Ministry lessons from the woman at the well

As you read this article, contemplate the meaning of the phrase “but he had to” in the story of Jesus’ choice to go through Samaria when other routes were available.

Sigve Tonstad, MD, PhD,is associate professor of religion and biblical studies, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

Conflict is in the air from the beginning of the Gospel of John. “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptiz­ing more disciples than John’ . . . he left Judea and started back to Galilee” (John 4:1, 3).1 To the Pharisees, the growing impact of Jesus did not seem to be a good omen. And so, sensing the first drafts of hostility, Jesus “left Judea and started back to Galilee” (v. 3).

At that point, John introduces a subtle break in the story. “But he had to go through Samaria” (v. 4). The word but is soft, but there is, nevertheless, a flag waving to the reader to slow down. Did Jesus, strictly speaking, have to go through Samaria? What lies behind the notion that Jesus had to go through Samaria? There were other routes between Judea and Galilee—the coastal route or the Jordan Valley. Of course, observant Jews at the time of Jesus did not go through Samaria because they did not want to be con­taminated by contact with Samaritans.

So what does the notion of neces­sity seen in the phrase “but he had to” mean? In the Gospel of John, Jesus never, or almost never, will do things simply because circumstances make Him do it.

This imposes on the reader the task of finding some other explanation for the necessity in this story. The “but” at the beginning of the verse nudges us further in a different direction. Jesus has to go through Samaria not because Samaria is on His way, but because Samaria is on His mind. He goes there by necessity, but the necessity is in Him, not in His circumstances.

One on one with a woman of Samaria

And so, at high noon, we find Jesus in Samaria.

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The 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.) (vv. 5–9).

To read these five verses takes about 30 seconds. Let us call that nar­rative time. But how long was the actual time in this exchange?

My reconstruction will be some­thing like this: He comes to the well first. She comes alone, not expecting anyone to be there. The situation is awkward because she has chosen the time of day when there is the least chance for running into other people. She eyes the stranger warily while Jesus does not pretend that she has not come there. Awareness of the other is the first element in the encounter.

She will complete her errand despite the stranger sitting at the well. At this point, we have three main options. In option number one, Jesus begins the conversation immediately, asking for water, but He never gets any water because she immediately rejoins that the question is out of character with Jewish-Samaritan relations. In option number two, she lowers the bucket to get her water before anything is said. This takes time because, as she will say moments later, “ ‘the well is deep’ ” (v. 11), 125–240 feet deep by various estimates. Ten minutes, perhaps more, might have transpired before anyone says anything. In option number three, He asks for water right away. She proceeds to lower the bucket, saying nothing until she has the water.

Of these three options, the first one is the weakest even though this is the option that is most “faithful” to the text. In this option, narrative time equals actual time. Within less than a minute of the woman’s arrival, there will be a conversation about water, first, and then about “living water.” Indeed, option number one is implausible because that option allows Him to ask something of her but not for her to do something for Him. Option numbers two or three are better because they  allow time for confidence building. I will  go with the second option. She gets the water first. Not until that point does He ask, “Give me a drink.” He pauses in the  conversation as she gives Him water, and He drinks it with an expression of gratitude. Only then, when she has done something for Him, and there is a sense of parity in the relationship, does she ask Him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” 

By now, we may be fifteen minutes into the encounter. So far, words have been few, but communication is not only by words. Communication is also body language, facial expression, eye contact or an avoidance of eye contact, and tone of voice. It takes about 30 seconds to read the story, minus the historical elements and the circumstantial matters, and trust cannot be built in 30 seconds. We are well advised to settle for the 15 minutes or so of actual time before we proceed.

Barriers broken

Three huge barriers have been overcome in the span of the first 15 minutes—in 15 minutes and not 15 seconds. First, a Jew talks to a Samaritan, breaching the socioethnic barrier. Second, a man talks to a woman, breaching the gender barrier. Third, a pious person talks to a sinful person, breaching the moral or religious barrier. The latter point assumes the traditional view of the woman as a questionable character, a view that must suffice for now, even though there are other plausible constructs for her life story.

I write this as a pastor with a PhD in New Testament studies, but I also write it as a physician. In my work as a physician, everything hinges on establishing trust.  Trust, in turn, is built less by how well we talk than by how well we listen. On this point, the account confirms trust in the making when the woman decides to
engage in a conversation that could have been avoided. It is not hard to imagine her hurrying away from the well without saying a word to the Stranger. Instead,
she stays to talk. Triggered by His simple question and reinforced by hers, the conversation will be one for the ages.

We will have to speed up from here with only three additional points from the story itself. We move from His need to her need, from her water to His water (vv. 10–15). “‘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,’ ” Jesus says (v. 10). She does not quite get the point, but she gets the hint that she has a need and that God has a remedy for it. On the premise of her need and His remedy, she declares, “‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water’ ” (v. 15).

At that point, the conversation shifts gears (vv. 16–18). “ ‘Go, call your husband, and come back’ ” (v. 16). This might seem like a change of subject, but it is not. What could be better than “liv­ing water” to bring an end to the trips to the well at high noon all by herself, as a person ostracized from her community? She does not understand the notion of “living water,” but she feels the appeal of getting water that quenches a per­son’s thirst to such an extent that one no longer has to make the trip to the well. We should not think that she has prepared for Jesus’ statement, but the statement is not unrelated to the woman’s situation in life.

“‘I have no husband,’ ” she answers (v. 17). Her denial could have been the end of the conversation for she certainly could have gotten up and left. But she does not leave even though Jesus allows time for her to do so, or, as I imagine it, He does not proceed until He is certain that she will not leave. He can only say what He will say next when He is confident of having earned her trust to the point of no return. “ ‘You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,’” He says, adding, “ ‘What you have said is true!’ ” (v. 18).

This move is extremely daring but necessary and ultimately liberating. How He says it (and how we say things) matters more than what He said. Again, a pause on her part is likely now that all is out in the open. What now? “ ‘I see that you are a prophet,’” she says (v. 19).

The authorized Greek text has a period after her concession, but the necessary pause that comes with the period must be supplied by the reader. I believe that a long pause is necessary, perhaps several minutes. I do not share the widely held view that she wants to change the subject and eagerly rushes to do so. And, as noted already, verbal pauses do not mean absence of com­munication. If her body language at this point is apprehensive and questioning, His is accepting and reassuring. If there is eye contact, she is not looking into a judgmental face.

A wonderful progression

There has been a wonderful progres­sion in her view of Him up to this point. “How can you, a Jew . . . ?”—her open­ing bid acknowledges Jesus as an excep­tional human being (v. 9). “ ‘Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ ” recognizes Him as a great spiritual figure (v. 12). “I see that you are a prophet” places Jesus in an even higher spiritual category. And the progression in her view of Him has not run its course. She resumes the conversation, asking for the prophet’s adjudication of the dispute between Jews and Samaritans as to the correct place for worship, only to have Jesus answer that nei­ther Jerusalem nor Samaria means anything in the new reality that is breaking in on the world (vv. 20–24). Only at that moment does she strike the ball, responding as though the definitive answer to her question must be deferred to an indefinite point in the future. “ ‘I know that Messiah is coming,’ ” she says. “ ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us’ ” (v. 25).

That sentence would have been a fitting ending to the conversation, the signal that she should realize that the time has come for her to leave. However, she does not leave even though there might have been another moment of silence. We can hardly imagine that Jesus could make His subsequent assertion except for the fact that it had entered the realm of pos­sibility for her that He, the Stranger at the well, actually might be the Messiah. “ ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you,’ ” Jesus says to her (v. 26). And she does not scoff at the claim.

When the disciples reemerge in the story, no further conversation between the two is possible. The dis­ciples are puzzled seeing Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman (v. 27), and she quite forgets the reason why she came to the well in the first place (v. 28). Now, however, she has a story to tell, “ ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ ” she says to her fellow villagers (v. 29).

There must have been excitement in her voice and body language, and there must have been more than a little surprise on their part that the Samaritan woman suddenly and willingly makes “ ‘everything I have ever done’ ” a sub­ject of attention and conversation (v. 29). Her willingness to draw attention to her life record increases the likeli­hood that she was not trying to change the subject when Jesus brought it up. Rather, the conversation between her and Jesus about her relational history ran to completion on the level of body language, even if words are lacking to that effect. If, again, the subject was her relational history, a history involving at least one intimate relationship that ought not to have happened (“ ‘the one you have now is not your husband,’ ” v. 18), the relational history has been detoxified and purified at the well. This history no longer represents a threat to her, spiritually, psychologically, socially, and otherwise.

 “‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ ” she asks rhetorically, convinced that He is (v. 29). This is the highest point in the progression in her view of Him. What this term meant to her, John does not describe in his Gospel, but there is no doubt what it should mean to us. Here, the reader of the Gospel has an advantage over the Samaritan woman, knowing explicitly what she may only have imagined implicitly. “ ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,’ ” Jesus says later in the Gospel (John 14:9; cf. 1:18). The Stranger who talked to her at the well is the Revealer. That is how great He is, the exceptional Jew who is greater than Jacob, a Prophet, too, and, in fact, the Messiah who is to come into the world (John 4:9, 12, 19, 29).


I will suggest four points for further reflection.

First, in this story and often in the Gospel of John, ministry is local, individual, and personal. “But he had to go through Samaria” (v. 4), and now we know why. In John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Samaria is included in the itinerary of the Word Incarnate by design, not by accident. He had to go to Samaria because that is His modus operandi, and He had to go there because He could not win her any other way: not by a tract, telephone call, or virtual pres­ence on a television screen. In-person contact is the way of this Gospel, and the most consequential encounters in John happen one-on-one.

Second, in this story as in other stories in John, the role of women in ministry is so conspicuous that it poses a serious contrast to the hand-wringing that the Christian church has had throughout much of its history over this question. The woman gets Jesus’ attention even though the disciples wonder what He is up to. They want to say it out loud but leave it at the level of thought: “ ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ ” (John 4:27). They find themselves in Samaria because it is on the way between Judea and Galilee and not because they have an interest in the place. It is not difficult to imagine an element of condescen­sion in the disciples’ demeanor, “ ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ ” (v. 27; emphasis added). She, nevertheless, will be the first to win Samaria; she, not His disciples and not a man. For the men in the story, four months remain until harvest. For Jesus, by contrast, “ ‘the fields are ripe for harvesting’ ” (v. 35), and the woman is proof of His thesis and the means to bring it in. Their lack of interest in Samaria is surpassed only by their lack of respect for her. How to resolve this question in our time may be nudged to its inevitable destination by ascribing to Jesus the prerogative to reveal principle and prescribe policy. “I know that Messiah is coming,” says the Samaritan woman in her attempt to postpone the moment of truth. Of all the compelling images in the story, perhaps the most riveting is the scene of Jesus sitting alone at the well at the point when the disciples return and the woman has left, His face exuding contentment. “ ‘Rabbi, eat something,’ ” the disciples say (v. 31), thinking of His physical hunger. “‘I have food to eat that you do not know about,’ ” He answers (v. 32). They wonder if someone else has brought Him food (v. 33), but Jesus speaks of food of a different order. His deepest need has been met in the encounter with the Samaritan woman (v. 34).

Third, we must win a person’s confidence before we can do anything else. Winning a person’s confidence begins with interest in that person. To overcome prejudice, distrust, and the fracturing realities of convention may take time, and this also takes ingenuity and planning. I see elements of this in Jesus’ journey from Judea to Galilee, arriving at the well at high noon, when He will see her one-on-one and by the fact that He breaks the ice by asking her for a favor. Pastoral ministry is, in this regard, no different from medical ministry. Confidence building knows no shortcuts. The programs we launch and the books we yearn to distribute will not do much good unless we have won the trust of the recipient. Such endeavors can, in the absence of trust, actually cause more harm than good.

Most important, however, is the answer to the question with which we began. Why did He have to go through Samaria? Geography is not the reason. He went there because of deeper needs, hers and His. “What Jesus longs for from this woman, even more than delicious spring water, is that she long for the liv­ing water that He longs to give her,” says Stephen Moore in a perceptive essay.'

For many who have written on the scene at the Samaritan well, the woman’s oblivion to her own need, assumed to be so much greater than that of Jesus, is the pivot on which the irony of their dialogue turns. Deeper by far, however, is the irony of Jesus’ own need—not to mention that of his Father—is just as great as the woman’s. “The well is deep,” as the woman says. Desire, however, is bottomless.3

The encounter begins with His need for her water (vv. 6, 7). Then this encounter moves to her need for His water (v. 10). But then, in a moment of splendid clarity, the encounter returns to His need for her. His bottomless desire drives the entire story and is the reason why “he had to go through Samaria” (v. 4).


1 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 Stephen Moore, “Are There Impurities in the Living Water That the Johannine Jesus Dispenses?” Biblical Interpretation 1, no. 2 (1993): 208.

3 Ibid., 227.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Sigve Tonstad, MD, PhD,is associate professor of religion and biblical studies, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

July 2013

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Junia the Apostle

Questions have been raised about Junia’s identity, occupation, and her gender—the author not only investigates the answers but also the implications.

Theology in Parish Life

How is interpretive theology attained in parish life?

The Power of United Prayer

People are experiencing revival and reformation through the power of united prayer.

The Bible, the ecosphere, and us: Ten Key Concepts

Read the ten-concept list as to how Christians should relate to the natural environment and enhance human well-being.

Igniting my Heart Again

From our revival and reformation series.

The art of the pastoral visit

In this article, the author defines a pastoral visit and explains its importance.

The power of love

The power of love can move people to accomplish the most difficult things in life.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All