Hidden Questions: Lessons From the Woman at the Well
“No, I need to clean up my life first,” she told me. “Then God will accept me.”
“That’s not possible, Tamara—not for anyone,” I said.
I met Tamara at the Dallas Juvenile Center and found her willing to talk as we sat at the table. But how could I proceed with this young woman who had a fundamental misunderstanding of salvation? The same way Jesus did.
Jesus met a woman as she approached a well in Samaria, and He opened a conversation by asking her for a drink. Then He said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). But she knew neither the gift nor the speaker, so Jesus proceeded.
He knew she needed eternal life, and He introduced her to that need. This was not unusual for the Lord. We read in the previous chapter, John 3, that while Nicodemus felt no need to be born again, Jesus knew his need. The needs people have are not always the needs they feel, and what Jesus offers is not a feeling of satisfaction for a felt need but genuine satisfaction for a real need.
Jesus offered the Samaritan woman living water to quench her thirst. He used “living water” as a metaphor for eternal life (v. 14). However, understanding it literally as “running water,” she challenged His offer: “Sure, I’ll take that water. Then I won’t have to haul it again.”
The woman did not crave the water Jesus offered because she did not perceive her own spiritual thirst. So Jesus recounted her marital history. Why? She had tried one man after another and had not found satisfaction. Like many people today, she had attempted to quench a thirst for the heavenly with the earthly.
When she understood her thirst, she understood that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. “Sir,” she said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (vv. 19–20). While she was only beginning to see who Jesus is, she did understand that an offer of living water was an offer of access to God.
Yet there was still a barrier: How could a Jew make her a legitimate offer of access to God when Jews did not believe Samaritans could come to God? Jesus had enabled her to see her need; next He overcame her objection.
The woman had asked, “How can a Jew ask a Samaritan woman for a drink?” “Where will you get that living water?” “Are you greater than Jacob?” But Jesus answered none of her questions. He was not unresponsive to her inquiries, but He refused to be sidetracked by them. Instead he focused on helping her see her thirst. Only after she saw her thirst did He answer her objection.
Earlier Jesus had engaged Nicodemus in this way. Nicodemus twice responded to Jesus’ message by asking how such things could be (3:4, 9). Jesus did not answer “how.” Instead He insisted on His friend’s need of the rebirth. He knew that once Nicodemus saw that, the “how” would not be the issue.
Are you afraid to share your faith because of people’s questions? Don’t answer them—yet. The real questions surface after people see their need of Christ. First, point them to their need. Once the Samaritan woman had seen her need, Jesus answered her objection. He told her that the “where” of worship was no longer important because “who” God is means that worship must be in spirit and truth. Was the “living water” available to her? Was the offer legitimate? That was her real question. Jesus’ answer: God seeks such to be his worshipers (4:23). He had made her need obvious to her, and had overcome her objection.
Jesus had another lesson to teach. When the disciples arrived, they wondered why He was talking with a woman. They questioned Him because they didn’t recognize the harvest. Like the woman, the disciples had a need. She had a thirst, and they had a hunger. Her need was to drink the water of life, and their need was to reap the harvest of souls. Jesus’ lesson to His disciples was that the harvest is ripe, and those who labor in the fields reap an eternal reward.
The Samaritan woman went straight from the well to the field. She ran to communicate with the townspeople, and she started with them where they were. The Samaritans looked for the Christ and expected Him to be a prophet who would teach them. So the woman said to them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did” (v. 29). And many believed because of her testimony (v. 39).
How do we proceed? We don’t have to discern whether our field is ripe. Jesus said sometimes one sows and another reaps (v. 37). Our field may not be ready for harvest, but it is always ready for labor. Whether we sow or reap, we labor with God for a lasting harvest. We stand in a field of people who drink in wealth, power, pleasures, and earthly relationships in an effort to satisfy their unquenched thirst. Yet they object to the gospel. Let’s help them see their thirst and point them to the one who can satisfy it. Christ has given us genuine satisfaction for our thirst, but we still have a hunger. Our food is in the field.
Debbie Hunn (MA[BS], 1995) is Dallas Seminary's assistant public services librarian.