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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
John 4



Other Authors
Verses 1-54

Chapter 4


4:1-9 So when the Lord learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although it was not Jesus himself who was in the habit of baptizing but his disciples), he quilted Judaea and went away again to Galilee. Now he had to pass through Samaria. He came to a town of Samaria, called Sychar, which is near the piece of ground which Jacob gave to Joseph, his son, and Jacob's well was there. So Jesus, tired from the journey, was sitting by the well just as he was. It was about midday. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her: "Give me to drink." For his disciples had gone away into the town to buy provisions. So the Samaritan woman said to him: "How is it that you who are a Jew ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?" (For there is no familiarity between Jews and Samaritans.)

First of all, let us set the scene of this incident. Palestine is only 120 miles long from north to south. But within that 120 miles there were in the time of Jesus three definite divisions of territory. In the extreme north lay Galilee; in the extreme south lay Judaea; and in between lay Samaria. Jesus did not wish at this stage in his ministry to be involved in a controversy about baptism; so he decided to quit Judaea for the time being and transfer his operations to Galilee. There was a centuries-old feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, the cause of which we will shortly see. But the quickest way from Judaea to Galilee lay through Samaria. Using that route, the journey could be done in three days. The alternative route was to cross the Jordan, go up the eastern side of the river to avoid Samaria, recross the Jordan north of Samaria and then enter Galilee. This was a route which took twice as long. So then Jesus had to pass through Samaria if he wished to take the shortest route to Galilee.

On the way they came to the town of Sychar. Just short of Sychar the road to Samaria forks. The one branch goes north-east to Scythopolis; the other goes west to Nablus and then north to Engannim. At the fork of the road there stands to this day the well known as Jacob's well.

This was an area which had many Jewish memories attached to it. There was a piece of ground there which had been bought by Jacob (Genesis 33:18-19). Jacob, on his deathbed, had bequeathed that ground to Joseph (Genesis 48:22). And, on Joseph's death in Egypt, his body had been taken back to Palestine and buried there (Joshua 24:32). So around this area there gathered many Jewish memories.

The well itself was more than 100 feet deep. It is not a springing well of water; it is a wet into which the water percolates and gathers. But clearly it was a well so deep that no one could gain water from it unless he had something with which to draw the water.

When Jesus and his little band came to the fork in the road Jesus sat down to rest, for he was tired with the journey. It was midday. The Jewish day runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the sixth hour is twelve o'clock midday. So the heat was at its greatest, and Jesus was weary and thirsty from travelling. His disciples went on ahead to buy some food in the Samaritan town. Something must have been beginning to happen to them. Before they had met Jesus it is entirely unlikely that they would have even thought of buying food in any Samaritan town. Little by little, perhaps even unconsciously, the barriers were going down.

As Jesus sat there, there came to the well a Samaritan woman. Why she should come to that well is something of a mystery, for it was more than half-a-mile from Sychar where she must have stayed and there was water there. May it be that she was so much of a moral outcast that the women even drove her away from the village well and she had to come here to draw water? Jesus asked her to give him a drink. She turned in astonishment. "I am a Samaritan," she said. "You are a Jew. How is it that you ask a drink from me?" And then John explains to the Greeks for whom he is writing that there was no kind of come and go at all between the Jews and the Samaritans.

Now it is certain that all we have here is the briefest possible report of what must have been a long conversation. Clearly there was much more to this meeting than is recorded here. If we may use an analogy, this is like the minutes of a committee meeting where we have only the salient points of the discussion recorded. I think that the Samaritan woman must have unburdened her soul to this stranger. How else could Jesus have known of her tangled domestic affairs? For one of the very few times in her life she had found one with kindness in his eyes instead of critical superiority; and she opened her heart.

Few stories in the Gospel record show us so much about the character of Jesus.

(i) It shows us the reality of his humanity. Jesus was weary with the journey, and he sat by the side of the well exhausted. It is very significant that John who stresses the sheer deity of Jesus Christ more than any other of the gospel writers also stresses his humanity to the full. John does not show us a figure freed from the tiredness and the struggle of our humanity. He shows us one for whom life was an effort as it is for us; he shows us one who also was tired and had to go on.

(ii) It shows us the warmth of his sympathy. From an ordinary religious leader, from one of the orthodox church leaders of the day the Samaritan woman would have fled in embarrassment. She would have avoided such a one. If by any unlikely chance he had spoken to her she would have met him with an ashamed and even a hostile silence. But it seemed the most natural thing in the world to talk to Jesus. She had at last met someone who was not a critic but a friend, one who did not condemn but who understood.

(iii) It shows us Jesus as the breaker down of barriers. The quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans was an old, old story. Away back about 720 B.C. the Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Samaria and had captured and subjugated it. They did what conquerors often did in those days--they transported practically the whole population to Media (2 Kings 17:6). Into the district the Assyrians brought other people--from Babylon, from Cuthah, from Ava, from Hamath and from Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24). Now it is not possible to transport a whole people. Some of the people of the northern kingdom were left. Almost inevitably they began to inter-marry with the incoming foreigners; and thereby they committed what to the Jew was an unforgivable crime. They lost their racial purity. In a strict Jewish household even to this day if a son or a daughter marries a Gentile, his or her funeral service is carried out. Such a person is dead in the eyes of orthodox Judaism. So then the great majority of the inhabitants of Samaria were carried away to Media. They never came back but were assimilated into the country into which they were taken. They are the lost ten tribes. Those who remained in the country inter-married with the incoming strangers and lost their right to be called Jews at all.

In course of time a like invasion and a like defeat happened to the southern kingdom, whose capital was Jerusalem. Its inhabitants also were carried off to Babylon; but they did not lose their identity; they remained stubbornly and unalterably Jewish. In time there came the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the exiles returned to Jerusalem by the grace of the Persian king. Their immediate task was to repair and rebuild the shattered Temple. The Samaritans came and offered their help in this sacred task. They were contemptuously told that their help was not wanted. They had lost their Jewish heritage and they had no right to share in the rebuilding of the house of God. Smarting under this repulse, they turned bitterly against the Jews of Jerusalem. It was about 450 B.C. when that quarrel took place, and it was as bitter as ever in the days of Jesus.

It had further been embittered when the renegade Jew, Manasseh, married a daughter of the Samaritan Sanballat (Nehemiah 13:28) and proceeded to found a rival temple on Mount Gerizim which was in the centre of the Samaritan territory. Still later in the Maccabean days, in 129 B.C., John Hyrcanus, the Jewish general and leader, led an attack against Samaria and sacked and destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim. Between Jews and Samaritans there was an embittered hatred. The Jews contemptuously called them Chuthites or Cuthaeans after one of the peoples whom the Assyrians had settled there. The Jewish Rabbis said: "Let no man eat of the bread of the Cuthaeans, for he who eats their bread is as he who eats swine's flesh." Ecclesiasticus depicts God as saying: "With two nations is my soul vexed, and the third is no nation; they that sit upon the mountain of Samaria, and the Philistines, and that foolish people that dwell in Sichem" (Ecc 50:25-26). Sichem or Shechem was one of the most famous of Samaritan cities. The hatred was returned with interest. It is told that Rabbi Jochanan was passing through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem to pray. He passed by Mount Gerizim. A Samaritan saw him, and asked him: "Where are you going?" "I am going to Jerusalem," he said, "to pray." The Samaritan answered: "Would it not be better for you to pray in this holy mountain (Mount Gerizim) than in that accursed house?" Pilgrims from Galilee to Jerusalem had to pass through Samaria, if, as we have seen, they travelled by the quickest way; and the Samaritans delighted to hinder them.

The Jewish-Samaritan quarrel was more than 400 years old. But it smouldered as resentfully and as bitterly as ever. It was small wonder that the Samaritan woman was astonished that Jesus, a Jew, should speak to her, a Samaritan.

(iv) But there was still another way in which Jesus was taking down the barriers. The Samaritan was a woman. The strict Rabbis forbade a Rabbi to greet a woman in public. A Rabbi might not even speak to his own wife or daughter or sister in public. There were even Pharisees who were called "the bruised and bleeding Pharisees" because they shut their eyes when they saw a woman on the street and so walked into walls and houses! For a Rabbi to be seen speaking to a woman in public was the end of his reputation--and yet Jesus spoke to this woman. Not only was she a woman; she was also a woman of notorious character. No decent man, let alone a Rabbi, would have been seen in her company, or even exchanging a word with her--and yet Jesus spoke to her.

To a Jew this was an amazing story. Here was the Son of God, tired and weary and thirsty. Here was the holiest of men, listening with understanding to a sorry story. Here was Jesus breaking through the barriers of nationality and orthodox Jewish custom. Here is the beginning of the universality of the gospel; here is God so loving the world, not in theory, but in action.

THE LIVING WATER (John 4:10-15)

4:10-15 Jesus answered her: "If you knew the free gift that God is offering you, and if you knew who is speaking to you, and if you knew who was saying to you: 'Give me to drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him: "Sir, you have no bucket to draw with and the well is deep. Where does this living water that you have come from? Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well, and who himself drank from it with his children and his cattle?" Jesus answered her: "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again for ever. But the water that I will give him will become a well of water within him, springing up to give him life eternal." The woman said to him: "Sir, give me this water, so that I will not thirst, and so that I will not have to come here to draw water."

We have to note that this conversation with the Samaritan woman follows exactly the same pattern as the conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus makes a statement. The statement is taken in the wrong sense. Jesus remakes the statement in an even more vivid way. It is still misunderstood; and then Jesus compels the person with whom he is speaking to discover and to face the truth for herself. That was Jesus' usual way of teaching; and it was a most effective way, for, as someone has said: "There are certain truths which a man cannot accept; he must discover them for himself."

Just as Nicodemus did, the woman took the words of Jesus quite literally when she was meant to understand them spiritually. It was living water of which Jesus spoke. In ordinary language to the Jew living water was running water. It was the water of the running stream in contradistinction to the water of the stagnant cistern or pool. This well, as we have seen, was not a springing well, but a well into which the water percolated from the subsoil. To the Jew, running, living water from the stream was always better. So the woman is saying: "You are offering me pure stream water. Where are you going to get it?"

She goes on to speak of "our father Jacob." The Jews would, of course, have strenuously denied that Jacob was the father of the Samaritans, but it was part of the Samaritan claim that they were descended from Joseph, the son of Jacob, by way of Ephraim and Manasseh. The woman is in effect saying to Jesus: "This is blasphemous talk. Jacob, our great ancestor, when he came here, had to dig this well to gain water for his family and his cattle. Are you claiming to be able to get fresh, running stream water? If you are, you are claiming to be wiser and more powerful than Jacob. That is a claim that no one has any right to make."

When people were on a journey they usually carried with them a bucket made from the skin of some beast so that they could draw water from any well at which they halted. No doubt Jesus' band had such a bucket; and no doubt the disciples had taken it into the town with them. The woman saw that Jesus did not possess such a traveller's leather bucket, and so again she says in effect: "You need not talk about drawing water and giving it to me. I can see for myself that you have not a bucket with which to draw water." H. B. Tristram begins his book entitled Eastern Customs in Bible Lands with this personal experience. He was sitting beside a well in Palestine beside the scene of the inn which figures in the story of the Good Samaritan. "An Arab woman came down from the hills above to draw water; she unfolded and opened her goatskin bottle, and then untwined a cord, and attached it to a very small leather bucket which she carried, by means of which she slowly filled her skin, fastened its mouth, placed it on her shoulder, and bucket in hand, climbed the mountain. I thought of the woman of Samaria at Jacob's well, when an Arab footman, toiling up the steep path from Jericho, heated and wearied with his journey, turned aside to the well, knelt and peered wistfully down. But he had 'nothing to draw with and the well was deep.' He lapped a little moisture from the water spilt by the woman who had preceded him, and, disappointed, passed on." It was just that that the woman was thinking of when she said that Jesus had nothing wherewith to draw water from the depths of the well.

But the Jews had another way of using the word water. They often spoke of the thirst of the soul for God; and they often spoke of quenching that thirst with living water. Jesus was not using terms that were bound to be misunderstood; he was using terms that anyone with spiritual insight should have understood. In the Revelation that promise is: "To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life" (Revelation 21:6). The Lamb is to lead them to springs of living waters (Revelation 7:17). The promise was that the chosen people would draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3). The Psalmist spoke of his soul being thirsty for the living God (Psalms 42:1). God's promise was: "I will pour water on the thirsty land" (Isaiah 44:3). The summons was that every one who was thirsty should come to the waters and freely drink (Isaiah 55:1). Jeremiah's complaint was that the people had forsaken God who was the fountain of living waters and had hewed themselves out broken cisterns which could hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13). Ezekiel had had his vision of the river of life (Ezekiel 47:1-12). In the new world there would be a cleansing fountain opened (Zechariah 13:1). The waters would go forth from Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8).

Sometimes the Rabbis identified this living water with the wisdom of the Law; sometimes they identified it with nothing less than the Holy Spirit of God. All Jewish pictorial religious language was full of this idea of the thirst of the soul which could be quenched only with the living water which was the gift of God. But the woman chose to understand this with an almost crude literalism. She was blind because she would not see.

Jesus went on to make a still more startling statement that he could give her living water which would banish her thirst for ever. The point is that again the woman took this literally; but in point of fact it was nothing less than a Messianic claim. In the prophetic vision of the age to come, the age of God, the promise was: "They shall not hunger or thirst" (Isaiah 49:10). It was with God and none other that the living fountain of the all-quenching water existed. "With thee is the fountain of life," the Psalmist had cried (Psalms 36:9). It is from the very throne of God that the river of life is to flow (Revelation 22:1). It is the Lord who is the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 17:13). It is in the Messianic age that the parched ground is to become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water (Isaiah 35:7). When Jesus spoke about bringing to men the water which quenches thirst for ever, he was doing no less than stating that he was the Anointed One of God who was to bring in the new age.

Again the woman did not see it. And I think that this time she spoke with a jest, as if humouring one who was a little mad. "Give me this water," she said, "so that I will never be thirsty again and will not have to walk to the well day after day." She was jesting with a kind of humouring contempt about eternal things.

At the heart of all this there is the fundamental truth that in the human heart there is a thirst for something that only Jesus Christ can satisfy. Sinclair Lewis in one of his books draws a picture of a respectable little business man who kicked over the traces. He is talking to the girl he loves. She says to him: "On the surface we seem quite different; but deep down we are fundamentally the same. We are both desperately unhappy about something--and we don't know what it is." In every man there is this nameless unsatisfied longing; this vague discontent; this something lacking; this frustration.

In Sorrell and Son Warwick Deeping tens of a conversation between Sorrell and his son. The boy is talking about life. He says that it is like groping in an enchanted fog. The fog breaks for a moment; you see the moon or a girl's face; you think you want the moon or the face; and then the fog comes down again; and leaves you groping for something, you don't quite know what. Wordsworth, in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, speaks of,

"Those obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things,

Fallings from us, vanishings;

Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realized."

Augustine talks about "our hearts being restless till they find rest in thee."

Part of the human situation is that we cannot find happiness out of the things that the human situation has to offer. As Browning had it:

"Just when we're safest, there's a sunset touch,

A fancy from a flower-bell, someone's death,

A chorus ending from Euripides--

And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears

As old and new at once as Nature's self.

To rap and knock and enter in our soul."

We are never safe from the longing for eternity which God has put in man's soul. There is a thirst which only Jesus Christ can satisfy.

FACING THE TRUTH (John 4:15-21)

4:15-21 The woman said to him: "Sir, give me this water, so that I will not thirst, and so that I will not have to come here to draw water." Jesus said to her: "Go, call your husband, and come back here." The woman answered: "I have not got a husband." Jesus said to her: "You spoke well when you said, 'I have not got a husband.' For you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. This is the truth that you have told." The woman said to him: "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain and you say Jerusalem is the place where we ought to worship." Jesus said: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

We have seen how the woman jestingly asked Jesus to give her the living water in order that she should not thirst again and might be spared the tiring journey to the well. Suddenly and stabbingly Jesus brought her to her senses. The time for verbal by-play was past; the time for jesting was over. "Go," said Jesus, "and fetch your husband and come back with him." The woman stiffened as if a sudden pain had caught her; she recoiled as if hit by a sudden shock; she grew white as one who had seen a sudden apparition; and so indeed she had, for she had suddenly caught sight of herself.

She was suddenly compelled to face herself and the looseness and immorality and total inadequacy of her life. There are two revelations in Christianity: the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. No man ever really sees himself until he sees himself in the presence of Christ; and then he is appalled at the sight. There is another way of putting it--Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realization that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves and we awake to our need of God.

Some people have held, because of this mention of the five husbands, that this story is not an actual incident but an allegory. We have seen that, when the original people of Samaria were exiled and transported to Media, people from five other places were brought in. These five different people brought in their own gods (2 Kings 17:29); and it has been held that the woman stands for Samaria and the five husbands for the five false gods to whom the Samaritans, as it were, married themselves. The sixth husband stands for the true God, but, they worship him, not truly, but in ignorance; and therefore they are not married to him at all. It may be that there is a reminder of this Samaritan infidelity to God in the story; but it is far too vivid to be a manufactured allegory. It reads too much like life.

Someone has said that prophecy is criticism based on hope. A prophet points out to a man or a nation what is wrong; but he does so not to push them into despair but to point the way to cure and to amendment and to rightness of life. So Jesus began by revealing to this woman her own sinful state; but goes on to tell her of the true worship in which our souls can meet God.

The woman's question comes strangely to us. She says, and she is obviously troubled when she says it: "Our fathers say--that we ought to worship here on Mount Gerizim; you say that we ought to worship in Jerusalem; what am I to do?" The Samaritans adjusted history to suit themselves. They taught that it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac; they taught that it was there that Melchizedek had appeared to Abraham; they declared that it was on Mount Gerizim that Moses had first entered an altar and sacrificed to God when the people entered the promised land, although in fact it was on Mount Ebal that was done (Deuteronomy 27:4). They tampered with the text of scripture and with history to glorify Mount Gerizim. The woman had been brought up to regard Mount Gerizim as the most sacred spot in the world and to despise Jerusalem. What was in her mind was this. She was saying to herself: "I am a sinner before God; I must offer to God an offering for my sin; I must take that offering to the house of God to put myself right with him; where am I going to take it?" To her, as to all her contemporaries, the only cure for sin was sacrifice. Her great problem was, where was that sacrifice to be made? By this time she is not arguing about the respective merits of the Temple on Mount Gerizim and the Temple on Mount Zion. All she wants to know is: Where can I find God?

Jesus' answer was that the day of the old man-made rivalries was coming to an end; and the time was on the way when men would find God everywhere. It had been Zephaniah's vision that men shall worship God "each in his place" (Zephaniah 2:11). It was Malachi's dream that in every place incense would be offered as a pure offering to the name of God (Malachi 1:11). Jesus' answer to the woman was that she did not need to go anywhere special to find God, neither to Mount Gerizim nor to Mount Zion. She did not need to offer sacrifice in some special place; true worship finds God in every place.

THE TRUE WORSHIP (John 4:22-26)

4:22-26 "You do not know what you are worshipping. We do know what we worship, because the world's salvation has its origin among the Jews. But the hour is coming--the hour is now here--when the real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for it is worshippers like that that the Father is looking for. God is Spirit; and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The woman said to him: "I know that the Messiah, he who is called Christ, is coming. When he has come he will announce all things to us." Jesus said to her: "I who am speaking to you am he."

Jesus had told the Samaritan woman that the old rivalries were on the way out, that the day was coming when controversy about the respective merits of Mount Gerizim and Mount Zion would be an irrelevancy, that he who truly sought God would find him anywhere. For all that Jesus still stressed the fact that the Jewish nation had a unique place in God's plan and revelation.

The Samaritans worshipped in ignorance, he said. There was one sense in which that was factually true. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. They rejected all the rest of the Old Testament. They had therefore rejected all the great messages of the prophets and all the supreme devotion of the Psalms. They had in fact a truncated religion because they had a truncated Bible; they had rejected the knowledge that was open to them and that they might have had. Further, the Jewish Rabbis had always charged the Samaritans with a merely superstitious worship of the true God. They always said that the Samaritan worship was founded not on love and knowledge, but on ignorance and fear. As we have seen, when the foreign peoples were brought in to dwell in Samaria, they brought their own gods with them (2 Kings 17:29). We are told that a priest from Bethel came and told them how they should fear the Lord.(2 Kings 17:28). But all the probability is that they merely added Jehovah to their list of gods because they were superstitiously afraid to leave him out. After all he was the God of the land in which they were living and it might be dangerous not to include him in their worship.

In a false worship we may detect three faults.

(i) A false worship is a selective worship. It chooses what it wishes to know about God and omits the rest. The Samaritans took as much of scripture as they wished and paid no attention to the rest. One of the most dangerous things in the world is a one-sided religion. It is very easy for a man to accept and hold such parts of God's truth as suit him and to disregard the remainder. We have seen, for instance, how certain thinkers and churchmen and politicians justify apartheid and racial segregation by appeal to certain parts of scripture, while they conveniently forget the far greater parts which forbid it.

A minister in a great city organized a petition to help a man who had been condemned for a certain crime. It seemed to him that this was a case where Christian mercy ought to operate. His telephone bell rang, and a woman's voice said to him: "I am astonished that you, a minister, should be lending your weight to this petition for mercy." "Why should you be surprised?" he asked. The voice said: "I suppose you know your Bible ... .. I hope so," he said. "Then," said the voice, "are you not aware that the Bible says, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'?" Here was a woman who took the part of the Bible which suited her argument and forgot the great merciful teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

We would do well to remember that, although no man will ever grasp the whole orb of truth, it is total truth that we should aim at, not the snatching at fragments which happen to suit ourselves and our own position.

(ii) A false worship is an ignorant worship. Worship ought to be the approach to God of the whole man. A man has a mind and he has a duty to exercise it. Religion may begin with an emotional response; but the time comes when that emotional response has to be thought out. E. F. Scott said that religion is far more than merely the strenuous exercise of the intellect, but that nonetheless a very great part of religious failure is due to nothing other than intellectual sloth. To fail to think things out is in itself a sin. In the last analysis, religion is never safe until a man can tell, not only what he believes, but why he believes it. Religion is hope, but it is hope with reason behind it (1 Peter 3:15).

(iii) A false worship is a superstitious worship. It is a worship given, not out of a sense of need nor out of any real desire, but basically because a man feels that it might be dangerous not to give it. Many a person will refuse to walk beneath a ladder; many a person will have a pleased feeling when a black cat crosses his path; many a person will pick up a pin with the idea that good luck will follow; many a person will have an uncomfortable feeling when he is one of thirteen sitting at a table. He does not believe in these superstitions, but he has the feeling that there might be something in them and he had better play safe. There are many people whose religion is founded on a kind of vague fear of what might happen if they leave God out of the reckoning. But real religion is founded not on fear but on the love of God and gratitude for what God has done. Too much religion is a kind of superstitious ritual to avert the possible wrath of the unpredictable gods.

Jesus pointed to the true worship. God, he said, is spirit. Immediately a man grasps that, a new flood-light breaks over him. If God is spirit, God is not confined to things; and therefore idol worship is not only an irrelevancy, it is an insult to the very nature of God. If God is spirit, God is not confined to places; and therefore to limit the worship of God to Jerusalem or to any other spot is to set a limit to that which by its nature overpasses all limits. If God is spirit, a man's gifts to God must be gifts of the spirit. Animal sacrifices and all man-made things become inadequate. The only gifts that befit the nature of God are the gifts of the spirit--love, loyalty, obedience, devotion.

A man's spirit is the highest part of him. That is the part which lasts when the physical part has vanished. That is the part which dreams the dreams and sees the visions which, because of the weakness and faultiness of the body, may never be carried out. It is the spirit of a man which is the source of his highest dreams and thoughts and ideals and desires. The true worship is when man, through his spirit, attains to friendship and intimacy with God. Genuine worship does not consist in coming to a certain place nor in going through a certain ritual or liturgy nor even in bringing certain gifts. True worship is when the spirit, the immortal and invisible part of man, speaks to and meets with God, himself immortal and invisible.

This passage closes with a great declaration. There had opened before this Samaritan woman a vista which bewildered and staggered her. Here were things beyond her understanding, things full of wonder. All that she could say was: "When the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God comes, then we will know all about it." Jesus said to her: "I who am speaking to you am he." It is as if Jesus said this is not a dream of the truth; this is the truth itself.


4:27-30 Upon this his disciples came up; and they were in a state of amazement that he was talking to a woman; but no one said: "What are you looking for?" or, "Why are you talking to her?" So the woman left her water-pot, and went away to the town and said to the people: "Come and see a man who told me all things that I have done! Can this be the Anointed One of God?" They came out of the town and were coming to him.

There is little wonder that the disciples were in a state of bewildered amazement when they returned from their errand to the town of Sychar and found Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman. We have already seen the Jewish idea of women. The Rabbinic precept ran: "Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife." The Rabbis so despised women and so thought them incapable of receiving any real teaching that they said: "Better that the words of the law should be burned than deliver to women." They had a saying: "Each time that a man prolongs converse with a woman he causes evil to himself, and desists from the law, and in the end inherits Gehinnom." By Rabbinic standards Jesus could hardly have done a more shatteringly unconventional thing than to talk to this woman. Here is Jesus taking the barriers down.

There follows a curiously revealing touch. It is the kind which could hardly have come from anyone except from one who had actually shared in this scene. However staggered the disciples might be, it did not occur to them to ask the woman what she was looking for or to ask Jesus why he was talking to her. They were beginning to know him; and they had already arrived at the conclusion that, however surprising his actions were, they were not to be questioned. A man has taken a great step to real discipleship when he learns to say: "It is not for me to question the actions and the demands of Jesus. My prejudices and my conventions must go down before them."

By this time the woman was on her way back to the village without her water-pot. The fact that she left her water-pot showed two things. It showed that she was in a hurry to share this extraordinary experience, and it showed that she never dreamed of doing anything else but come back. Her whole action has much to tell us of real Christian experience.

(i) Her experience began with being compelled to face herself and to see herself as she was. The same thing happened to Peter. After the draft of fishes, when Peter suddenly discovered something of the majesty of Jesus, all he could say was: "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). Our Christian experience will often begin with a humiliating wave of self-disgust. It usually happens that the last thing a man sees is himself. And it often happens that the first thing Christ does for a man is to compel him to do what he has spent his life refusing to do--look at himself.

(ii) The Samaritan woman was staggered by Christ's ability to see into her inmost being. She was amazed at his intimate knowledge of the human heart, and of her heart in particular. The Psalmist was awed by that same thought. "Thou discernest my thoughts from afar.... Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether" (Psalms 139:1-4). It is told that once a small girl heard a sermon by C. H. Spurgeon, and whispered to her mother at the end of it: "Mother, how does he know what goes on in our house?" There are no wrappings and disguises which are proof against the gaze of Christ. It is his power to see into the depths of the human heart. It is not that he sees only the evil there; he sees also the sleeping hero in the soul of every man. He is like the surgeon who sees the diseased thing, but who also sees the health which will follow when the evil thing is taken away.

(iii) The first instinct of the Samaritan woman was to share her discovery. Having found this amazing person, she was compelled to share her find with others. The Christian life is based on the twin pillars of discovery and communication. No discovery is complete until the desire to share it fills our hearts; and we cannot communicate Christ to others until we have discovered him for ourselves. First to find, then to tell, are the two great steps of the Christian life.

(iv) This very desire to tell others of her discovery killed in this woman the feeling of shame. She was no doubt an outcast; she was no doubt a byword; the very fact that she was drawing water from this distant well shows how she avoided her neighbours and how they avoided her. But now she ran to tell them of her discovery. A person may have some trouble which he is embarrassed to mention and which he tries to keep secret, but once he is cured he is often so filled with wonder and gratitude that he tells everyone about it. A man may hide his sin; but once he discovers Jesus Christ as Saviour, his first instinct is to say to men: "Look at what I was and look at what I am; this is what Christ has done for me."


4:31-34 Meanwhile his disciples asked him: "Rabbi! Eat something! have food," he said to them, "of which you do not know." "Surely," his disciples kept saying to each other, "someone can't have given him something to eat?" "My food," said Jesus to them, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work."

This passage follows the normal pattern of the conversations of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus says something which is misunderstood. He says something which has a spiritual meaning. It is at first taken with an uncomprehending literalism and then slowly he unfolds the meaning until it is grasped and realized. It is exactly the same as Jesus did when he talked to Nicodemus about being born again, and when he talked to the woman about the water which quenched the thirst of the heart for ever.

By this time the disciples had come back with food, and they asked Jesus to eat. They had left him so tired and exhausted that they were worried that he did not seem to want to eat any of the provisions which they had brought back. It is strange how a great task can lift a man above and beyond bodily needs. All his life Wilberforce, who freed the slaves, was a little, insignificant, ailing creature. When he rose to address the House of Commons, the members at first used to smile at this queer little figure; but as the fire and the power came from the man, they used to crowd the benches whenever he rose to speak. As it was put: "The little minnow became a whale." His message, his task, the flame of truth and the dynamic of power conquered his physical weakness. There is a picture of John Knox preaching in his old age. He was a done old man; he was so weak that he had to be half lifted up the pulpit steps and left supporting himself on the book-board; but before he had long begun his sermon the voice had regained its old trumpet-call and he was like "to ding the pulpit into blads (to knock the pulpit into splinters) and leap out of it." The message filled the man with a kind of supernatural strength.

Jesus' answer to his disciples was that he had food of which they knew nothing. In their simplicity they wondered if someone had brought him food to eat. Then he told them: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me."

The great keynote of Jesus' life is submission to the will of God. His uniqueness lies in the very fact that he was the only person who ever was or who ever will be perfectly obedient to God's will. It can be truly said that Jesus is the only person in all the world who never did what he liked but always what God liked.

He was God-sent. Again and again the Fourth Gospel speaks of Jesus being sent by God. There are two Greek words used in the Fourth Gospel for this sending. There is apostellein (Greek #649) which is used seventeen times and pempein (Greek #3992) which is used twenty-seven times. That is to say, no fewer than forty-four times the Fourth Gospel speaks, or shows us Jesus speaking, about his being sent by God. Jesus was one who was under orders. He was God's man.

Then once Jesus had come, again and again he spoke of the work that was given him to do. In John 5:36 he speaks of the works which his Father has given him to do. In John 17:4 his only claim is that he has finished the work his Father gave him to do. When he speaks of taking up and laying down his life, of living and of dying, he says: "This commandment have I received of my Father" (John 10:18). He speaks continually, as he speaks here, of the will of God. "I have come down from heaven," he says, "not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38). "I always do," he says, "what is pleasing to him" (John 8:29). In John 14:23 he lays it down, out of his personal experience and on his personal example, that the only proof of love lies in the keeping of the commandments of the one a man claims to love. This obedience of Jesus was not as it is with us, a spasmodic thing. It was the very essence and being, the mainspring and the core, the dynamic and the moving power of his life.

It is his great desire that we should be as he was.

(i) To do the will of God is the only way to peace. There can be no peace when we are at variance with the king of the universe.

(ii) To do the will of God is the only way to happiness. There can be no happiness when we set our human ignorance against the divine wisdom of God.

(iii) To do the will of God is the only way to power. When we go our own way, we have nothing to call on but our own power, and therefore collapse is inevitable. When we go God's way, we go in his power, and therefore victory is secure.


4:35-38 "Are you not in the habit of saying: 'Four months, and the harvest will come'? Look you! I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, because they are already white for the harvesting. The harvester receives his reward and stores up fruit which makes for eternal life, so that he who sows and he who harvests may rejoice together. In this the saying is true--one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest a crop which your labour did not produce. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labours."

All this that was happening in Samaria had given Jesus a vision of a world to be harvested for God. When he said: "Four months, and the harvest will come," we are not to think that he was speaking of the actual time of year that it was in Samaria at that time. If that were so, it would have been somewhere round about January. There would have been no exhausting heat; and there would have been no scarcity of water. One would not have needed a well to find water; it would have been the rainy season, and there would have been plenty of water.

What Jesus is doing is quoting a proverb. The Jews had a sixfold division of the agricultural year. Each division was held to last two months--seedtime, winter, spring, harvest, summer and the season of extreme heat. Jesus is saying: "You have got a proverb; if you sow the seed, you must wait for at least four months before you can hope to begin to reap the harvest." Then Jesus looked up. Sychar is in the midst of a region that is still famous for its corn. Agricultural land was very limited in stony, rocky Palestine; practically nowhere else in the country could a man look up and see the waving fields of golden corn. Jesus swept his gaze and his hand round. "Look," he said, "the fields are white and ready for the harvest. They took four months to grow; but in Samaria there is a harvest for the reaping now."

For once, it is the contrast between nature and grace of which Jesus is thinking. in the ordinary harvest men sowed and waited; in Samaria things had happened with such divine suddenness that the word was sown and on the spot the harvest waited. H. V. Morton has a specially interesting suggestion about the fields white for the harvest. He himself was sitting at this very spot where Jacob's well is. As he sat, he saw the people come out from the village and start to climb the hill. They came in little batches; and they were all wearing white robes and the white robes stood out against the ground and the sky. It may well be that just at this moment the people started to flock out to Jesus in response to the woman's story. As they streamed out in their white robes across the fields, perhaps Jesus said: "Look at the fields! See them now! They are white to the harvest!" The white-robed crowd was the harvest which he was eager to reap for God.

Jesus went on to show that the incredible had happened. The sower and the harvester could rejoice at the same time. Here was something no man might expect. To the Jew sowing was a sad and a laborious time; it was harvest which was the time of joy. "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psalms 136:5-6).

There is something else hidden below the surface here. The Jews had their dreams of the golden age, the age to come, the age of God, when the world would be God's world, when sin and sorrow would be done away with and God would reign supreme. Amos paints his picture of it: "Behold the days are coming, saith the Lord, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed" (Amos 9:13). "Your threshing shall last the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last the time for sowing" (Leviticus 26:5). It was the dream of that golden age that sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting, would follow hard upon the heels of each other. There would be such fertility that the old days of waiting would be at an end. We can see what Jesus is gently doing here. His words are nothing less than a claim that with him the golden age has dawned; God's time is here; the time when the word is spoken and the seed is sown and the harvest waits.

There was another side to that--and Jesus knew it. "There is another proverb," he said, "and it too is true--one sows and another harvests." Then he went on to make two applications of that.

(a) He told his disciples that they would reap a crop which had been produced not by their labour. He meant that he was sowing the seed, that in his Cross, above all, the seed of the love and the power of God would be sown, and that the day would come when the disciples would go out into the world and reap the harvest that his life and death had sown.

(b) He told his disciples that the day would come when they would sow and others would reap. There would be a time when the Christian Church sent out its evangelists; they would never see the harvest; some of them would die as martyrs, but the blood of the martyrs would be the seed of the church. It is as if he said: "Some day you will labour and you will see nothing for it. Some day you will sow and you will pass from the scene before the harvest is reaped. Never fear! Never be discouraged! The sowing is not in vain; the seed is not wasted! Others will see the harvest which it was not given to you to see."

So in this passage there are two things.

(i) There is the reminder of an opportunity. The harvest waits to be reaped for God. There come times in history when men are curiously and strangely sensitive to God. What a tragedy it is if Christ's Church at such a time fails to reap Christ's harvest!

(ii) There is the reminder of a challenge. It is given to many a man to sow but not to reap. Many a ministry succeeds, not by its own force and merits, but because of some saintly man who lived and preached and died and left an influence which was greater in his absence than in his presence. Many a man has to work and never sees the results of his labours. I was once taken round an estate which was famous for its rhododendrons. Its owner loved their acres and knew them all by name. He showed me certain seedlings which would take twenty-five years to flower. He was nearly seventy-five and would never see their beauty--but someone would. No work for Christ and no great undertaking ever fail. If we do not see the result of our labours, others will. There is no room for despair in the Christian life.


4:39-42 Many of the Samaritans from that city believed on him, because of the woman's story, for she testified: "He told me all things that I have done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay amongst them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed when they heard his word, and they said to the woman: "No longer do we believe because of your talk. We ourselves have listened to him, and we know that this is really the Saviour of the World."

In the events which happened at Samaria we have the pattern by which the gospel so often spreads. In the rise of belief among the Samaritans there were three stages.

(i) There was introduction. The Samaritans were introduced to Christ by the woman. Here we see full-displayed God's need of us. Paul said:. "How are they to hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). The word of God must be transmitted by man to man. God cannot deliver his message to those who have never heard it unless there is someone to deliver it.

"He has no hands but our hands

To do his work today:

He has no feet but our feet

To lead men in his way:

He has no voice but our voice

To tell men how he died:

He has no help but our help

To lead them to his side."

It is at once our precious privilege and our terrible responsibility to bring men to Christ. The introduction cannot be made unless there is a man to make it.

Further, that introduction is made on the strength of personal witness. The cry of the Samaritan woman was: "Look what he has done for me and to me." It was not to a theory that she called her neighbours; it was to a dynamic and changing power. The church can expand until the kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of the Lord only when men and women themselves experience the power of Christ, and then transmit that experience to others.

(ii) There was nearer intimacy and growing knowledge. Once the Samaritans had been introduced to Christ, they sought his company. They asked him to stay with them that they might learn of him and come to know him better. It is true that a man must be introduced to Christ, but it is equally true that once he has been introduced he must himself go on to live in the presence of Christ. No man can go through an experience for another man. Others may lead us to the friendship of Christ, but we must claim and enjoy that friendship ourselves.

(iii) There came discovery and surrender. The Samaritans discovered in Christ the Saviour of the world. It is not likely that they themselves put it exactly that way. John was writing years afterwards, and was putting the discovery of the Samaritans into his own words, words which enshrine a life-time's living with and thinking about Jesus Christ. It is only in John that we find this tremendous title. We find it here and in 1 John 4:14. To him it was the title par excellence for Christ.

John did not invent the title. In the Old Testament God had often been called the God of salvation, the Saviour, the saving God. Many of the Greek gods had acquired this title. At the time John was writing the Roman Emperor was invested with the title Saviour of the World. It is as if John said: "All that you have dreamed of has at last in Jesus come true."

We do well to remember this title. Jesus was not simply a prophet, who came with a message in words from God. He was not simply an expert psychologist with an uncanny faculty for seeing into the human mind. True, he showed that very skill in the case of the Samaritan woman, but he showed more than that. He was not simply an example. He did not come simply to show men the way in which life ought to be lived. A great example can be merely heart-breaking and frustrating when we find ourselves powerless to follow it.

Jesus was Saviour. He rescued men from the evil and hopeless situation in which they found themselves; he broke the chains that bound them to the past and gave them a power which enabled them to meet the future. The Samaritan woman is in fact the great example of his saving power. The town where she stayed would no doubt have labelled her a character beyond reformation; and she herself would no doubt have agreed that a respectable life was beyond her. But Jesus came and doubly rescued her; he enabled her to break away from the past and he opened a new future to her. There is no title adequate to describe Jesus except Saviour of the World.


4:43-45 Two days after Jesus left there and went to Galilee. Jesus himself declared that a prophet has no honour in his own country. But when he came into Galilee, the Galilaeans welcomed him, because they had seen all that he had done at Jerusalem at the Feast, for they too had gone to the Feast.

All three synoptic gospels tell of the saying of Jesus that a prophet has no honour in his own country (Mark 6:4; Matthew 13:57; Luke 4:24). It was an ancient proverb with much the same meaning as our own "familiarity breeds contempt." But John introduces it in a very strange place. The other gospels introduce it on occasions when Jesus was rejected by his own countrymen; John introduces it on an occasion when he was accepted.

It may be that John is reading the mind of Jesus. We have already seen that Jesus had left Judaea and set out for Galilee to avoid the controversy that an increasing publicity was bringing to him. The hour of conflict had not yet come (John 4:1-4). It may be that his astonishing success in Samaria had actually surprised him; his words about the astonishing harvest have the ring of glad surprise about them. It may well be that Jesus set out for Galilee hoping to find rest and retirement there, because he did not expect those of his native country to respond to him. And it may be that exactly the same happened in Galilee as happened in Samaria, that against all expectations there was a surge of response to his teaching. We must either explain the saying in this way or assume that somehow it has crept into the wrong place.

However that may be, this passage and the one before give us the unanswerable argument for Christ. The Samaritans believed in Jesus, not because of someone else's story but because they themselves had heard him speak things whose like they had never heard. The Galilaeans believed in him, not because someone had told them about him but because they had seen him do in Jerusalem things whose like they had never seen. The words he spoke and the deeds he did were arguments to which there was no answer.

Here we have one of the great truths of the Christian life. The only real argument for Christianity is a Christian experience. It may be that sometimes we have to argue with people until the intellectual barriers which they have erected are battered down and the citadel of their mind capitulates. But in the great majority of cases the only persuasion we can use is to say: "I know what Jesus is like and I know what Jesus can do. All that I can ask you to do is to try him yourself and to see what happens." Effective Christian evangelism really begins when we can say: "I know what Christ has done for me," and go on to say: "Try him, and see what he can do for you."

Here again tremendous personal responsibility is laid upon us. No one is likely to attempt the experience unless our own lives show its value. There is little use in telling people that Christ will bring them joy and peace and power, if our own lives are gloomy, worried and defeated. Men will be persuaded to try the experiment only when they see that for us it has ended in an experience which is much to be desired.

A COURTIER'S FAITH (John 4:46-54)

4:46-54 So again he came to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water into wine. Now there was a certain courtier whose son was ill in Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judaea into Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was going to die. Jesus said to him: "Unless you see signs and wonders you will never believe." The courtier said to him: "Sir, come down before my little lad dies." Jesus said to him: "Go your way! Your son lives!" The man believed the word which Jesus spoke to him, and started on his way home. While he was still on the way down, his slaves met him and said: "Your son lives!" So he asked them at what hour his condition had improved. They told him: "Yesterday, at one o'clock in the afternoon, the fever left him." The father knew that that was the hour at which Jesus said to him: "Your son lives!" And he and his whole household believed.

This is the second sign which Jesus did after he had come from Judaea into Galilee.

Most of the commentators think this is another version of the story of the healing of the centurion's servant told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10; but there are differences which justify us in treating it as quite independent. Certain things about the conduct of this courtier are an example to all men.

(i) Here is a courtier who came to a carpenter. The Greek is basilikos (Greek #937) which could even mean that he was a petty king; but it is used for a royal official and he was a man of high standing at the court of Herod. Jesus on the other hand had no greater status than that of the village carpenter of Nazareth. Further, Jesus was in Cana and this man lived in Capernaum, almost twenty miles away. That is why he took so long to get back home.

There could be no more improbable scene in the world than an important court official hastening twenty miles to beg a favour from a village carpenter. First and foremost, this courtier swallowed his pride. He was in need, and neither convention nor custom stopped him bringing his need to Christ. His action would cause a sensation but he did not care what people said so long as he obtained the help he so much wanted. If we want the help which Christ can give we must be humble enough to swallow our pride and not care what any man may say.

(ii) Here is a courtier who refused to be discouraged. Jesus met him with the at first sight bleak statement that people would not believe unless they were supplied with signs and wonders. It may well be that Jesus aimed that saying, not so much at the courtier himself, as at the crowd that must have gathered to see the outcome of this sensational happening. They would be there all agape to see what would happen.

But Jesus had a way of making sure that a person was in earnest. He did that to the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28). If the man had turned irritably and petulantly away; if he had been too proud to accept a rebuke; if he had given up despairingly on the spot--Jesus would have known that his faith was not real. A man must be in earnest before the help of Christ can come to him.

(iii) Here was a courtier who had faith. It must have been hard for him to turn away and go home with Jesus' assurance that his little lad would live. Nowadays men are beginning to realize the power of thought and of telepathy in such a way that no one would reject this miracle simply because it was wrought at a distance; but it must have been difficult for the courtier. Yet he had faith enough to turn and walk back that twenty mile road with nothing but Jesus' assurance to comfort his heart.

It is of the very essence of faith that we should believe that what Jesus says is true. So often we have a kind of vague, wistful longing that the promises of Jesus should be true. The only way really to enter into them is to believe in them with the clutching intensity of a drowning man. If Jesus says a thing, it is not a case of "It may be true"; it is a case of "It must be true."

(iv) Here was a courtier who surrendered. He was not a man who got out of Christ what he wanted and then went away to forget. He and all his household believed. That would not be easy for him, for the idea of Jesus as the Anointed One of God must have cut across all his preconceived notions. Nor would it be easy at the court of Herod to profess faith in Jesus. He would have mockery and laughter to endure; and no doubt there would be those who thought that he had gone slightly mad.

But this courtier was a man who faced and accepted the facts. He had seen what Jesus could do; he had experienced it; and there was nothing left for it but surrender. He had begun with a sense of desperate need; that need had been supplied; and his sense of need had turned into an overmastering love. That must always be the story of the Christian life.

Most New Testament scholars think that at this point in the Fourth Gospel the chapters have somehow become misplaced. They hold that John 6:1-71 should come before John 5:1-47 . The reason is this. John 4:1-54 finishes with Jesus in Galilee (John 4:54). John 5:1-47 begins with Jesus in Jerusalem. John 6:1-71 again shows us Jesus in Galilee. John 7:1-53 begins with the implication that Jesus had just come into Galilee because of the opposition which he met in Jerusalem. The changes between Jerusalem and Galilee become very difficult to follow. On the other hand John 4:1-54 (John 4:54) ends: "This the second sign that Jesus did, when he had come from Judaea to Galilee." John 6:1-71 begins (John 6:1): "After this thing Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee," which would be a natural sequence. John 5:1-47 then shows us Jesus going to Jerusalem for a Feast and meeting with very serious trouble with the Jewish authorities. We are in fact told that from that time they began to persecute him (John 5:10). Then John 7:1-53 begins by saying that Jesus went about in Galilee and "would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him" (John 7:1).

Here we have not altered the order; but we must note that to take John 6:1-71 before John 5:1-47 does give an easier and more natural order of events.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Copyright Statement
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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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