The Woman at the Well was the First Church Planter: How Suffering Prepares us for Ministry

woman water jug

I’d like to introduce you to another ‘old friend’ who has popped out of the pages of my Bible to walk this road with me. She’s a woman from Samaria. And one day she met Jesus by a well. And then she became a church planter. The first one. Ever.

Here’s her story:

John 4

Conversation With a Samaritan Woman

4 But he had to pass through Samaria. 5 Now he came to a Samaritan town called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, so Jesus, since he was tired from the journey, sat right down beside the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone off into the town to buy supplies.) 9 So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? 12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. 14 But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing 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.” 16 He said to her, “Go call your husband and come back here.” 17 The woman replied, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. This you said truthfully!”

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.”

The Disciples Return

27 Now at that very moment his disciples came back. They were shocked because he was speaking with a woman. However, no one said, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar, went off into the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely he can’t be the Messiah, can he?” 30 So they left the town and began coming to him.

Workers for the Harvest

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 So the disciples began to say to one another, “No one brought him anything to eat, did they?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Don’t you say, ‘There are four more months and then comes the harvest?’ I tell you, look up and see that the fields are already white for harvest! 36 The one who reaps receives pay and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the one who sows and the one who reaps can rejoice together. 37 For in this instance the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap what you did not work for; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.”

The Samaritans Respond

39 Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the report of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they began asking him to stay with them. He stayed there two days, 41 and because of his word many more believed. 42 They said to the woman, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world.”

New English Translation (NET)
NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

My friend has been overlooked, misunderstood, neglected, and probably abused. Not only in her time, but every time her story is told.

Samaritan gives water to the Christ
This is probably NOT what she looked like!

 Just google for her and you will find her called “promiscuous,” “shady,” “immoral,” “a prostitute,” and “an adulterous.”

I’m not convinced she was any more immoral than the rest of us, but before we take a closer look at her background, I want to skip to the second part of the story – the part that is often breezed over:

The First Church Planter

You see, my friend was the first church planter.

Tea Picker on the Hill
She probably looked more like this (except her clothes wouldn’t have been as colorful)

When she met Jesus at a well, and he told her that he was the Messiah, she wasted no time in telling an entire town.

Meanwhile, while Jesus was waiting for her to bring the town to him (literally and figuratively), Jesus’s disciples came back and asked if he had eaten. Jesus answered with a parable about church planting. Let’s look at what he said:

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 

Jesus loved doing this work! He loved talking to his beloved daughter and telling her who he is. This is what He came to do. He would rather be doing this than eating food! (This is how he feels about talking to us too!)

And he knows that she’s out there telling the town about him and he’s in that work too. And he’s loving it! This is what he came for!

35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who golden wheat field and sunny dayreaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life,

He’s talking, of course, about harvesting souls for eternal life. The disciples hadn’t really thought about this yet, but this woman was doing the work as they spoke. Jesus was trying to bring the disciples up to speed. He was telling them that someone else was already doing what they would soon be doing too.

When he says, “Even now, the one who reaps … harvests a crop for eternal life,” he’s talking about our friend, the Samaritan woman! Yeah! I want to cheer her on – and that’s just what Jesus is doing – he’s cheering her on!

She’s the reaper he’s talking about. She’s the one who’s harvesting a crop for eternal life “even now” – literally, right now, while Jesus is talking to his disciples!

so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 

So, if she’s the reaper, who’s the sower? seeds grainWell our friend was already waiting for the Messiah to come so someone must have sowed that seed in her heart – and in the hearts of the people she’s now telling – could be referring to John the Baptist, all the prophets who came before, or God himself. Most likely, all of them – God sowed the seed in her heart through the ministry of the prophets who came before. And they’re all going to rejoice together! And Jesus is God and He’s rejoicing over this right now – this is better than food to Him!

37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

In other words, “Hey guys, you’re going to be doing this too! In fact, this is going to be your job for the rest of your lives! And it’s not as hard as you think – others (the prophets who came before) have planted the seeds in Judea and Samaria, and you’ve got the easy job, you just have to tell them about the Messiah! That’s how you reap the harvest!”

“What? You have no idea what I’m talking about? Well, here comes that Samaritan woman you saw me with before – when she gets here – with the harvest she’s bringing to me – you’ll see what I’m talking about – and you’ll see what you’re supposed to do, because she’s just been doing it!”

Jesus used different versions of this allegory throughout scripture to teach about how his Jesus Church Plantchurch would spread and grow. This may have been the first time he used it (it was the first time in John). In Matthew and Luke he goes into a more detailed allegory, but here the disciples get an initial glimpse of the vision – and Jesus took them on a “field trip” to see a real live church planter in action! He’s an awesome teacher!

We still use this allegory today when training church planters. Sadly, the story is often ripped out of it’s context, in which Jesus told it sitting by the well waiting for our friend to come back. Because of that, many people hear this allegory without realizing that her work was the object lesson of the day. (And likewise, her story is often told, while leaving out Jesus’s own explanation of what is happening.)

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t you taking this a bit far, all she did was tell people about Jesus, where does it say she planted a church?”

Well, she brought a whole bunch of people to Jesus (literally and figuratively). Then they all met together and Jesus showed up and taught them. They listened to him, believed in him, and had their lives changed.

Sounds like a church I’d want to go to!

And obviously Jesus felt the same way. He spent two days there – much longer than he spent on most of his stops.

Those two days were different from any of his other stops – unlike any of the other groups he preached to, this was a cohesive group (they lived in the same town and would have included families and extended families) and they all put their trust in him and moved forward to live their lives for him – together as a body. Yep, this was the first taste of church life the disciples got – no wonder Jesus stayed two days – the disciples were going to be doing this for the rest of their lives.

If you’re still not convinced that she was church planting, consider that Jesus enjoins the disciples to do what she’s doing – as their work – and we know the eventual work of the disciples was to plant churches.

It’s no wonder John Chrysostom, one of the Early Church Fathers, wrote that our friend “exhibited the actions of an apostle” and the Eastern Orthodox Church has declared our friend “Equal to the Apostles!”

Saint_Photina (1)
Thirteenth Century depiction of the Woman at the Well, whom the Eastern Orthodox Church has dubbed ‘Saint Photina.’

School of Suffering

But our friend wasn’t always being held up as such a shining star.

God had been preparing her for this moment for many years. She was on a “seminary” track that I now find myself on, along with many of my modern-day friends: The School of Suffering.

In Randy Alcorn’s book, Safely Home (which was based on a conglomerate of true stories of the persecuted Church in the East), we find that the persecuted Christians who had spent time in prison for the Lord referred to their time there as “seminary.”

It was in the fire, that Shadrach, Meeschach, and Abednego met with our Lord. And it is in suffering that he draws closest to us today.

I know because I’m there right now.

When people ask me, “How are you doing, really?” I tell them, “Well, I’m standing in a fire, so that part totally sucks, but Jesus is in here with me, and He’s walking with me and talking with me and I can see Him like never before – so that part’s really freakin’ awesome!

If you’re in a place of suffering, know that Jesus is with you and he is for you.

Her Story

So, back to my friend … what kind of suffering did she go through?

Well, first, she was married five times. And now she “has” a man who isn’t her husband.

Now, before you jump to conclusions about her character, let’s go straight for the elephant in the room, and take a look at what it meant that she “had” a man.

Paule Patterson at writes:

But what of the man she was currently living with? Literally, in the Greek, Jesus said to her, “whom you have now is not your husband.” To “have”, ἔχω in the Greek, simply means that: this woman had a male. It could have been a family friend, a relative, a son, or a sexual partner. Most Christians have been taught the last option without being taught that there are other options just as likely, if not more so.

In this middle-eastern culture, widows were often assimilated into a patrilocal, the patriarchal living space called the bêt ‘āb (father’s house). These patrilocal living spaces commonly housed several family units as a whole extended family under one patriarch. 

A woman was utterly dependent on the men in her family: first her father, then her husband, and then her sons. If she was ever without any of these, she would have been in a desperate [situation].  If a widow was left without some male family member to be housed with, she might be taken in by another family under a different patriarch. The Samaritan woman “having” a male could have meant that she had a male who had taken her in but was not her husband.

I would also add that the Greek word used here for husband, ἄνδρα, also means “man.” So, Jesus’s words could also be translated “he whom you have is not your man.” In other words, he is not your husband/man/lover/partner, whatever – he is not united with you, he is not “yours.”

If she were a childless widow living in a patrilocal, the man of the house was not “hers:” she was not the lady of the house, but a dependent appendage, who probably felt useless and unwanted. (I do think ‘husband’ is the obvious translation here, but Jesus’s word’s often encompassed more than one meaning.)

More and more, scholars are recognizing that referring to a male that “she had” does not imply a sexual relationship. For example, David Lose, President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, holds this view.

One reason this explanation seems much more likely than the idea that she was shacking up with a sexual partner, is that Jesus never told her to repent or to leave her sinful life, as he did many any other people.

Though, of course, we all need to repent, Jesus knew what each person he talked to needed to hear at that point in their lives. Instead of telling our friend at the well to change her ways, he spoke to her in a similar way as he did to the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34, Matt. 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48) – another woman who was caught up in shame, not because of her sin, but because of her circumstances.

Divorced or Widowed?

OK, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the most likely explanation for how she may have ended up being married five times.

Jacob´s well, Shechem. Picture p. 207 in W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859. Picture based on David Roberts 1841 drawing.
Drawing of Jacob’s Well, circa 1839.

Widowhood was much more common than divorce in those days. Women were married young to older men. Men were killed by war, famine, and disease. Divorce, on the other hand was not nearly as common as it today.

There are many widows mentioned throughout the Bible – so many that it’s a theme in scripture. But nowhere in the Bible does a character show up, man or woman, who was said to be divorced. 1 While today, divorcées are much more common than widows, the opposite was true in Biblical times.

When divorce did happen, it was usually initiated by a man. There were two prominent Rabbi’s whose teachings on divorce were held up during Jesus’s time. While Rabbi Shammai preached that adultery was the only valid reason for a man to divorce his wife, Rabbi Hillel had preached that a man could divorce his wife for any reason from a burnt dinner to a prettier new prospect. Not surprisingly, Hillel’s views were more popular and had been widely accepted.2

If her husband did divorce her, it seems unlikely that the reason was adultery on her part. For one thing, most Israelite men would not want to marry an adulteress (Hosea underwent this suffering only at the direct command of God), but yet, she managed to remarry four times.

camera crusade through the Holy Land C. Scribner's Sons New York 1912
A Woman Fetching Water at Jacob’s Well, circa 1912

The fact that she had to fetch water at the well, shows she wasn’t rich, and by the time she had been through a few marriages, she probably wasn’t young and attractive (and her own father likely would have passed away, leaving no one to arrange a new marriage for her). So we are left with very little reason as to how an older, poor, multiple-time adulteress would have managed to keep getting married. (Also, the punishment for adultery was stoning, though that may not have been practiced very much by this time.)3

Contrary to popular belief a woman could initiate divorce in those days, but only for limited reasons, such as abuse. 2

So, for each of the five marriages, the most likely conclusion was that she was widowed. If any of the marriages did end in divorce, the most likely conclusion was that the man initiated the divorce (and if he did so, the fact that she was able to keep remarrying indicates that it was probably not because of adultery on her part). Finally, in the unlikely event that she did initiate any of the divorces, it would have had to have been for a very valid reason, and would have taken a lot of courage and integrity, not to mention resources, on her part.

Judah and Tamar

In fact, the more we consider how hard it would have been for an older, poor woman, divorced or widowed, to keep finding new husbands, the more likely it seems that my friend’s story was actually more similar to that of Tamar (daughter-in-law and eventual wife of Judah, whose story is recorded in Genesis 38) than to that of a “lose” woman:

According to the Old Testament law, when a man died childless, his brother or closest male relative was required to marry his widow in order to produce an heir for the deceased (Deut. 25:5-6; Ruth 4). This ensured that the widow had a son to care for her in her old age. It also provided her with a husband when her own father may have already passed, leaving her with no one to make a new match for her.

Tamar’s first two husbands, who were brothers, both died before she became pregnant. According to the law, she had the right to marry the next brother in line, but her father-in-law refused her that right because he superstitiously blamed her for the death of his two older sons.

Ruth and Boaz
Boaz and Ruth

It appears to be commonplace, both for a man to fulfill his duty under the law in this way, and for some men to shirk the duty for various reasons. The book of Ruth contains an example of each (Ruth 4:1-13).

If our friend’s story was like Tamar’s, she may have been widowed consecutively by five brothers or cousins. This probably would have also meant she was childless. As each brother left her childless, she was passed on to the next.

Perhaps the sixth man in line refused to marry her for some of the same reasons men in Tamar or Ruth’s lives shirked their duty. Or, very likely, he was relieved of his duty to marry her, because she was past child-bearing age. But he (or someone else) took her into the patriarchal home and provided for her. She would have done her part by working hard to help in the household (like by fetching water).

I first heard this view of her background from the late Father Harold Hammond, who was Rector of Shepherd’s Heart Church in Fairfax, VA. It seemed a bit far fetched to me at the time, as I had never heard any other interpretation other than her being a ‘lose’ woman who chose divorce. But I’m now convinced that this was the most likely scenario. All the other options would have just been even more “out there” for her time.

Plus, we have no example from scripture of a woman who came even close to living a life similar to any of the other possibilities, but we do have two examples of women (Tamar and Ruth) whose stories were similar to this last, and most likely, scenario.

Extraordinary Life

Extraordinary Woman

Though it is the most plausible explanation, being widowed five times would still be unusual, even in her day. There probably were not a lot of women who had been through as much trauma as our friend. But then, there were not a lot of women who planted churches, even before Jesus died and rose again.

At another time, Jesus told his disciples that “the harvest is plenty and the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37; Luke 10:2). Even today, there are few people like my friend, who are willing to tell everyone they know about Jesus, and who have brought a whole town to him. I haven’t met one.

But some of the most amazing people I have met, have been through extraordinary suffering.

It was because of her suffering that she had nothing to lose by telling all. It was because of her suffering that her love for others overrode any fear she may have had. After all, there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18)! And her suffering was part of the testimony that gave her credibility with her neighbors: “He told me everything I ever did.”

God used my friend’s extraordinary suffering to mold her into a person through whom he could shine his light.

I can only imagine what things God might have spoken to her through those years of suffering. What we do know is that God  put in her heart a hope for the Messiah – and though she didn’t know his name, she had fixed her hope on him. She expressed her faith in and expectation of the Messiah in vs. 25 – she knew he was coming.

old woman prayingShe would have had a lot in common with Anna, who was widowed after seven years of marriage and then spent the rest of her life in the temple awaiting the Messiah (Luke 2:36-38). Unlike Anna, my Samaritan friend would not have been welcomed at the temple (an injury that was not lost on her – notice that when she realized Jesus was a prophet, the first question she asked him was about whether legitimate worship could occur outside the temple), but like Anna, she was already a worshiper in Spirit and in Truth – this is evidenced by the fact that she had put her hope in the Messiah – and unlike some Jews who were hoping for the Messiah only to see Rome overthrown, she was waiting for him to “tell us everything” (John 4:25).

And, just like Anna, when the time came to finally meet the Messiah, she was ready. Just like Anna, and unlike the disciples, she immediately trusted that he was the Messiah, and she immediately told everyone she knew. (This is what Anna did in Luke 2:38.)

Our friend was ready.

She was a graduate of the the “school of suffering.”

Her suffering did not disqualify her from ministry, it prepared her for it.

A Betrothal

And now I want to point out one last thing about this story, perhaps the most beautiful thing of all:

John, the most poetic of all the gospel writers, was painting a beautiful word picture as he recounted this historical event. It was a picture that Jesus certainly had in mind as he sat by the well, because, of course, he knew how this story would one day be told, and how it would fit into the grand story of scripture, which was, in fact, his story.

While the other gospel writers wrote chronologically, John carefully chose selected stories from Jesus’s life and arranged them purposefully to point to the deeper meaning of Jesus’s life: who he was, and why he came. The Hebrew’s were master storytellers, and John was a grand master of this art.

Just like the history of Israel was made up of real historical events that, when taken as a whole, showed a beautiful love story of God pursuing his bride, John (through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) arranged the stories of Jesus’s life with one purpose – to show us that Jesus was Yahweh and that he had come for his bride.

Hebrew stories followed patterns or archetypes. A few common elements, often at the beginning of a story, told the listener what kind of story this was. In an oral culture, people were trained not only to be expert storytellers, but expert listeners as well, listening for those details that would help them understand the deeper meaning – and also commit the story to memory.

Therefore, when a Hebrew heard this story read aloud (as it would have been), this is the picture he would have seen in his mind:

1. Jesus is by himself.

2. He’s waiting by a well. He has nothing with which to draw water.

3. Now along comes a woman. She’s by herself. She has a jar.

4. “I bet he’s going to ask her for water …”

5. “Yes I knew it – He asked her! This is a betrothal scene!”4

You see, when the Hebrew listener heard these common elements,

Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Rebekah Gives Abraham’s Servant Water, as in Genesis 24:11-12
there is no way he or she would not have thought of Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah, and choosing her as Issac’s bride (Gen. 24); Jacob meeting Rachel and choosing her as his bride (Gen. 29); and finally Moses meeting Zipporah and taking her as his bride (Gen. 29).

The story even takes place at Jacob’s well! And my friend asks Jesus if He is greater than “Our father, Jacob!” I love it! John is dropping all these hints for us …

Jesus has come to meet his bride!

But obviously Jesus is not going to marry this woman in a literal sense.

His bride is the Church. The people he has called to his own.

And this is a story about the first church.

He is Yahweh and his bride is Israel – but not just Israel – also the “new children of Abraham” who Jesus said God could raise up even out of stones (Matt. 3:9) – which means the bride includes Gentiles too, and (gasp) Samaritans.

And his bride includes our friend. The one who has been disappointed so many times in love and marriage. She’s finally met her eternal husband. The one who will never leave her or forsake her (Psalm 27:10).

The one who will wipe away all her tears (Revelation 21:4).

The one who would take away the shame of her widowhood and her barrenness forever (Isaiah 54:4).

The one who will make her righteous vindication shine like the noonday sun (Psalm 37:6)!

No wonder she dropped that jar and went to tell everyone!

And boy did she have something to tell!

 “He told me everything I ever did,” she testified. There is so much packed in those words. A lifetime of suffering. And he knew it all. Because he was walking through it with her. Even then.

Two Tea Pickers Smile As They Pick Leaves Concept

Do you know someone who is suffering, who this might encourage? Please pass this on …

Footnotes and Fun Facts

  1. The book of Ezra does recount a time when a large number of Israelite men divorced their foreign wives and sent them back to their homelands, but this still doesn’t give an example of a divorced woman living in Israel.

2. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).

3. The Old Testament Law prescribed stoning of  both partners caught in adultery (Lev 20:10). There is debate over whether this was still practiced during Jesus’s time – that is beyond the scope of this article.

4. Robert Alter, in his book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” gives a detailed description of the elements of the “Betrothal Type-Scene.”

Some other common elements are:

(1) the story begins with a man travelling to a foreign land … Jesus made a detour to Samaria to find our friend.

(2) the woman leaves the man to enthusiastically tell others (usually her family) of his arrival … our friend certainly did this.

(3) to complete the betrothal, the woman’s family usually invites the man to a meal … Jesus said that doing this work was his food, and he was invited to stay two days and teach – what a feast!





Copyright 2019 Rebecca Nazzer. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “The Woman at the Well was the First Church Planter: How Suffering Prepares us for Ministry

  1. This is a very well thought out fresh perspective on the women at the well I have never looked at this story this way. I especially liked your comment about how you are standing in the fire and Jesus is right there with you very raw and real

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