Jesus And The Woman At The WellErwin W. Lutzer | May 23, 2004
Selected highlights from this sermon
The woman at the well was ostracized, guilty, and condemned. She sneaked away in the heat of the day to fetch water, and ended up encountering the source of living water.
Just imagine for a moment being married to five different men, a succession of five different men, five different failed marriages, now living with a man who is not your husband, the scourge of the town. Everyone knows of your record and how immoral you’ve been, and how checkered your career. And you are living with that sense of guilt and alienation, that sense of anger that develops not only toward men but toward society, and toward yourself as well. And that’s really who you are.
Well, today, as you know, we are preaching a series of messages, and today I speak on the topic of the Woman at the Well. We spoke about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Next time, God willing, it will be Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus with that costly ointment.
But today our text takes us to John 4. And if you have your Bible or New Testament, you may turn to that with me. I encourage you to turn to it with me (the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel), and I want to talk about the context in which Jesus and this woman met. I’m picking it up in verse 3 where it says that He left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And now notice verse 4. He had to pass through Samaria.
In Greek there’s the little word dei. It means of necessity. Of necessity He had to go through Samaria. But I want you to know that this was not geographical necessity. The Jews had figured out a way to avoid Samaria. They would cross the Jordan River at its southern point, and then walk on the other side of the Jordan until they got to Galilee, and then cross up there near Galilee. And so they avoided Samaria.
The necessity about which the Bible speaks is a spiritual necessity. It’s the same word necessary as when Jesus said in the Temple at the age of 12, “I must be about my Father’s business.” It is necessary that I do the will of the Father.
But in this story Jesus breaks at least two taboos. Actually more than that! First of all, He breaks a geographical taboo, or we should say really a racial taboo—cultural taboo. You have to understand who these Samaritans were. Seven hundred years before this Assyria comes into the northern part of the land that we call Israel today, and Assyria carries off about 27,000 Jews to Assyria, and they are assimilated with the Assyrians, and we never hear about them again.
But left in the land were also a number of Jews, and the Assyrians brought in their own people to live alongside the Jews, and over a 700-year period they intermarried. And so the Samaritans were really half-breeds. They contaminated the Jewish blood, so the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. It was worse to have Jewish blood in you that was contaminated by these pagans than it was to simply be a pagan. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. They were despised by the Jews.
There’s another taboo that Jesus breaks and that is that He breaks a religious one, because what happened is when you had the northern part of the land (and that is where Samaria is if you looked at a map) God had said in the Old Testament that Israel should always go to Jerusalem at least once a year. Well, these northerners, these Samaritans were not welcome in Jerusalem, so they said to themselves, “We’re going to have our own worship, and we’re going to establish our own shrine, and we’re going to do it on Mount Gerizim. So right over here we are going to build our own altar of sacrifice, and we’re going to have our own religion. You don’t like us. We’re going to have our own way or worshipping.” That’s why a little later on, and you’ve got to read the story, Jesus, you remember, said, “You say that you worship in this mountain.”
The woman says to Jesus, “We worship in this mountain and you say that we should worship in Jerusalem.” And Jesus is going to say, “Neither this mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth.” So Jesus breaks that taboo. He’s in the presence not only of a Samaritan, a woman, but also a pagan Samaritan woman, and let’s continue to add here to it and say an immoral pagan Samaritan woman, and He’s with her alone, which no rabbi would have ever done. It would have been demeaning to be with a woman alone.
When the Bible says that at the sixth hour… You’ll notice the disciples go to buy some food and it says in verse 6: “Jacob’s well was there so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.” Remember that’s high noon. When you read the sixth hour in the Bible remember that for them the day began at six in the morning, so when you’re talking about the sixth hour, you’re talking about noon.
Why does this woman come in the heat of the day? Let me tell you what the custom was. The custom was that women would gather together and they’d go to the well. It was kind of a daily experience, and they did it usually as a group early in the morning when it wasn’t so hot.
This woman comes alone at noon. She knows no one is going to be there, and probably nobody wanted to be seen with her anyway, so she has to come alone to the well in the heat of the day. It’s about a half mile to Sychar. She’s got a long walk there and a long walk back. The disciples would have never left Jesus alone with a woman, by the way. It’s very clear that Jesus is sitting on the well. They go into the town to buy food, and the woman comes and He picks up a conversation with her. So that’s the context.
Now let’s consider the encounter. What’s actually going on here? In verse 7 Jesus asks her for water. “A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’” Oh boy! Was she startled!
Verse 9: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’” And John adds “For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” Why was she so startled? Well, for all the reasons that she knew about. Women were second-class citizens, but there’s even more going on in the text here. I can’t prove it because the Bible doesn’t say it, but I suspect Jesus didn’t have His own cup. If He was going to drink water it was going to be from her water jug. And that also was frowned upon because those vessels were not properly sanctified. I mean they may have been physically dirty, but also ceremonially dirty. You did not drink from the cup of a pagan or a stranger. And Jesus here, in all humility, puts himself in need and says to a despised, scorned woman, “You know, you could help me here.”
Well, you’ll notice that the woman is startled, and Jesus doesn’t answer her question. He says to her in verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Boy, she doesn’t get that. However, He has gained her respect, and she says to Him, “Sir (and from now on she calls Him “Sir”), you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep.”
Could I say here (and add my own parenthesis) that the well is deep. In 1968 I studied in Israel for the entire summer with Wheaton College. We had a free run of the country. We went to all kinds of places that you cannot go to today because of terrorism and conflict. And one afternoon we were at Jacob’s Well. Over there was Mount Gerizim. Over there was Mount Ebal, just as the Bible describes it, and when we were sitting on the well we wondered how deep is it? So we had some water and we poured it very quickly into Jacob’s Well and we tried to count the number of seconds before we heard the splash. It is a deep well. It was deep back then. It’s deep today 2,000 year later.
And she said, “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” She’s asking really two questions. Question number one is, I don’t get it. I don’t even see that you have a bucket and a rope. That’s question number one: Where can you get this living water? And number two: Who in the world are you really, anyway? Are you greater than our father, Jacob?
I said to Mary Whelchel, who is the director of our women’s ministry here (and how we thank God for her ministry), a couple of weeks ago, “Mary, I’m going to be preaching on the Woman at the Well. Surely you’ve done a study on that.” I said, “Give me your notes.” (laughter) And she sent me her notes, and I e-mailed her and I said, “Mary, this is good stuff. I want to use this in my sermon.” And she emailed me back and said, “Well, I’ve often used your stuff (laughter) so I guess turn-around is fair play,” and she said, “Use it.”
Mary, in the notes that she sent, makes this very intriguing and excellent point. She says, “Aren’t we just like that woman? God gives us a promise and we say, ‘God, I don’t see your bucket. I don’t know how in the world you can do this. You don’t have a bucket; you don’t have a rope! What is it, Lord? How in the world can you do this when we can’t see your bucket?’”
Second, this woman didn’t really know who she was speaking to and neither do we. “Who are You, Lord, that You can do these things?” Who are You, Lord, that You can deliver somebody from drugs? Who are You, Lord, that You can save people? Who are You, Lord, anyway? And I don’t really see it. You don’t have a bucket.”
You’ll notice that Jesus, when she says, “Who are you?” doesn’t say, “Lady, I want you to know that you are in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. I am the Messiah. Do you want to hear about all the miracles I’m able to do?” That’s not the way He approached her. He’s talking about her before He talks about Himself. He will talk about Himself but He’s talking to her.
And she has a need that she can’t quite put together, so Jesus tenderly helps her put it in perspective. And what Jesus knows is that unless you are thirsty, you’ll never come to the water. Unless you know that you are a sinner, you will never seek forgiveness, so this woman had a problem that stood between her and Jesus, and it had to be identified.
It doesn’t matter whether you are standing next to a doctor. It’s a matter of irrelevance if you are not sick, but if you are sick, then standing next to a doctor, and knowing that he’s a doctor, suddenly becomes important.
So Jesus here says (verse 16): “Go, call your husband, and come here.” (chuckles) Oh, that’s a sensitive topic! The woman answered and the words come easily from her lips: “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” It is true. You don’t have a husband.
When you are in the presence of a doctor if you have a cold you don’t simply tell him, “I have a cold,” if in point of fact you also have a breaking appendix. And when you are in the presence of God you just don’t tell Him all the right stuff even though technically it’s true. “I don’t have a husband.” Yeah, yeah, that’s true, but you know you have had five. It’s a technicality but it shouldn’t be overlooked. And the man that you are living with now is not your husband. You’re just cohabiting with him, as many Americans do today.
And so what Jesus here is saying is, “You’ve got a problem, Lady.” And she says in verse 19: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Good insight, lady! Good insight! And then she goes into the discussion of “how our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and you Jews worship in Jerusalem.” And Jesus said, “It is neither here nor in Jerusalem,” and Jesus gives her two invitations. Two invitations!
Number one, He said, as we pointed out just a few moments ago in verse 14, “You can receive living water.” Notice the words are: “Whoever believes in me, the water I give him will become in him or in her a spring of water welling up into everlasting life.”
Now, think about this. Here was a woman who didn’t have a support system. You know, when we are going through a trial we want a support system. If a woman is going through a trial she wants a husband who is going to stand with her, who is going to pray with her. We want people in the church to network. She didn’t have that. She didn’t have a man who prayed with her. She couldn’t look back on a life and say, “Well, no matter what I’m going through at least I have a good husband.” I mean she was living with someone who either did not want to marry her, or she did not want to marry him—one or the other. And people who live that way think that they can have the benefits of marriage without commitment, but it creates this instability because what it is saying is, “I love you so much I want to live with you, but not enough to commit to you. Oh no, no, no, I want to keep the escape hatch open just in case there’s somebody else out there that will make me happier.” So they cohabit. It’s sin, but it’s also a bad idea for other reasons. By the way, sin is always a bad idea, you know, just to clarify.
But what Jesus is saying to this woman is this: “If you believe on Me you will have inner resources, independent of the five guys that you were married to, and a sixth who probably was a good-for-nothing. You will have within you—within you—a well of water springing up into everlasting life. You will have the blessed Holy Spirit of God who will give you grace and strength.
And there’s a second invitation that He gives her, and that is to become a worshipper of the Most High God. He goes on to say: “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.” What Jesus does is introduce her to a seeking God, and He is looking for worshippers. And Jesus is saying to this lady, “You are a good candidate to fulfill the desire of God’s heart to find worshippers. Other people are too busy. They are too busy with their successes. They are too busy because they think they are fine people, and they have a world that has to be conquered, but you, Lady, with all of your background, which is so sordid, you can know living water and you can delight God’s heart, because He is looking for people like you to worship Him.”
Can you just pretend for a moment that you and I are having a cup of tea at a table and I am looking into your eyes? Can you do that? I want you to hear this because this comes from my heart to your heart today, especially if you are listening with an aching heart.
Success, as we generally define it, was not an option for this woman. She lived in a culture where women were obviously second class citizens or worse. And furthermore, even if she would have been able to have some kind of a career, she was past that. I mean, after all, she’d already had five men that she was married to and was living with a sixth. Whatever dreams she may have had as a girl of becoming this or that, those dreams were lost and buried years ago. Success was not an option. But experiencing living water and delighting the heart of God was open to her. She could become a worshipper of the Most High God.
People might shun her, but she was introduced to a seeking God who looks for people to worship Him. And sometimes He must go to those who are despised, those who have had bad backgrounds, those who have sinned mightily. And He looks for them there because they may be more open to worshipping Him than the folks who have never really done anything too bad in their life.
Years ago I told you about a man who said, “The worst thing I’ve ever done is to take a golf club and wrap it around a tree.” Oh my! Please give me your autograph right here because it’s seldom I meet righteous people like this, and I’d like to frame it and put it up and say, “I finally found a righteous man.” Is he open to worship God? Of course not! He’s worshipping himself!
And so the disciples come back in the middle of this, and they are surprised. The Bible says in verse 27 that the disciples marveled that he was talking with a woman, but nobody said, “What do you seek?” or “Why are you talking with her?” They didn’t have the nerve to confront Jesus about it. But they were just shocked. Our Master talking to a woman alone! Later on they discovered she was an immoral woman.
Now let me ask you what is the sequel to this marvelous story? The sequel! And the sequel involves two people. First of all, we’ll talk about the woman, and then we’ll talk about Jesus.
What about the woman? The Bible says in verse 28: “So the woman left her water jar and went away into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ And they (probably men because women never had contact with other women) went out of the town and were coming toward Him.” And of course, if she were able to line up all of the husbands and go to see Jesus that would be quite an entourage to greet Him.
She leaves her water pot. “Well, Lady, you came there in the middle of the day for water. Why didn’t you at least fill that water pot and take it?” Is it because she is so excited she can’t even take the time to fill it? Did not Jesus once say to some disciples, “Follow me,” and the disciples left their nets and followed Him? And she’s saying, “I’m leaving behind the water pot,” perhaps symbolic of her old way of life, even though, of course, she’ll need physical water. She’ll have to go there to be sure, but she’s saying, “I’ve found other water and for the moment I’m not thirsty.” And so she leaves the water jug and she runs into the town.
And I want you to notice what kind of an awesome witness she was. Believe me, if this lady… And Jesus does tell her, by the way, that He’s the Messiah. I’m sorry that we have to leave out some of these nuggets and details, which I assume you are reading in your Bible or will read later. He says, “I am the Messiah.”
Now, if she had gone back and said to everybody, “Guess what! I’ve met the Messiah. Come and see Him,” (laughs) they would have said, “Spare me! Spare me!” She’s wiser than that. She says first of all, “Come see a man who told me everything that I have done.” Wow, Lady! We sure know everything you have done. And if this man tells you everything that you’ve done, and you are willing to admit that you’ve done pretty bad, he must be an interesting man.
And then notice she doesn’t say, “He’s the Messiah,” because she knows that her word basically means nothing, but she raises the question, “Can this be the Messiah?” The Greek text actually is, “This couldn’t be the Messiah, could it be maybe? Hmmm? Why don’t you come and check it out?” What a marvelous way to witness.
Well, they come and check it out and one good thing leads to another. It says in verse 39: “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’” It’s that that really got their attention. You mean this woman is willing to be honest? This woman is not covering up her past but is willing to say that a man told her everything that she did? All those marriages and God knows what else she’s been doing?
So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them, and Jesus stayed there two days, and many more believed because of His word. And they said to the woman… They wanted to get this straight. I can almost hear them saying, “Lady, we just want you to know that it is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard Him for ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world. It’s not because of you. You know, we have actually met Him and now we are convinced on our own terms.” That’s okay with her. When you love Jesus you don’t care how people get there. All that you want to do is to see that they get to Jesus. And you don’t get any credit because no credit goes to you anyway. You just delight that others are finding the living water. So there’s that sequel.
What about Jesus? The disciples marvel and they say, “Here’s something to eat, Rabbi.” But He says to them in verse 32, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Did somebody else pass by here with some sandwiches? What’s the deal?
Verse 34: Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” What He’s saying is, “Don’t you realize that there are many thirsty people like this woman, and like the town of Sychar that we are going to be going to who are already ripe for harvest?” And you are thinking, “Oh, someday I’ll evangelize. Someday when I take evangelism training I’ll tell others about Jesus.” And the answer is no, no, no. The fields are already ripe for harvest. There are people out there who don’t know where to find the water. And you and I have the privilege of being involved with them. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him that sent Me.”
You know, you should be at evangelism training—Evangelism Explosion—when our people go out and then they come back afterwards. I’ve been there from time to time (not as often as I’d like) but when people come back they are so excited with a story, especially if they have led people to Christ. Even though they’ve had a busy day, their countenance is different. They are so excited because they have found food that thrills them and satisfies them and gives them excitement and joy. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me.”
As you know, last Sunday I believe, I had the privilege of baptizing 11 people, and 8 this morning (Wasn’t it?). I want you to know that those baptisms are so wonderful and exhilarating, and if you could see backstage people crying as they have the privilege of being baptized and representing Jesus… You know, if I could get a little colloquial, I’ll just say I’m pumped. I’m pumped!
Now, being unlike Jesus, I will need a sandwich this afternoon. Alright? But Jesus is saying, “I have food to eat that you don’t know anything of,” because there is nothing like leading people to the Living Water when they are thirsty. (applause) There is nothing else like it. So Jesus said, “Look at the harvest. They are ripe.”
You know, there may be those here today listening who have never received the Living Water. You’re intrigued by Jesus. You may even love Jesus. You may even confess your sins to Jesus, and you’ve never received Him as your Savior, as your substitute. But this woman! What an evangelist! And do you know what Jesus is saying when He goes on to this business about the harvest? You have to remember that they go into the town for two days. All the disciples go with Jesus so they find out all about this woman, all about her lovers, all about the situation. They learn it all. And what Jesus is really saying is that this woman is doing a better job of evangelizing than some of you disciples who are standing around, and you don’t see the need that is before your face. Look at the way in which she has shared her faith, and many of the townspeople in Sychar have believed because of her word and because of her testimony— “He told me all that I ever did.” Now there is a way to evangelize, and He no doubt held up this woman as an example of someone who was doing the work of evangelizing.
A couple of concluding ideas! First of all, Jesus never leaves us quite the way He found us. Here’s a woman who has gone through this history that we’ve talked about, and she’s transformed. She has no idea when she wakes up that morning what a different woman she’s going to be when she goes to bed at night. No idea, because she’s going to meet the Messiah who is going to forgive her sins and give her living water.
And so God doesn’t leave us the way He finds us. We come to Him with our need. We come to Him with our past, whatever it is. But secondly it’s also important to realize that God often uses people with a very, very sordid past and background. I mean here’s this woman who has gone through five marriages and divorced, I guess, five times, living with a man who isn’t her husband, and she becomes the evangelist and becomes the missionary to Sychar, telling people, “Look at how bad I’ve been, and look at how much grace I have received,” and the people believe and they are introduced to Jesus personally. Sometimes some of the best people to testify of God’s grace are those who have fallen the farthest and have been in the pit the longest, you know. And so God mightily uses them.
I’m intrigued by the fact that we don’t have a name connected to this woman. We have no idea. Someday I hope to find out. You say, “Well, are you going to Israel to do some research?” No, no, no, I don’t think that Sychar kept very good records. In heaven I’m going to find out who in the world she is because I’ve got these questions I’ve got to ask. You see, heaven is forever. You know, you say to yourself, “Well, I want to spend some time with Abraham, and I want to ask him some questions about the willingness to sacrifice Isaac and stuff.” And I say, “Fine.” And you say, “No, you don’t understand because I want to spend a whole day with him.” And I’m saying, “Hey, you know, spend a whole year with him. I mean, you know, we’ve got eternity. Right? We’ve got all of eternity.”
It’s like Woody Allen who said, “Eternity is a long time, especially when it gets near the end.” (chuckles) Actually I have to tell you that it never gets near the end.
But I’d like to say to her, “What were you thinking when you were walking that half mile after you met Jesus?” And I’d like to say, “You know, that guy that you were living with? I mean did you guys get married, or did you just walk out, saying that your relationship with Jesus was more important than your relationship with him? I mean whatever happened to that guy? Did he become a believer too, hopefully?”
You see, what God does is this. We can see here that Jesus broke the mold in terms of elevating women as evangelists, as people who were worthy of redemption and worthy of attention, and worthy of eternal life regardless of their racial background, regardless of their moral background. Here is the Son of God introducing this woman. I love the Word because “He must need of necessity to go through Samaria.”
I want to say that sometimes God asks us to go to places that other people don’t want to go to, that other people avoid. And when we are called, it becomes the divine necessity.
Many women have influenced our lives in many different ways. Fannie Crosby was a woman who wrote songs. In fact, there are 16 in our hymnal attributed to her. Actually she wrote hundreds of them. But the thing that intrigues me about her is that she wasn’t born blind. She had perfectly normal eyesight, but she had a rash on her eyes, and in the 1800s a doctor came along and said, “Oh I can put some salve on the baby’s eyes that will help,” and he put salve on her eyes and she became blind.
At the age of nine she wrote these words:
Oh, what a happy soul I am
Although I cannot see.
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.
She didn’t sue the doctor. She didn’t live a life of rebellion and anger (Look at the way in which I am confined.) because she saw, like this woman, that anyone can have two privileges. They can drink from living water, and they can become a worshipper of the Almighty, even if they are blind. They can delight the heart of God.