5 July 2014

John 4:1-26

“Jesus said, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.’” (vv. 14-15)


John's Gospel is presenting Jesus as someone who overturned the old ways of Judaism and brought something new to God's people. Having talked about new life in Baptism (John 3:22-36) the Gospel now speaks in general of the life-giving water of Christ replacing the laws and purification rites of Judaism.

The Gospel does this with the story of Jesus speaking with an unclean Samaritan woman! Jesus enters Samaria as a result of opposition in its southern neighbour Judea, from those who claimed to lead the Jews in ritual purity - the Pharisees (verses 1-3). He would not have expected a welcome from Samaritans, traditionally hostile to Jews (see Luke 9:51-53).

No Jewish man, let alone a rabbi, would have spoken to a woman in public. Even less would they have accepted a drink from a ritually-unclean Samaritan (verse 9) - they would not use the same utensils or bucket, so the woman would not dream of offering hers (verse 11). And how could he possibly have a greater source of water than Jacob (verse 12)?

The true fountain of living water is God; human-dug wells can never satisfy  (Jeremiah 2:13). Even those who find human wisdom will thirst for more (Sirach 24:21). Only the living water of Jesus (of Baptism?) gives eternal life. Even the temple, the earthly dwelling-place of God, will be superseded (verse 21). There will be no more rivalry between Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim for importance (verse 20).

The rabbis saw the Torah (the five books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy) as cleansing, thirst-quenching and life-giving. But as Moses brought the law, Jesus brings grace and truth (John 1:17). "Spirit" and "truth" convey the same idea (v. 24) - the faithfulness and truth of God sets people free from mere obedience to the law (John 8:32). The "gift of God" (v. 10) is Jesus himself - and the water of life is offered first to a Samaritan, from the very group that the rabbis accused of corrupting the truth of the Torah. And as a postscript, we note that in the first weeks of the early Church the apostles were to find a better welcome in Samaria than in Jerusalem - see Acts 8:1-25.

To Ponder

  • How is the rivalry of the Samaritans and Jews paralleled between Christian groups today?
  • How do we know the truth? Might it be possible that the truth of God is to be found outside the church as well as inside it? If so, where?

Bible notes author

The Revd Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.