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7. Exegetical Commentary on John 4


        4 C Back to Galilee (4:1-45)

          1 D Departure from Judea (4:1-3)

          2 D Another Personal Response to Jesus: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (4:4-42)

          3 D Arrival in Galilee (4:43-45)

        5 C The Second Sign at Cana in Galilee: Healing of the Nobleman’s Son (4:46-54)


Argyle, A. W., “A Note on John 4:35,” Expository Times 82 (1971): 247-48.

Bligh, J., “Jesus in Samaria,” Heythrop Journal 3 (1962): 329-46.

Bowman, J., “Early Samaritan Eschatology,” Journal of Jewish Studies 6 (1955): 63-72.

Bowman, J., “Samaritan Studies,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 40 (1957/58): 298-329.

Bull, R. J., “An Archaeological Context for Understanding John 4:20,” Biblical Archaeologist 38 (1975): 54-59.

Cahill, P. J., “Narrative Art in John IV,” Religious Studies Bulletin 2 (1982): 41-48.

Daube, D., “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman: The Meaning of sugcravomai,” Journal of Biblical Liturature 69 (1950): 137-47.

Hall, D. R., “The Meaning of synchraomai in John 4:9,” Expository Times 83 (1971/72): 56-57.

Marshall, I. H., “The Problem of New Testament Exegesis [John 4:1-45],” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974): 67-73.

Potter, R. D., “Topology and Archeology in the Fourth Gospel,” Studia Evangelica 1 [= Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 73] (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959): 329-37.

Robinson, J. A. T., “The ‘Others’ of John 4, 38: A Test of Exegetical Method,” Studia Evangelica 1 [= Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 73] (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959): 510-15.


        4 C Back to Galilee (4:1-45)

          1 D Departure from Judea (4:1-3)

4:1-3 The reason given for Jesus’ departure from Judea at this particular time is not at all clear—did he fear persecution? Certainly he had openly opposed the Jewish leaders before in the Temple.

John really doesn’t tell us why Jesus chose this time to return to Galilee. Some have suggested that the Pharisees turned their attention to Jesus because John the Baptist had now been thrown into prison. But the text gives no hint of this. In any case, perhaps Jesus simply did not want to provoke a confrontation at this time (knowing that his “hour” had not yet come).

          2 D Another Personal Response to Jesus: The Samaritan woman at Jacobs well (4:4-42)

If the story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 is perhaps the best known story in the Gospel (because, among other things, of 3:16), then the story of the woman at the well must be the second best known. Among other things it challenges our preconceived notions about social and ethnic barriers. Jesus was clearly not bound by such conventions in his offer of the free gift of “living water” to the woman in this story. In the bigger picture, the incident also serves to illustrate Jesus’ greater purpose in coming into the world [cf. the Prologue, with its statements about the Light coming into the world]. Jesus’ purpose went beyond simply being the Messiah of the Jewish people. He came to be the Savior of the entire world.

          2 D Another Personal Response to Jesus: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (4:4-42)

4:4 e[dei Such a detour through Samaria was not geographically necessary. Although the main route from Judea to Galilee was through Samaria, Jesus, as many Jews did, could easily have gone up the Jordan valley into Galilee through the Bethshan gap, avoiding Samaria. Whenever John uses the impersonal verb dei' the necessity involves Gods will or plan: 3:7, 14, 30; 4:4, 20,24; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; and 20:9.

4:5 Sucavr This is somewhere in the vicinity of Shechem. Jacob’s well is less than 250 ft (75 m) away. Sychar is Shechem according to W. F. Albright. But according to R.D. Potter, Askar is to be identified with Sychar.69 The village of Askar lies about 1 mile (1.5 km) northeast of Jacob’s well.

4:6 Much is often made of the time of day (which would be noon, starting at 6 a.m.). Some (e.g. Lightfoot) have seen a connection with the crucifixion at the same hour (19:14) when Jesus again expresses his thirst (19:28). Others have said that the woman came at this hour because she was ostracized by the other women for her (immoral) conduct. I feel both explanations may be reading too much in, but would go with the former (as a type of foreshadowing, a technique John does use) if I had to see a significance in the time reference. It may be that this is simply an eyewitness recollection of the approximate time the events really occurred, without further significance in the narrative.

4:9 The Samaritans are descendants of 2 groups:

(1) The remnant of native Israelites who were not deported after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC;

(2) Foreign colonists brought in from Babylonia and Media by the Assyrian conquerors to settle the land with inhabitants who would be loyal to Assyria.

There was theological opposition between the Samaritans and the Jews because the former refused to worship in Jerusalem. After the exile the Samaritans put obstacles in the way of the Jewish restoration of Jerusalem, and in the 2nd century BC the Samaritans helped the Syrians in their wars against the Jews. In 128 BC the Jewish high priest retaliated and burned the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim.

4:10-11 This serves as a perfect example of John’s use of misunderstanding as a literary technique. Jesus is speaking of “living water” which is spiritual (ultimately this is a Johannine figure for the Holy Spirit, cf. 7:38-39) while the woman thinks he means physical water of some sort which will satisfy thirst.

Note the play on words: while phghv and frevar are mostly interchangeable, the author has gradually shifted the emphasis so that Jacob’s well, which was a phghv (a naturally-flowing fountain, 4:6) becomes merely a cistern (frevar, v.11) and the phghv now becomes the new source from which springs the water of life (14). In comparison to Jesus himself, who is the true phghv, Jacobs well is merely a cistern!

Of this entire encounter R. Brown states:

Misunderstanding (vs. 11), irony (vs.12), the quick changing of an embarrassing subject (vs. 19), the front and back stage (vs. 29), the Greek chorus effect of the villagers (vss. 34-42)—all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting.70 [emphasis mine]

4:14 On the meaning of the living water we need to examine the phrase aJllomevnou eij" zwhVn aijwvnion. The verb is used of quick movement (like jumping) on the part of living beings. This is the only instance of its being applied to the action of water. However, in the LXX it is used to describe the “Spirit of God” as it falls on Samson and Saul [Judg 14:6, 19; 15:14; I Kingdoms 10:2, 10 LXX (= I Sam 10:6, 10 English text); and Isa 35:6 (note context)].

Note: This is further support for the thesis that the “water” mentioned back in 3:5 is also a reference to the work of the Spirit (cf. notes on 3:5).

If it is the water that “leaps up” to eternal life (4:14), it is the Spirit who gives life (6:63).

And finally, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a mark of Messianic days: cf. Joel 2:28-29, Isa 44:3-5 (!), Ezek 39:29, etc.

That the Samaritan woman finally understands that Jesus refers to water which is more than physical is made clear by 4:28: she leaves her waterpot behind because (at least for the point our author is making) she won’t need it to carry the kind of water Jesus now has her interested in!

Notice also the following connections in verses 16-26 with chapter 3, vss. 19-21:

4:16 Jesus takes the initiative in leading the woman to recognize who he is by referring to her personal life.

4:17 The woman responds with a deceptive answer as a reaction against further probing.

4:18 Jesus uses her answer to bring to light her evil deeds. 3:19-21 states that those whose deeds are evil do not come to the light. The woman is now presented with a choice: will she come to the light, or will she shrink back into the darkness?

4:19-20 The woman “comes to the light” (although she would prefer to divert attention from her personal life). “This mountain” is a reference to Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritan shrine was located.

4:21-24 Jesus explains that true worship is what the Father really wants, and this must be done in the Spirit and in truth.

4:25-26 The woman finally recognizes who Jesus is, and Jesus affirms it.

Note: Earlier themes are resumed here: the Temple, from 2:13-22; water and Spirit from 3:1-21. Note also how these fit the ‘replacement’ motif of 2:1 - 4:54.

4:27-42 In the discussion with the disciples which takes place while the woman has gone into the city, note again the misunderstanding: the disciples think Jesus refers to physical food, while he is really speaking figuratively and spiritually again.

Thus Jesus is forced to explain what he means, and the explanation that his food is his mission, to do the will of God and accomplish his work, leads naturally into the metaphor of the harvest. The fruit of his mission is represented by the Samaritans who are coming to him. It has been pointed out that they could have been seen even then from a distance as they made their way through the fields to the well.

In summary, R. Brown (184-5) has an excellent statement:

“John is too good a dramatist to leave the story without a conclusion that would bring together the themes of the two scenes. The woman who was so important in Scene 1 is recalled because it is on her word that the townspeople believe. But the completion of the Father’s work (vs. 34), the harvest of the Samaritans, is to have greater durability; for the townspeople come to believe on Jesus’ own word that he is the Savior of the world. If our story in ch. iv, particularly in Scene 1, has portrayed the steps by which a soul comes to believe in Jesus, it also portrays the history of the apostolate, for the harvest comes outside of Judea among foreigners. We can scarcely believe that the evangelist did not mean for us to contrast the unsatisfactory faith of the Jews in ii 23-25 based on a superficial admiration of miracles with the deeper faith of the Samaritans based on the word of Jesus. Nicodemus, the rabbi of Jerusalem, could not understand Jesus’ message that God had sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved through him (iii 17); yet the peasants of Samaria readily come to know that Jesus is really the Savior of the world.71

Needless to say there is irony here, an irony foreshadowed in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (1:11): “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him”. Yet the Samaritans welcome Jesus and proclaim him to be not the Jewish Messiah but the Savior of the world.

          3 D Arrival in Galilee (4:43-45)

4:43-45 Again we have a transitional passage, corresponding to 4:1-3 (and in fact being the continuation of that journey).

The major problem in these verses concerns the contradiction between the proverb stated by Jesus in verse 44 and the reception of the Galileans in verse 45. Origen solved the problem by referring “his own country” to Judea (which Jesus had just left) and not Galilee.

But this runs counter to the thrust of John’s Gospel, which takes pains to identify Jesus with Galilee (cf. 1:46) and does not even mention his Judean birth.

Brown typifies the contemporary approach: he regards verse 44 as an addition by a later redactor who wanted to emphasize Jesus’ unsatisfactory reception in Galilee.

Neither expedient is necessary, though; if we understand honor in its sense of attributing true worth to someone. The Galileans did welcome him, but their welcome was to prove a superficial response based on what they had seen him do at the feast. There is no indication that the signs they saw brought them to place their faith in Jesus any more than Nicodemus did on the basis of the signs. But a superficial welcome based on enthusiasm for miracles is no real honor at all.

        5 C The Second Sign at Cana in Galilee: Healing of the Nobleman’s Son (4:46-54)

4:46 ti" basilikov" The term can designate either a person of royal blood or a servant to the king. Here, the latter is almost certainly in view; this man is a servant of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee. Capernaum was a border town, so doubtless there were many administrative officials in residence there.

4:48 i[dhte Note the use of the plural. The man is addressed as representative of all the Galileans. Note also the connection with the preceding transitional passage; the Galileans had observed Jesus’ signs at the Passover in Jerusalem. Contrast the Samaritans; they believed without miracles.

4:51 katabaivnonte" Going to Capernaum from Cana one must go east across the Galilean hills and then descend to the Sea of Galilee. The 20 mile (33 km) journey could not be made in a single day. (Note the familarity of the author with Palestinian geography.)

Note: Similarities to the first sign-miracle at Cana (2:1-11):

That the author wanted us to relate this to the previous incident is clear because twice (4:46, 54) he reminds us of the first sign-miracle at the wedding in Cana, at the beginning and the end of this story. Note the similarities:

(a) Jesus has just come back into Galilee.

(b) Someone comes to him with a request.

(c) Indirectly Jesus seems to refuse at first.

(d) The petitioner persists.

(e) Jesus grants the request.

(f) This leads another group of people (his disciples, the nobleman’s household) to believe in him.

A Note on the Place in the Narrative of the Healing of the Noblemans Son:

The second sign-miracle at Cana occupies an important transitional spot in the narrative: the stress on the necessity of trusting in Jesus summarizes and culminates the previous material in chapters 2-4; the stress on Jesus as the giver of life introduces one of the most important themes of the next section (chapters 5-10).

We have seen in chapters 2-4 how people have responded to Jesus. While Nicodemus responded inadequately (at least at this point) the Samaritans showed a proper response. And of course his disciples had placed their trust in him at the wedding at Cana (chapter 2).

What we will see in the upcoming section (chapters 5-10) is Jesus as the giver of life (though this has been foreshadowed in chapters 2-4, note the introduction of living water in chapter 4). We will see Jesus as the bread of life (chapter 6), the giver of water of life in chapter 7, and the light of life in chapter 8.

Ultimately, too, the return to Cana is a literary device known as inclusion (from the Latin inclusio) which is used to encircle or enclose material pertaining to a single topic.72 It is the author’s way of indicating that we have come full circle; we are ready to move on to something new.

69 R. D. Potter, “Topology and Archeology in the Fourth Gospel” in Studia Evangelica 1 [= Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 73] (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959), 329-37.

70 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 176 [emphasis mine].

71 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 184-85 [emphasis mine].

72 This figure is also called epanadiplosis according to Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, rpt. ed. 1968).

Related Topics: Christology, Miracles

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