15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.”
When is the last time someone was truly honest with you about yourself? Or you were truly honest with someone else?
You may be the type of person who feels that you must simply “speak your mind” in order to be heard, or maybe you pride yourself in being able to take constructive criticism—when you feel it is warranted. Chances are you’re like most people in our western culture: you feel that you cannot truly say what you need to say to others—even to family or your closest friends—because they simply “cannot handle the truth.”
You may desire to hear only the truth from others and declare that you cannot tolerate a liar—but can you truly take criticism when it is offered, especially if it is unsolicited?
Our social interactions at work, at church, and even at home are usually delicate dances with the truth because you feel pressure to “be nice”, don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or fear a volatile reaction that may result in that person cutting off communication with you altogether.
The line, “You can’t handle the truth!” made famous from the hit 1992 film “A Few Good Men”, becomes something that we hide behind in our dealings with others—and deep down fear the accuracy of this phrase for ourselves.
Can you handle the truth? How about when the truth comes to you in the form of a person—a man that you possibly may have despised due to both of your social standings? To make it worse, not only is he asking you to do something that is socially unacceptable, but he may even be coming across as arrogant in the process. You are immediately annoyed by his forward manner and his impudent requests. To top it all off, he finds a way to point out the mistakes in your personal life and opens the wounds of regrets you have harbored for years.
This is what happens when Jesus meets the woman at the well. As we enter chapter four of John’s gospel, the apostle takes us back to a small hamlet in the northern hills, far away from the bustle of the spiritual and intellectual center of Jerusalem and into a territory that, to him and to Jesus, would have been, if not a forbidden land, one in which they would not normally be welcome to tarry.
This is the land of the Samaritans. Here Jews were despised and, in turn, the Jews despised the Samaritans. We in the modern western world may think racism is a recent invention, but here we can easily see that it has been present since the fall of man. The Samaritans were viewed as “unfaithful” compared to the Jews who clung to the pure faith.
In this land of the unfaithful, Jesus does something unexpected and sits down at a well. He sends the surprised John and his fellow disciples to the nearby village to search for food. Grumbling but obedient, they leave the young rabbi sitting beside the dusty road in the heat of the day, peering into the depths of the ancient watering source.
As the disciples near the village, they may have passed a woman, laden with an empty earthenware jug, obviously heading to the well to collect water. Uh-oh. This could be awkward. The Teacher is back at the well and this woman is heading His way. In the middle of the day! You know what THAT means. This is not good. Uncertain of what to do, the disciples continued on their way.
The woman arrives at the well and Jesus does the unthinkable: He asks her for a drink. In fact, He seems to demand it: Give Me a drink. In these two people we see a world of contrasts. The educated, religious Jew sits across the well from the working class, Samaritan woman—an outcast person among members of a race of outcasts.
For Jesus, a man and a Jew, to even ask a Samaritan and a woman for water is unheard of in this ancient time. This is something the woman points out to him and implying that he is being rude.
“Is your please broken?” is a phrase I use on my children when they are rudely demanding something and it usually results in corrected politeness. The Samaritan woman is not concerned about Jesus’s lack of a “please” in His request but rather that the request itself is entirely improper:
How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? –John 4:9
Here, the apostle John is recounting an event that mirrors another occasion described a few nights ago in Chapter 3, the visit from Nicodemus. In that encounter, Jesus reveals to the Jewish scholar and member of the religious elite that no matter how closely a person follows the laws of God, he cannot earn his salvation. Despite a rigorously pious life and his elevation to the highest levels of religious honor, Nicodemus is utterly lost without the salvation that comes through Christ.
The Samaritan woman of chapter four is the polar opposite of Nicodemus. Where he was honored and respected, she is an outcast and shunned. Where Nicodemus practiced holy living, the Samaritan woman lived a life of shame from past and present sins.
In some ways, it is difficult for our modern culture to understand what John is doing by including her, for a single woman who has multiple sexual and relationship partners is not generally stigmatized in the modern world. In our post-Christian times, it is far more likely that the stuffy religious scholar Nicodemus would be cast in a more negative light in the eyes of the world.
The Samaritan woman almost benefits today from the “harlot with the heart of gold” archetype of character found in movies and literature. An example is Dora, madam of “The Bear Flag” brothel in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row:”
As for Dora—she leads a ticklish existence. Being against the law, at least against the letter, she must be twice as law-abiding as anyone else. There must be no drunks, no fighting, no vulgarity or they close Dora up. Also being illegal, Dora must be especially philanthropic. Everyone puts the bite on her. If the police give a dance for their pension fund and everyone gives a dollar, Dora has to give fifty dollars. When the Chamber of Commerce improved its gardens, the merchants each gave five dollars but Dora was asked for and gave a hundred.–John Steinbeck, “Cannery Row”
Dora is a sympathetic, almost heroic, character in the story—both a victim and benefactor of the society around her. To a first century reader, the Samaritan woman would be far from sympathetic—but she would soon be revealed as heroic due to her response to Jesus.
The Samaritan woman struggles with the sins she has committed and Jesus zeroes in on this with her:
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.”–John 4:16-18
Jesus pulls no punches but speaks truthfully of her lifestyle and choices. His questions strike to her core because she knows of her sinful situation and the pain of being shunned by her community as a result. She fetches water in the middle of the day because she is not welcome in the company of the other women of the village. Her life, in the modern expression, is a hot mess.
Unlike the gossips and keepers of morality in the community, Jesus does not address the woman’s sins as a snide comment or as a “gotcha” to end their debate. Jesus speaks to her of her life because He knows her.
The effect of the truth of Jesus’s words, of His understanding her condition, disarms the Samaritan woman. She realizes that the one who is promising “living water” with which she will never thirst again is not talking about the end of her trips to the well but a new life free of the guilt of the old. Jesus does not bid her to go and get her life in order but meets her at that moment where she is. As Alistair Begg masterfully puts it:
Jesus does not sit at the well as an example to this woman of what she can be if she sorts herself out. He does not stand before her as an example of what she may begin to approximate to. –Alistair Begg
John sees in Jesus’s interactions with the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus the embodiment of Christ’s teachings. He records Jesus later in his Gospel:
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. –John 14:6
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in earthly images of “wind” and “birth” in His efforts to illustrate the truth that the scholar must see as the key to eternal life. Jesus reveals Himself to be The Way to the woman at the well in the image of “living water.” Jesus is the well from which she will never have to draw again in spiritual thirst.
One of the best things that I have experienced in my life has been finding fellow believers, true Christian brothers, with whom I can speak in absolute truth. I have always strived to be a truthful person but did not realize until I was actually confronted with the truth about myself just how much I have been hiding. In life, we work very hard to cultivate a persona, to build walls of protection to keep the truth of our hearts from being exposed to others.
This is in part because of the pressures on men and women to behave in certain ways in the world and even in the church:
Let’s face it: the reason many guys have stopped telling the truth in church is because most churches actively discourage truthfulness. Even in Christian men’s groups, the cost of candor is usually painfully high, the punitive response to it swift and decisive. –Nate Larkin
As with the woman at the well, Jesus cuts through all of this show, the layers of protection of your carefully crafted Christian persona—and reveals you for who you really are.
Once you see yourself in the light of the truth of Christ, what happens next?
28 The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, 29 “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” 30 Then they went out of the city and came to Him. –John 4:28-30
John reveals His personal eyewitness in this little detail: she “left her waterpot.” Once she saw the truth of Christ, saw herself in His light, she could not help but act. “Come and see a man!” …a Man who told me all things that I ever did.
The woman at the well had nothing to lose. She heard the truth and saw the need to tell others about the man who had seen into her heart and set her free from her sinful past. What do you have to lose?
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.