A defensible variant interpretation of the Samaritan woman and the meeting of the Messiah at the well

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:3-30)


Kathy L. McFarland


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Jesus Christ, the Word of God in human form, speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-30) and imparts a lengthy philosophical discourse that ends with the expression of His Messianic status to both the Samaritan and Judean Israelites. The spiritual depth and underlying circumstances of Christ's conversation with the woman at the well identifies the Messiah to a religious Samaritan woman, which possibly altars the traditional interpretation from the confrontation of a sinner to a step by Christ to unify North and South Israel as the Redeemer to all God's people in both places.


It is necessary to understand the relationship between the Samaritan and Judean Israelites before a clear interpretation of John 4:3-30 can be undertaken. Historically, Samaritans are often linked to Joseph's lineage of the Tribes Ephraim, Manasseh, and the priestly tribe of Levi.[1]During the time of Christ, they inhabited of Northern Israel (first given to Tribes of Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, and Manasseh)[2] with its capital located in Shechem.Mount Gerizim was their sacred mountain upon which they built a temple to worship the LORD God.Judean Israelites were remnants of Southern Israel; their capital was in Jerusalem and their sacred Mount Moriah/Mount Zion declared the dwelling place of God within their Temple.

Traditional Jewish Rabbinic theory has claimed in the past that Samaritans came from the cities of Samaria.[3] However, it is important to note that Samaritans is the name of a group of religious Jews in Northern Israel, and Samarians are residents of the land in Samaria. Samarian people are addressed only once in the entire Old Testament in 2 Kings 17:29, and that mention is sometimes falsely attributed to Samaritans, possibly from Josephus' wrong association in his writings (Ant. 9:288-91) that referenced 2 Kings 17.[4] Samarians are not Samaritans nor did all Samaritans originate from that place. This false connection has led many of the Reformed scholars to declare the Samaritan woman a sinner, connecting her carnal origins in the land of Samaria, rather than her actual belonging to the devout, religious belief and worship practices of Samaritans. They wrongly claim that she is unaware of her sinful condition, which prevents full divine grace because of her lack of self-understanding which provides the foundation for Christ's conversation with her at the well.[5]

The separation between Samaritans and Judeans is briefly accounted in Nehemiah 2:10, 13; 13:28. Basically, Northern Samaritan Israelites maintained some presence in their Promised Land, while Southern Judean Israelites were exiled and oppressed in Egypt. Since the Samaritan's presence in the Holy Land continued, and the Judeans removed, Samaritans worship and government was thought superior to the exiled Judeans who could not hold and possess their land and sacred mountain on which they worshipped the same LORD God. The counter argument of Jewish Rabbis in the Second Temple period was that Samaritans were not ethnically Jewish, but of Cuthean descent; however, Samaritans mostly viewed themselves as descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and true children of Israel who remained faithful to the Law of Moses.[6]

Often overlooked, the Samaritan community was just as pious as the Judean communities.But, the Samaritan society around them was degraded by false religion and immorality, though their religious gatherings had less phony scruples of religious hypocrisy than the Judeans.[7] These historical facts must be considered in the interpretation of Christ's talk with the Samaritan woman at the wall.When the Samaritan's beliefs are factored into the analysis of the conversation between the Lord and the woman, a variant, non-traditional interpretation arises and illuminates a depth of revelation that is usually unperceived.

Similarities between Samaritan and Judean Israelites[8]

Both Samaritans and Judeans viewed themselves to be Israel's chosen people of the LORD God. Each worshipped and attempted obedience to the same God; though their differences highlighted their disagreements with each other, they were similar in many ways.

Both viewed the Torah as the main holy text, though the Samaritans had a slightly different Torah than the Judeans.[9] At the time of Christ's presence, both the Samaritans and Judeans were about equal in their population. The seemingly higher numbers of Judeans populating Israel compared to the Samaritans are blamed upon the perspective of Scripture that is written based almost exclusively upon the Judean Israelites lives.[10] Both used Judeo-Greek and Hebrew in the writings of sacred Scripture (LXX Samaritikon/Septuagint) and this fact confirms that there were a large amount of Diaspora Jews living outside Israel in places where the Greek language was spoken.

Both the Samaritans and Judeans believed that the Redeemer of Israel will one day in the future come to save them.Though both looked for the arrival of their King, the Judean Jews had a much more developed idea of the Messiah than did the Samaritans;[11] some claim that the Samaritan's expected Messiah was totally different than the Judeans.[12] Each were led by incredibly powerful priests that were the focus of worship and religious practices.

The Samaritans and the Judeans thought each other to be heretical imposters and dangerous, hostile people.These conflicts developed through the idea of the singular position as the chosen people of God. The Samaritans believed that as they were the remnant of Israel that was left behind from the Assyrian exile (2 Kings), that they were charged by God as the keepers of the Law/Torah. When the Judean Jews came back from the Babylonia exile, there was a great deal of conflict between the Samaritans and the Judeans concerning the status of their position with God.

Both the Samaritans and the Judeans participated in Temple-centered worship that was later developed into synagogues. The Jews had the Jerusalem Temple as the center to their Jewish life, while the Samaritans built a Temple upon Mt. Gerizim in the second or third century BCE that was referenced by Josephus. Other than his mention, there is little known about the Samaritan synagogues and their relationship to the Judean Temple system. Both the Samaritans and the Judeans had their Temples destroyed; the destruction of Solomon's Temple occurred in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, and the Josephus-mentioned Samaritan Temple about 200 BCE. The Samaritan Temple was eventually converted from the worship of the LORD God, to the false idol-worship of Zeus.[13]

Differences between Samarian and Judean Israelites[14]

It is the differences between the Samarian and Judean Israelites that create a possibility for a variant interpretation of John 4:3-30. However, the reader must be aware that comparison is made of the ancient Samaritans and Judeans, rather than the modern ones.If modern-day Samaritanism were compared to Rabbinical Judaism, there would be greater differences than first developed in ancient times.

The ancient Samaritans and Judeans both recognized the five Books of Moses (Torah), but the Samaritans refused to allow the Judean Hebrew Bible filled with the prophets and writings to be referenced.Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg claims that it was not because the Samaritans disliked the Hebrew Bible; rather, there was a noticeable Davidic slant that favored Judean Israelites and their rule in Jerusalem in the prophets and writings.[15]Acceptance of the Judean Hebrew Bible would basically deny their status as the keeper of God's law, and the remnant of Israel that stayed obedient to Him.

Samaritan Israelites used the ancient Hebrew Script, the same script that Moses was said to have written the Torah, and the Judeans used the Babylonian Hebrew Script in their writings.Samaritans combined the lunar and solar calendars while Judean Israelites relied upon the lunar calendar alone.According to Professor Wally Cirafesi, the Dead Sea Scrolls has shown evidence of this singular usage of the lunar calendar. The Qumranites were often upset over the Judean use of the lunar dating because it threw off the dates for the celebrations of feasts prescribed in the Hebrew Bible.[16] Samaritans celebrate all the same feasts as the Judeans except for Purim and Chanukah which are based upon the Judean experience.

Samaritan Israelites identified Mount Gerizim as their holy mountain, and Mount Bethel/Mount Moriah is recognized as that mountain.Judean Israelites identified Mount Moriah with Mount Zion, their holy mountain.Mount Moriah is associated with Abraham, Father of Israel, and both sides can benefit if found that Moriah was on their territory; possession of this holy land would lend credence to the traditional authority established with Abraham and Isaac.[17] Also, Samaritan Israelites have 10 commandments, but one commandment mentions the worship of the LORD God upon Mount Gerizim. Judean Israelites have 10 Commandments, but no mention of the place of worship.

The most relevant of differences with regards to the conversation between the Samaritan woman at the well and Christ are the Levirate marriage rules. The Samaritan rule that brothers marries widows to give offspring and inheritance rights is only applied if the marriage had never been consummated.Judean Israelites uphold Levirate marriage rules under all conditions and the requirement to be unconsummated for it to be in effect is not specified.The Levirate marriage rules are provided by God to form a protective social net around women and ensure their survival in a society that gives full rights of citizenship to men, with women considered inferior.[18]

Thus the Samaritan woman at the well had been married to five brothers; up to the third brother, she most certainly would have been a virgin with her marriage unconsummated according to strict Samaritan rules. If the sexual act of consummation had occurred with the fourth brother, the woman would not have been eligible to marry the next brother. Yet, she had five husbands, which provided her a social net; the last man that she dwelled with would not marry her, a clear indication that she had consummated the marriage with the fourth brother.She was forced to depend upon a man that she could not legally marry, in the margins of a society that required male leadership in every household.

There can be no doubt; the Samaritan woman was on the fringe of her society. Her visit to the well at noon (sixth hour of the day)[19] at the hottest time without the company of other women is evidence of her marginalization.It was difficult for any woman to be alone in this ancient time and place, requiring an existence on the margins of society if they could not be married. But, when the Samaritan Levirate laws are understood, then the traditional idea that the woman at the well was a sexually loose woman guilty of adultery and fornication is unsupported. Further, when the absolute hatred between the Samaritan and Judean Israelites, and the exact language spoken by Christ is factored into the conversation, a variant interpretation is not only plausible, but defensible.

The Meeting

Samaritans and Judeans did not freely associate with each other, and did their best to avoid contact. Judean travelers headed for Galilee traditionally went downhill from Jerusalem, crossed over the Jordan River, headed north, and eventually crossed back over the Jordan into Galilee to avoid the Samaritan places according to Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg.[20]This journey took at least six days, instead of the direct three day route from Jerusalem, through the territory occupied by the Samaritans, and then to Galilee.

Jesus left Judea for his journey to Galilee but took the most direct route through Samaria.That His chosen path was unusual is reflected in the addition of the word δεῖ (dei), "And he must needs go through Samaria” (John 4:4).[21] This Greek word used in the direct sense implies inevitability, as in the plan of God while the imperfect direct and indirect speaks of logical or geographical necessity.Clearly, it was the path Christ was required to take, straight through the territory of the Samaritan people.

Jesus came to the city of Samaria, also called Sychar, to a parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph where he had made a well (John 4:6). This well is not mentioned in the Old Testament but is known today as Bir Ya'qub ("the well of Jacob”), located near Tell Balatah, the site of ancient Shechem.[22]

It is significant that Jesus was said to be "wearied with his journey,” and as a result he "sat on the well” (John 4:6). This connects the condition of weariness and water as a possible restorer back to strength that Jesus required in his human condition.The Samaritan woman showed up at noon, and met Jesus sitting upon the well.He instructed her to give some water to him to drink since his disciples were away buying meat, another known spiritual strength restorer for the spiritually mature (cf. Acts 9:19; Hebrews 5:14).

It is the nature of water that stirred the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. That conversation became a revealer of many deep mysteries within Scripture that linked the typological substance of living water to many spiritual things that would support spiritual restoration in mature followers of Christ. More importantly, that conversation announced the Messiah to the Samaritans in the most revealing way.It seems odd and unlikely that Jesus chose an insignificant sinning adulterer of little spiritual awareness to receive such an important message that required delivery to the Samaritan devout to proclaim and convince others of His arrival.But, closer examination of the conversation reveals that the Samaritan woman may not have been as morally bad or spiritually unknowing as traditional interpretations of this event would suggest.

The Conversation

The Samaritan woman was astounded that a Jew would ask her to give him a drink of water.The relationship between Samaritans and Judeans was a clear avoidance of each other.Samaritans fervently believed themselves to be the remnant of God's chosen people, and looked upon the Judeans with disdain.The Judeans considered the Samaritans to be equal with the people of the land that participated in disobedience and dishonor brought against God, as well as a usurper that was trying to steal their birthright from them and falsely declare that Samaritans were the Chosen People of God. There were absolutely no dealings between the Samaritans and the Jews (John 4:9) and the woman recognized Jesus as a Jew. Possibly, the only Samaritan that would take the time to converse with Jesus was the marginalized woman at Jacob's well as he sat upon its rim.

An examination of her conversation with Christ shows that she had deep religious convictions.The ironic narrative developed by John, portrays the unlikely meeting between a Jew and a Samaritan, forcing the reader to analyze the perspective view of the woman with the unfolding revelation of Christ as the Messiah. Traditional interpretation of this woman's status as a perverse sinner adds to this irony. A casual glance seems to connect this view with substantial interpretive aid imparted by that irony, as the uneducated, rejected, transgressing woman speaks with the Messiah.

But when she identified Jacob, Joseph and their connection to the well, she was stating spiritual knowledge of the history of the well, making it more significant than an ordinary one and revealing her advanced knowledge of ancient history.She also seems concerned with the ritual purity of Jesus in taking water from the Samaritan well that gives clue that she was also understanding of Judean laws.A good point can be made that a morally unstable character would not be concerned with either of these issues, and women of the day unlikely students of spiritual things.

John 4:17 conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus has traditionally said to represent his judgment against her sin of adultery.But, according to Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, this speech merely identifies the current man living with her as an ambiguous husband that is lacking any evidence that the relationship is based upon adulterous sin.[23] Any woman in this ancient society would be destitute if she were dealing with life without a husband.Lizorkin-Eyzenberg suggests that Jesus could be addressing the social injustice that has caused her to suffer, that possibly parallels Joseph's suffering.[24] Since the Samaritans woman spoke to Jesus about the differences of belief between them and the Jews, it is plausible that Jesus was pointing out that their practice in wedding the different brothers only if consummation had not occurred might be more restrictive than what God has willed.

Living Water

She was astounded that Jesus would cross the barrier of Samaritan and Jewish relations and allow her to give him a drink of water, and questioned his purpose. She listened as Jesus declared the water from the well of her people's beloved Jacob would quench thirst for just a short while.Jesus proclaimed the need for living water that would remove thirst forever.It was not a thirst for natural water, but for God and eternal life in the presence of Him. The living water of the Holy Spirit would soon quench the thirst through His outpouring.[25] He continued to help the woman come to terms with the concept of full thirst quenching, to remove her skepticism.

Some scholars declare that the woman intentionally raises a theological argument about the water because she was embarrassed by the sin-question.Dr. Carson suggests this may be greatly 'psychologizing' the text, and suggests instead that a simpler supposition has the woman "raising an outstanding point of theological contention between Jews and Samaritans and to demonstrate her religious awareness.”[26]

John speaks of living water twice; once in John 4, and the other John 7:37-39.A third text in John 6:22-59 connects the idea of coming to Jesus as a disciple and never thirsting.Dr. Allison says that John's "double entrendre” texts on living water was an eschatological expectation that portrayed the promise of the final blessed state that believers would ascend.[27] When those grand terms of theological significance are a considered, it does not read well that a actively sinning woman of little spirituality was the vehicle used to reveal this depth to believers.

Identification of the Messiah or Taheb

When the Samaritan spoke of the "Messias” she used the Greek/Aramaic form of the Anointed One; John is the only Gospel writer that uses this word and Samaritans seldom speak it.Usually the word "Taheb” would be used to represent "he who returns” in Greek.[28] The title "Messiak” which the Judeans used represented a vanquisher of enemies and a High Priest that would restore the Jerusalem Temple back to a place of worship and God's dwelling place. The declarative statement recorded in John 4:26 shows fully the announcement of the Messiah presence at that well when He said "I that speak unto thee am he.”

A key misinterpretation of John 4:29 sheds even more light upon the traditional, possibly faulty analysis of the Samaritan woman.She says to the Samaritans of the city "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (John 4:24). The words "ever I did” fits perfectly into the traditional interpretation, by announcing with certainty that Jesus knew all of her sins, and proved it by repeating her adulterous way and knowing her sinful nature.But, "ever I did” is not a correct translation; the Greek word ὁδοποιέω (hodopoieō) actually means "make a path.”[29] A solid argument can be made that the woman was telling the Samaritans that Jesus had proven to her that He was the Messiah by making a clear path from their beliefs to His presence, based upon her Scripture knowledge.When it is translated in this manner, any reference to Christ mentioning her transgressions does not fit.

John 4:36-38 shows that Jesus is explaining the seeds of tradition first sown in Samaria are now ready to come into the fold of God with the Judean sheep. He stayed with the Samaritans for two days and many Samaritans came to faith in Jesus as Savior of the world.Thus, Jesus began the restoration of Israel that unified Judeans and Samaritans, South and North, into one Israel.


A possible and defensible variant interpretation of the Samaritan woman and the meeting of the Messiah at the well may be the better choice in final analysis.Though it is possible to use the traditional explanations that accuses the Samaritan woman of adultery and sin, the practical implications of that do not match Jesus' way of doing things. Not once does Jesus mention a sin of the woman; rather he speaks of her marginalization that separated her from her people in a belief that was not formed upon God's expectations. Instead of healing the terrible sinner, with instructions to "go and sin no more” as He does throughout the Gospels, He instead reveals abiding truths about his redemption role as the Messiah and adds typological representations to deepen the knowledge of His followers.This conversation between a Samaritan woman and Her Lord shows no evidence that the subject or concern of God was her status as a sinner.

The Samaritan woman was heard by the other Samaritans when she announced the arrival of the Messiah; had she been a woman scorned, it is doubtful that the town's people would have heard her and responded.As she told them that Jesus had revealed "ever I did” in uncertain interpretive effort, the words "make a path” can be correctly applied in this situation to her announcement that Jesus unified Judean and Samaritan beliefs into a perfect path that was easily understood.It is probable that the excitement of the Samaritans and their response to His Messiahship centered upon making sense of their trying connections between the Judeans and themselves over worship practices and possessions of land. When Jesus made that crucial path that showed them how to worship God in a new way, in spirit and in truth through Him, he was acknowledging that their expectations and the Judeans expectations were both flawed.His unification of North Samaritan and South Judean Israelites gave all to drink of His living water as true worshipers of God through Christ with His arrival as the Messiah.



Allison, Dale C., Jr. "The Living Water (John 4:10-14, 6:35c, 7:37-39)." St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 30, no. 2 (1986): 143-157.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Eisenberg, Joyce, and Ellen Scolnic. The Jps Dictionary of Jewish Words. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2001.

Farmer, Craig S. "Changing Images of the Samaritan Woman in Early Reformed Commentaries on John." Church History 65, no. 3 (1996): 365-375.

Gunn, George. A Dispensational View of Worship Biblical Sufficiency Applied. Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2011.

Jenkins, Simon. "Nelson's 3-D Bible Mapbook: Land of Milk and Honey - Fixing the Boundaries." In Nelson's 3-D Bible Mapbook. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encoutering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999, 2013.

Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eli. "Traditional Paradigms Reconsidered." eTeacher Biblical course on the Book of John: Wally Cirafesi, 2014.

MacArthur, John F. Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005.

Maiers, Brian. The Lexham Bible Dictionary - Samaritans. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014.

Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament). Vol. 1997. electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Youngblood, Ronald F., F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison. Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995.


[1] Joyce Eisenberg, and Ellen Scolnic, The Jps Dictionary of Jewish Words (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 138-139.

[2] Simon Jenkins, "Nelson's 3-D Bible Mapbook: Land of Milk and Honey - Fixing the Boundaries," in Nelson's 3-D Bible Mapbook (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995).

[3] George Gunn, A Dispensational View of Worship, Biblical Sufficiency Applied (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2011), 179-180.

[4] Brian Maiers, The Lexham Bible Dictionary - Samaritans (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014).

[5] Craig S. Farmer, "Changing Images of the Samaritan Woman in Early Reformed Commentaries on John," Church History 65, no. 3 (1996): 365-375.

[6] Maiers.

[7] John F. MacArthur, Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005), 141-155.

[8] Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, "Traditional Paradigms Reconsidered,"(eTeacher Biblical course on the Book of John: Wally Cirafesi, 2014).

[9] Ibid., Lecture 42:30.

[10] Ibid., Lecture 44:00.

[11] Ibid., Lecture 47:50.

[12] MacArthur, 141-155.

[13] Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,Lecture 57:56.

[14] Ibid., Lecture 1:08-1:24.

[15] Ibid., Lecture 1:13.

[16] Ibid., Lecture 1:23.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), electronic ed., vol. 1997 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 1761.

[20] Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,Lecture 1:44.

[21] Swanson, 1256.

[22] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995), Jacobs Well.

[23] Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,1:59.

[24] Ibid., 2:00.

[25] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), John 4:13-14.

[26] Ibid., John 4:19.

[27] Dale C. Allison, Jr., "The Living Water (John 4:10-14, 6:35c, 7:37-39)," St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 30, no. 2 (1986): 3.

[28] Andreas J. Kostenberger, Encoutering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999, 2013), 157-158.

[29] Swanson, 3846.

Last modified: Tuesday, 10 March 2015, 2:41 PM