(Minor revision, 4/1/2018)
Whether or not John 4:1-42, a story of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, recounts an historical event, it is rich in teaching and presents multiple possibilities to the exegete. My interest lies in reading the text from a traditional Quaker perspective, which stresses scripture as pointer to inward reality and asserts that the living Christ, not the scripture, is the “Word” of God;1 accordingly, I will emphasize the pericope’s overall theme of the offer and direct revelation, to people outside of normative Judaism and indeed beyond all religious systems, of the Spirit of God, a Spirit received not through a religious tradition but in encounter with the living Christ.
Although the Samaritan people thought of themselves as keepers of the Mosaic Law (Torah), Jews of Jesus’ day tended to consider Samaritans to be outside of the people of God. When, in this pericope, Jesus enters Samaria as he returns from Jerusalem to his home, he leaves Judea; that is, he who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) goes beyond Judaism, outside of the covenant community recognized by his culture, to reveal himself and offer the Spirit to “sheep that do not belong to this fold” (Jn. 10:16). In the apparently parenthetical expression of verse 9b, John or a redactor (my use of the name “John” should not imply an assertion that the author of the text was a given person or that there was but one author) indicates the radical nature of that move: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Jesus, however, asks a Samaritan woman to give him some of her water, perhaps even to allow him to drink from her cup, and then offers to share with her the very Spirit of God.
While the pericope’s wider literary context may include not only scriptural texts such as Jeremiah 2:13, in which God identifies himself as “the fountain of living water,”2 but also extra-biblical texts such as the writings of Philo,3 space limitations preclude broad investigation here. Accordingly, after a brief note on the Synoptics, I will focus on the proximate context of the surrounding material in John.
Comparing our pericope to the Synoptic gospel books yields a striking contrast. Whereas in the Synoptics the pre-resurrection Jesus appears to restrict his mission to Jews, and it is the glorified risen Christ who commissions his disciples to preach to Gentiles, John’s Jesus not only gives such a commission during his “earthly” ministry but even inaugurates it himself, in the process creating a de facto apostle in the unlikely form of a Samaritan woman. Things go differently in the Synoptics. In Mk. 7:24-30, for example, Jesus heals the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman only after she agrees that Gentiles are dogs. Perhaps the closest the Synoptics come to John’s view is Mt. 8:5-13, where Jesus heals the servant of a centurion because of the man’s faith in Jesus’ power over demons and sickness, prophesying that “many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:11-12). But in that story, which has the feel of an exception that proves the rule, the kingdom of God is still in the future. “I was sent,” Jesus will say in Mt. 15, “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The Synoptic writers tend to delay the mission to non-Jews until after the Resurrection, but John has the future arrive, so to speak, early; in a sense, the Johannine Jesus is always already glorified. John would likely agree with the author of Hebrews that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Within John’s gospel book, our pericope’s immediate precursor is a narrative in which John the Baptist, before explaining that “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30), tells his followers that “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven” (3:27), a statement that will be followed up by Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, “If you [had known] the gift of God, and who it is that is [speaking] to you …, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (4:10). Raymond Brown says that in Judaism both terms, “gift of God” and “living water,” could refer to Torah; however, he also notes that “the expression ‘gift (of God)’ in vs. 10 was an early Christian term for the Holy Spirit …” and that “‘Living water’ is the Spirit communicated by Jesus.”4 In Christ, John teaches, Spirit (which will remain after Jesus has physically departed) replaces Torah.
Just before the section about the Baptist is the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, who has difficulty with the concept of baptism as rebirth in the Spirit of God (3:1-21), in living water—a difficulty not shared by the Samaritan woman. In fact, it is possible to see the woman, as Craig Koester does, as “… Nicodemus’s mirror opposite. Nicodemus was a man, a Jew, and a respected member of society who came to Jesus by night. She was a woman, a Samaritan, and a marginal member of society who encountered Jesus in broad daylight.”5 Christ’s gift of the Spirit transgresses human boundaries: “the [Spirit] blows where it chooses” (Jn. 3:8).
In the narrative that follows our pericope, Jesus continues on to Galilee, where he heals the son of a royal official—presumably, a member of the impious Roman regime—who expresses faith in him. This is reminiscent for us of the Synoptic stories referenced above, but John tells us specifically that the official “believed, along with his whole household” (v. 53b) because Jesus had (although not without verse 48’s disparagement of people’s need for “signs and wonders”) saved his son from death—had, in other words, given life to that household. Although the official is not explicitly described as a non-Jew, he is said to be a “king’s officer” (basilikos). For the ancient commentator Origen, “He is clearly not found to be a Jew.”6 Contemporary commentator Koester, who notes that “the official’s national identity is surprisingly ambiguous, which helps him represent Christians of any background,” does not seem as positive; nonetheless, he suggests that John’s readers may have been likely to assume that the official was not Jewish.7
John’s teaching that the divine Spirit, received through trust,8 is offered to all people in Christ and not through traditions is found, then, throughout: the Spirit must be “given from heaven” (3:37), as the Baptist says, and those whose hearts and minds are open in faith, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, profession, or sex, receive it. In our pericope, John paints a picture through story-telling that, in part, expresses a reality succinctly stated by Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). John, however, has placed the arrival of that new life in Christ in the pre-resurrection ministry of Jesus, as Jesus imparts the Spirit to the Samaritan woman early in his public career: “But the hour is coming and is now here” (v. 27a). For John, as we learn in the very beginning of his gospel book, Jesus is always the incarnation, the full human expression, of the eternal Logos, the creative, right-ordering power of God. And “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn. 1:3b-4): it is in the Logos that all human beings may be enlightened by the life of the Spirit of God, given in Christ “without measure” (Jn. 3:34).
The pericope presents teaching about Jesus the Christ, giver of the divine Spirit to any who will receive it, in a narrative format. It uses various aspects of narrative, such as setting, character, action, and dialogue, in order to present that teaching in a multi-faceted and memorable way. The pericope can be divided broadly into five sections, each containing one or more teaching lessons, as below. (For a more detailed breakdown including subsections, see Brown, pp. 176-178.)
These divisions reflect the fact that there is some interweaving of story elements in the pericope. The narrative’s movement, or flow, takes us from Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees to his reaching out to non-Jewish men and women to offer and impart the Holy Spirit, in the process making a heretical woman his apostle. (John, however, does not use the term “apostle” of any of Jesus’ disciples.9) John interrupts the flow of that story to present Jesus’ disciples as being commissioned, despite their having misunderstood the situation, to continue the mission to non-Jews which he has inaugurated.
The broad divisions are as follows.
A. Transition (vv. 1-4)
B. Setting (vv. 5-6)
C. Scene 1: Jesus and the Woman (vv. 7-26)
D. Scene 2: Jesus and His Disciples (vv. 27, 31-38)
E. Scene 3: Jesus and the Townspeople (vv. 28-30, 39-42)
A. Transition (vv. 1-4)
Verses 1 through 3 prepare the reader by giving a reason for Jesus’ departure from Judea for Galilee: Jesus has learned that the Pharisees know that he is gaining more disciples than John. The possible historical import of that is unclear, but one implication may be that rejection of Jesus’ offer of the Spirit can result in the loss of that offer: Jesus leaves the Pharisees and goes away, at least for a time, to offer salvation to others. He travels via Samaria to Cana in Galilee, where (contrary to expectation) he will be welcomed (see vv. 43-45). It was at Cana that Jesus had said “My hour is not yet come” (Jn. 2:4b) and yet had, at his mother’s request, changed water into wine—which, C. H. Dodd notes, can symbolize the transformation of “the lower order of life … into the wine of life eternal”10—a baptismal image. The “hour” that arrives ahead of itself, the still, physical water that is exchanged for living, spiritual water: these are significant images for John that our pericope highlights.
John asserts that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Brown notes that to get from Judea to Galilee without going through Samaria would involve a detour; that is, going via Samaria would not be a necessity, so “had to” may be read as a reference to the divine will or plan.11 (The Greek word edei often conveys a sense of oughtness in John.12) We learn, then, that Jesus the Logos indeed “must increase,” and that it is God’s will that people outside of Judaism be offered his Spirit. We also get the sense that the unbelief and hostility of the Pharisees, who may represent the religious “establishment” as guardian of tradition, constitute an important factor in determining the course of revelation.
B. Setting (vv. 5-6)
Traveling in Samaria, Jesus comes to Jacob’s Well, a site which is associated in this story with the sacred history of the Samaritans and which therefore links the two people’s histories: Jacob was the Hebrew patriarch who, having encountered and even wrestled with God, was renamed Israel. Indeed, the Samaritan woman whom Jesus will soon meet will remind him that Jacob himself drank from the well. If we understand the well to be a symbol of a religious tradition, we can see it described here as the tradition passed on through Jacob to the Samaritans.
Before the woman appears, Jesus takes a seat by or on (the Greek word epi often has the sense of “upon” in John) the well. Note that the reading of “on” can imply Jesus’ superiority to the tradition symbolized by the well, indicating in a visual-spatial image the reply to the woman’s question in v. 12: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob …?” In this first reference to the well, the narrator uses the Greek word pēgē, which signifies a well fed by a spring; that is, it originates in “living” water. So far, then, the Christ has gone beyond Judea and has appeared next to, even atop (above; superior to), the “well” of the Samaritan religious tradition, which John acknowledges as having a source in living water (e.g., in the experience of Jacob, who had directly encountered God in the form of an angel).
John concludes his setting of the scene with a statement which the NRSV translates as “It was about noon.” A closer rendering, however, is “It was about the sixth hour.” John uses almost exactly the same words in 19:14 to specify the time at which “[Pilate] says to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’” as he presents Jesus scourged and mocked in a purple robe. At the same time, allegorically speaking, as Christ is being rejected by pious Jewish people, he is revealing himself to, and being accepted in faith by, non-Jews—even by people who are despised as followers of an idolatrous simulacrum of the true religion. The Spirit is offered to all, but it is received only in that faith in Christ which does not confuse the words of tradition with the living Word (Logos) of God. While some mock the kingship of Christ, those who receive the Spirit acknowledge it: their wills become one with his as his is one with the Father’s (see v. 34; cf. Jn. 6:38).
And included in the Father’s will is this: “that everyone who beholds the Son and trusts in him may have life eternal” (Jn. 6:40, emphasis added, my translation). In him, not in a tradition. In the following sections, John illustrates that in narrative format.
C. Scene 1: Jesus and the Woman (vv. 7-26)
As Jesus sits (enthroned?) at or on the well, a Samaritan woman comes “to draw water.” In the fifteenth of his Tractates on John, Augustine teaches that the woman functions as a symbol: she is, he writes, a “figure of the Church not yet justified, but now about to be justified.”13 Jesus, seemingly ironically, asks her for a drink; he thirsted, Augustine tells us in the same text, for her faith. The Samaritan woman gives voice to the objection that Jews may have made to the spread of the Jesus movement among “other sheep”: there should be no sharing among such. And indeed we see immediately that, while the Samaritan tradition has nothing to offer Jesus, he seeks to give life to its adherents: he answers the objection by telling the woman, who does not yet see clearly,14 that she should be asking him for “living” water instead of drawing from the well. It is through living water, C. H. Dodd reminds us, that people “are reborn into the realm of Spirit—the water which Christ gives.”15 Here we may see an implicit reference to the story of Nicodemus in the previous chapter: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).
The Samaritan wonders aloud how this Jew can retrieve living water from the “well,” which she refers to not as pēgē, or spring, but as phrear, which can mean a cistern (still water) or even the pit of the underworld (cf. Rev. 9:1-2). Perhaps she has begun to understand the “dead” quality of the letter, as Paul might say (2 Cor. 3:6): she has not yet recognized “the gift of God, and who it is who is [speaking] to [her]” (v. 10), but she is open to the possibility that the living Jesus offers spiritual life that cannot be obtained from tradition. Jesus now plays his hand: to drink of the water of a tradition, even of one based on Torah or a patriarch’s direct experience of God, he implies, is to accept that one’s thirst for continuous spiritual life can never be slaked. Only the “living water” of the Spirit that he offers will satisfy that thirst, water that “will become in them a spring (pēgē) of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14).
The woman then asks for that living water which will obviate the need for her to return daily to the well—that is, to draw repeatedly from the tradition passed on by Jacob only to find that her thirst persists. She is willing to bracket the tradition, to set aside her received belief system, in order to open herself to new life from Jesus; as a result, faith can be awakened in her.
Jesus’ self-revelation continues to unfold as he tells the woman about her life. We can argue about whether the facts he recites—that she has had five husbands, and that the man with whom she is currently living is not married to her—might indicate loose personal morals, but we should keep in mind the woman’s function as figure in John’s story. Craig Koester reminds us that “Josephus recalled that five nations had settled in Samaria and charged that the Samaritans claimed to descend from Joseph (cf. John 4:5) only when the Jews were prospering, but insisted they were of foreign descent when their Jewish neighbors were in trouble.”16 And as Dodd and others have noted, there may also be a implicit reference to “the popular syncretistic cults” of Samaria and other places: she has had more than one god, and she is not fully committed to the god who is currently her principal object of worship.17 (Brown, who finds that explanation “possible,” notes that the Hebrew word for husband is ba’al, which could also refer to a deity.18) Further, Koester tells us that “Jewish sources traced idolatry in Samaria back to the woman’s ancestor Jacob, who buried the household gods Rachel had stolen from her father under the oak near Sechem, creating a deposit of idols at the foot of Mount Gerizim.”19 He also notes a connection with the story of Rachel in that the Samaritan woman has “come to the well at midday as Rachel had (Gen. 29:7; John 4:6).”20 Rachel met Jacob at the well and later became his bride; the Samaritan woman meets there the divine bridegroom Christ (Jn. 3:29), who will replace the tradition of Jacob.
As figure, then, the Samaritan woman typifies one who receives life in the Spirit of God not through membership in a chosen group, not through belief in a tradition, and not through moral merit, but by recognizing and giving her trust to Christ the Logos.
Jesus elaborates that theme as his discourse continues (reminding us again of Jn. 2:4b): “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (v.23). As reliance on religious tradition is to be given up for the living water of Christ, so worship in “temples made with hands” (Acts 7:48, KJV), whether on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem itself, is to be exchanged for worship in spirit and in truth—worship in Christ, the divine Logos and “the way, the truth, and the life.” “Such worship,” Dodd says, “is clearly the correlate of birth ek pneumatos [from spirit], whereby a man [sic] rises from the sphere of sarx [flesh; the merely human] to that of pneuma [spirit].”21 At the Father’s desire (v. 23b), then, Jesus offers the woman the baptism of living water: rebirth, new life, in the spirit of God, without which God is not truly worshiped.
At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ completes his self-revelation, but not without a corresponding movement on the part of the woman. She, figure of those who hope for the revealer of divine truth, is encountered by and accepts Christ as the living Truth. “I am he,” he says to her, “the one who is speaking to you now” (v. 26). In that statement and her response, we can understand that the Logos speaks to each of us here and now, and that we must turn from our dependence on water from the well of tradition in order to encounter and learn of him directly as we receive his Spirit. As the early Quaker George Fox put it, “The light, Christ, the Covenant of God, is … the end of the prophets’ and the apostles’ teaching, the fountain of life in which everyone sees life.”22
D. Scene 2: Jesus and His Disciples (vv. 27, 31-38)
Having completed the revelation of Christ in the story, John brings the Jewish disciples of Jesus onto the scene. Their initial reaction is surprise that Jesus is talking with a woman, but they do not question him about it; perhaps they trust that he knows best. For us who have read John’s entire book, their surprise may seem odd: we know that Jesus frequently talks with women. And the disciples’ concern is not about this particular woman, for they were not present during Jesus’ conversation with her and have no knowledge of her marital status or reputation. But in the book’s chronology, this is the first time that the disciples have seen Jesus speak alone with a woman. They may be wondering why, if he wants to convert Samaritans, he would enlist a woman rather than a man: a man’s status would be much greater, and his word would carry more weight. John’s Jesus is teaching his disciples as he teaches the Samaritan woman.
After the woman departs for a time, the disciples urge Jesus to eat something, but he tells them that “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (v. 34). That is, Jesus addresses their unspoken questions by asserting that his revelation of himself and imparting of the Spirit to heretical foreigners is God’s will. Indeed, he calls the disciples (who can function for the reader as figures of the church) to join him in that work, correcting their belief that the Kingdom of God is a wholly future reality: “Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (v. 35). Again, for John the blessed future is already present in Christ, as if “The hour [of harvest] is coming, and is now here.” Looking around themselves at that moment, the disciples would, of course, see Samaria, a figure of those peoples in whom the seed of truth has been sown by others (vv. 37-38)—by ancestors such as Jacob and even now by the Samaritan woman—but who have not yet been led to transcend their traditions in encounter with the living Christ who is already present with them.
E. Scene 3: Jesus and the Townspeople (vv. 28-30, 39-42)
As the disciples arrived, the woman “left her water jar and went back to the city” (v. 29): she abandoned the practice of drawing water from the traditional source and began to speak her nascent faith in the living Christ to her people. “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Brown notes that “The Greek question with meti implies an unlikelihood … therefore the woman’s faith does not seem to be complete.”23 Her faith may be developing, but she has received the Spirit, and, as we learn in verse 39, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’” That is, despite her faith’s immaturity and her possibly immoral lifestyle and bad reputation (which might make her seem an unreliable source for a report about God’s activity), the woman has become something of an apostle to non-Judeans. She models the apostolic activity, or “reaping,” to which Jesus has just exhorted his Jewish disciples.
As an apostle should, she directs her hearers neither to herself nor to a tradition but to Christ. Led to him through her words, they encounter the living Word for themselves, and then they desire to remain with him. Now the townspeople will dispense even with the inchoate “tradition” that is the woman’s testimony: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard [him] for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world, [the Christ]” (v. 42). Koester helpfully emphasizes certain aspects of that statement. The Samaritans, he says, know that Christ is truly the savior of the world: they know truly because they have encountered him themselves, and his encounter with them, with people whom Jews might consider heretical sinners, is assurance that he is the savior not just of his own ethnic and religious group but of everyone.24
With that implied exhortation, that all people should allow the tradition and the church’s proclamation to point them to direct experience of the living Christ, the pericope ends.
In reading John’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we can come to understand that a religious tradition, even one that originates in the divine Spirit, is but a temporary and ultimately unsatisfactory source of nourishment (the woman’s thirst sends her back to the well repeatedly). Because that Spirit is present and available to us in Christ the living Word, the New Covenant, the proper function of a tradition (such as Law/Torah) is not to nourish or teach us but to lead us to the divine source of nourishment and guidance. (The woman finds the living Jesus on the well.) If, like the Samaritan woman, we are willing to go beyond our reliance on words and letters, to encounter the Word directly in living relationship and humble trust, accepting that he shows us the true condition of our lives, then we are open to receiving his Spirit. Otherwise, though we draw daily from the well of tradition, we are attempting to satisfy our thirst for life with “dead” water and have no spring of life within us. The pericope tells us, then, of the offer of the gift of faith, and of the Holy Spirit given as faith is accepted, through direct encounter with the living Christ—an offer made to all, transgressing boundaries such as religion, ethnicity, gender, and moral purity.
This reading of the passage opens both possibilities and difficulties for us today. One possibility is that of learning to see our received religious traditions in a way that is perhaps new to us: not as repositories of truths but as pointers toward the living truth that cannot be captured in words—to the Spirit that blows where it wills (Jn. 3:8). Corresponding difficulties may include the loss not only of an anchor but also of a map; to live by faith to the extent that one relies for guidance not on text or tradition but on the moment-to-moment leading of the Logos is a risky endeavor. At the least, however, this reading may encourage us to hold onto scripture less tightly, remembering that, while it may have divine origins and may still provide some sustenance, scripture is not the fountain of life: it is a pointer to, and an offer to partake of, that fountain, the divine Logos.
This essay was written for a course in biblical studies and exegesis. I am grateful to the professor, Rebecca Hancock, for her helpful comments on the first draft. The essay follows the structure presented in Elements of Biblical Exegesis, by Michael J. Gorman.
 For more on the Quaker hermeneutic, see my “That of God: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20” at https://postmodernquaker.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/that-of-god-a-quaker-reading-of-romans-1-16-20/” .
 John F. McHugh, John 1-4: A Critical Study and Exegetical Commentary (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, T&T Clark, 2009), 275.
 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 54-73.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (Vol. 29 of The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1966), 176, 179.
 Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 48.
 From Origen’s “Commentary on the Gospel of John” 13.395, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. IVa. (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), p. 174.
 Koester, 52.
 See, for example, A. Katherine Grieb, “The Righteousness of God in Romans,” in Jerry Sumney, ed., Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), p. 68: “The noun pistis has a wide range of meanings, including ‘faith, trust, and belief’ but also ‘faithfulness, trustworthiness, and credibility or believability.’ The adjective pistos can mean either ‘faithful, trustworthy, and credible’ or ‘believing, trusting, having faith.’”
 Dodd, 311-312.
 See Brown, 169.
 Jo Ann Davidson, “John 4: Another Look at the Samaritan Woman.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 43:1 (Andrews University Press, 2005): 162.
 Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on John, Tractate 15 (John 4:1-42). Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent Web site by Kevin Knight..
 Dodd, 313.
 Koester, 49.
 Dodd, 313.
 Brown, 171.
 Koester, 50.
 Koester, 49.
 Dodd, 314.
 George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist’s Kingdom Revealed unto Destruction (Philadelphia: Marcus T. Gould, 1831; originally published in London in 1659), 385.
 Brown, 173.
 See Koester, 50-51.