Seeing the single tree

Week of Sunday March 23 – Lent 3
Gospel: John 4:5-42

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— 2 although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you [plural] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You [plural] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do 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. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, and appears to leave 'still in the dark.' This woman comes in the blazing sun, the light. By the end of the story she has seen something. They come as isolated people. Nicodemus comes alone at night. She comes in the day (because then it is safe for an immoral woman?) No one else comes to the well in the heat of the day. By the end of the story she is connecting with her community again; in fact, she is building it, bringing people to Jesus! In the Greek Orthodox tradition she is named St. Photini, the enlightened one, and is recognised as the first evangelist.

Jesus’ longest-recorded conversation with anyone is the one he has with the Samaritan woman. (Fred Craddock) This story is important.

As with Chapter 3, there is layer upon layer of meaning in this story. The well is deep! The story is also strong drink. The root of the word Sychar— there does not seem to have been such a city— has to do with strong drink and drunkenness!

There are unmistakeable sexual overtones— I can't believe John did not intend us to at least flirt with them, but also symbols of false and true worship. The city of Sychar also hints that we should go back to the Hebrew Scriptures' stories of Shechem which are rich in allusions to the Promised Land .

This rich tapestry moves on from being born from above to the result, living water, which when we drink it means we will never be thirsty. John carefully repeats both of those phrases to emphasise them.


We nearly perished once. We'd left a well watered valley to cross wide treeless, waterless, plains on one of those early summer days which is already too hot. The ranges looped in a long arc to the north of us.

By midday we had exhausted our water and were not well. Much later, I heard zebra finches high in the walls of a dry gorge on the other side, and found a small pool of water black with eucalypt leaves; too sickening to drink. We filled our bottles in case there was nothing more life giving to be found. Higher again we heard more birds and found a deep hollow in the rocks. The water was clear, but stank of 'roo urine. Slowly we boiled it, let it cool, and drank. It took ages to rehydrate to some level of health. When we had walked the final miles back to the safety of Ernabella, the clean water from its deep wells tasted like life itself.

"We shall not cease from exploration," and we will always need to drink, but finally we begin to know the place where we are. We tap into deep wells, and life, despite all its sorrows, has never again the same perishing thirst.

This, I think, is the promise of John.


Verse 4: Jesus did not, in fact, have to go through Samaria. Most Jews would take a longer way around. The text he had to go suggests something "God ordered." John highlights the issue of Samaria. It mentioned six times, underlining the great division among God's people; Jerusalem versus Samaria. The story will heal this old division, by pointing both peoples to something better. (4:23)

Verse 5-6:  Sychar does not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures. Because the gospel comments that Jacob’s well was there, we have a deliberate word play around "strong drink" and "Sychem" which is the town we know as Shechem. The historical allusions gathered around that place  are as rich as the well is deep.

Shechem is the place where God promises the land of Israel to Abram. Gen 12:6-7, Jacob bought land there. (Genesis 33:18-20) When Israel returns to the Promised Land it is where if swears fealty to God.

14 Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14-15)

The Hebrew interlinear source I consulted suggests that revering should be ... in truth and sincerity  which might pre-echo the truth of John 4:23.

Jacob's well is where Israel found water. Oddly we have reference to Jacob camping at Shechem just after he makes his peace with his estranged brother Esau, and where the angel has said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel..." (Genesis 32:28)

Verse 7-9 Although the words Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans (9b)is not in some of the ancient manuscripts, the fact that sharing did not happen was well known. She is Samaritan and a woman, both words are emphasised by repetition. We can see why the text in 9b might not be in the original; the shock of the verses is not only is she Samaritan, but that she is also a woman. The disciples have deliberately been removed from the scene, meaning he is alone with the woman when she arrives. Men and unaccompanied women were not supposed to talk with each other.

Despite this, wells were a place of courting. The old stories of the patriarchs have wives being found at wells. (eg Gen 29:9-12, Genesis 24) Abraham's servant asks for a drink in his choosing of Rebecca. Jacob helps Rachel get water.

There is a sense in which Jesus is courting, although not flirting with this woman. It is for this reason I think it is unlikely that the notion of marriage later in verses 16-19 does include a strand that is dealing with real husbands, not just symbolic ones. (See below)

When he asks for a drink she  reminds us of the differences between them. She is a woman, he is a Jew. The opposition between Jew and Samaritan is being highlighted so that it may later be superseded.  (v. 23) As is that between female and male.

Verses 10-15: Now we re-enter the territory of the conversation with Nicodemus; a conversation happening on at least two different levels. The woman first of all stays on the same level of Nicodemus, wanting physical water. And Jesus makes in plain that he is talking about eternal life, just as he was with Nicodemus. (3:16)

Like the well, the imagery is deep.

Firstly, John has been baptising in water, and Jesus has told Nicodemus that we must be born of water and spirit. Jesus' disciples are baptising more people than John; even John has said, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (3:30, 4:1) Baptism is more than physical water, there is something about it which is living or, since we are born of it, life giving.

Two, although he has no bucket, as Nancy Rockwell points out, he does have a cup!

This is no chance encounter.  This Cup is nowhere more precious than it is in the gospel of John, whose careful writer would never have Jesus idly hand off something so sacred to a passing woman.  Nor would John, who has constructed his book symbolically, using signs and wonders, include anything offhand or by chance.

According to John, this Cup, the Grail Cup, is first given not to the men who are named as disciples, not to Galileans and not to Temple Jews, but to a woman of tarnished repute, a daring woman and a Samaritan at that.

I would add that although he offers us his cup, his incarnation means he first of all drinks from ours.

The third thing we might note is that this water—  this spirit—  is internal in some sense. It "will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

Standing in the light, compared to Nicodemus, the woman already sees more than him. There is no uncomprehending reply— or obfuscating intellectual parry to hide his confusion— about re-entering his mother's womb. She goes to the heart of the matter, even if she thinks this water is somehow magical and that she will need to draw no more. "To do this you would have to be greater than our ancestor Jacob." And Jesus effectively says that he is. "Those who drink of the water I give them will never be thristy again." He is, at the same time, saying that his water is greater than that of Jacob as Jewish ancestor, not only as a Samaritan ancestor.

We could wonder how much we make the living water magical, like the woman did at first. I've certainly heard promises of new life after trusting Jesus that sound like all our troubles will cease. Such promises are lies. We still need to drink. We still suffer. What we get is a slaking of our existential thirst that brings eternal life, that life "lived in the unending presence of God," (O'Day) where perishing thirst ends and our appetites grow beyond mere starving survival to produce a certain fruitfulness in life.

Verses 16:25 She asks for his living water and he takes her at her word. Get your husband.

In the multilayered conversation which follows we can see at least two things. On the surface, her wounding is exposed; multiple husbands. I don't think we can deny this. But we should note that he makes no comment on it! He does not condemn her. There is no warrant for making this woman out to be some special sinner and do a "Mary Magdalene" on her. She is simply a wounded person like all of us. Commentators who do more than this are displaying their own sin of misogyny. There is no sexual moral commentary here.

Instead, sadly for those who are uptight about sexual matters, Jesus is playing with sexual attraction to make a spiritual point! When we come to the well, the place of water and courtship, who will we chose as our husband? Who will we kiss and weep aloud because we have found one whom we love? (Genesis 29:11)

The woman is catching on! When Jesus says you are right, she immediately sees an underlying strand of truth. He is talking about the religious argument between Israel and Samaria. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain....

The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities... But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. (2 Kings 17:24-29)

These are five of the Samaritan husbands.

For the sixth we turn to John Petty:

The one she is currently with, who is "not her husband," is Rome.  Herod the (so-called) Great had ruled the region on Rome's behalf from 37 BC to 4 BC.  During Herod tenure, about 6000 foreigners had been relocated into Samaria, but they were not allowed to intermarry with the local population. Moreover, at Herod's death, rule of Samaria passed to his son, Herod Archelaus who ruled from 4 BC to AD 6.  Archelaus proved a disappointment to the Romans and they replaced him with the Roman, Quirinius, following AD 6.  Following 6 AD, then, Samaria was under the direct rule of Rome.  

She's nailed it, because Jesus goes right on from there to the next thing she, and we, must learn. ... believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Believe me is from the Greek word for faith, or trust. Trust me on this, he says! Have faith. The true worshippers are not Jews or Samaritans; they worship in Spirit and in Truth. There is a greater thing happening here.

Brian Stoffregen makes a note on the word worship.

The word for worship (proskuneo) is used 11 times in John. Nine of those are in 4:20-24. Another instance is in the text for next week 9:38, where the formerly blind man, whose great sin was thought to have caused his blindness, believes and worships Jesus. The final occurrence is 12:20 where some Greeks have come up to worship at the festival. They approach Philip about meeting Jesus. One aspect of the worship in spirit and truth is that it includes sinners, Samaritans and Greeks [and women].

25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

She takes him at his word and is true to hers, leaving her water pot and going off to tell the people of her city what she has heard.

"Truth" is worship that moves beyond all national boundaries and historical traditions.  Making that transition is the work of "spirit," and it will apply to both Samaritans and Judeans. (John Petty)

We do not get near transcending the boundaries and traditions around us, yet that ideal is as good as any I've heard for "worshipping in truth." And the movement we make away from, or breaking outside of, our own local rules and limitations is certainly a work of the spirit. We do not understand that welling up within us that sets us free and opens our eyes. It blows as it will.

Verses 23-26: He has just proclaimed that he is the messiah. And the Messiah's followers, astonished that he was speaking with her, say nothing. It's like the minister talking to that visitor after church  whom everyone else ignores! But the woman left her water jar behind! She recognises she has found a better source of water. At this moment she sees more— has drunk more deeply— than the disciples.

Petty  points out

She goes into her town to say "come and see" to her fellow Samaritans.  Again, reminiscent of chapter one, these are the same words Jesus had spoken to two of John the Baptist's disciples. 

Verses 31-38: By suggesting that he eat something, the disciples show they are just as much in the dark about Jesus' bread as the woman was about the living water. The verse looks forward to the extended discourse about the bread of the Eucharist later in the gospel. This reference to this other food makes it clear that Nancy Rockwell's comment (above)  that Jesus has a cup is more than fancy preaching. The water, the wine, the bread and the Spirit are inseparably intertwined. His food is not only the sustenance from God but the bread of communion; that is food for him from God and food from him for us.

My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  This is satisfaction and sustenance in life that comes from living as God intends. It is the slaking of our great thirst, the water that means we are no longer thirsty. The statement puts Jesus in the same place as John the Baptist. He is one who serves. He is not doing his own thing, but the will of the Father. We will meet this being developed further in John. For example; What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’ (John 12:50)

This task will fall to the disciples, and to us. He encourages us when he says "Look around you..." We see the signs of the coming harvest of grain. Look at the signs of the harvest. We are already  reaping eternal life. The harvest will come.  "Jesus encourages the disciples to "see," which is a synonym for "faith" in the fourth gospel." (John Petty)

Verses 39-41: Second hand faith is not enough. Emphasising the Samaritans again— he could have merely said—  the people of the city— John shows us people believing because they have heard for themselves, and taken things on board for themselves. Way back in Joshua 24, where he calls people to live in sincerity and truth, he says choose for yourselves whom you will serve, and the people of this city do!

But Jesus stayed only two days. (John 4:41) Things are not complete. There is more to happen on the third day. Then we will know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.


In the middle of the day on our long trek across the plains I gradually discerned a single tree emerging from the heat shimmer. Under the tree was a single fenced grave.

Suddenly I knew exactly where we were. I had heard of this place. This was the first Christian burial site at Ernabella. To the north, through a break in the range, was an older burial site, a place of the dead. Here, as a sign, the tree and the grave pointed away to a new understanding of life.

It was a signal point. Would we turn north and go up into that visible valley where there might be water, even though it was a place of the dead, or would we continue across the plain to the ridge on the other side, in faith that we were on the right path?

When we are promised that water which means we will never thirst, it is not a promise of life without trouble or doubt. It is a promise that we will know where we are. We will see that single tree and remember that first death and burial, and know which way we should go so that we are fed and come to the right place and person, and resurrection at the great deep well of life.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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