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.
 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.