Menu Close

“The Water of Life”

John 4:1-54
Bob DeGray
January 26, 2003

Key Sentence

Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs, and he is always working to draw us to faith.


I. The Source of Living Water (John 4:7-14)
II. The Key to True Worship (John 4:15-24)
III. The Savior of the World (John 4:25-30, 39-42)
IV. The Sower and Reaper of the Harvest (John 4:31-38)
V. The One who will do Whatever it Takes (John 4:43-54)


        The contrast could not be more startling. Last week we saw Jesus interact with a Pharisee in Judea, this week he’ll talk with a woman in Samaria. Nicodeumus, the Pharisee, was a powerful ruler of the Jews, wealthy and influential. The woman at Sychar was a poor and powerless peasant. The Pharisee was one of God’s chosen people. The woman was part of a despised minority and a cult. The Pharisee was the image of individual righteousness; the woman a study in unrighteousness, a moral outcast. The Pharisee was a man, the woman a woman in a society where women were often less than nothing. The Pharisee was religiously trained and thought he knew all the answers, the woman was unschooled and had only questions.

        These two had one thing in common: they needed Jesus. The Gospel of John shows Jesus meeting their heart needs. The religious formalism of Nicodemus required Jesus to say to him “you must be born again”. The weary sinfulness of the woman prompts Jesus to offer her living water, the water of eternal life. Jesus is the answer to their deepest needs and does everything necessary to draw them to faith.

        But what about you? Are you like Nicodemus or like the woman at the well. Do you feel on top of life, master of your fate, captain of your soul? Or are you a nobody, addicted to sin, consumed or abused by those close to you? Or are you someplace in-between? Too cautious to be proud, too successful to be vulnerable, too busy to really pay attention to your soul? Are you on the edge of faith, or on the edge of disaster, or both. The good news of John chapter 4 is that Jesus is the answer to our deepest need and he is always working to draw us to greater faith. He loves us no matter who we are or what we are like and longs to draw us into committed belief.

        The introduction to today’s account is found in John 4, verses 1 to 6: The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4Now he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

        The Pharisees, like many others in Judea, were most intrigued by the ministry of Jesus, especially after his disciples began baptizing people. They may have feared Jesus and John the Baptist would get together to pool their popularity against the religious establishment. But Jesus knows it’s too soon for a public display. He decides to leave the area near Jerusalem, to go back to Galilee. To do so he had to go through Samaria.

        Actually, he didn’t have to. Often Jews went to Galilee by crossing the Jordan and going up the east side. But not always–the route through Samaria was shorter, if a bit socially uncomfortable. So when John says Jesus ‘had’ to go through Samaria, he may meant Jesus was compelled by his Father’s will to keep a divine appointment.

        The problem with going through Samaria was that the Jews despised the Samaritans and regarded them as racially and religiously inferior. This distrust could be traced back to just after the time of Solomon, when the northern tribes of Israel rebelled and established their own nation, whose capital was Samaria. After they were conquered by Assyria, many of these Jews were scattered, and foreigners were brought in to settle Samaria. The resulting mixed population was regarded by full Jews as racially suspect, and the religion that grew in Samaria was regarded as a dangerous cult. The people of Samaria worshiped on Mt. Gerazim and clung to their own religious ideas, based primarily on the first five books of Moses. Amazingly, a community of Samaritans still survives and worships today on Mt. Gerazim.

        Sychar, the Samaritan town where Jesus stopped, is on the shoulder of Mt. Ebal, opposite Mt. Gerazim. Jacob’s well, apparently dug by the patriarch himself, lies about a half a mile south. It’s shaft descends about a hundred feet to a spring that continues to provide water. Today it lies in the shadow of an unfinished Orthodox church. Jesus arrived at Jacob’s well about noon, the sixth hour. Having walked all morning, Jesus was tired and thirsty in the heat of the day. We shouldn’t forget that when the Word became flesh he became flesh. He was made of the same stuff we are; he got thirsty, hungry and worn like you or I would in the same circumstances.

        So that’s the setting, the introduction to the story. Jesus, tired and hungry, sitting by this well, is nonetheless ready to meet someone’s greatest need. John 4:7-14 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" 8(His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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." 11"Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12Are 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?" 13Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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."

        Women usually came in groups to fetch water, and either earlier or later in the day, when the heat of the sun was less. But this woman came alone: maybe she was the subject of public shame; no one wanted to be seen with someone of her reputation.

        Jesus was also alone, since the disciples had gone to buy food. Yet even under these isolated conditions, the woman is shocked when Jesus asks her for a drink: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink?” The taboos were strong: eating with Samaritans was rare; sharing a drinking vessel with a Samaritan, especially a woman, was more unheard of. At some point the Pharisees decided that Samaritan women were unclean all the time. You were ceremonially defiled just to be near them. Nice, huh? Of course such racist segregation ended long ago and in recent centuries we’ve never had such problems between, say, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, or Israelis and Arabs, or African-Americans and Anglo-Americans? How many years has it been since African-Americans had to drink from separate water fountains? Not that many. Don’t feel too superior.

        Jesus is not put off by these prejudices. He sees an opportunity for ministry. So he tells the woman that if she had really known who she was talking to she would have broken the taboo herself and asked him for ‘living water’. This phrase has two levels of meaning. On one hand, it denotes fresh, running water from springs. In a dry and arid land like Palestine, people flocked to a source of fresh water, running water. As such ‘living water’ became a great metaphor, even in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah God says “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.” Yet he promises in Isaiah 44:3 “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” He says “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Water is a metaphor of life for the spiritually thirsty. Jesus supplies our deepest, most basic needs. He offers this woman life giving refreshment for her weary soul.

        But the woman doesn’t hear this deep offer. She thinks Jesus is talking about fresh water like that of the spring that feeds the well. She can see he has nothing to draw with. If he could provide flowing water another way, he would be greater than Jacob, who dug this well to provide for himself and his children and his flocks. But she’s skeptical, since he couldn’t even provide for himself. Still, Jesus answers her question: the water provided by Jacob was valuable, but it quenched thirst only for a little while; the ‘living water’ Jesus gives satisfies thirst forever. The thirst he is talking about is clearly not natural thirst, but a much deeper need. The water he provides becomes a spring of life for the inner person that will flow for all eternity. Once again, Jesus offers eternal life, the life of the age to come, and we can see that one of its characteristics is abundance - it overflows in pure provision.

        The woman, like Nicodemus, continues to think on a purely physical plane, as evidenced by her desire ‘not to keep coming here to draw water’. But Jesus doesn’t chide her. Instead he begins to address her deepest needs, not metaphorically but directly. Listen to Jesus at work in verses 15 to 24:

        The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." 16He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." 17"I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." 19"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." 21Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

        Jesus changes the subject rather abruptly, but not unexpectedly. It’s characteristic of him to get to the heart of a person’s need, and in the case of this woman, her need focuses on her sin, and her sin is reflected in her marriages and relationships. By asking this simple question, Jesus is showing her that she has missed her real need, that her greatest thirsts are not physical but emotional, spiritual, relational.

        The woman’s answer, ‘I have no husband’ is her shortest comment in the conversation. No doubt her intent was to forestall discussion. Like most of us, she didn’t want to deal with her sin or guilt or hurt. But in verse 18 Jesus exposes all this, though very gently. He commends her for her truthfulness while pointing out that she has in fact had five husbands, each of whom must have either divorced her or died, and that the man she lives with is not her husband. The woman is taken back by this precise knowledge. She tells Jesus he must be a prophet, in the Jewish sense, or possibly the prophet in the Samaritan sense, since the Samaritans were only looking for one prophet after Moses. Having recognized that, she finds it a convenient excuse to change the subject. It’s easier to talk about theology than to deal with distressing, personal truths. Even today there are some whose theology is sharp and focused and a favorite topic, but whose personal righteousness and is almost entirely a sham.

        The subject she raises is worship. The Samaritans had built a temple right there on Mt. Gerazim, and though that temple was now destroyed, they still worshiped there. They identified that as the place God had chosen to be worshiped, not Jerusalem, not Mt. Zion. So the woman asks ‘who’s right?’ Jesus responds by resetting the whole category of worship - taking it to a deeper level, to a heart level, as he always does. He begins by setting aside the whole Jerusalem / Gerazim dispute. He says ‘believe me, ma’am,’ - the same word he earlier used to address his mother - ‘the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.’ In other words, both sites are about to become outdated, so why debate between them?

        Nevertheless, Jesus asserts in verse 22 that the Samaritans are acting in ignorance when they worship on Mt. Gerazim, and the Jews in knowledge when they worship on Mt. Zion, because, Jesus says, ‘salvation is from the Jews.’ The Samaritans took a wrong turn when they discounted the Psalms and the prophets and the promises to David. Those prophecies pointed the way to the true Messiah, who cared not just about a nation, but about individuals. Jesus explains that ‘a time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.’ This new period of worship is ‘now and not yet’. It depends on the heart changing effects of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but even before his death Jesus was seeking true worshipers who were ready to worship his Father in spirit and in truth.

        Verse 24 helps us to understand what that means: God is spirit. He is invisible rather than physical, divine as opposed to human, life-giving rather than life receiving, and unknowable unless he chooses to reveal himself. As spirit, God is not limited to one physical location or another: He is everywhere, so that all places are equally valid places of worship. And since He is spirit, the most important part of our worship is not physical but spiritual - not outward activity but inner heart response. Even in the Psalms David said to God “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Worship grows out of the fullness of spiritual life we enjoy through the Holy Spirit. Furthermore worship is to be in truth - based on knowledge of the Word of God, of who God is, of what he has done in Jesus. Jesus said ‘Thy word is truth’, and John told us that Jesus is the Word, so true worship must be founded on a relationship with Jesus.

         Again, the point is that Jesus is everything we need. He is the source of Living Water. He is the key to true worship, and finally, he is the Messiah, the Savior. That’s what the woman and the people of finally Sychar saw. Let me read John 4:25-30 and 39- 42. 25The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." 26Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." 27Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?" 28Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29"Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" 30They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
        39Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41And because of his words many more became believers. 42They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."

        The Samaritans did not use the term ‘messiah’. But since they lived in close proximity to Jews who did, they must have had some idea what the word implied. A term they did use was ‘Taheb’, which referred to one who was to come as ‘the prophet like Moses.’ The woman’s expectation that ‘he will explain everything to us’ was more Samaritan than Jewish: They pictured the Taheb as one who would reveal the truth. Since this stranger talked about theological and personal matters with such authority, and since he was Jewish, he must be the Jewish Taheb, the Messiah. Jesus agrees. “I who speak to you am he.” Sometimes in the other Gospels and often when dealing with the Jews, Jesus is reluctant to declare himself to be the Messiah. But here, to a Samaritan and in a situation with no political implications, he is quick to admit his true nature. The one who sat by her well and asked for a drink was the one both Jews and Samaritans had really been waiting for.

        At this point the disciples come back, and their astonishment that Jesus is talking to a woman and a Samaritan, even if unvoiced, is enough to cause her to break off the conversation. She leaves her jar – possibly so Jesus can finally get his drink – and heads back into the town. There she calls anyone she can find, to come and meet the one she has met. I think she’s pretty smart not to come right out and say ‘this is the Messiah’. Instead she leaves it a little tentative ‘could this be the Christ?’ so that her fellow townspeople can decide for themselves. She’s a great example of witness. What she does is natural in one sense, but in another it takes a great deal of courage. Its natural for someone who has found something great to share it. If she had gone out of town and found a brand new well with tremendous flowing water, she would have shared it with the others in town. On the other hand she needed to be very bold, because she was not the most socially accepted person and she had to share this good news with people who at least somewhat despised her. Fortunately her enthusiasm overcame her fear. She says “he told me everything I ever did”, which again is a distinctly Samaritan expectation of the Messiah, and also very transparent on her part. So they were intrigued.

        Dropping down to verse 39, we find that her witness bore fruit - as it usually will if you bring people to an encounter with Jesus. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him”, initially, “because of the woman's testimony.” But during the two days Jesus spent with them, these Samaritans heard the truth for themselves and believed for themselves, as all true believers must. You can’t piggyback on anyone else’s faith - whether your parent’s or your pastor’s or your peers’. When I first came to faith it wasn’t clear whether I trusted Christ or trusted Pete Fosberg, the pastor who led me to Christ. God allowed him to forget who I was so that I would know who I could really depend on. Whether you are 8 or 80 you need to have a faith that represents a real encounter between you and Jesus. Look at what the Samaritans say: “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

        Jesus is their Savior. Maybe he said something to them like John 3:17, that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ That truth would have a great impact on someone like the woman at the well who received condemnation in life, but who was now offered salvation and eternal life. But it would also have great impact on all the Samaritans. Jesus did not come only as the Savior of his people, the Jews, but of all people. He is ‘the Savior of the World.’ If you’re a Samaritan, or an American it is good to know that Jesus is not limited by geography or race: he can be anyone’s savior.

        So we’ve seen that Jesus meets our deepest heart needs. He is the source of living water, the key to true heart worship, the promised Messiah and Savior of the world. He is worthy of our faith, and he is also constantly working to call us to faith. This is what he teaches his disciples in verses 31 to 38: 31Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." 33Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?" 34"My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor."

        While the woman was away gathering the people of the town, the disciples returned with food and urged Jesus to eat. But Jesus, though probably still thirsty and hungry in a physical sense, has been so fired up by his conversation that he decides to use the situation to teach his followers his priorities: “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Naturally the disciples misunderstand, thinking Jesus must have gotten food elsewhere. So he clarifies: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” He’s probably thinking of the Scripture in Deuteronomy that says “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” In sharing living water with the Samaritan woman he was doing the Father’s will, which brought greater sustenance and satisfaction than any food they could offer.

        Jesus was driven by a desire to see God’s work completed in the lives of people, to see a great spiritual harvest. He asks them “Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Physically the fields nearby may have been just planted, but spiritually people like the Samaritans were ready for a Savior, and all it took was someone to come and do the Father’s work of reaping a faith that was ready to be given. Jesus wasn’t thinking just of Samaria: he saw the world as a harvest field and knew the time was coming when the harvest of faith would be reaped in many places: “Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life.”

        The one deep need all of us share is the need for rescue from sin - for salvation. Therefore when someone is born again into eternal life it is a cause for rejoicing to anyone who had a part in sharing the Good News with that person. Jesus implies that it is typical for one person to sow the seeds of faith, and another to reap them. We know from studies in our own day that it typically takes six or seven significant contacts with the Good News before a person is ready to place their faith in Jesus. Many faithful people will sow before someone has the chance to reap.

        But in the case of the disciples, they would be sent out to reap in fields they had never sown. ‘Others,’ Jesus says, ‘have done the hard work’ and the disciples would have the relatively easy work of reaping in those fields. The ones who did the hard work were the prophets who foretold the Messiah, and John the Baptist who prepared the way, but most of all Jesus himself, who did the hard work on the cross. Carson says “Christians who have studied the Fourth Gospel find it difficult not to think of Jesus as the one who has done ‘the hard work’; for he is not only the sower, but the seed, the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, bearing much fruit.”

        What Jesus did in obedience to the Father makes the harvest possible. He himself is the answer to our deepest need, and he will do whatever it takes to draw us to faith. In the ultimate sense going to the cross was what it took to make faith possible. But even in this episode we see Jesus was willing to go outside his culture to bring the good news to a Samaritan; a woman; a sinner. Jesus is what we need and he does what it takes. The last episode in our text reinforces that truth. Let me reverse my normal process here in light of the length of this text. I’ll highlight some thoughts now and then close the sermon by reading the end of the chapter as a closing illustration. Don’t lose the key idea though: we’ve seen that Jesus is the source of true life, of living water. He is the one who makes it possible to worship God in spirit and truth. He is the world’s Savior. We’ve also seen what thrills the heart of Jesus: to lovingly draw people to faith. He will do what it takes to meet our need.

        Before we close, let me give you a couple of application questions. First, have you accepted what Jesus has done for you? Have you believed his sacrifice of himself in death for your sins? Have you received and begun to experience abundant life, eternal life that feels like a drink of cool and refreshing water? The second question of application is ‘do you worship’? God wants you to be a worshiper who responds to Jesus from the heart, with inward worship that comes to characterize your whole life. Are you at heart God’s worshiper? The third application question is equally obvious: What are you doing to reach the lost? The harvest fields are still ripe. There are many in our own community who have no more idea who Jesus is than the woman at the well did, but who would be open to hearing your testimony. Are you willing to go outside your cultural box to bring living water to the thirsty?

        The last episode in the chapter illustrates that ‘whatever it takes’ mentality. Jesus goes to Galilee and finds a stark contrast to the faith of the Samaritans. He longs to see the same acceptance in his own country he found in another culture, but the Galileans are still hung up on signs. Nevertheless, he willing to do whatever it takes to draw people to faith even if it’s one at a time. So when a high court official approaches him for the healing of his son, Jesus responds. He knows this will be just one more occasion when people attach themselves to him because of his miracles, but he wants the faith of this one man. Seeing that the man is utterly in need for the healing of his child, Jesus performed the miracle, and when the man went home he found his child had been healed at the exact moment Jesus said ‘your child will live.’ Jesus does what it takes - and this man and his household believe.

        Listen as Jesus once more does whatever it takes. 43After the two days he left for Galilee. 44(Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there. 46Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. 48"Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." 49The royal official said, "Sir, come down before my child dies." 50Jesus replied, "You may go. Your son will live." The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, "The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour." 53Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live." So he and all his household believed. 54This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs, and he is working to draw us and others to faith.