The searing Samaritan sun shone relentlessly down upon the twelve men making their way out of the city of Sychar. Even from a distance it was clear that they were ill at ease – they walked with the wariness of men in hostile territory. Samaria felt like that to these Jews. It was the most direct and easiest route from Judaea to Galilee, and it had been no surprise that their Leader had chosen this road, but they were disinclined to linger and prolong the time they spent there. That feeling had been reinforced by their shopping expedition in Sychar, for the disdain that the disciples felt for the Samaritans was fully reciprocated. The vendors from whom they had purchased their food had been barely civil, and some of the men and women in the street had failed to reach even that level. At least, with the necessary provisions now in hand they would be able to eat and move on, leaving Samaria and its half-bred heretics firmly behind them.
There was little conversation to break the tense atmosphere as they made their way to Jacob’s well to rejoin their leader. Pleading weariness from the long walk, He had remained behind at the well, and though there seemed little prospect of refreshment in the midday glare, He had at least been spared the trudge to Sychar and back again. As they drew near to the well, they looked for Him, screwing up their eyes against the glare, trying to penetrate the shimmering heat haze. To their surprise, they could make out not one but two figures sitting on the well. It was, of course, no surprise to find Jesus in conversation – there was nothing remote or unapproachable about Him, and even little children could speak to Him without fear. But it was a surprise to find Him in conversation in the middle of the day, in Samaria. No one would be abroad in this heat without compelling reason – it was certainly not the usual time to visit the well. Whoever the Lord’s interlocutor was, it seemed unlikely that he was, by any stretch of the definition, respectable.
He – or, could it be she? Yes, as they drew near they saw that it was a woman who sat in conversation with the Savior. Amazement mounted to outrage. He was talking to a woman. A Samaritan woman. A. Samaritan. Woman. Such a thing was unthinkable, and yet it was happening before their eyes! And, as they came closer still, it was clear that this was no idle exchange of pleasantries – the disciples had arrived in time to hear the climax of the conversation, when the Savior responded to the woman’s expression of an abstract and theoretical messianic hope with the concrete, and not at all theoretical, words “I that speak unto thee am he” (Joh 4:26).
Standing awkwardly silent, the disciples exchanged eloquent glances, choking back the rough questions they longed to ask of the woman – and of the Savior. “What are you doing here?” their faces said. “Why are You talking to her?” And above all, they registered the amazement that filled their minds. For Christ to talk to a Samaritan was one thing. For Him to interrupt His much-needed rest to converse with, and reveal Himself to, a Samaritan woman of clearly dubious reputation was quite another.
Their surprise turned to confusion as the woman departed and they offered the Savior something to eat. Declining, He told them, “I have meat to eat that ye know not of” (v32). Who, they wondered, had been feeding their Master in their absence? But the Lord Jesus elevated their minds from the physical to the spiritual plane: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (v34 KJV). The disciples began to understand that His encounter with the woman was no accident of geography and time, but an outworking of the Father’s will. They began to realize, too, that the Savior’s conversation with this woman, which had seemed to them such an aberration, even an outrage, was, in fact, as necessary, and as nourishing, to Him as their food was to their bodies.
But the Savior was not yet done with redrawing the boundaries of their understanding. He reminded them that this woman was just one of a vast harvest of souls waiting – urgently waiting – to be gathered: “There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (v35 KJV). As the disciples suited their action to His words, lifting up their eyes, they had direct and dramatic demonstration of their meaning. From the gates of Sychar there streamed a crowd of men, women, and children, responding to the words of the woman: “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (v29 KJV).
It is likely that none of the disciples fully grasped the scale and significance of the Savior’s challenge to their understanding of the world. Some of the lessons would take years to sink in. But all of them would surely have grasped a central lesson: no one was beneath the notice of the Lord Jesus. Neither ethnic nor ethical considerations could stay the flow of His love, nor divert the course of His grace.
We all have Samaritans in our lives. They may not be from Samaria, they may not worship in Mount Gerizim, and they may not have an embarrassing superfluity of husbands. But all of us, if we were really honest, would acknowledge that we draw lines that limit the grace of God. The contours of those lines may be determined by color, creed, class, or countless other considerations, but their effect is the same – they divide people who are like us from those who are not like us. That God should be interested in, and that God should bless, people like us seems axiomatic. That He should care for those who are different seems amazing, and maybe alarming.
That amazement betrays two things. It reveals a deeply defective view of ourselves. None of us has anything that makes us deserve God’s blessing. We all could take our seat on Sychar’s well alongside the Samaritan – we are no better than she, and any advantage we have, we have because of God’s free grace. But our amazement also discloses a deeply defective view of God, a costive and constricted idea of His grace. The disciples thought that it could be dammed by a line on a map, but they learned that no barrier could contain it – so vast is it, so full, so free, and so utterly amazing that it washes over all our petty barriers to engulf and embrace the whole world.
The disciples “marvelled that he talked with the woman” (v27), and well they might. His grace to this poor, immoral, unsatisfied woman is precious to contemplate. But let us never forget that it is just as amazing that He is interested in us.