Teaching series from John

Living Water

John 4:1-42

Teaching t05618


Reiterate John's purpose. To this end, he selects miracles and encounters through which Jesus reveals himself as the answer to our spiritual needs. Last week, we studied Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, to whom Jesus revealed himself as the giver of a new spiritual birth. This week, we study another encounter (read vs 1-9).

The first thing we need to appreciate is the contrast between this woman and Nicodemus. Especially in first-century Jewish culture, it's hard to imagine a wider disparity than that which existed between these two people.

Nicodemus was a Jew, but she is a Samaritan. When John says "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans," he is referring to the mutual hatred between the Jews and Samaritans (BOSNIANS & SERBS).

This hostility was based on both race and religion. After the Assyrian Exile in 722 BC, the remaining Jews intermarried with Gentile colonists and formed a hybrid worship of God, complete with a different temple and an edited Old Testament. The Jews thus viewed them as HALF-BREED HERETICS, and the Samaritans returned their hatred.

A couple of centuries earlier, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan Temple. The Samaritans returned the favor by littering the Jewish Temple with human bones, thus defiling it. By the first century AD, the hatred was so bad that the rabbis taught it was ritually defiling to touch any utensil handled by a Samaritan (sugchrontai in vs 9). Since Samaria lay between Galilee and Judea, pious Jews normally walked the 20+ extra miles around Samaria rather than go through it.

Nicodemus was a male, but she is a female. This was a real disadvantage in a culture that was decidedly chauvinistic.

JEWISH PRAYER: "I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave or woman." [1] TALMUD: "Every man who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her promiscuity." [2] "Let the words of Torah be burned up, but let them not be delivered to women." [3] Rabbis were forbidden to speak to any woman in public, even their own mothers or sisters. Samaritan women were regarded as ritually unclean from birth.

Nicodemus was relatively morally upright, but she is immoral.

Vs 18 says she had been through five husbands, and was living with her present boyfriend. Evidently, the one thing that she had going for her was her ability to sexually attract men.

Nicodemus was socially prominent, but she is an outcast.

This culture was very tough on immorality. In a small town like Sychar, she would be viewed as a threat to the other married women, so she was probably ostracized by them. For one thing, there was a well in Sychar, but she was coming almost a mile to this well. Furthermore, most women drew water in the evening or morning when it was cool, and made it a social occasion. But vs 6 says she came to the well at noon, in the heat of the day--probably because she was ostracized by the other women of the community.

Nicodemus was biblically learned, but she is ignorant (as we will see).

Nicodemus sought Jesus out to discuss spiritual issues, but she is initially indifferent.

Nicodemus had a serious and dignified bearing, but she is flippant and cynical (vs 9).

John has purposefully juxtaposed these two encounters. Why? To show us that everyone, no matter differen they are, have the same need for Jesus Christ. To Nicodemus, the highest of the high, Jesus' message is: "I don't care how great you are in people's eyes--you still need the new birth." To this woman, the lowest of the low, Jesus' message is: "I don't care how much of a failure you are in people's eyes--you can still have living water." Let's see how Jesus persuades her of this . . . 

The Dialogue (vs 10-26)


Read vs 10. As we will soon see, he is making a spiritual offer, but she probably hasn't had a spiritual thought in years. The word for "living" can also mean "running," so it's easy to see why she misunderstands his offer.

She is sarcastic, even cynical in her response and mocks him about both of his claims (read vs 11,12): "How are you going to get this water? You don't even have a bucket!" and "Who do think you are--better than Jacob?"

Undeterred, Jesus clarifies the nature of his offer (read vs 13,14). Physical water can only quench a physical thirst, and only for a little while, so you have to keep on drinking (present tense for "drink"). But he is offering a source of spiritual life one drink of which (aorist tense for "drink") will not only satisfy her spiritual thirst forever, but give her plenty to share with others besides (pege means "artesian spring")!!

Jesus is talking about the same thing he was offering to Nicodemus. There he called it the new birth; here, he calls it living water. In both cases, it refers to the gift of a personal relationship with God through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit--the gift that Jesus has come to make available to us at great personal cost to himself. Here is God's grace--offering all of this to her as a gift!

She is still either thinking non-spiritually, or (more probably) cynical (read vs 15): "Whatever it is, if it'll save me a trip out here, I'll take it."


Jesus suddenly shifts gears (read vs 16): "OK, go get your husband and we'll get down to business." Her answer (vs 17) paves the way for his BOMBSHELL in vs 18. Why did Jesus say this to her?

Partly, to show her who he was. But also because before we will be interested in the spiritual gift that Jesus offers, we must first become aware of our need for it. Jesus doesn't say this to shame her, but to cut through her "tough guy" facade and make her look at the main symptom of her spiritual need: her failure to achieve lasting, satisfying romantic relationships and her deep-seated loneliness.

She had been through one after another, but none had worked out. Who knows why--maybe she always picked losers, maybe she was so possessive that she drove them away, maybe she got bored with them after a while. Whatever the reason, after five marriages she has given up the formality of marriage and is shacking up with some guy just to survive. She's probably getting to the age where she's losing her looks, wondering how she's going to survive when they're gone. This is a woman who has deep inner pain, a deep thirst for love and companionshi--but who has buried that need deeply beneath a cynical toughness so she can't get hurt again.

Jesus peers into her heart and tells her she's got a hole in her heart that men can't fill. He is saying, "Let's cut the B.S., OK? You've had a lot of failure at romantic relationships, haven't you? You're a pretty lonely person, aren't you? How long are you going to keep drinking at that well? When are you going to admit you need a different kind of water?"

Talk about contemporary relevance! She is the woman (and man) of the 90's! We are a culture raised on the lie that the key to happiness is meeting the right person, having the ultimate love affair, etc. And yet the truth is that such relationships will never in themselves fulfill us. Why? Because we are spiritual beings, made for a relationship for God. Only when we are anchored in a personal love relationship with God, deriving our identity and security from him can we succeed in close personal relationships with other people.

Read vs 19: "Great. I come out here to get some water and I run into a prophet! I try to be polite with some small talk and you get into my personal life!" He's hitting too close to home, so, like a MATADOR, she side-steps and changes the subject (read vs 20): "Hey, you're religious--let's argue about religion!"

What is this? This is a SMOKE-SCREEN, a RED HERRING drawn across the path to distract Jesus from honing in on her personal, spiritual needs. This is a common response when people are confronted with their spiritual need. It's amazing to me how quickly people who have never asked a spiritual question in their lives raise theological controversies like this when they're being convicted about their need for Jesus (MAN WHO NEVER HEARD; PROBLEM OF EVIL; OTHER RELIGIONS). Often, they aren't really concerned with the answer; they just want to dodge the issue.


Notice how Jesus handles her (read vs 21,22). First, he answers her question. In point of fact, the Jews were right on this issue--they were worshipping God in the place and way that God had prescribed in the Old Testament.


But he doesn't leave it there (read vs 23,24). He announces that this whole issue is moot now that he has come. What matters now is that we relate to God in spirit and in truth.

"In spirit" in context means in a personal way. Both the Jews and Samaritans worshipped God at a temple and primarily through ritual observance. But now God has come in Person. As we saw in Jn. 2, Jesus is the New Temple--and we can now relate to him personally no matter where we are.

But we must also relate to him as he really is ("in truth"). People often like the idea of relating to God personally rather than in some impersonal, institutional way. But they sometimes object to the idea of a God who is holy, who judges sin, who insists that we come to him for forgiveness through Christ and a willing to submit to his leadership. "But I don't like that kind of God. I want a god of my own understanding." No! God exists as he is, as he is revealed to us through scripture. You have to adjust your thing to fit him--not vice-versa!

Jesus is repeating his offer: "I'm willing and able to introduce you personally to the real God --do you want to know him?" Read vs 25. Maybe she is trying to end the conversation politely: "Well, I don't know what to think--let's leave this to the Messiah . . . " I would love to be able to see her expression when he said vs 26 (read). Her jaw probably dropped, her eyes may have popped, her waterpot definitely dropped (vs 28). In this moment, she evidently came to faith in him as her Messiah--she began a relationship with God that changed her life!!

GOSPEL: This is the way Jesus Christ is going to approach you. He's going to make you aware of the gift he has for you. He's going to make you aware of your need for his gift by showing the emptiness of your life without it. He's going to answer your questions, but then call you when you are being dishonest. He's going to put you on the spot and call you to make a decision about him and his gift. Some of you have been experiencing this as we have been going through John, and Jesus is calling on you to ask him for this gift. How are you going to respond?

Her Spontaneous Response (vs 27-30)

Having received the "living water," she dropped her old waterpot. She went back to town and started telling everyone she knew to come out and meet the man who knew everything about her--and still loved her enough to give her a gift. They probably responded out of sheer curiosity: "If someone convinced her that he is the Messiah, he must be something!"

Nothing could be more natural once you've experienced the love of Christ than to share that love with people you know. Many of you have recently come to Christ--go for it! Tell your friends what you've discovered. Challenge them to receive Christ, too. Invite them to "come and see" by accompanying you to a Bible study and to meet your Christian friends . . . 

Jesus' "Secret Food" (vs 31-38)

Read vs 31-34. How can doing God's will be food? Those who are involved in sharing God's love with others know that the effort you expend in doing this is more than replenished by God's Spirit. The world offers short-term stimulation and long-term emptiness, but this is nourishing and deeply satisfying--far more than anything else the world has to offer.

Read vs 35,36. Jesus is referring to the people coming down from Sychar (dressed in white). He's saying, "Roll up your sleeves, boys. It's time to wade into the harvest and feast!"

Read vs 37,38. There are many people who are open to Jesus, and there are many ways to get involved. Not everyone is a gifted evangelist, not everyone gets to "close the deal"--but we can get in on this wonderful harvest in many ways: sharing Christ, praying for people who have opportunities, helping new Christians grow and reach out to their friends, serving in various ways in the church, etc. Do you want this spiritual food? Find a way into ministry!!!


[1] William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 67.

[2] Mishnah Sotah 3:4

[3] Jer Sotah 19a