The Significance of the Samaritan Woman at the Well

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“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” . . .
28Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” . . .
39Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” . . .
42They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

(John 4:19–26, 28–29, 39, 42 NIV)

Key Observation: The villagers received salvation because this woman had the courage to preach.

Understanding the Word

In the first century, Jewish rules usually prohibited women from testifying in court. Women were not considered reliable witnesses. Stereotypes in the Greco-Roman world similarly depicted women as weak, irrational, and overly emotional. Surprisingly, then, the New Testament records numerous accounts of women who boldly proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ.

Even more surprising in today’s story is the fact that Jesus starts a conversation with a Samaritan woman. Hundreds of years earlier when Assyria had conquered Samaria, some Jews had intermarried with foreigners. The other Jews thus no longer considered those Samaritans to be truly Jewish. Theological differences (such as which parts of the Jewish Scriptures were authoritative) also caused conflict. In order to travel from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south, Jews often traveled around Samaria rather than through it. They did not want to risk defilement by the Samaritans. It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman is shocked when Jesus, a Jew, asks to sip from her water jar! But Jesus’ question starts a larger conversation about living water (the Holy Spirit) that leads to eternal life (vv. 10, 13).

Other details in the story also point to the woman’s status as an outcast. She visits the well in the heat of the day (v. 6), which suggests she is avoiding the other women who would have come to draw water in the cool of the morning. In the ensuing conversation we learn why: the woman has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. Men (and especially rabbis) generally did not speak to women in public, and they certainly would not have spoken to this kind of woman!

In addressing her, Jesus thus breaks three different social barriers: gender, ethnicity, and piety. Astonished by his audacity and ashamed that her sinfulness has been revealed, the woman challenges the prophet by picking a theological fight. She raises the question of the proper location for the Jewish temple—a question which has caused deep divisions for hundreds of years. Jesus’ answer would be surprising to both Jews and Samaritans: location is not important. Rather, God requires his people to worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (v. 24). Thus, Jesus implicitly brings the conversation back to the living water of which he previously spoke.

When Jesus tells the woman that he is the Messiah that both Jews and Samaritans are waiting for, she no longer avoids the townspeople. Rather, she is so excited by her discovery that she boldly shares her story and leads the villagers to Jesus. They initially believe in Jesus because of her testimony (v. 39). After hearing Jesus for themselves, they are even more convinced. These villagers received salvation because the pariah had the courage to preach.

  • Who are the biggest social outcasts in today’s culture? In what ways do religious rules sometimes marginalize these people?
  • When the Samaritan woman felt shame, she picked a fight. In what ways do you sometimes put up barriers when others are trying to help you?
  • Why do you think the Samaritan woman changed from being defensive to accepting the truth of who Jesus is?

As a general rule, women had fewer rights, social status, and power than men in the ancient world in which the Bible was written. But Jesus regularly defied these social conventions, fulfilling his mission and purposes through faithful women and giving them dignity and purpose.

In this OneBook Daily-Weekly study, Suzanne Nicholson highlights the qualities of several women in the New Testament that Jesus asks all believers to possess: faithfulness, persistence, and a boldness to follow him even at great personal cost to ourselves. These stories help us to better understand not only our own calling, but the very nature of the gospel itself.

Get your copy of the Bible study and videos from our store here.

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Suzanne Nicholson (PhD) is professor of New Testament at Asbury University. She is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. She received a PhD in New Testament studies from the University of Durham. Her husband, Lee, is a youth pastor and together they have two children.

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