Some thirty-four miles from Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in Sychar (Shechem; Josh. 24.32). John often uses the term polin (“city”) to indicate a small town, so we’re not in a big metropolis. At noon, he sat by the well when a Samaritan woman came to draw from the well. Water drawing usually occurs in the morning or evening and by a group of women (Gen. 24:11; Exod. 2:15–16). So drawing water alone may reflect her story—that she’s been married multiple times (John 4:18). Jesus asks for a drink at noon, and he asks for a drink upon the cross (John 19:28).
John is careful to mention that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. They were a race who sat between being Jew and Gentile, descending from Assyrians and Israelites. In Jesus’ time, Shechem was regarded as the “city of senseless” (T. Levi 7.2). Between AD 6–9, the Samaritans desecrated the temple on the eve of Passover: “It was customary for the priests to open the temple gates just after midnight. … some of the Samaritans came privately into Jerusalem, and thew about dead men’s bodies in the cloisters; on which account the Jews afterward excluded them from the temple” (Jos., Ant. 18.2.2).
What’s later evident is the Holy Spirit is the living water of which Jesus speaks (John 7:37–39). Like Nicodemus, the woman takes him literally, however. The transition from the discussion about water to her husband is a little odd (vv. 15–16). It’s not a natural conversation progression, but men had met their wives at wells, such as Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 24:17; 29:10). There’s no technical term in Greek for “husband.” However, when it’s used as possessive, it’s implied. Assuming that “husband” is the better translation reminds us that rabbis disapproved of more than three marriages, even in the case of death (b. Yebam. 64b). If the translation is to be “man,” then she’s a serial fornicator. Either way, she’s living with one who isn’t even hers.
Jesus’ point in asking this question may have been to reveal that he was a prophet, to which she responds (v. 19). She changes the conversation to their differences in worship location. Abraham and Jacob built altars in the region (Gen. 12:7; 33:20), and Mount Gerizim was where Moses blessed the Israelites (Deut. 11:29; 27:12). The dispute, however, has been ongoing for centuries. Worship won’t be tied to a location but to a person. Preachers have often stated that the spirit of worship is the mind and heart we bring to it, while the truth is doing what is commanded. John likely wouldn’t have agreed with that interpretation. Throughout his gospel, Jesus is the person who is associated with spirit and truth, as is belief in him (1:14, 17, 33; 3:5–8; 6:63; et. al.). When we worship through Christ (cf. Heb. 8:1–2), we worship in spirit and truth.
Samaritan belief in Messiah was not so much royal as he was to be instructive. Jesus discloses that he is the one of which she speaks. When the disciples return, they find Jesus speaking with this woman and are surprised. The surprise was that he was a) speaking with a woman and b) that she was Samaritan. Something Jesus often does is break through barriers by which people usually live. He disabuses us of our prejudices. He challenges our feelings on things. This woman left to bring others to Jesus while his disciples urged him to eat. As the people approach him because of the woman’s testimony, Jesus likens them to a field ready for harvest. The very people the disciples may have avoided were those they spent two days among sharing the good news. Later, Jesus commands his apostles to begin in Jerusalem and proceed to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).