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Lesson 21: Living Water for a Thirsty Woman (John 4:1-14)

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July 28, 2013

One of the wonderful things about the good news that Jesus brings is that it meets the basic need that all people have. You can go to the highest halls of learning and talk with a man with multiple Ph.D.’s. Although he is highly educated, the message he needs to hear is that Christ died for his sins and was raised from the dead, and that he can trust in Christ and receive eternal life as a free gift. Take the message to the most primitive, illiterate tribesman in some remote jungle and he needs to hear the same good news. Since all people are sinners who need to be reconciled to the holy God, the same gospel applies to all: Jesus saves sinners who trust in Him.

John 3 gives the account of Jesus’ interview with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. As a religious leader and a moral man, he was no doubt shocked by Jesus’ opening words (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’ religion was not sufficient. He needed the new birth. John 4 gives the account of Jesus’ encounter with the immoral Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus skillfully shows her that she needs the living water that He can give. It’s the same basic message with a different metaphor.

Nicodemus and the unnamed Samaritan woman are as different as they could be. He was a Jewish man; she was a Samaritan woman. He was educated and orthodox in the Jewish faith; she was uneducated and heterodox. He was an influential leader; she was a nobody. He was upper middle class; she was lower class. He was morally upright; she was immoral. He sought out Jesus because he recognized His merits; she had no idea who the stranger at the well was, who sought her out. He came to Jesus at night; Jesus and the woman met at noon. Nicodemus responded slowly and rationally; she responded quickly and emotionally. But Jesus loved both of them. He came to seek and to save all types of people.

In 2010, I did two messages from John 4 from the perspective of how Jesus teaches us to witness, which you can access online if it would be helpful. But in this and the next few messages, I’m going to work through the text section by section, trying to bring out whatever lessons are there. In John 4:1-14, we learn that…

Jesus is the Savior who can give living water to all thirsty sinners.

Background: In 4:1-3, John gives us the reason why Jesus left Judea and headed toward Galilee, namely, to avoid any conflict with the Pharisees, who were closely monitoring the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus was never one to avoid conflict if it was in the Father’s will, but He knew that the time was not yet right for direct conflict, so He left (the Greek word means “abandoned”) Judea in the south and headed north toward Galilee until He knew that it was the hour for the cross.

John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus was not actually baptizing people, but His disciples were. This baptism was based on repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as practiced by John the Baptist. Frederick Godet (Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1:418) observes, “By baptizing, He attested the unity of His work with that of the forerunner. By not Himself baptizing, He made the superiority of His position above that of John the Baptist to be felt.” Also, perhaps Jesus knew that if He actually did the baptizing, people would later boast, “I was baptized by Jesus Himself!” So He let His disciples do the actual “dunking.”

We can draw three main lessons from John 4:4-14:

1. Jesus seeks sinners who aren’t even seeking Him.

John 4:4: “And He had to pass through Samaria.” This was the shortest route from Judea to Galilee that many Jews used, but it wasn’t the only route. Some strict Jews, who didn’t want any contact with the despised Samaritans, would take a longer route, crossing the Jordan River to the east, traveling north, and then going back west into Galilee. Since Jesus was probably already at the Jordan River, where they were baptizing, He could have taken that route, but He didn’t. So the word translated “had to” probably indicates more than geographic necessity: Jesus had a divine appointment in Samaria. (John uses the word of Jesus’ divine mission in 3:14; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9.)

Sychar was located about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, approximately half-way between Jerusalem and Nazareth, at the base of Mount Gerazim, the Samaritans’ “holy mountain.” Jacob’s well was about a half mile outside the village. John mentions that Jesus was weary from His journey, so He was sitting by the well at about the sixth hour. The disciples had gone into the city to buy food. The distance from where Jesus had been baptizing to Sychar was about 40 miles by road. Jesus and the disciples had walked a full day and a half to arrive there about noon (Colin Kruse, John [IVP], p. 129). Some scholars, to avoid a chronological problem in John 19:14, argue that John followed Roman time, which began at midnight. But there is scant evidence for that view. We’ll wrestle with the chronological problem when we get to chapter 19. But here, John almost certainly means noon, not 6 p.m.

The hostilities between the Jews and the Samaritans went back centuries. After the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., they deported most of the Jews and replaced them with foreigners, who intermarried with the remaining Jews. Their religion was a mixture of their foreign gods with Judaism (2 Kings 17:24-41). When the exiles from the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned from Babylon, the Samaritans offered to help them rebuild their temple, but the Jews viewed them as foreign enemies and refused their offer (Ezra 4:1-5). The same thing happened later when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 4:1-3).

Then, in about 400 B. C., the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerazim. The Jewish leader John Hyrcanus burned it down in 128 B.C., which didn’t improve relations between the two groups! Also, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses), not all of the Jewish Scriptures. So the Jews viewed the Samaritans as biological and religious half-breeds. All of these events and factors had led to intense hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews by Jesus’ day. We can’t properly understand this story unless we keep this hostile history in mind.

The normal time for women to get water was either early morning or later in the afternoon, when it was cooler. The well was a place where women gathered to talk as they filled their water pots. We can’t say for sure why this woman came to the well at noon, but it may be that because of her immoral life, she was not liked by the other women. She wanted to come when she would be alone. But she encounters this Jewish man, who has the audacity to ask her for a drink of water. It would be like a white man in the South years ago, where they had separate drinking fountains for whites and “coloreds,” asking a black woman if he could have a drink from her canteen! Add to this that it wasn’t socially acceptable for a Jewish man, much less a rabbi, to speak to any woman in public. The rabbis thought that even Jewish women should not be taught the Scriptures. So for Jesus to go beyond asking for a drink, which was shocking enough, and direct the conversation into spiritual things with this Samaritan woman was off the charts (4:27)!

It wasn’t that this woman said, “Sir, you look like a Jewish rabbi. I’m hungry to know your God. Can you tell me how to do that?” She was just going about her daily chores, minding her own business, when this stranger asked her for a drink and then steered the conversation into spiritual matters. She wasn’t seeking to know God. Her guilt over her current live-in boyfriend and her five marriages, which had probably ended because of her multiple adulteries, caused her to keep her distance from God. The only explanation for this story is that Jesus was seeking a sinner who wasn’t even seeking Him.

The application for those of us who know Christ is: If we want to be like our Savior, we should be seeking out unlikely candidates for salvation and try to turn the conversation to spiritual matters so that they can come to know the Savior. I confess that all too often, I size up someone who seems to be far from the Lord and think, “He wouldn’t be interested in spiritual things.” So I don’t attempt to steer the conversation to the place where I can tell him the good news.

But maybe I’m speaking to someone who has a notoriously sinful past and right now is living in sin. The application for you is that Jesus seeks after just such people as you to be His disciples. Jesus said (Luke 19:10) that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” He saved the thief on the cross. He saved the chief of sinners who was persecuting the church. He saved this immoral Samaritan woman. He wants to save you!

2. Jesus offers all sinners the gift of living water.

Note three things here:

A. The living water that Jesus gives is a gift, not something that you must earn or qualify for.

Note the emphasis on gift or give here (my italics): John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” John 4:14: “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” It’s a gift, not a reward!

One of the most common spiritual errors is that we get into heaven by our good works. Every religion, except for biblical Christianity, operates on the principle that you must work for or earn salvation. This is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (in the Councils of Trent): “If anyone says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema.” (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112; English updated.)

In total contrast, the Bible states (Rom. 4:4-5): “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The gospel is not good news if it requires that you must do penance, reform your life, keep a bunch of rules, do an unspecified number of good deeds, and hope that someday God might let you into heaven on that basis. But it is wonderfully good news if God offers it to you as a free gift, which He does!

But, maybe you’re thinking, “Because of my many sins, which I’d be embarrassed to make known, I’m not worthy of such a gift.” True, you’re not worthy. No one is. But …

B. No sinner is excluded from the offer of this gift.

In the eyes of most Jews, including the disciples at this point, this woman was not worthy of Jesus’ time. Just being a Samaritan excluded her. Being a woman was strike two. But being an immoral Samaritan woman struck her out: “Jesus, why don’t we move on to more important, better qualified, people who have more potential?” But Jesus took the time and the initiative to talk with this sinful woman about living water. He didn’t exclude her from offering her this gift. And He doesn’t exclude you, either!

Actually, it’s often good, religious people who exclude themselves from receiving this gift. They’re proud of their accomplishments and want some reward for what they’ve done. They don’t want to associate with people like this sinful woman or admit that they need living water from Jesus just as much as she did. But the gift is freely offered to notorious sinners and to self-righteous religious sinners. Both equally need the gift.

C. The gift of living water that Jesus offers satisfies the thirsty soul for time and eternity.

Jesus tells this woman (4:14): “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” By “living water,” Jesus is referring to the eternal life that the Holy Spirit gives. As Jesus said (John 7:37-39a), “‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit….” “Living water” is the same thing as the “new birth,” but just a different analogy. In that hot desert climate, water was essential for life. It was always welcome and refreshing. “Living” water referred to water flowing from a spring or fountain, as opposed to that which was collected in a cistern.

Jews familiar with the Scriptures knew that the Lord Himself is the spiritual fountain of living water. In Jeremiah 2:13, the Lord rebukes His sinning people: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Or (Jer. 17:13), “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.” (See, also, Isa. 12:3; 44:3; 49:10.)

Jesus told this woman that the water that He gives “will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” In him shows that true Christianity is not primarily a matter of rituals and ceremonies, but rather an inward, personal relationship with the living God. It must be in each person’s heart. The picture of this living water springing up points to the continual source of life that the indwelling Holy Spirit supplies to believers. It’s active and always flowing. There may be times of greater and lesser flow, but it never dries up, as so many Arizona rivers do.

When Jesus says that “whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never thirst,” He means that we who have drunk this living water are satisfied with Him in the sense that we know that He has rescued us from sin and judgment (Rom. 8:1). He has given us eternal life and that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:31-39). We’re His children, under His loving care in every situation (1 John 3:1). He has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). We have His Word, which is like water to our soul.

Jesus does not mean that our thirst is forever quenched in the sense that we cease to long for more and more of Him. We still hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Our hearts still pant after God like the thirsty deer for the water brook (Ps. 42:1). We still pray (Ps. 63:1), “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” John Calvin sums up both sides of this (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 151): “Although we thirst throughout our whole life, yet it is certain that we have not received the Holy Spirit for a single day, or for any short period, but as a perennial fountain, which will never fail us.”

So, how do we get this living water of salvation that Jesus freely offers to all?

3. To receive this gift of living water, you must know who Jesus is and what He offers, and you must ask for it.

John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” These words would have provoked her curiosity about three things: (1) What is this gift of God? (2) Who is it who is talking to me? (3) Maybe I should ask Him for this living water.

A. To receive this gift of God, you need to know what it is.

We’ve already seen that the gift of living water is the salvation that the Holy Spirit imparts. It is the Lord Himself, dwelling in believers. To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke about being born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8). At the Feast of the Tabernacles, He invited the crowds to come to Him and drink, which John explains was a reference to the Spirit (7:37-39). Here, He invites this sinful woman to ask Him to give her this living water that will forever quench her spiritual thirst. Again, it’s important to know that salvation is not a matter of keeping rules and rituals, but rather of new life through the Spirit that brings us into a relationship with the living God. And it’s important to know, as Jesus emphasizes, that it’s a gift.

B. To receive this gift of God, you must know who Jesus is.

The woman needed to know something about this one who claimed that He would give her living water. This underscores the fact that faith is not a blind leap in the dark. Faith is only as good as its object. To have faith in an airplane, you need to know that it has flown recently and that it seems to be trustworthy. To have faith in Christ, you need to know something about who He is. This doesn’t require a seminary degree, but it does require basic information. In this story…

The fact that Jesus was tired and thirsty shows that He is human. Jesus didn’t perform a miracle to quench His thirst, although He had that power. As a man, He can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). He asked this woman for a drink. By being willing to drink out of her container, He was putting Himself on her level. He didn’t make her feel that He was superior as a Jew. He didn’t put her down as a woman, as many Jewish men would have done. He came across to her as He truly was, a tired, thirsty man.

The fact that Jesus is able to give living water to thirsty sinners shows that He is God. The woman asked (4:11) how Jesus could get this living water out of the well, since it was deep (over 100 feet) and He had nothing to draw with. Then she challenged Him (4:12), “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You …?” The answer, of course, is, yes, He is much greater than Jacob! He is probably the angel of God who wrestled all night with Jacob! And the answer to where He can get the living water is, He has it within His own divine nature to supply it to as many sinners as ask for it. He has an endless supply of grace for all. Finally,

C. To receive this gift of living water, just ask for it.

Jesus says (4:10), “If you would have asked, I would have given it to you.” To ask, you have to recognize that you’re thirsty and that you can never satisfy that thirst by yourself. But if you come to Jesus and ask, He will give it. All you have to do is drink and drink of Him until you’re satisfied. But the only condition that Jesus states is, “Ask.” If you ask, He will give you an endless supply of living water.


So, have you asked Jesus for the living water of eternal life? Do you have the evidence of being satisfied with Jesus? You can continually drink from the world’s sources, but you’ll thirst again (4:13). But one drink from Jesus and you’ll never thirst again. So, why don’t you ask?

Application Questions

  1. Do you know an “unlikely” convert that you think would not be interested in the gospel? How could you approach him/her?
  2. Jesus was willing to violate cultural taboos to talk with this sinful Samaritan woman. What cultural taboos do we face that may keep us from talking with sinners about Christ?
  3. How much about Jesus does a person need to understand to be saved? Can a person who holds heretical views about Jesus come to salvation?
  4. Why is it essential to understand that salvation is a free gift? Should we welcome as fellow Christians those who say we must add our works to faith to be saved? See Gal. 1:6-9.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

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