By Tim Harlow
To me, the best way to understand Jesus is found in one story in John 4 where the text tells us he “had to go through Samaria.”
That single statement may sum up his entire ministry. Most Jewish people traveling from Judea up to Galilee did not go through Samaria—even though it was the shortest route. The Jews had disdain for the Samaritans, who were largely descendants of the Israelites but whom the Jews viewed as political and religious rivals, so they usually would go out of their way to avoid passing through that region. Yet Jesus ignored the common prejudices of his time and “resolutely” went to Samaria.
Surprised by Jesus
During that journey, a Samaritan woman came to the well and Jesus asked her for a drink.
He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food. The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans (John 4:8-9*).
The woman was surprised by Jesus . . . surprised that someone who claimed to follow a different interpretation of God would put aside his prejudices and have a conversation with her.
A Jew normally would not talk to a Samaritan—period. Beyond that, a rabbi would never talk to a woman in public—it was gossip-worthy. And this was not just any woman. She likely was a woman with a bad reputation. We soon find out why.
Jesus offered her living water and then addressed her situation. What Jesus did next needs to be set up. If you read this wrong, you might think Jesus was calling her out.
“Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her. “I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied. Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband—for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now” (John 4:16-18).
Jesus was reaching out to her—not judging her.
Jesus did not say, “Well, you can’t have living water—you hussy.”
Jesus was just addressing the elephant in the room. He was saying, “Look, I know you and I know why you are here in the middle of the day—alone.”
We can tell she wasn’t upset by his response. She said, “You are right,” not “What business is it of yours?”
The Empathy of Jesus
This is so important as we followers of Jesus interact with people, especially those from “Samaria” (or whatever you want to call the “other side of your tracks”). I’m talking about those people from backgrounds and cultures we don’t fully understand, which for me would mean anyone other than a white male who grew up in Oklahoma in the 1960s and ’70s.
The problem with my “lens” is that, as I’ve read about this woman at the well, I’ve always just assumed she was a loose woman who couldn’t stay married to one guy, I’ve always assumed Jesus was “setting the record straight” with someone who needed a better handle on commitment. This likely would be the case in 21st-century America, where she definitely did not live.
A woman in Jesus’ day had zero rights. She didn’t even have the right to file for divorce or get a job, and, since there was no system for welfare, she literally had to have an “arrangement” with a man to survive. (This is why the early church specialized in caring for widows and orphans.)
Whatever her exact situation, this was a woman who had suffered deep pain. Doesn’t that change this whole discussion for you? Sure, maybe she was just seriously unfaithful. Maybe she was just a bad man-picker. I just want you to be open to the fact that you and I probably can’t fully appreciate her circumstances.
An admitted lack of understanding ought to be the basis of all our interactions.
Jesus didn’t preach at her; instead, he acknowledged her situation. He started where she was. Jesus was saying, “Look, I get where you are, and it doesn’t matter. I want to offer you my friendship. I want to offer you living water. I know you are a woman, and a Samaritan, and I know that your past and current living arrangements may make you want to avoid people in general—but I’m not like that. God is not like that.”
He was saying, “Your situation is not a problem for me. We are all in situations.”
“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners” (Romans 5:6).
That’s our “situation!”
The Barrier-Breaking Way of Jesus
The woman’s natural reaction was to test Jesus’ sincerity. Oh, I wish we could figure this out! She brought up their religious differences. It is so difficult for people to believe that living water is seriously available. There is almost always a wall to break through when it comes to Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed this up. She tested him with a religious question about the proper place to worship. (And by the way, her religion was absolutely incorrect, and Jesus knew it.)
But watch how Jesus minimized the differences and helped her to see hope instead of division.
[Jesus said,] “The time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus told her, “I Am the Messiah!” (John 4:23-26).
In other words, Jesus decided not to debate the differences, but to focus on the future.
It was a loving and accepting approach, and it was proof Jesus really was here to open the door to the kingdom for everyone!
In verse 26 Jesus told her, “I am the Messiah.”
Up to this point, Jesus had not admitted the full version of his identity to anyone but his closest followers. To the world, Jesus was a great teacher. He wanted to have plenty of time to help his followers learn and grow, and he didn’t want to incite the rebellion that claiming to be the Messiah would have created.
But he told his secret to the false worshiping Samaritan—a woman who had five ex-husbands—as he welcomed her into a relationship with himself and the Father. She was the first one!
Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” (John 4:27).
Do you see it now? The prejudice. They . . . were . . . shocked.
“What if people see you, Jesus? . . . Don’t you realize this is a woman, a Samaritan woman? . . . Don’t you realize she is here in the middle of the day, probably for a reason? . . . We’re not uncomfortable enough being here in Samaria in the first place, and now you are here with her?”
I’ve always wondered why all of Jesus’ disciples needed to go into town to buy food. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: “How many disciples does it take to carry lunch?”
I’ve begun to think Jesus may have sent them away. After all, if he knew she was coming, he knew that having the disciples around was going to make it harder for her. It’s obvious their shock would have created a barrier for her. And, sure enough, as soon as the disciples showed up, she left—it’s as if she could read their reaction.
She left and told the village to come meet this man. And as a result,
Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I ever did!” When they came out to see him, they begged him to stay in their village (John 4:39-40).
When people really meet Jesus—and his followers stop getting in the way—outsiders will come streaming to meet him.
This woman chose to go to the well at a time when no one else went to the well, likely in an effort to avoid people. She didn’t understand the correct way to worship God. She was either bad at relationships or had been kicked to the curb. She was living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. And she was the first missionary to the people of Samaria.
It happened because Jesus had to go there. That’s everything you need to know.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois. He is the author of Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World and What Made Jesus Mad: Rediscover the Blunt, Sarcastic, Passionate Savior of the Bible.