In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman drawing water from a well in the middle of the day.
1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 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.
7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
I find this story fascinating considering our different desires. My attention is drawn to the woman’s response to Jesus’ offer of a different kind of water. Her response is two fold. First, she sees the practicality of drinking such water in that she will never have to drink water again. I don’t know about you—perhaps I am alone in this—but I have on more than one occasion grown incredibly tired of having to replenish my body with food and drink. Imagine how much more time in a day I would have to do other activities if I didn’t have to spend hours preparing meals and washing dishes or driving to get food or even the act of eating. Not to mention I’d never have to go to the bathroom again. Loads of time and money could be saved if my hunger and thirst were permanently satisfied. So in that sense, this woman is incredibly practical.
What truly intrigues me is the second part to the woman’s response. Make no mistake, her desire to not return to the well to draw water is not merely another acknowledgement of practicality. This remark queues us to another, more hidden desire this woman wants to satisfy: dignity. Why, specifically, is not coming to the well so important to her, so much so that she mentions it aloud? I suggest that what she really saw attractive about this ever-satisfying water was the chance to dodge judgement and criticism from her neighbors. Continue reading from John 4.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.
Why had this woman been going to the well in the middle of the day? Likely to not run into any other women. Most people came in the morning to draw water, both to beat the heat and to have water to spare from the beginning of the day. By coming to the well at the hottest part of the day, she decreased her chances of running into anyone else. Jesus informs us why she avoided crowds in verse 18. Her reputation had been tainted by her apparent promiscuity. She was likely chastised and outcasted from her community. The water that Jesus offered her would have done far more than give her more time in the day; it would have helped her protect her dignity. If she never thirsted again, she would have never had to return to the well at all and risk an encounter with shaming eyes and slanderous words.
Let’s step back and think about this scenario for a moment. What does this woman desire more than not being thirsty? She wants to be respected. She wants her dignity to be restored. Specifically, in her situation, she probably wanted the other women in her community to stop giving her the cold shoulder and talking behind her back. She wanted to be accepted back into the community as an equal member and friend. Now, think with me. Would this water as she understands it fulfill her desire to be respected? I say, No. No way. I don’t think she has that in mind in the first place; her concern is not that this water will restore her dignity, but it will at least let her better avoid being ridiculed. To her, this is not a cure. It’s simply a medication for symptoms.
I find it interesting how this woman’s attention is bouncing around in this passage. Each time Jesus speaks to her there is a significant shift in her focus, as seen in her responses. First is from verse 9 to verse 11, where she moves from thinking about cultural tensions between Jews and Samaritans to Jesus’s ability to find living water. The next is in verse 15, when she realizes how the water might safeguard what’s left of her broken dignity. Her focus again shifts in verse 19, where she is beginning to realize who it is she is talking to. Her topic change is either to simply change the subject—likely to dodge more ridicule Jesus could send her way, since He knows her secret—or to address a sincere concern in her faith that has been a stumbling block. Finally, in verse 25, her focus rests solely on Jesus. The result is profound.
39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 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.”
I am made speechless at the implications of verse 42. My heart is silenced. What do we see happening? The community returns to this woman not to degrade her but to affirm her. I can only imagine the renown this woman would have had in the Christian community there. It was by her testimony that Jesus was brought into the town. It was through her that Jesus managed to break social barriers and reveal Himself as the Messiah. Without her, none would have received what Jesus meant by living water. In short, her dignity was restored. Her desire was satisfied, not just relieved. It was met.
How beautiful: what truly satisfied her desire wan’t being accepted again by her community, but was encountering Jesus. Her moment of fulfillment occurred in verse 25, not 42. How do we know? Because of how she responds in verse 28-29. How can a woman who desires to protect her dignity run to the community that ostracizes her and tell them about a messiah from a culture they hate who revealed to her all the sin she had been ashamed of and ridiculed for? She can’t. Nobody would do that if they were still looking to find affirmation. This woman was no longer looking for acceptance or approval; she had found it. She knew she was respected, she knew her dignity was restored. That is why she was capable of broadcasting her sinful life as a testimony to draw other to Jesus.
This story is like so many other miracles. It reminds me most immediately of Mark 2:1-12 and John 9. Jesus, in these accounts, restores these people both spiritually and materially. The man in Mark 2 is not only made able to walk, he is cured from the sickness of sin that he was equally helpless against. The man in John 9 is given both literal vision and spiritual understanding capable of shaming pharisees. This Samaritan woman’s dignity is restored first before God and later, by His gracious love, before her village.
Our desires demand to be met. We will only stop being hungry if we eat. Ignoring our appetite does not remove it; instead, it grows worse as we starve. How much greater is our desire to be loved than our desire to eat! Higher desires put baser, physical desires to shame in the strength of their craving! How often has the heartbroken, abandoned lover skipped meals because his longing to be loved spoils his appetite! I speak of myself. Finding love is one of many higher wants. My desire to be significant—to live a life that actually matters, to have the satisfaction of lying my head down at night knowing I’ve made a difference—dwarfs any carnal craving I might have. More could be said on both these great longings, and more longings could be listed. I return to my point: these desires cannot go unaddressed. Someone and/or something must satisfy us, else we suffer and eventually die.
Let me make quick work of the solution: Jesus Christ has and is the answer to our every desire. He either has the object of our longing—like food—or else He Himself is the object—a faithful, lasting lover. To clarify, I do not mean lover in the romantic sense. I mean in the sense that each of us wants someone to stay with us, by our side, supporting us and affirming us, forever. Whether by offering something material or Himself, all we ever need and seek is provided by Jesus. Do not ignore Jesus’ material provision for you! Jesus Himself speaks frankly of God meeting our physical needs in Matthew 7:7-12. He shows us how He can literally feed us through miracles of great catches of fish or multiplication of elements. In John 4, as the Samaritan woman returns to her village, Jesus reveals another incredible miracle.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Do you understand what is happening here? God is supernaturally meeting Jesus’ physical needs in the exact same way the Samaritan woman thought the living water would work. Remember back to the beginning of the passage in verses 6-7. Jesus was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Now, He is not. At least, if He is still hungry, thirsty, and tired, His desires have been silenced enough for Him to meet the Samaritans that come to Him. This is no small thing! This is a miracle as great as any other in the Gospels! In fact, it is not the first time we have seen God supernaturally meet and/or suppress Jesus’ physical needs. In Matthew 4, Satan reveals himself to tempt Jesus after He had fasted for forty days and nights.
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Matthew makes sure to note that Jesus is hungry after fasting for forty days and nights. Of course He was! As previously noted, our desires demand to be met. Jesus does not deny the fact that He is hungry. To do so would be a lie and an inconsistency. God and the Bible never advocate for separating from our desires like in Buddhism. Failing to satisfy our desires does produce suffering, as the four noble truths teach. Yet, we must wonder: why can we not satisfy our desires and what is the solution? To answer the first part of the question in one word, sin. We have been separated from God, the One who satisfies all our wants. The answer to the second part cannot be to stop or ignore desire. Even if it were possible to ignore our desire and silence our suffering, which I believe to be impossible, what good would come of it? If a person really were to stop feeling thirsty and stop drinking, they would die. Jesus doesn’t offer repression as a solution to suffering from unmet desires, He relies on the providence of His Father.
I see two ways one could interpret this passage, hinging on Matthew’s meaning of fasting. Either Jesus’ fast was as I have always interpreted it to be—He ate nothing for over a month—or by fasting, Matthew means Jesus only ate enough to barely keep Himself alive. I see no reason why one would be inclined to believe the latter explanation over the former. If I do not question Jesus’ resurrection, why would I think Him not eating for 40 days unbelievable? Both are biological impossibilities. Both are miracles. God, then, must have supernaturally sustained Jesus physically while He fasted. I see this same miracle acted out to a lesser degree in John 4.
Why have I spent so much time emphasizing the wonder of this particular miracle? I believe God still uses this in His disciples today. More than that; I know God does this. Our physical needs and desires are not inflexible to God’s sovereignty. Look at the extraordinary life of George Müller. Every material need he and his orphanage had were provided by God. And yet, is Müller’s testimony so extraordinary? I have personally seen God’s Spirit sustain His servants through sickness or exhaustion at summer camps or church. Let me step out in boldness, finding my dignity and confidence in my Lord Jesus, to say that I myself have felt God supernaturally meet my physical needs several times in my life. This past summer I can think of a number of instances where my God gave me energy to do and say what I could otherwise never have done on the scarce amount of sleep and calories I had gotten. I will make no mistake: God has worked many miracles in me. For these I take no credit. With this discourse I wish to be like the Samaritan woman, proclaiming God’s glory in my testimony.
Our God works miracles. Our Father provides. Our Lord can meet our physical needs. Our Savior has and is the object of every one of our desires, from thirst to dignity. Our Messiah protects and restores our value. He offers all living water. Drink and be satisfied.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity