There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 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.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 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.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” (4:7–15)
As Jesus sat beside the well that evening, tired and thirsty from His journey, there came a woman of Samaria to draw water. The cool of the evening was the time when women customarily performed that chore (Gen. 24:11). This woman came at high noon, perhaps because of her desire to avoid public shame. What was also unusual was that this woman came such a long distance to this well when there were other sources of water closer to the village. But she, for reasons that will soon become evident, was an outcast. She would rather walk the extra distance in the hottest time of the day than face the hostility and scorn of the other women at the closer well earlier or later in the day.
The Lord’s simple request, “Give Me a drink,” was in that culture a shocking breach of social custom. Men did not speak with women in public—not even their wives. Nor did rabbis associate with immoral women (cf. Luke 7:39). Most significant of all in this situation, Jews customarily wanted nothing to do with Samaritans (cf. the discussion of v. 9 below). But Jesus shattered all of those barriers. The parenthetical note that the disciples had gone away into the city to buy food explains why Jesus was sitting at the well by Himself. It also indicates that our Lord did not pay attention to the taboos of the strict Jews, who would not eat food handled by Samaritans.
Taken aback that Jesus spoke to her, the Samaritan woman said in astonishment, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” As noted above, it was culturally incorrect for a man, especially a rabbi, to speak to any woman, particularly an immoral outcast. But her question reveals that what she found most surprising was that Jesus, being a Jew, would speak to her, a Samaritan woman since, as John explained in an understated way, Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Even more astounding was His willingness to ceremonially defile Himself by drinking from her water pot, since He had no vessel of His own from which to drink (v. 11). (The word translated dealings in John’s explanatory note literally means “to use the same utensils.”) But Jesus was the infinitely holy God in human flesh. He could not be defiled by a Samaritan water pot. Whatever He touched—even corpses (Luke 7:12–15) or lepers (Matt. 8:2–3)—did not taint Him, but instead became clean.
The bitter rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans had been going on for centuries. After the fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians, the ten tribes of
Israel [were] carried away into exile from their own land to Assyria … [and] the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and Sephar-vaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities. (2 Kings 17:23–24).
The foreign non-Jews intermarried with the population of Jews who had not been deported, forming a mixed race known as the Samaritans (the name derives from the region and capital city, both called Samaria). The new settlers brought their idolatrous religion with them (2 Kings 17:29–31), which became intermingled with the worship of Yahweh (vv. 25–28, 32–33, 41). In time, however, the Samaritans abandoned their idols and worshiped Yahweh alone, after their own fashion (for example, they accepted only the Pentateuch as canonical Scripture, and worshiped God on Mount Gerizim, not at Jerusalem).
When the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, their first priority was to rebuild the temple. Professing loyalty to Israel’s God, the Samaritans offered their assistance (Ezra 4:1–2). The Jews’ blunt refusal (Ezra 4:3) enraged the Samaritans, who then became their bitter enemies (Ezra 4:4ff.; Neh. 4:1–3, 7ff.). Rebuffed in their attempt to worship at Jerusalem, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim (c. 400 b.c.). The Jews later destroyed that temple during the intertestamental period, further worsening relations between the two groups.
After centuries of mistrust, there was a deep animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The writer of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus expressed the scorn and contempt the Jews felt for the Samaritans. Claiming that God detested the Samaritan people, he derisively referred to them as “the stupid people living at Shechem” (50:25–26). The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day manifested this same prejudice. In fact, when they wanted to insult Jesus, the worst they could do was to call Him a Samaritan (8:48). The Samaritans, of course, reciprocated the Jews’ hostility—as was illustrated when one of their villages refused to receive Jesus because He was on His way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–53).
In response to the woman’s query, 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.” The Lord’s reply turned the tables on her. When the conversation began, He was the thirsty one, and she the one with the water. Now He spoke as if she were the thirsty one and He the one with the water. The woman’s reply reflected her confusion. Still thinking in terms of physical water she asked, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep (cf. the discussion of v. 6 above); where then do You get that living water?” She did not understand that Jesus was talking about spiritual realities. The living water that He offered her was salvation in all its fullness, including forgiveness of sin and the ability and desire to live an obedient life that glorifies God.
The Old Testament uses the metaphor of living water to describe the spiritual cleansing and new life that comes at salvation through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Disobedient Israel was guilty of having foolishly “forsaken [God], the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Later Jeremiah warned that “all who forsake [the Lord] 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” (17:13). Both passages emphasize that God is the only source of salvation; He alone is the “fountain of life” (Ps. 36:9), and in Him the redeemed “will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation” (Isa. 12:3; cf. Isa. 1:16–18). Isaiah 55:1 echoes God’s gracious offer of salvation: “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters,” and this invitation is reiterated in the book of Revelation (21:6; 22:17). As God Himself promised regarding the new covenant:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25–27; cf. Isa. 44:3)
John applies these themes to Jesus as the living water, which symbolizes eternal life (v. 14; 6:35; 7:37–39).
The woman’s question, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” expects a negative answer. She was skeptical of this stranger’s ability to provide the living water He offered. Even the revered patriarch Jacob could not provide water without expending the effort to dig this well. And in her mind this Jewish traveler certainly was not greater than Jacob. But as D. A. Carson notes, “Misunderstanding combines with irony to make the woman twice wrong: the ‘living water’ Jesus offers does not come from an ordinary well, and Jesus is in fact far greater than the patriarch Jacob” (The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 219).
Patiently, Jesus answered her skeptical question and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 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.” Jacob was rightly accorded a place of honor by both Jews and Samaritans. Yet, as Jesus pointed out, everyone who drank of the water from his well would thirst again. It is a measure of Jesus’ incomparable greatness that whoever drinks of the water that He will give him shall never thirst; but the water that He will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (cf. Isa. 12:3). Here was the living water of spiritual life (cf. 7:38) that her parched soul desperately needed (cf. Ps. 143:6).
Still thinking primarily on the physical level, she replied eagerly, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” Her response parallels that of the Galilean crowd, who responded to Jesus’ teaching about the bread from heaven, “Lord, always give us this [physical] bread” (6:34; cf. v. 26). Whatever else the living water did, she was ready to receive it if it would eliminate her daily trip to the well and give her also eternal life.
At this point, the woman does not appear to have been clear on the matter of spiritual transformation. Jesus had spoken to her about the water of eternal life, and she seemed willing to accept it, but no conditions had been stated. As with any lost sinner, this woman needed to understand two crucial issues before she could receive the living water of eternal life—namely, the reality of her sin and His identity as Savior. In these last two points, Jesus addressed both of those issues.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
In the city of Philadelphia, where I live, there is a beautiful drive that leads out of the city along the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River. Along the drive there is a section of the riverbank lined with boathouses, called Boathouse Row; and across from Boathouse Row there is a statue of a pilgrim with a Bible under his arm. Many who pass the statue by car never see more than the pilgrim. But if a person is on foot and is exploring the riverbank, he soon finds a stream that empties into the Schuylkill near the pilgrim, as well as a trail that winds along it. If he follows this trail up over Sedgley Hill toward Brewery Town, he comes upon the source of the spring. There, over the spring’s source, he sees an inscription once placed by the city government—“Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again.”
The quotation over the source of Sedgley spring is true, so far as it goes. No one would think of denying it. But it is only half a quotation. For the other half of the quotation one must turn to Christ’s words to the woman of Samaria when she came to Jacob’s well to draw water.
As Jesus spoke to the woman about water he made the obvious statement—“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again.” But then he also made a second statement, and in this statement there is a great promise. He offered a new kind of water, saying, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). This promise is the basis for our study in this chapter.
A Weary Christ
It is not often that I have been really thirsty—certainly not in this country—but of one thing about thirst I am convinced: most people understand very little about it until they spend time in a tropical land, particularly an arid and extremely warm land such as the Middle East. Several times when I have been traveling in the Middle East I have found myself in places where a traveler dared not drink the water. I remember vividly how uncomfortable and at times almost desperate one becomes until a place is reached where the water is drinkable and intense thirst can be quenched. People seldom experience this in America and other English-speaking lands. So in our literature water appears often as a symbol of beauty or perhaps (in great quantities) even of destruction but seldom as a symbol for life. It is entirely different in a culture where water is a symbol of that without which a person will surely die.
We must see this as we turn to Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria, for the point there is that Jesus is as necessary for spiritual life as water is for physical life.
Jesus had been traveling with his disciples from the area of the lower Jordan to Galilee and had to go through Samaria, as the story tells us (v. 4). This was not entirely true in a purely geographical sense. From the area of the lower Jordan to Galilee there were two routes. One led through Perea on the eastern side of the Jordan to the northern end of the valley where it crossed over into Galilee. The other, the way Jesus took, went through Samaria, the country west of the Jordan. Normally, orthodox Jews would take the eastern route; it was longer but it avoided Samaria. They did this because of their hostility toward the Samaritans. When John tells us, then, that Jesus “must needs” go through Samaria, he obviously means Jesus had to go that way to meet the Samaritan woman.
So Jesus went through Samaria. About noon on the second day of travel he came to the vicinity of the Samaritan town of Sychar. Being tired from his journey, he sat at the foot of the hill leading up to Sychar, on the edge of Jacob’s well. The disciples were sent off to the city to buy something to eat while Jesus rested.
What a picture of Jesus! Here was a Jesus who was not wearied merely by the heat. He could have stayed in the cooler area of the Jordan. Here was a Jesus who was wearied in his search for sinners and who had become thirsty seeking those to whom he was to offer the water of life. On the same errand he would one day experience an even greater thirst on the cross. One of the great devotional writers of our time, Geoffrey T. Bull, a missionary the Chinese imprisoned on the Tibetan border from 1950 to 1953 but later released, remarks on this aspect of Jesus’ encounter with the woman: “If she could have seen just then what Jesus saw, she would have glimpsed another noonday when the sun would mourn in blackness and this same Stranger cry out from a Roman cross, ‘I thirst!’ She would have seen in him the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, the smitten Christ from whom the living waters flow. … He was thirstier than she knew. He was speaking for the very heart of God. He was moving in the travail of his soul and looked for satisfaction in the restoration of this sin scarred woman.”
Jesus became man and experienced all that we experience, but the point of the incarnation is that he did this to redeem men. So if he was weary, thirsty, hot, and on the road to even greater suffering, he was weary and hot for your sake and mine. Jesus suffered for the Nicodemuses, the women of Samaria, and the others whom this world holds. If you are already a believer, perhaps you should ask yourself whether you have ever wearied yourself in the pursuit of other men and women. Have you ever become hot or uncomfortable trying to communicate the gospel to others?
A Thirsty Woman
There is another picture in the first verses of John 4. The one picture is of a wearied Christ. The second is of the woman. She was a Samaritan, and she undoubtedly had had many opportunities to return the hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans by hating the Jews in return. Perhaps she had even had a taste of their hostility a few minutes before meeting Jesus, for she was coming down the hill at the same time that Peter and the other disciples had gone up, and we can be certain that at this stage of their lives, Peter and the others would never have moved off the path for any woman, much less a Samaritan and one with loose morals at that. Perhaps she had been pushed aside or made to wait while the body of Galileans marched by.
Probably she came to the bottom of the hill with this fresh reminder of the hatred of the Jews in her mind, and as soon as she got to the well the first thing that she discovered was another Jew. She could tell he was a Jew by his dress. She was silent. She wasn’t about to speak to him! While she was getting ready to lower her bucket into the well, however, Jesus made a request. He asked for a drink. When she remarked at the fact that he, a Jew, should do something as unheard of as to ask water of a Samaritan woman, he aroused her curiosity even further by offering her a new kind of water, “living water,” that would be a spring of water within her “welling up to eternal life.”
This is always the way it is in the spiritual realm. Jesus comes to us first. If we were left to ourselves, we would leave him sitting on the edge of the well forever. But he does not leave us to ourselves. Instead he comes to us. He asks the first question. He initiates the conversation. He uses all devices to break through to our hearts. Sometimes it is a question, sometimes a command, sometimes a chance remark made by someone else, but it is always from him.
Jesus offered the woman “living water.” But what does that mean? What does it mean when he offers it to us? The woman, of course, at first understood the words with crude literalness, just as Nicodemus had understood the words about being “born again” literally. In Jewish speech the phrase “living water” meant water that was flowing, like water in a river or stream, as opposed to water that was stagnant, as in a cistern or well. Living water was considered to be better. Therefore, when Jesus said that he could give her “living water” the woman quite naturally thought of a stream. She wanted to know where Jesus had found it. From the tone of her remarks it is evident that she even thought his claim a bit blasphemous, for it was a claim to have done something greater than her ancestor Jacob had been able to do. Had Jacob been able to find a stream he would certainly not have taken the trouble to dig a well that was roughly a hundred feet deep. This was the level on which the woman was thinking.
Still the phrase should have meant more than this to anyone who was accustomed to thinking biblically. It should have meant more than this to the woman. Many times in the Old Testament God is pictured as the One who alone can supply living water to satisfy the thirst for God that exists in man’s soul.
Isaiah wrote, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3). David said, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). God declared through Jeremiah, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer. 2:13). In Isaiah 44 God makes the promise, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land” (Isa. 44:3). In chapter 55 he declares, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (v. 1). Several times in the writings of Ezekiel and Zechariah there is a picture of a river of life flowing out from God’s presence in Jerusalem (Ezek. 47:1–12; Zech. 13:1; 14:8). In the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, there is a reference to these themes in the promises for the end time, “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).
Much of the Old Testament is filled with this pictorial religious language revealing the thirst of the soul, a thirst that can be satisfied only by God. However, the woman chose to misunderstand Christ’s words by taking them literally. She was blind because she would not see.
Jesus was claiming to be the One who alone can satisfy human longing. Have you tested his claim? You may try to fill your life with the things of this world—money, fame, power, activity—but though these will satisfy for a time, they will not do so permanently. I have often said that they are like a Chinese dinner. They will fill you up well, but two or three hours later you will be hungry again. Only Jesus Christ is able to satisfy you fully.
A Springing Fountain
There is one more point that is of great importance to this study. Up to now we have been thinking mostly about the phrase “living water” from verse 10. Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” This verse is important, but we must not overlook the point that four verses further on, in verse 14, Jesus repeats his offer with a significant variation. In verse 14 he says, “But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
No one has ever seen a well of water springing up. Only the water in a spring springs up. The water in a well just lies there. So Jesus is not talking about a well. The woman had come to a well. Jesus has invited her to a spring. Now he adds that if she allows him to place this spring within her, the spring will never cease but will continue to bubble away forever.
Imagine, if you will, that you have just purchased a piece of property upon which you are going to build a house. There is water on the property. If the water is in a well, the water will give you no trouble. If you are there with your bulldozers to clear the ground for your house, all you have to do is push some dirt into the hole and the well will be gone forever so far as you are concerned. It is entirely different, however, if the source of the water on your property is a spring. Try to do the same as you did with the well. You push some dirt over a spring, and it seems to be gone. Five o’clock comes. The workmen go home. But the next morning, when the workmen come back, the stream will be there again, having simply pushed its way through the ground. A well can be covered. A spring seeps through anything you may place over it.
This is what the Lord Jesus Christ is saying. He is promising to place a spring within the life of anyone who will come to him. This spring will be eternal, free, joyous, and self-dependent. But he is also warning you that you will never be able to bulldoze anything over it!
We try, of course. I have done it myself. I know of many who have believed in Christ but who have come to a place in their lives where his way seems inconvenient and who have tried to stifle his presence by piling some foreign substance over the spring. Some have said, “I’m glad that I’m saved, but I’m going to go my way while I’m young. I paid too much attention to religion in my youth. Now I’m just going to cover it up.” So they try. But instead of succeeding they discover that God just comes bubbling through.
Let me ask another question: What happens when a spring comes bubbling through dirt? The answer is: It produces muddy water. Is it the spring’s fault? No! The fault lies in the dirt that has been pushed on top of it. Does this describe your life? Are you a Christian who has run from God, trying to cover over his presence, but instead only had your life filled with muddy water? If this does describe you, why don’t you allow the Lord Jesus Christ to remove the dirt and purify the spring of his life within you?
Let me warn you that you cannot go your own way indefinitely. You will never get away with that. God must be true to his character, and God says that in his holiness he is determined to perfect the image of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, within you. If God were to allow you to go any way you want and make a success of it, then he would be a liar when he says that Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth, and the only life. God is no liar. So he will make a mess of your life, a ruin of your life, if he has to, until you come to the point where you will let him perfect that work in you he began when you first tasted of the Lord Jesus.
Will you yield to him? If you do, he will satisfy any longing that you may ever have had. He put it there in the first place. And he will do with you that which is pleasing in his sight and which will bless others.
“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 again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14)
In 1509, Don Diego Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola to rule as Spanish governor in the West Indies. Don Diego, the son of the great explorer Christopher Columbus, arrived with several relatives, a large retinue of cavaliers, and a troop of well-bred ladies sent to marry and civilize the leading colonists of New Spain. Among those colonists was Juan Ponce de Leon, governor of Puerto Rico. Ponce had distinguished himself in battle and was revered as a personal companion of Christopher Columbus. Though an old man, he was animated with the ambitions of youth. He watched in frustration as the young courtiers took their young wives and set off for wealth and renown. One biography relates, “The enjoyment of life had ever been an exquisite pleasure to him, and his desire to prolong his earthly existence in vigor was intense.”
Because of this desire, Ponce was inspired by legends he had heard of “crystal waters flowing from living springs … in which he who bathed would be instantly endowed with immortal youth and great beauty.” Outfitting a small fleet, he began searching for this “Fountain of Youth.” Being first directed to the Bahama Islands, he bathed in every stream and lake there. Disappointed, he extended his search northwest. On Easter Sunday he landed at what is now St. Augustine, having been drawn there by the perfume of flowers wafting over the ocean. Believing himself to have discovered paradise, he claimed the land for Spain and named it Florida in honor of the flowers. Certain that the Fountain of Youth must be among the magnolia-laden streams nearby, and eager to taste the promised golden fruit proffered by the hands of lovely maidens, Ponce searched in earnest but also in vain. Frustrated at his failure to find the fountain, Ponce returned to Puerto Rico having gained not immortal youth but immortal fame for discovering Florida and for seeking eternal life.
Jesus’ Offer of Living Water
If Ponce de Leon had trusted his Bible instead of native legends, he would have learned that the fountain of eternal life is found not in the Bahamas or Florida but at an ancient well outside the town of Sychar in Samaria. According to Jesus, the source of living water was not in Jacob’s well itself, on which he sat with the Samaritan woman. Rather, Jesus himself is the fountain of eternal life. “If you knew the gift of God,” he said, “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). Pointing to the well, he added, “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 again” (4:13–14). Though lacking the scented flowers, the golden apples, and lovely maidens, here was a fountain of youth and vigor from which Ponce de Leon might have drunk without sailing in ships, and from which any one of us may benefit simply by believing in Jesus Christ.
Jesus employs the Bible’s frequent use of the link between water and life. Water is absolutely necessary for life in this world. If you are flying over the Great Plains in the Central United States, you will look down on a brown landscape slashed with green lines and dotted with green squares and circles. The green lines are rivers, where water brings life to the earth; the squares and circles are farmlands watered by irrigation systems. Where there is water, there is life. Jesus is using his earthly situation, sitting on a well, to make a point about spiritual life. As a well gives water for our bodies, so also does God give life to our souls.
In Jesus’ day, the expression “living water” referred to fresh, running water, in contrast to the stagnant water found in wells. But those familiar with the Bible will also see this as a reference to the gift of abundant life through the Holy Spirit that God promised through the Messiah. In Jeremiah 2:13, God described himself as “the fountain of living waters.” Psalm 36:9 says, “For with you is the fountain of life.” Isaiah 44:3 tells of the coming day of salvation: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring.” The last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, depicts “the river of the water of life,” flowing from the throne of God and of his Son, the Savior-Lamb (Rev. 22:1). One writer therefore describes living water as “the soul-satisfying grace of God, or that which only God can give to satisfy a soul. It is … the transforming life and power that God alone gives in and through the gospel of His Son, that leads to eternal life, and that satisfies as nothing else can.”
In making this offer, Jesus summarized his entire gospel in terms of two things that the world needs to know. He notes, “If you knew the gift of God.” This is what we need to know: God has life as a gift for those who will receive it. He says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1), and we may bring the parched soil of our hearts to be watered by him. Second, Jesus says, “If you knew … who it is that is” speaking (John 4:10). We need to know who Jesus is as well: the Savior sent by God to bring eternal life to this dying world. In these two statements is our whole gospel; this is what we and others need to know in order to be saved: what is the gift of God and who Jesus is as the One who offers it. Then we must ask of him, and he will bring eternal life as living water for our souls. We need it—God’s gift of eternal life—from him—the Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus promises: “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” (4:10).
Jesus’ offer produced a revealing response from the woman: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?’ ” (John 4:11). Here we have another depiction of unbelief. We saw in John 3:19 that unbelief is caused by a moral commitment to sin: Jesus said, “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” We also observed that many people are kept from God by cultural barriers, which Jesus crossed in speaking to this Samaritan woman. Now, in her response, we see yet another reason for unbelief: spiritual inability. She simply was not able to grasp what Jesus meant in his offer of salvation. She was an earthly, worldly person, unable to think in spiritual terms.
The Bible teaches that fallen mankind is dead to spiritual things (see Eph. 2:1–3). Paul explains, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). This woman was a perfect example of this teaching, for she could think only in terms of physical water and literal wells. Nicodemus was similarly unable to understand Jesus in John 3. Jesus said to him, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
The woman’s reply to Jesus was almost comical. She did not see how he could offer what she understood only as running water. First, Jesus had no pail: “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11). Second, she could not see how Jesus could do better than so great a man as the patriarch Jacob: “Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (4:12). Jacob’s well remains in Samaria today; it is over a hundred feet deep and was likely deeper then. Some scholars believe that Jacob’s well might have been the deepest in all of Palestine. How could this stranger—a man with no apparent distinction or station—hope to do better than Jacob and his well?
People think the same way today. Jesus is not someone they take seriously because he does not head a powerful organization or command worldly resources. The people who matter, they think, are those who allocate riches and promotions, or who provide valued goods and services. Despite his unparalleled religious status, Jesus is thought to be of little earthly good—and most people, like this Samaritan woman, think only of earthly things. Jesus did not bring any advanced technology and simply could not compare with people who really matter—such as Jacob, who at least was head of a great nation. She was interested in plumbing, not salvation; she wanted an easier way to get better water from the well. Likewise, people today want advice on relationships, work, and play, not theological jargon about Jesus.
The problem with such thinking goes back to Jesus’ offer: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is [speaking] to you” (John 4:10). The truth is that the spiritual realm is superior to the material realm; God’s gift of spiritual life is more valuable than earthly riches. Moreover, though Jesus Christ seems so easy to dismiss, in fact God has “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet” (Eph. 1:20–22). Even when it comes to our earthly concerns—jobs, families, and health—Jesus has far more power than any earthly authority. But more importantly, Jesus has authority over our eternal souls. Unless we come to him in faith, we are condemned already, John says, for not believing in the name of God’s only Son (John 3:18).
Does this not inspire us to tell people what they do not know? This woman had many needs—she needed relationship advice, she had the stress of being rejected by other women, and she needed help getting water from this well, surely along with many other problems. But her greatest need was to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. This is why we need to preach the gospel—not lifestyle tips or the self-help plumbing that today’s worldly men and women also crave. The Bible says, “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), so we must proclaim it.
With this very thing in mind, Jesus replied to the woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.” Every earthly source of life and satisfaction will always fail to satisfy our souls. The woman might get beautiful pipes bringing the well water all the way to her house. Yet she would thirst again. Thirst is one of the strongest cravings, and the souls of men and women are thirsty for God, whether they know it or not. Nothing but God satisfies the soul made by God for himself. St. Augustine wrote at the beginning of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Whether we know it or not, Psalm 42:1 speaks for us all: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”
This was true for this Samaritan woman, and it is true for you. You might have all that this world can offer—riches, rank, place, and power—yet be utterly unfulfilled. Isn’t this the story of our own time? Amid gaudy affluence and ever-ready entertainment, with unparalleled leisure and earthly excitements, ours is a generation aching with thirst. A. W. Pink summarizes the human condition:
Whether he articulates it or not the natural man, the world over, is crying “I thirst.” Why this consuming desire to acquire wealth? Why this craving for the honors and plaudits of the world? Why this mad rush after pleasure, the turning from one form of it to another with persistent and unwearied diligence? Why this eager search for wisdom—this scientific inquiry, this pursuit of philosophy, this ransacking of the writings of the ancients, and this ceaseless experimentation by the moderns? Why the insane craze for that which is novel? Why? Because there is an aching void in the soul. Because there is something remaining in every natural man that is unsatisfied. This is true of the millionaire equally as much as the pauper: the riches of the former bring no real contentment. It is as true of the globe-trotter equally as much as of the country rustic who has never been outside the bounds of his native country: traveling from one end of the earth to the other and back again fails to discover the secret of peace. Over all the cisterns of this world’s providing is written in letters of ineffaceable truth, “Whosoever drinks of this water shall thirst again.”
Remember Ponce de Leon? The tragedy of his life is not that he never found the Fountain of Youth. The tragedy is that even if he had found it, its unending earthly pleasures would not really have satisfied him. So what are you seeking? Riches? Pleasure? Fame? The tragedy today is that people seek these things but find no satisfaction when they gain them. Jesus warns that regardless of whatever earthly fulfillment you might gain, you will only thirst again. Especially when our seeking leads us into sin, we end up like broken cisterns not even capable of being satisfied, no longer even able to hold water, unless Christ should come and heal our souls.
Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the leading journalists and writers of his generation. Through the thirst of his own soul, he learned what Jesus sought to communicate to this Samaritan woman. He reflected:
I may … pass for being a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets—that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue—that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame … [I] may partake of trendy diversions—that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote … represented a serious impact on our time—that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing—less than nothing, a positive impediment—measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty.
God’s Gift of Life
That was Jesus’ message to the woman at the well. He told her that by drinking from worldly troughs she would always thirst again, but he added, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
There is a condition for what Jesus offers. He specifies: “Whoever drinks.” Jesus did not direct us to fulfill some quest or perform morally or religiously at a certain high level. He does not place a price tag on his living water, but simply says, “Whoever drinks.” He is speaking, of course, of simple faith. John 3:16 told us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Leon Morris explains: “The gift of the living water is not a reward for meritorious service. It is a gift that brings to anyone who receives it, no matter how insignificant and limited he or she may be, a totally new experience, a new power, a new life—the life that is eternal.”
Notice that this woman’s sins did not keep Jesus from offering her salvation. He brings up her sins later in the conversation, not before but after he offers salvation, knowing that if she believes, his death on the cross will cleanse her from all sin. George Hutcheson writes, “Christ, who makes offer of grace before we seek it, will not refuse it to them who ask it, nor will former sins hinder their acceptance who come to seek grace; for even to this wicked woman he saith, ‘Thou wouldest have asked, and he would have given thee living waters.’ ”
When we fulfill the condition of salvation—receiving God’s gift through faith alone—there is a glorious consequence: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” Jesus offers to satisfy our souls. This does not mean that all our trials cease and that life in this world is transformed into unending ease. Far from it! To follow Jesus is to pick up his cross and endure many hardships in life—not the least of which is our warfare with sin. But we gain soul-fulfillment through our fellowship with God. Earthly things lose their appeal—the more worldly and sinful they are, the more thoroughly their luster fades—and we find permanent satisfaction for the thirst of our souls.
Finally, Jesus speaks of a change that will result: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). This refers to the new birth by the Holy Spirit. To be born again is to have a spiritual fountain welling up within you, as God himself lives and moves in your heart.
The results of this change, with the ever-flowing fountain of spiritual power that it opens up in us, are faith, godliness, and unfailing spiritual joy. Psalm 16:11 says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Do you experience that? If you are not a Christian, this is what Jesus offers you—not the dreary, negative lifestyle you have been told that Christians endure. If you come to Jesus, he will save you through faith and give you life abundant (see John 10:10).
If you are a Christian, are you experiencing this? Do you enjoy the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s fountain in your heart? The tragedy of Ponce de Leon was that he sought a Fountain of Youth that did not exist. But how much greater is the tragedy of Christians who have found the true fountain of eternal, spiritual life, but who know little of its blessings of righteousness, peace, and joy.
The sad fact is that far too many Christians live without enjoying the spiritual blessings that Jesus has given them. This is one reason why our witness is often ineffective. There are a number of explanations for this. Some Christians live close to the world and fill their hearts with worldly things. Are you like that? Are you still filling your soul with water that will leave you thirsty again? If so, wean your heart from earthly pleasures and treasures and start serving Jesus at home, in your work, and in your play. Stop craving for worldly success, stop drinking from worldly troughs, and renew your commitment to Christ, and you will find refreshing waters flowing freely once again. Others have stopped up the spring of the Holy Spirit with sinful habits or attitudes. If you are truly a Christian, you can never ultimately block God’s Spirit, but how much better for you to repent or forgive as needed and to walk in the light, cleansed by Christ’s blood and refreshed by his fellowship. Jesus says to all who come to him, for the first time or once again: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.”
The woman heard Jesus’ offer of life—its condition, its consequence, and its change—and still responded with only worldly understanding. She said, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (John 4:15). Jesus was not done with her, and he would continue working into her heart until she understood and believed. When she finally did, she responded with a joy that changed her life and the lives of many others. May we likewise know the gift of God and the Savior who offers it, and may many others drink from his living water through our witness in the world.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 142–146). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 276–281). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 225–233). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.