Have you ever wondered if you’re supposed to learn something from being thirsty? When you get thirsty for a cool glass of water, does it occur to you that God created us to have a feeling of thirst that can be satisfied by something else he created? Have you noticed that the physical sensation you get when you need water is analagous to the feeling of longing for something more, something beyond this realm, something that cannot be found in this world? The Bible tells us that this felt need–spiritual thirst–cannot be met outside of Jesus. When you get thirsty, God means for you to drink something. But he also means for you to think about what this means for your spiritual thirst. The Gospel of John (4:1-42) tells a story of Jesus talking with a woman searching for a cool drink, and how she found more than she was looking for.
In Jesus’ world, Jewish men rarely speak to women, even their wives, in public. Single men never do. For a rabbi like Jesus, it’s unthinkable. Yet Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman of doubtful character. Why do you think he breaks all those taboos? Jesus had to go through Samaria because it was part of his mission. He had come from heaven, sent from the Father, so seek and save his lost sheep. Those sheep were not only from the house of Israel (Jews), but from Samaria and the Gentile nations as well. Jesus came to break down the wall of hostility separating Jews and Gentiles, Jews and Samaritans. The taboos that existed in the first century ancient Near East were culturally and religiously originated. Jesus was not bound by such unbiblical customs such as the devaluing of women, ignoring women in public, and speaking to sinners (to name a few). Such barriers were a hindrance to his mission, so he was obliged to break them.
In John 4:10 Jesus lays out two key things the woman needs to know. What is “the gift of God” that she doesn’t yet know about? What doesn’t she yet know about “who it is that asks you for a drink”? The gift of God is the living water of which he speaks. This living water is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The woman at the well also doesn’t know that it is the Messiah that is speaking to her. As far as she could tell, Jesus was just a Jewish man (perhaps a rabbi) who was breaking social custom by talking with her. But she comes to a realization of who Jesus is. We see this in the titles she progressively addressed him with: Jew, sir/lord, prophet, Messiah, Christ, “I am”, rabbi, “savior of the world”.
In John 4:10 Jesus also states the response the woman needs to make: to ask for living water. What does he mean by this strange claim? What does the imagery of water, and particularly living water, tell us about what he offers? Jesus is leading the woman to ask him for living water, in other words, to ask for a living faith in Jesus as the savior of the world and the one who provides the Holy Spirit to live and worship aright. It is significant that Jesus uses the metaphor of living water as opposed to just water. In that culture and geographic setting, water was hard to come by, and running water especially so. Running (living) water was highly valued because of its purity. The rabbinic holiness codes required non-stagnant “living” water for use in ritual cleansing in purification rites. Jesus is offering water to drink that will cause her to live new life, that will quench her spiritual and religious thirst for belonging and significance, and that will make her pure from her many sins. These same promises are held out for believers today as well.
Jesus says those who drink the water he gives will never thirst again (4:14). I just finished a cold glass of water. Today it was over 100 degrees where I live, and I drank a lot of water to make sure I stayed hydrated. Nevertheless, I was still thirsty at the end of the day after slurping many glasses of water. Is this the kind of thirst Jesus had in mind that he is able to quench? I don’t think so. Jesus is speaking in earthy language about spiritual realities. He means that the one who comes to Jesus and is indwelt with the Spirit will never “thirst” again for something different. In some ways we continue to remain thirsty if we drink Jesus’ water, but our thirst is satisfied only by the water that Jesus gives. Never again will other “spiritual” or “religious” water satisfy our longings of thirst. This is so because we live now in an overlap of the biblical ages. We have a taste of the Spirit and things to come, yet we have not drunk in full. We still long for the day when we will drink down the cup of the Spirit’s life to the dregs. But until that day, we remain thirsty, but those who walk in the light of Christ know where to find living water.
Should drinking the water of the Holy Spirit free us from struggling with longings for love and significance, or from loneliness, boredom, and feelings of dryness? Some people think so, but the Bible (and experience) tell a different story. Because of the nature of the new covenant epoch, we will not be free from the struggles of the world. We will still long for love and significance. We will still suffer loneliness, boredom, and feelings of spiritual and emotional dryness. This is the case because we are not yet what we will be. For the Christian, his spirit has been renewed by the Holy Spirit and he has access to the “living water” which Christ provides through his Spirit. But the Christian also struggles with his old man (sinful nature) which continually rears its ugly head to drag us back into sin, suffering, despair, and death. Partaking of the Spirit’s “living water” will relieve us from these burdens, but we will never be completely relieved until the day of glory.
Jesus really gets the woman’s attention when he knows something about her that only divine revelation could have told him (4:16-18). Look back at John 3:20,
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
When Jesus exposes the darkness of her life, how does she respond? How is her response to the light significant? Those who hate the light recoil at it, fearing that their evil deeds will be exposed in the light. When Jesus gently probes into this woman’s life, he counters with information about her personal affairs (pun!) that reveal he knows more than is humanly possible (considering that he is a complete stranger to her). But notice how she responds to the light that exposes her sin. She doesn’t leave. She stays and continues the dialogue with the rabbi who has a certain something about him. While she does attempt to dodge the personal questions Jesus directs at her, we must remember that she is in the light and in fellowship with Jesus. John wrote that those who love darkness hide from the light, and whenever they are exposed to the light, they recoil. But the Samaritan woman demonstrates that she is not so afraid of the light that she is in darkness. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night under cover of darkness and departed while it was still night. Nicodemus did not understand. The Samaritan woman came to the well at noon (in the bright daylight) and left Jesus clearly walking in the light. She was so changed by her encounter with the Light of the World and the Source of Living Water that she ran and told her village to come see Jesus. The lesson is clear: the one who remains in the light will gain understanding, while the one who remains in darkness will not understand.
Jesus is not a space alien. In other words, in terms of his residence on earth, Jesus is not a-cultural. He identifies squarely with his Jewish heritage (John 4:22), but his broader point is that something radical is happening, and the debate between Gerizim and Jerusalem will soon be moot (4:21-24). The Samaritans worshiped according to a hybrid Judaism. The only scriptures they recognized as authoritative were the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Because of this they did not accept the tradition that the corporate worship site had been moved to Jerusalem. Abraham had built the first altar to the Lord in the promised land at Shechem, and the Israelites had first worshiped God on Mount Gerizim when they had entered the land under Joshua’s leadership. So there was historical precedence for Gerizim as the place for a temple to the Lord. But Jesus did not enter into debate with the Samaritan woman. He identified with his Jewish heritage by siding squarely with Jerusalem at the right place to worship. He told her that Samaritans worship what they don’t know, Jews worship what they know, and salvation is of the Jews. But Jesus didn’t stop there. Then he explained that the question of where worship was to be properly offered was going to change again, and it would no longer be a Samaritan/Jewish question. Jesus’ coming and work at the Messiah was now making the location irrelevant, because God was now seeking worshipers from all nations that worship God in spirit and truth. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus identified himself as the truth, and he is the giver of the Spirit. In other words, Jesus is making the radical claim that true worshipers will soon no longer worship at Jerusalem (redemptive history will bypass it in fulfillment of the shadow-type), but will soon gather to Jesus as “the place”, “the temple”. Jesus is now the place where the Spirit of God dwells with men. And the one who seeks to worship God truly must worship Jesus in Spirit and in truth (implying wherever Jesus’ Spirit is at). We are now in the era when the Holy Spirit will change everything!
God no longer lives in a temple made with human hands. He condescended to do this in the Old Testament in order to teach Israel that the temple was a sign that pointed to the day when God would dwell with his people unencumbered by the sin that separates us from fellowship with him. With the coming of Christ, Jesus is now God’s place. God has come to dwell (tabernacle, or “pitch his tent”) with his people (John 1:14). And when Jesus returned to heaven to be with the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with believers. Therefore the Spirit indwells the church to empower us to worship God in Spirit and in truth. He does not live in church buildings as in the OT, but in the church his people. Sometimes congregations and church members tend to forget this. Do you think that God is somehow more present at the church building than in your bedroom? Do your cherished church traditions become more important to you than the work of the Spirit, than Jesus himself? Do institutions, organizations, or the trappings of organized religion mean so much to you that you’re willing to defend them as the will of God, even to the detriment of believers in other Christian traditions? Do you view your church’s building as your little plot of the promised land, your little plot of heaven? Do you see you denominational (or nondenominational) identity as more religiously foundational than just being in Christ, being called a Christian? Are the religious traditions and rituals that you are familiar and comfortable with expendable when you witness God working in different ways among other believers? All of these things can pull us away from worshiping God in Spirit and truth.
The woman now knows both who Jesus is and what he offers. Her response (John 4:28-30) is a model for the response Jesus wants from every disciple. The woman at Jacob’s well now understands what Jesus was trying to tell her the whole time. Jesus is the Prophet to come! He is the Messiah! With this realization, she does what should come natural to all Christians—she goes with excitement to her family, friends, and neighbors to tell them about Jesus, and to bring them to him. Remember, the woman was sort of an untouchable in her community. She came to the well during the heat of the day when she would be alone. Her sin has made her morally unacceptable in Samaria. But that does not stop her from going to witness of Jesus to them. In this way she is a model for discipleship for all Christians. We also are sinners, and could have reason to be ashamed of our past and present. In every sense of the word we are hypocrites and unworthy of bearing the message of Christ. Who are we to carry sure a treasured message in jars of clay? But God has made the woman acceptable to him, and therefore we go. When people encounter the claims of Jesus for the first time, when they encounter him for the first time, it is natural and proper to go and tell. This is what disciples are called to do. Also notice how her response is different from that of Nicodemus. John’s narrative carefully contrasts the Samaritan woman with Nicodemus. She left in the light of understand and faith, going to tell others and bring them to Jesus. Nicodemus left Jesus in darkness. He did not understand and did not have faith. He did not go and tell others, because he was still in the fog of confusion, not the clarity of faith. John is contrasting the responses of the woman and Nicodemus to instruct his readers that we should response to Jesus, not as the teacher of the law who was in darkness, but as the Samaritan woman who was a sinner yet became a faithful disciple. We are to tell others about Jesus.
Jesus finally turns to address his disciples, talking about “real food.” What is real food for Jesus (John 4:32, 34)? The background of this story is this: Jesus sent his disciples looking for food. They were looking for earthly food, but Jesus was concerned to teach them a spiritual lesson about real/true/spiritual food. This spiritual food that Jesus speaks of is to do the will of his heavenly Father and to finish the work that he is called to. This is important for us because like the Samaritan woman who visited the well to quench her thirst but found living water, we also ought to learn the same lesson about hunger. There is a greater hunger that the need for earthly food points to. The nourishment we need is to do the will of God, and to finish the work he has assigned to us as Christians. We are all here for a reason, and we need food for our journey. Jesus teaches that complete our mission as disciples, we need to feast on spiritual food, and that food is Christ.
One lesson we can take from all this is that Jesus crossed cultural boundaries and religious taboos to take the light to Samaria. The Samaritans learned he is not just the Messiah of the Jews, but “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Where are there Samaria(s) for the church to reach today? Samaria was the place of corrupted religion in the first century. In this sense, the Samarias today would be Christian cults and churches that do not worship Jesus as the Savior of the world (in the sense that the Bible describes). This may sound arrogant in our postmodern ubertolerant culture, but people who call themselves Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists (followers of Mary Baker Eddy), and others in religious organizations that do not worship Jesus as the one true God come in the flesh—they are all Samarias that need Jesus. In another sense, every place where the gospel has been so corrupted that people no longer look to Jesus to worship God in Spirit and truth need to be reminded about the gospel. Many churches that call themselves Christian no longer believe the gospel (or even the Bible for that matter!). The people who follow the teachings in these organizations need Jesus. They need to hear the gospel anew because they’ve forgotten. And lest we forget, this is also the case in faithful, Bible-believing churches. We must remember that the church is always one generation from extinction. Even the best churches are a mix of believer and unbeliever. Our families are often the same. And as always, believers need the gospel. There is a strong tendency in the hearts of all sinful men to drift away from Jesus and the gospel, and to drift toward “Samaria”. Samaria is not just “out there”; it is in our hearts! In fact, that is where Samaria begins to grow. So we must never forget that we need Jesus as much as anyone else.
There are risks and costs for us in taking the news of Christ to “Samaritans,” especially those, like this woman, with doubtful reputations. There is certainly a price to be paid to cross traditional boundaries and bring the good news of Jesus to “Samaritans”. Jesus was called a friend of sinners and tax collectors, and those weren’t compliments! Our families will question our sanity, just like Jesus’ family did. Our friends will try to talk us out of risking our reputations and instead point us toward safer places, just like Jesus’ friends did. Our Christian brothers and sisters will distantly nod with outward approval, but will secretly backbite and criticize us, just like Jesus’ friends in the religious establishment of his day. The unbelievers who we take the gospel to may react with hostility to the message that they are sinners, under the wrath of God and in need of a Savior, just like Jesus’ audience. Most significantly, the spiritual forces of darkness will oppose us when we seek to bring the gospel of Christ to new Samarias, just as Jesus experienced. But in all these things we can take heart, because it was the same for Jesus, and God has sent forth laborers before us to do the sowing. It is our job to see the fields are ripe for harvest, and to believe God’s word when he says he has an elect people to gather out of the Samaritan people. If we suffer and die with Jesus, we can be sure we will live with him as well!