In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus and the disciples take an unusual route from Judea to Galilee: they travel through Samaria. On a map, Samaria is right between these two regions, making it a natural pit stop. But most Jews so strongly resented Samaritans that they would take a circuitous route around Samaria, rather than travel through it.
Jesus, however, led the disciples straight through this land they’d grown up being told to avoid. His decision set the stage for the groundbreaking encounter we know as the story of “the woman at the well.”
The story of the woman at the well is significant for a number of reasons. The Samaritan woman’s blunt, pointed questions invite Jesus to articulate who He is and give us the memorable image of “living water.” Their conversation teases out that God’s dwelling place is going to change. And for the first time in the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals that He is the Messiah. Through her testimony of her experience with Jesus, the woman at the well becomes a powerful evangelist, despite her social status and local reputation. But most of all, the account of the woman at the well shows us that the gospel is for everyone.
In this article, we’ll look at the Bible passage this account appears in, then explore who this woman was and what we can learn from her experience with Jesus.
The woman at the well in the Bible
The story of the woman at the well appears only in John 4:4–42. Jesus decides to leave Judea for Galilee, likely to avoid an encounter with the Pharisees (John 4:1–3). The story has three distinct parts, beginning with Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and culminating in the result of her testimony about Jesus.
Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered 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.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:4–15).
It’s the middle of the day, and Jesus is tired and thirsty. The passage notes that Jesus’ encounter at the well occurs around noon. This is not a time people typically go to the well to haul water. Most women would travel together to draw water they need in the cool of the morning. This was an important social time when they could catch up and share local news. The fact that this woman is heading to the well in the hot afternoon suggests that she wasn’t welcome with the other women.
Jesus, a Jewish man, is alone with this Samaritan woman, and he asks her for a drink, breaking two social codes with one request—he speaks with her and intends to share whatever vessel she has to drink from. As a Samaritan woman, an ordinary Rabbi would have considered her unclean by default. But Jesus is no ordinary Rabbi.
The conversation quickly shifts from Jesus’ physical needs to the woman’s spiritual needs, but as is often the case with Jesus’ teachings, the woman doesn’t quite catch on at first. Then Jesus makes things personal, expressing His intimate familiarity with the details of her life, and revealing His true identity.
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he” (John 4:16–26).
The Bible doesn’t tell us why this woman was married five times, or what her current relationship is like. While it’s often assumed that she was an adulterer, that’s not the only possibility. (In fact, it may be unlikely, as that would mean multiple men married a known adulterer.) She may have been divorced or widowed, and left with no choice but to remarry in a world where a woman could not provide for herself. Regardless, this certainly appears to be a source of shame in this woman’s life, and is likely the reason she comes to draw water when no one else is around.
And more importantly, no stranger could have known this about her. While she hadn’t picked up on the spiritual nature of their conversation before, His revelation makes it impossible for her to miss that Jesus is no ordinary man.
In the Gospel of John, this is the first time Jesus explicitly tells someone He is the Messiah. A lowly Samaritan woman is the first to know Him as Christ.
The disciples rejoin Jesus
At this moment, the disciples return, surprised to see Jesus with a Samaritan woman. And she leaves to go tell everyone about Jesus:
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah” (John 4:29)?
While she’s away, the disciples try to feed Jesus (they’d left to get food after all), and He tells them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32). He goes on to clarify, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Work which clearly includes the salvation of the Samaritans, not just the Jews.
Many Samaritans believe
The Samaritan woman’s story isn’t over after she leaves Jesus. She tells people about her experience. Notably, as a woman in first-century Samaria, by default her testimony may not have counted for much. On top of that, she appears to be a woman of especially low status, possibly due to her marital history.
But Jesus frequently gives some of the highest honors to those with the most humble standing. And this woman was a compelling evangelist.
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:39–42).
The Samaritan woman’s testimony seems to imply that John didn’t record the entirety of her conversation with Jesus, but even if he did, this woman is telling everyone that Jesus knew her story—a story the folk from Sychar were quite familiar with—despite being a Jewish Rabbi from out of town. Her testimony alone is enough for many of them to believe, as she does, that Jesus is the Messiah. But for those who didn’t believe, her story is still enough to draw them in, so they could see for themselves.
Who was the woman at the well?
The woman at the well isn’t named in the Gospel of John, but for centuries, Eastern Orthodox tradition has venerated her as Saint Photini. The name, meaning, “Enlightened,” was allegedly given to her by the apostles at baptism. According to the tradition, she became a well-known evangelist, and was eventually martyred by Nero in 66 AD.
However, she never appears again in the Bible. Here’s what we know about her from Scripture.
The woman at the well was a social outcast
Whatever her reasons for having five previous marriages and being in a relationship outside of marriage, she was clearly avoiding the other townsfolk when she met Jesus. John points out the time of day (John 4:6) because it was unusual. Whether she was shunned by the others or simply ashamed of her marital history, this woman didn’t want to wait around the well with the other women of Sychar.
The Bible doesn’t tell us enough for us to assume this woman was a serial adulterer, and neither Jesus nor the townsfolk refer to her as a sinner, but she was definitely on the fringes of society.
The woman at the well was an early evangelist
Some argue that the woman at the well was the first evangelist, since according to John’s account, she was the first person to hear Jesus refer to Himself as the Messiah, and then she immediately shared this information with others. But whether she was the first or simply one of the first, this woman’s testimony of her encounter with Jesus began spreading the gospel throughout this little corner of Samaria, leading others to believe and drawing people in to hear from Jesus themselves.
The woman at the well is not Mary Magdalene
Some people mistakenly associate the Samaritan woman at the well with Mary Magdalene, but they are different women who have different encounters with Jesus. This mistake is likely due to the tradition of assuming the woman at the well was an adulterer, and the tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute—despite the fact that neither woman was ever referred to this way.
In fact, Mary Magdalene is sort of a traditional stand-in for many unnamed women in the Bible. She’s first named when Jesus cast out seven demons from her in Luke 8:2, but she’s sometimes associated with “the sinful woman” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:37 and the woman whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death for adultery in John 8:1–11. The Bible doesn’t name either of these women or indicate that either of them is Mary Magdalene.
From the Gospel of John, we know that the woman at the well was a woman of low social standing who quickly placed her faith in Jesus and spread the gospel through sharing her experience.
Lessons learned from the woman at the well
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well represents one of His longest back-and-forth conversations in the gospel. And it’s one of the first times He explicitly refers to Himself as the Messiah. We also see Jesus reveal an intimate familiarity with a stranger’s story, and explain eternal life in a new way. So what can we learn from the woman at the well? Here are some key takeaways.
The gospel is for everyone
In the Great Commission, Jesus tells His followers that they’re to spread the gospel throughout the world, and He mentions Samaria by name (Acts 1:8). It’s easy to gloss over this, but it’s important to remember that from an early age, Jesus’ disciples had been taught that Samaritans were excluded from God’s covenant and that they were worse than Gentiles. And yet Jesus not only told the disciples to bring these people into the fold, but modeled it Himself with the woman at the well and the people who responded to her testimony in Sychar.
There is no group, class, or race of people the gospel excludes. It’s for every person. This is one of the reasons Jesus Film Project® exists. We bring the gospel to many of the most remote, isolated communities in the world, allowing people to hear the story of Jesus in new languages and sharing the good news with people who, like the woman at the well, have never heard it before.
Our testimonies play a key role in evangelism
Some people who heard the testimony of the woman at the well believed Jesus was the Messiah. Her story was compelling enough for them to believe she had encountered the promised Savior of the world. The Bible doesn’t tell us that she debated theology, pressed people to change their behavior, or preached. She simply told them about her experience: “He told me everything I ever did” (John 4:39).
But her testimony wasn’t only valuable because some people believed it. Her story ignited people’s curiosity about Jesus. They wanted to see and hear from Him themselves, and as a result, more of them believed (John 4:41–42).
Keep exploring Jesus’ ministry
Over the course of His three-year ministry, Jesus interacted with many different people, and every encounter reveals more about who He is, what He is capable of, what the kingdom of God looks like, and how we should live in light of that. His parables offer a wealth of wisdom, and His life provides a powerful model of sacrificial love.
You can learn more about the ministry of Jesus on the JFP blog, or if you want to experience the gospel in a whole new way, watch the JESUS film and hundreds of other Christian videos for free in the Jesus Film Project app.
Download the app to keep exploring.