In John 3, Jesus attempts to tell Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that He was the Messiah. However, Nicodemus didn't understand the importance of what Jesus was saying. In John 3:10, Jesus questions how he can be Israel's teacher and not understand these things. Shortly after, Jesus meets the woman at the well.
She's never named, but her meeting with Jesus is the longest between the Messiah and any other person in the Gospel of John. Representing the lowest of the low, a woman in a society where women are both disregarded and demeaned, a race traditionally despised by Jews and living in shame as an outcast, not only does she have a holy encounter with Jesus, but she also receives eternal salvation. Her testimony convinces an entire town to believe. Who was the woman at the well, what's her significance, and why is her story important to Christianity and believers?
The woman at the well.
The story of the woman at the well is one of the most well-known biblical encounters. In John 4:1-42, it shows how Jesus sat down at a well in the town of Sychar while traveling through Samaria on the way to Galilee. Around noon, while His disciples were buying food in town, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman coming to get water from the well. He asked the woman for a drink, and their conversation took off from there, ending in her salvation and with Him telling her that He was the Messiah. We know a few essential facts about this woman. Her name isn't revealed, but we know she was a Samaritan woman.
The Bible explains that Samaritans were a race with whom Jews didn't associate. We also know that she had had five husbands, and the man she was currently with wasn't her husband. From understanding historical and historical traditions from that time, we know that women usually drew water in groups in the morning, and it was usually a social occasion. The fact that this woman was drawing water at midday alone indicates she was a social outcast. However, we know that she was deeply curious. She felt comfortable enough not only to talk with Jesus but to ask Him pointed questions. His answers to her questions and their subsequent dialogue reveal a great deal more, adding more significance to the story.
What did she ask Jesus?
Without understanding tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions and other characterizations, her questions appear pointed and stark. When Jesus requested a drink, she asked Him a series of questions, like how can He ask her for a drink, where can you get this living water, and was he greater than Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself? Jesus' responses were just as pointed and shocking. In short, He not only told her who He was, the Messiah and the Son of God, but that He'd come to offer living water. What's notable is the way all of this is shared and the way she appeared to see through His parables and reveal the truth behind His words when others couldn't.
What happened during Jesus' discussion with the woman at the well?
After Jesus asked for some water, the woman at the well asked how He could ask this of her, as Jesus was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. He said if you knew who it was that asked you for a drink, you would've asked him, and he would've given you living water. She pointed out that Jesus didn't have a cup, then asked about the living water and if he was more significant than Jacob. The text doesn't share whether her tone was heartfelt, rhetorical or sarcastic, but many scholars suspect that she was being facetious.
After all, Jacob was Abraham's grandson, the son of Isaac, and the ancestor of the people of Israel, who likely founded the town in addition to supplying the well where they spoke. Jacob's fame was great, but Jesus' earnest answer, elaborating on this living water He could give, prompted her to ask Him for it, which was when Jesus shifted to the next phase of their discussion. This next phase revealed that not only did Jesus have what she needed, but He knew things about her that were telling and surprising, that she'd been married five times and wasn't married to her current man.
Inferring that Jesus was a prophet, she then started to talk about religious matters, explicitly noting that Jews believe the place they must worship is in Jerusalem. Then Jesus shared something he hadn't made public in many circles: He's the Messiah. Then, His friends returned, and the woman ran off, leaving her water jar and telling everyone to come and see.
What happened after their conversation?
After Jesus and the woman talked at the well, she seemed to have been shocked at how Jesus knew so many things about her, telling the other Samaritans that He told her everything she ever did. Enthralled, they approached Jesus, and He stayed in their town for two additional days to talk to them. Because of what Jesus shared with them, many of them became believers, and her testimony led to their salvation.
What can we learn from this story?
This story of Jesus and the woman at the well is significant for many reasons. First, it shows Jesus' love for the world. The fact that this woman was of such low standing yet talked so directly, almost as an equal conversational partner with Jesus, shows His heart for all people, not just some. As we see in other stories, like when Jesus welcomed children in Luke 18:15-17 or healed the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus accepts all and all are welcome in God's kingdom. This story also reminds us that only Jesus can give salvation. He offers living water or eternal life. This water isn't like regular water but instead comes from God and lasts forever.
It also shows the importance of telling our testimony. When the woman at the well believed, she immediately ran to tell the others in town. Her words made a difference. As the Bible tells us, many of the Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman's testimony. It also underscored how Jesus is the Messiah. Once He says He's the Messiah, the townspeople and the woman believe Him. At the end of the story, the Samaritans told the woman that they knew this man was the Savior of the world.
It's interesting how Jesus attempted to tell Nicodemus that He was the Messiah, but he didn't understand. However, when he told the woman at the well, she understood immediately and ran to share the news. The story of the woman at the well is an example of truth, love, redemption, and acceptance.