In chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has left Judea to come into the region of Samaria. John 4:1-3 reads, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria.” John the Baptist had come to pave the way for the Lord, and now that his mission was done John was beginning to fade into the background. He had fulfilled the office to which he had been called, which was to bring people to repentance through the Law and then point people to Jesus Christ for their salvation. And Jesus’ disciples were baptizing people with water in Jesus’ name.
So, it’s within this context of baptizing and making disciples that John 4’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well takes place. John 4 records that, “[Jesus] came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well.”
The book of Genesis records Jacob buying this field that is referenced by John the Apostle. Genesis 33 says that after Jacob had reconciled with his brother Esau, “[Jacob] came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel” (Genesis 33:18-20).
So, this well by which Jesus is sitting is the same one that Jacob himself had dug on the land nearly two thousand years before Jesus’ time. Jacob bought the land, dug a well, and then built an altar to the Lord. He named the altar “El-Elohe-Israel,” which means “the mighty God of Israel.” The purpose of this altar was to provide a means by which Jacob and his people could worship the Lord. The altar was the instrument through which the sacrifices to the Lord could take place.
Now, here in John’s Gospel, we see Jesus sitting next to the well. The altar is long gone, but in its place is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The altar named “the mighty God of Israel” has been replaced by the actual mighty God of Israel, Jesus Christ, the one through whom the sacrifice to the Lord for our sins took place on the cross. So, God incarnate is sitting next to the well of Jacob as the fulfillment of the hopeful name which Jacob had given the altar.
Then, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water from the well. The Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jews in Judea. If we go back into Old Testament history we can learn why. Around 1000 to 900 BC, the Israelites were united in one kingdom under King David and then his son King Solomon. They ruled over all the tribes of Israel. When Solomon died, however, the Northern tribes split off into a separate kingdom based in Samaria, while the Southern Kingdom of Judah based in Jerusalem remained loyal to the line of kings descended from David. Then, a couple hundred of years later, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the armies of Assyria. The Assyrians had a habit of taking the people they conquered and re-settling them in other parts of the empire. Thus, they took many of the Israelites and dispersed them throughout the Assyrian empire, while at the same time bringing in non-Israelites and settling them in Samaria. So, in Samaria there was intermarriage between Israelites and non-Israelites.
So, now in New Testament times, the former kingdom of Judah is now the Roman province of Judea, and the Jews living there prided themselves on the fact that they were pure descendants of Jacob and had been loyal to the line of King David. They looked down on the Samaritans who were not of pure Israelite blood and who did not worship at the temple in Jerusalem.
So, that is why the woman is shocked when Jesus asks her for a drink of water from the well. Why is this Jewish man talking to me, she wonders, for Jews have no dealings with Samaritans, much less Samaritan women? So in response, Jesus tells her that if she knew who was speaking to her, she would have asked for the living water that only he can give. He tells her that everyone who drinks from the water of this well “will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. That water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus is promising living water that will well up to eternal life. Just as the altar that Jacob had named, “the mighty God of Israel” was pointing to the coming of the mighty God of Israel to save his people, so too is Jacob’s well pointing to something greater; it is pointing to living water which brings eternal life that will be given by this mighty God of Israel.
Here we get a glimpse of Baptism. For this is exactly what Baptism is, God’s living water which promises us eternal life through the Word of God. For in Baptism we are removed from the dominion of sin, death, and the devil and placed under the dominion of God through Christ. We are assigned into Christ’s death and resurrection, so that although we will die some day, we too will be resurrected like Christ. And this promise and act of salvation given to us by God in our baptisms is received by faith. It’s a gift, given to us who were still weak, the ungodly ones who Christ died for. As Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And God bestows upon us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection when He baptizes us with the living water.
So, Jesus promises the woman this living water. And the woman responds to this promise in faith and tells Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” She wants this living water that only Jesus can give. So, Jesus then tells her to go and bring her husband to him. She says that she has no husband, and Jesus says, “You’re right, for you have had five husbands and the one you’re living with now is not your husband.” Because Jesus knows this, the woman responds that she perceives that Jesus is a prophet. Therefore, she proceeds to ask him a question that has troubled her and the rest of the Samaritans for a long time: where should they worship God?
You see, the Jews worshipped God in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans worshipped God on top of Mount Gerizim. She wants to know which is the proper place to worship. Jesus, though, kinda side-steps this aspect of her question. The answer is – in a way – “neither” and “both,” because he tells her that something new is coming and is now here. He tells her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
So, again if we go back again to reflect on this well of Jacob, we remember that Jacob built an altar to the Lord next to this well on which to sacrifice and named the altar the “mighty God of Israel.’ Now, we see Christ next to this well as not only the mighty God of Israel, but also the true, perfect sacrifice – the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins on the cross. For it is through Christ’s body and blood that we are reconciled to God through the forgiveness of our sins. Salvation is from the Jews, because Christ has come out of the line of Judah, through David. And now that promise of salvation has been fulfilled by Christ, the sacrifice of the Lord, sitting here next to Jacob’s well. And this sacrifice of Christ and the living water of baptism are intimately connected, as we’ve mentioned. Jacob’s altar was pointing to Christ, and the well was pointing to the waters of baptism – now in this Gospel text we see the true fulfillment of this well and altar as the mighty God of Israel offers the living waters of baptism.
So, Jesus, the mighty God of Israel – the mighty God of the Church – tells the woman that the day has now come when true worshippers will worship God in spirit and truth. In John 14:6, Jesus clarifies how people worship God when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Jesus tells the woman that he is the Messiah, for it is through him that we approach God.
Now, recall that the purpose of the Temple in Jerusalem was that it was where God had promised to be. He placed His name there and promised that there He may be found. The Temple had a general court where all people could gather, an inner court where only Jews could be, and then the innermost sanctuary – the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies – where only the high priest could enter. The high priest would enter into the veiled Holy of Holies – into the presence of the Lord – once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people.
Now, though, with the coming of Jesus, he himself as the mighty God of the Church has entered into the presence of the Lord on our behalf with the sacrifice of his blood. He has atoned for our sins and removed the veil separating us from God. So, now we worship God in spirit and truth, through His Son who is the way, the truth, and the life, and through the Holy Spirit who is given to us in baptism. For just as Christ brings us into the presence of the Lord through His Sacrifice, so too does he reveal the Lord to us. If we want to know God, we must know Jesus Christ. And the Lord gives us Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit “who has been given to us” in the living waters of Baptism.
Our baptisms are therefore the first fruits of what God promises us. For we are promised living water that will sustain us for eternal life. Baptism is this living water, but here we have but a trickle. In the life to come, though, we will drink abundantly of the water of life, living in the presence of the Lord for all eternity.
So, in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel we see Jesus as the mighty God of Israel who atones for the sins of His people and promises living water; Jesus has come to fulfill the promises made to Jacob and to all the Old Testament Church. And his disciples are therefore baptizing people into his name, even as we continue to do so, in order to give people this living water.
However, our Baptisms are but a down payment, a guarantee, of what God ultimately has in store for us. For John wrote again of this living water in the book of Revelation, which is “[t]he revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). John writes of the vision of the new heaven and the new earth which God will bring about following the resurrection of the dead:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:1-5).
In the resurrection of the dead, you will be fed by the tree of life and the living waters flowing from the Lord. Just as the Lord gave you His Word in the waters in baptism, so too will He complete His promise of salvation to you in the resurrection by giving you the never-ending river of living water. The Lord is your life and salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is the one in whom the Lord reveals Himself to us. He is the one through whom we worship God in Spirit and Truth. And He is the one who gives us this river of the water of life, life eternal. Amen.
(Image: Jesus Offers Living Water. Etching by Jan Luyken, By Phillip Mehdurst – Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8987715 )