesus (1.19-17.26), and a narrative of death and lasting significance (18.1-21.25)."" (Segovia, et al). This story is in the early stages of his career and ministry that takes him back and forth between Judea and Galilee (unlike the Synoptics'' version of ministry predominant in Galilee). It is wedged between the first and second sign performed by Jesus, but it is also one of three life-giving encounters with persons who meet Jesus.

C. Authorship issues: It is believed that this Gospel could have been written by three contributors -- John the disciple, a later evangelist, and a later redactor. This pericope would be consistent with a story known by the disciple. It''s detailed version of geography (the discrepancy between Sychar and Shechem aside), the activity and dialogue with the disciples, and the results give credence to a disciple''s rendering. However, the knowledge and development of plot and genre could also lend to a later author who had a firm understanding and grasp of Greek tragedy, something not likely known by one of the sons of Zebedee.


A. Primitive Christianity: The tensions between the Jews and Samaritans make this story very relevant. It also raises the question of the ethics embodied by the early church. It appears to have been both diverse and inclusive. This is story that echoes Paul''s vision of the body of Christ and his work in the Gentiles churches. This story represents Jesus'' inclusion and acceptance of one who was normally marginalized by his contemporaries. Also, the theme of ""living water"" was a familiar context. Water was a precious and much needed commodity in that region. The Qumran Scrolls equate the well with the Torah and living water: ""I give thanks, Lord, because you have set me in the source of streams in a dry land, in the spring of water in a parched land, . . . trees of life in secret source, hidden among the trees of water. They must make a shoot grow in the everlasting plantation, to take root before it grows.""

B. Old Testament & Judaism: The OT uses living water as an eschatological symbol. Zechariah 14.8: ""On that day living water shall flow out from Jerusalem."" As mentioned above, well scenes were also known from OT stories:

Genesis 21.1-61: Isaac -- Isaac is absent (passive); Rebekah is dominant.

Genesis 29.1-20: Jacob -- Jacob wrestles with a stone.

Exodus 2.15-21: Moses -- Moses delivers the shepherd girls and provides water in the wilderness. (Culpepper) The case for the use of anagnorisis is also present in the OT and Judaism. In the OT, the story of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 deals with a recognition of sorts. When Nathan tells David the story of the man who stole his neighbor''s lamb, and David responds that this man should die. Nathan then reveals to David, ""You are the man!"" This would be a self-recognition of sorts as David recognizes his own sin. Also in the inter-testament writings: Tobit 5.16 -- Raphael reveals his identity to Tobit and Tobias, saying that God had sent him because of the good deeds of Tobit.

C. Hellenistic World: Recognition scenes were also known devices of ancient drama. The audience was often given information that the characters on stage were unaware of. This would enhance the irony and drama as the plot unfolded. Aristotle described this in his Poetics: ""Recognition is, as its name indicates, a change from ignorance to knowledge, tending either to affection or to enmity; it determines in the direction of good or ill fortune the fates of the people involved."" (Poetics 1452a). This device is also found in the writings of other ancient Greeks such as Aristophanes and Euripedes.


A. Summary of salient features: The salient features for me includes verse 4 in this pericope. Again, this introduces the motivation and rationale for this encounter. Jesus takes not the easy road around Samaria, but he goes through it. This is how we should encounter prejudice, hatred, and alienation of God''s people. We must confront it head on. All else follows this imperative. When we take ""the road less taken"" then we see God''s compassion and forgiveness revealed. As a result, all those involved who encounter God''s love will be transformed into a new relationship with the Christ, with others, and with themselves. This story reveals a moral and theological imperative for us, and it reveals that when we include even the least likely of persons, God does great things. The fact that this woman became the first evangelists shows us that God''s realm transcends all barriers that humanity erects: gender, religion, race, and ethnicity.

B. Smooth translation: Because the Greek in this Gospel is rather straightforward, my smooth translation does not differ from the one presented above. I would only add verse 4. ""It was necessary that he go through Samaria.""

C. Hermeneuctical bridge: The bridge for me is what happens when Jesus confronts the barriers that existed in the first century milieau of Palestine. The way he confronts it provides a model for us not just in the realm of ethics, but in the realm of evangelism as well. Jesus transformed the situation by being deliberate. He had to go the way he went; he didn''t skirt the issue or continue in the hatred and segregation. He transcended the religious, gender, national, and racial barriers to reveal an inclusive God that embraces and forgives. As a result, the one who was transformed became the bearer of good news to her own townspeople and they too experienced salvation. The church has much work to do in both of these areas -- racial ethics/justice and evangelism. This story informs both in that we need to continue to dismantle the structures of racism and prejudice and replace them with God''s love and compassion. And the church needs to remember that bringing others to Christ is first about being in relationship with those who are thirsty for living water.


A. Description of audience: I preached this text in 1994 at a previous appointment. I took the hard angle of prejudice, but tried to present it in a way that was not too controversial. At the same time, serving in predominantly Anglo congregations, this text will always be controversial when the racial issue emerges. After the sermon, one saintly woman who had liberal tendencies held my hand firmly and said, ""I know that must have been difficult. Thank you."" She was the only one who commented on the sermon that day. This text needs to be preached continually. Racial and prejudice issues is by far an unfinished agenda in our contexts today.

B. Intended goals: I will bring this issue into the discussion in the class that is going through this project with me. There are two ethnic families in this church, but neither are a part of this class. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

C. The address:


Brown, Raymond. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (New York: Doubleday, 1966)

Brueggeman, Walter, et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV -- Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)

Culpepper, R. Alan. The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)

Sloyan, John. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching -- John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)

Smith, Dennis E. and Williams, Michael E., eds. The Storyteller''s Companion to the Bible: Volume Ten -- John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)