Glossary of Terms

The woman of Samaria


Harper’s Bible Commentary

edited by James Luther Mays, Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary

(New York: Harper and Row, 1988, article by D. Moody Smith)

4:1-42 Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

4:1-6, Jesus at Jacob’s Well.

The opening sentence clearly refers to the situation described in 3:22-30 and notes Jesus’ return to Galilee, a journey accomplished by going through Samaria (v. 4). John agrees with Luke (9:52; 10:29-37; 17:11-19) in showing Jesus having contact with Samaria and the Samaritans. In neither Gospel do Samaritans fare badly. Probably Sychar (John 4:5) was at or near biblical Shechem, directly north of Jerusalem in Samaria. By Hebrew time reckoning, the sixth hour would be noon; at midday Jesus would be weary from walking. This is one of the relatively few places in John’s Gospel where Jesus is allowed to show normal human frailty (cf. 11:35).

4:7-15, The Conversation.

Jesus’ request of the woman of Samaria is not surprising by modern standards, given the setting (v. 6), but the woman’s surprise is understandable (v. 9). There is, of course, no way the woman could have known the particular identity of Jesus as the bringer of salvation (v. 10). The “living water” is also running water; John typically plays upon a double meaning in Greek that cannot be duplicated in English. Jesus means salvific “living water”; the woman thinks he is speaking of ordinary “running water” in the well (cf. 3:3-4). That Jesus may be a special personage, however, is suggested by her question (4:12), which in Greek expects a negative answer: Jesus could not be greater than Jacob. Of course, Jesus is greater. Jesus now gives a more straightforward answer (vv. 13-14), revealing that the water he gives is of a radically different sort. The woman begins to understand but is apparently still thinking of the quenching of this-worldly thirst (v. 15).

The conversation embodies the typical Johannine misunderstanding in which Jesus speaks with full and authoritative knowledge (fundamentally, knowledge of who he is), while the interlocutor responds in a natural, normal but uninformed way. Even Jesus’ disciples, although they are said to believe, do not fully comprehend him during his lifetime (cf. 4:32-34).

4:16-26, Jesus Reveals Himself.

Jesus suddenly turns the conversation in an unexpected direction (4:16-18). His command, the woman’s answer, and Jesus’ rejoinder culminate in a startling revelation about herself, which she can only acknowledge as true (v. 19). Understandably, she takes Jesus to be a prophet. Her question reflects the ancient dispute and tension between Jews and Samaritans (v. 20). “This mountain” is Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritan temple had been located until its destruction by John Hyrcanus (128 b.c.). Samaritan worship, however, continued there. The question allows Jesus to contrast the old false worship, whether Jewish or Samaritan, with the new (vv. 21, 23). Worship in spirit and truth (vv. 23, 24) means, in effect, Christian worship of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, who is the truth and sends the Spirit upon his disciples after his death. Thus Jesus alludes to the hour of his death and exaltation (cf. 12:23). (There may also be a contrast with sacrificial worship.) That “the hour is coming and now is” probably means that the hour is future from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry and present to the Johannine church and readers of the Gospel.

The statement of 4:22 seems to endorse Jewish worship over Samaritan just at the point at which both are being declared no longer relevant. That salvation is from (or “of”) the Jews is, at the least, an unexpected assertion in the Fourth Gospel. Because in this Gospel Samaritans are viewed more favorably than Jews, it is all the more difficult to understand why such a statement is made. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Gospel it is correct in that Jesus is a Jew (v. 9) and represents the Jewish messianic hope (1:45) rather than the Samaritan.

The woman’s response to Jesus (4:25) seems to reflect Jewish messianic expectations. But perhaps she refers not to the Davidic Messiah but to a prophet like Moses (cf. Deut. 18:15-22). The Samaritans viewed themselves as the heirs of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in which the royal line was not descended from David. Jesus replies to her by identifying and revealing himself, using the formula ego eimi (Gk., “It is I” or “I am”), which is characteristic of the Gospel of John (cf. 8:12). This self-revelation brings the scene with the woman to an end, but the episode continues.

4:27-30, The Woman Witnesses to the Samaritans.

The disciples now return and are amazed because by conventional standards conversation between a man, much less a rabbi, and a woman was unusual. The woman, leaving her water jar (v. 28), bears witness to her people, making clear her grounds for thinking Jesus may be the Christ (v. 29). Because of her testimony, the people of the city (cf. v. 5) now come to see Jesus, but while they are on the way his disciples return to the center of the stage.

4:31-38, Jesus’ Conversation with His Disciples.

Jesus’ disciples’ entreaty (v. 31), his response, and their puzzlement (vv. 32-33) form what has become a familiar pattern (cf. 4:7-15); now Jesus’ own disciples find his words a riddle and misunderstand in terms of everyday possibilities or circumstances. Jesus solves the riddle by revealing the secret of his symbolic language (v. 34): the God-given mission that is his source and sustenance. There follows a series of sayings that have as their theme, or common denominator, the harvest (vv. 35-38). Although their precise relation to the preceding conversation is not obvious, two factors help explain them. First, Jesus’ own mission is, in John’s thought, closely linked to his disciples’ (cf. 20:21). Second, this connection now finds expression through apparently traditional sayings whose referents are no longer clear (4:35 may echo Matt. 9:37; Luke 10:2). That the harvest is not in the future, but now, is typical of John, for whom God’s salvation is present in Jesus. The identification of the sower and reaper (John 4:36-37) is a problem. If they represent Jesus and the disciples, as might seem obvious, the “others” (v. 38; plural) is difficult to understand.

The passage can be fruitfully read in light of Acts 8:4-25, where Philip, who was not one of the Twelve, first preaches the gospel in Samaria. Only later do the apostles Peter and John confirm his work. If in John 4:35-38 Jesus is addressing his disciples and speaks of others who labored before them (v. 38), he may envision a similar situation.

4:39-42, The Samaritans’ Belief.

The Samaritans now return to the center of the narrative. Although the testimony of the woman brought many to faith (v. 39), the presence and word of Jesus himself causes more to believe and makes her testimony superfluous. That Jesus preached and made large numbers of converts in Samaria is attested by no other Gospel and is unlikely. Probably this brief narrative also reflects the mission of the early, Johannine Christians, who preached the gospel in Samaria. In John’s view, firsthand experience of Jesus (vv. 40-42) is not limited to his earthly or historical presence (see 14:23; 20:29) but is fully available only after his death and exaltation. Such experiential knowledge enables one to hail him as “Savior of the world,” a title used of Roman emperors.


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer