Encounters with Jesus: A Thirsty Woman

“Woman of Samaria” by James Tissot

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Last week I introduced a four-part series of sermons on the Gospel readings for the month of March. Each reading features a specific individual who was encountered by Jesus. Everyone was changed. They lived in times and places far from ours, but we share much with them.

The text this week, John 4:5-26, centers around a thirsty woman’s encounter with Jesus. She came to the well for literal water, but Jesus offered much more.

Jesus had three routes He could have taken to Galilee. Many Jews elected not to go straight through Samaria because of lingering antagonism and hostility between them and the Samaritans. Some followed the Mediterranean coast north. Others crossed the Jordan and went north through Perea on the east bank. The text, however, says Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Reasons other than geography dictated the move. God had a plan.

The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans went back to about 722 B.C., when Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took most of its people into captivity, and resettled it with foreigners. These people mingled with the Israelites who were allowed to remain. As a result, the mixed people in Samaria continuously combined false religions with worship of the Lord and harassed the Jews (2 Kings 17:24-41; Ezra 4:1-5).

Jesus and His disciples had reached Sychar in Samaria at the place where Jacob had long before purchased a piece of land and where Joseph was buried (Genesis 33:18,19; Joshua 24:32). Jacob had dug a spring-fed well there, which is still in use today over 4,000 years later. Being fully human, Jesus was weary from walking over dusty roads in the hot sun. He sat down to rest by the well. His disciples went into town to buy food. Then a Samaritan woman came to draw water. Usually, the women went out in groups to get their water. This woman came alone, possibly because she was a social outcast. In any case, Jesus was about to show why He “had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4).

“Give Me a drink,” Jesus requested of the woman. His request got the woman’s attention. She had recognized immediately from Jesus’ clothing or speech that He was a Jew. Not only did the Jews not associate with the Samaritans, but a Jewish man engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman was doubly taboo. She knew the rules. She said to Him, “How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria” (John 4:9)?

Jesus wasn’t about to play by the rules. At least not these rules. He said to her, “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” (John 4:10). There He goes again. Creating puzzles in the minds of His hearers. Forming questions that will lead them to His answer. And so, this thirsty woman, like Nicodemus before her, was led deeper into a conversation of eternal consequence. If only she “knew the gift of God” He was offering! As Jesus had told Nicodemus, that gift was the one and only Son of God, the Savior. Had the woman known Jesus, she would have known God’s gift.

The woman didn’t understand, but she wanted to know more. “Sir,” she said, “You have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep 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.”

Much like Nicodemus trying to understand new birth, the woman struggled with Jesus’ idea of living water. She thought of the great patriarch Jacob, who dug this well for the people. But the man before her could hardly be comparing Himself to the great patriarch Jacob, could He? She needed more instruction, and Jesus was about to lead her, step-by-step, to see the truth.

Jesus had been waiting for this obvious question. And He was prepared to give His answer: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

Jesus is greater than Jacob, and this water is different. It is spiritual, heavenly, permanent. One drink of this water quenches all thirst forever. The truth is simple, the image profound. Faith in Jesus gives eternal life now. Jesus and His Spirit can be understood to be the water. Faith is receiving the water. The water Jesus gives us becomes in us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Life with Jesus becomes a part of our being: dynamic, fresh, flowing, everlasting.

“Sir, give me this water,” the Samaritan woman said, “so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (John 4:15). The thirsty woman wanted the water now, but she still thought of earthly water and physical thirst. She needed Jesus to reveal her real thirst to her.

Jesus had been telling the Samaritan woman the saving truth of the Gospel. But now He spoke Law to her. Only this way could she realize the thirst that Jesus quenches forever. When He told her to get her husband, He effectively showed her sin to her and gave her the opportunity to confess. Her short answer opened the door. Perhaps, she said it with a sense of shame: “I have no husband.”

“You have spoken the truth,” Jesus emphasized, a truth that encompassed a history of adultery, divorce, fornication: five husbands and a live-in!

The woman could not deny what Jesus said. She marveled at what He, a stranger, knew about her, and she identified Him as a prophet. Now what?

Some think the woman changed the subject abruptly to take the spotlight off her sinful lifestyle. Just as likely, however, now that her sin was out and acknowledged, she was concerned with her spiritual welfare and turned her attention to matters of worship. Where could she go to confess to God and be cleansed of her sin? The Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerizim nearby and continued worshiping there even after their temple was destroyed years earlier. The Jews, however, insisted on worshiping in Jerusalem, where God had told them to build His temple. What was she to do?

The place does not determine the value or validity of the worship. Where to worship doesn’t matter as much as what or whom we worship. The Samaritans had mingled their worship with idols and disregarded the Old Testament except for the books of Moses. They didn’t know the true object of their worship. In contrast, the promised salvation was to come through the Jews. The Savior was to be the Seed of Abraham and the Son of David. The Jews who remained faithful to the Scriptures still worshiped the true God and looked for the coming of the Messiah.

The time had come, however, when things would change. God’s promised salvation was being worked out in Jesus Christ. The temple in Jerusalem with its sacrifices had foreshadowed the Messiah, but those would lose their significance with His coming. So now true worshipers should worship in spirit and truth.

True worship is done “in spirit and truth.” It revolves around and is anchored in the truth of God’s revelation. It praises the true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It sorrows over sin and rejoices in the undeserved love that brought about salvation. It trusts in Jesus for forgiveness and life eternal.

Jesus succeeded in getting the woman to think of the Messiah. Although the Samaritans used only the books of Moses for their scriptures, she knew of the Seed of the woman who would crush the power of Satan (Genesis 18:18). She knew of the prophet to come, like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). She hoped to see the Messiah, called Christ in Greek. She said, “The Messiah will explain everything.” This reference to the Messiah allowed Jesus to forge the last link in the chain of revelation for the Samaritan. Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

Jesus had left Judea, where hostile Jews were increasing their opposition to Him. Such a revelation of Himself as Messiah there would have brought the authorities out against Him before His time. Also, many who followed Him to see His miracles would have expected Him to soon establish an earthly rule. The Samaritan woman, however, thought of the Messiah as a prophet and teacher. And Jesus’ revelation created faith in her heart. The woman couldn’t miss the message. The Messiah, who came to save her from her sins, was talking with her.

Like last week’s text, this was a strange conversation. They seemed to be talking past one another. Jesus instigated it by talking about literal water and physical thirst. But then He moved toward more personal matters by bringing up her complicated marital past. She responded by raising Jewish-Samaritan debates about worship. By the end, they were talking about the coming of the promised Messiah and the identity of Jesus Himself.

It turns out the thirsty woman was neither ignorant of nor uninterested in matters of theological and spiritual significance. The thirsty woman came to the well that day looking for water, but Jesus offered her much more, “living water,” a gracious mix of forgiveness, community, and restoration.

Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on the nature of thirst. Those who thirst experience discomfort for lack of something needed. Most often we think of water or other liquids. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thirsty as (a) feeling thirst, such as hungry and thirsty; or (b) deficient in moisture or parched, such as thirsty land/soil. Recently, thirsty has taken a darker turn as a slang term. Urban Dictionary defines thirsty as “too eager to get something; desperate.” This desperation could be in reference to anything — compliments, validation, attention — but it is most frequently used to specifically mean desperate for sex.

If we could have asked the woman to identify what she was thirsting for before she went to the well that day, water would have been only the beginning. Her checkered past and lonely present revealed a thirst for a more hopeful future. Only the living water from Jesus could quench this complex thirst.

We know from the verses that follow our text that the woman immediately became a witness. She ran back to town the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). John adds that “many Samaritans from that town believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). “And many more believed because of [Jesus’] word” (John 4:41).

You also experience thirst. Physical thirst for water is a human constant, but that is only the beginning for us, too. If I were to ask you about thirst in your lives, I’m sure I would get a variety of responses. Some of you thirst for more benign things such as more meaningful work or better pay. Others thirst for deeper relationship or any relationships at all. Still others thirst for a break from the grind, freedom from the past, or justice in the present.

If you’re honest, some of your thirsts are sinful, they’re harmful to you and others around you. Often such thirsts are really an attempt to quench a deeper thirst, a need for love, attention, or sense of purpose. But just like saltwater won’t quench your physical thirst, but can kill you, so will such sinful thirsts. You need to turn away from these. Repent! Confess your sin and hear Christ’s forgiveness.

God does not promise to quench all these thirsts, not in the way we imagine, at least. But He does promise “living water,” and not just to the thirsty woman in our text, but to you. You arrived here today thirsty. You may have not even known exactly what you were thirsty for, but there is something you lack that you need. You may not explicitly thirst for forgiveness, but you need it; we all need it. You may not name community as something you need, but all of us need brothers and sister to love and support us. You may not use the word “restoration,” but all of us, deep down, thirst for things to be made new and right.

The thirsty woman in our text probably did not expect much from her trip to the well that day, but Jesus did. Jesus planned to meet her. Jesus planned to quench her thirst by providing for her forgiveness, community, and restoration. He offers the same to you this week. Through the living water of His Word read and preached. In the Confession and Absolution that brings you back to promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation given in your Baptism. Through Christ’s body and blood given to you in, with, and under the bread and the wine to restore you—body and soul—unto eternal life. Go in the peace of the Lord and share this Good News: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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