Written 2/15/14; revised 6/1/20
Back when I was a young buck studying the Word, I had a bad habit of downplaying settings. Geography, time, historical backdrops…I figured by skimming the peripherals, I’d discern the passage more quickly without distraction.
However, as I now know, when we consider the Scriptures, we find every word, pronoun, and article carrying strategic purpose and placement.
Take John 4 for instance…
In this chapter, not only do we find Jesus ministering to a woman at a well but [literally] going the extra yard in finding her.
Yet, before the encounter takes place, we’re given important context retroactive to John 3:22-23:
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.”
This in mind, let’s flash-forward to John 4:1-5:
“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”
In these two passages, we’re given three regions as backstory to John 4: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. With Galilee and Samaria, we’re given specifics; with Judea, the reference is less clear. Still, we have enough detail to discern the relationship between the communities.
Note the maps below as they will come in handy in a minute…
Going back to v. 2, we find Jesus leaving Judea for Galilee from a somewhat debatable departure point. Assuming Jesus started where John was baptizing, we can deduce Sychar not only as a sensible midpoint but a contrast to how Jews traveled given the cultural climate between them and the Samaritans (see black/white graphic above). While traveling through Sychar made sense in terms of mileage, it’s only fair to wonder:
Why Jesus did go there in the first place?
To answer this, we’ll need to examine two more components…
Relational Dynamics: Back in Jesus’ time, it was culturally unacceptable for a Jew to enter a Samaritan town. As we see in the Good Samaritan parable, Samaritans were widely considered half-breeds (half-Gentile, half-Jew). If a Jew was departing Jerusalem on route to Galilee, he likely would have traveled east of the Jordan to avert Samaria (a difference of a marathon give or take); however, in Jesus’ case, he took the road less traveled by for two reasons:
1) To shatter the mold of social norms through his message of unity.
2) To share the Good News and preview the Spirit as part of an emerging worship culture (more on this in a future post).
The Timeline: Additionally, we must consider the timing of this passage as v. 6 indicates:
“Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.”
Again, it’s worth wondering why John would emphasize a topical detail like the “sixth hour”. At first glance, one would think the “sixth hour” to be 6:00 am; however, according to the Jewish clock, the “sixth hour” would have, in fact, been 12:00 pm. Like the location, the ramifications of this observation is significant. If Jesus arrived at noon, then he would have appeared during ‘peak heat’ – a time when many were indoors. With well activity peaking during dawn hours, had Jesus wanted to preach, he would have needed to arrive in the morning or evening. Accordingly, one must wonder: Did Jesus arrive at random or did he time his journey to Sychar?
In short, ‘yes’, Jesus had every intention of meeting the woman exactly when he did; however, the longer answer integrates the ‘why‘, specifically why Jesus came to inspire this particular woman at this particular time in light of her history (v. 16-19).
Based on these verses, I submit the ‘why‘ is as follows…
Jesus came to change a woman’s life through the revelation of his divinity so she could inspire a town through the revelation of his compassion.
As the Spoken Word attests, Christ so loved this woman at the well, he couldn’t help but transform her from an ostracized outcast to a victorious vessel. From the very beginning, this woman had been tapped to speak life into a cultural revolution. And now here she was – once an adulteress, now a mouthpiece with testimony and a message to share. If that’s not the Kingdom, I don’t know what is.
Bottom line 1: When we consider Christ’s intentionality, his strategy to free this woman from bondage and ignite her hope through his identity, how can we not get excited? Like Jesus, we should want to restore life amidst the broken hearts and dreams we encounter. We should want to ignite change in those who doubt their worth. But above all, we should want to accept the call to lead others to a greater understanding of who God is. Because at the end of the day, God’s love is contagious and captures why we’re here: To encourage the discouraged, to be salt and light, to be unity in community, and stir love as the root of faith.
As the story concludes, the woman accepts Christ, his prophetic declaration (v. 21-24), and fearlessly saves many Samaritans as a result:
“Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.‘ After the two days he departed for Galilee.” ~ John 4:39-43 (ESV)
Not bad for an ex-social leper who wasted years trying to find her identity in relationships and social status.
Bottom line 2: Scenic and demographic details are valuable in studying the ministry of Christ. As this chapter reminds us, God can use the lowliest of men to sow the highest good for His glory and in bringing communities closer to Jesus. As for being that catalyst of change in your arenas of influence/expertise, dare to seek God like no one else so you can live intentionally like no one else. By believing God has established your steps, you can trust him to help you get to where you need to be even if it’s mean a few extra minutes or miles along the way.
Looking ahead, I will look to build upon this post by examining the worship culture aspect of John 4. I’ll also break down what the ‘radical middle’ (i.e. living in Spirit and in Truth) looks like as present-day Kingdom agents in the marketplace.
‘Til then, you got this.
Cover photo creds: Million-Wallspaper.com