Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well is the perfect confrontation between religion and the transforming power of Christ. As I’ve quoted Robert Capon many times before, Jesus did not come to start a new religion; He came to announce the end of religion. We see this brilliantly illustrated in John chapter four.
A little background. When the northern tribes split from Judah (these northern tribes were referred to as “Israel” afterward), they created an idolatrous version of the Mosaic Covenant (see 2 Kings 17:16-18) and eventually were taken captive by the Assyrians and carried away from their land. The king of Assyria repopulated their cities with people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. After this, these settlers experienced a series of disasters and decided they needed a priest from Israel. They petitioned the king of Assyria and he sent them a priest that had been taken from Israel and, thus, they set out to cleverly create their own religion from a smattering of the surrounding religions and Israel’s idolatrous worship (see 2 Kings 17:23-34). By Jesus’ day, the Jews considered these people a religious cult and they would have nothing to do with them.
Enter Jesus’ diversionary trip to Samaria (John 4:1-42). Jesus not only violates the Jew’s religious intolerance, He violates the cultural taboo by talking to a woman. And not only was she a woman, but one of disrepute, an outcast even in her own city. There’s a lot I could say about this encounter, and a lot’s been said, but I want to focus in on the main point here.
What was the woman looking for?
I imagine her experience with religion was less than satisfying considering her repeated relational failures. She was no doubt marginalized by her own people, having to draw her water in the heat of the day when no one else was there to point their judgmental finger and give their disapproving looks.
Too many are like the Samaritan woman. They’ve experienced religion…but not Jesus.
It’s in this place of woundedness and cultural distain that she meets Jesus.
Notice that Jesus ignored her question about why He’s talking to her, and He’s also not interested in a political and religious debate (John 4:9, 20). He ignores all of this and says:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10 *)
Jesus refers to Himself as the “Gift of God.” This gift is a person. I will have to elaborate on that another time. What I want to focus in on here is how Jesus does answer her question. What she really needs is not more religious moralizing but “living water.”
In the Jewish culture, “living water” simply means flowing water. It’s seen as a cleansing and healing agent. Here, Jesus is using this well-known idiom in a new way. He refers to a water where when one drinks of it, they will never thirst again…one that washes over our soul, our very being in the deepest part of who we are.
13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13 *)
This water brings “everlasting life.” It’s important to note that He’s not talking about going to a place when you die, or some dry soteriological doctrine, but an experiential “flowing” that comes from God’s very own life. (See “Everlasting life is living in God’s life” for further explanation.)
Next, notice how Jesus confronts the woman. There was no condemnation in His words, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband…” (John 4:16-18).
Why did Jesus ask her about her husband?
Was it not to uncover the deepest pain and failure that bound her? To heal and free her? Shame will keep us dry in the desert. Shame keeps us from drinking from the water freely.
Shame diminishes who we really are.
It’s Jesus’ words of life that calls her out of this desert prison and into the overflowing life of God. And from this brief encounter, everything she had ever hoped for resonates at once within her. She has tasted the water!
Notice the woman’s reaction to this encounter:
28 The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, 29 “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” 30 Then they went out of the city and came to Him. (John 4:28-30 *)
Here’s the thing. Religion won’t make anyone to leave their “waterpots” and overcome the fear that keeps them from passionate abandon. And religion won’t cause hearts to respond to a report so radical and so beyond anything one could ever hope for. But the people of the city did respond…for they had seen what she had encountered in her eyes, in her voice, in her joy…in her transformation.
Yes, the answer to religion is living water.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:27-38 *)