What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Catherine McNiel | November 11, 2019

John 4:1-26

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

                                                                                                                        —John 4:4-9


Have you ever seen the popular segment in children’s magazines that show two nearly-identical pictures and asks you to find the things that are different? Even outside of children’s games, much comedy, satire, and irony are based on grabbing the audience’s attention by portraying reality just a bit differently than expected.

As we saw last week, the book of John is not merely a collection of the author’s thoughts and memories of Jesus. In the opening chapter, John lays out his premise, then spends the rest of the time drawing on seven signs and deep symbolism to support it:


But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)


This week’s story is commonly known as “The Woman at the Well” and, once again, if we miss John’s context, we will miss the point entirely. Even the setup is rich in meaning, essentially prodding us to ask: What’s wrong with this picture?   

First, the setting: Jesus “had to go through Samaria” the text tells us. The Samaritans were infamously despised, and though their land lay between Judea and Galilee, local travelers would take the long way around to avoid Samaria entirely. So, this simple statement that Jesus walked through Samaria should get our attention. That He lands at Jacob’s well should peak our interest even more.

Then, the characters: The story is primarily a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman—which is astonishing. If the fact that Jesus entered Samaria did not wake us up, the fact that He held a long conversation with a Samaritan certainly would. But John (and Jesus) don’t stop there! This one-on-one theological conversation was between Jesus and a woman. Frankly, I know a few eyebrows that would raise at such a thing today, much less in Jesus’ culture. 

Finally, the action: The sun is high in the sky and Jesus is thirsty. The good news is that He’s sitting beside Jacob’s well; the bad news is He lacks anything with which to draw the water. More good news: a Samaritan woman approaches. But even this should perk our ears, for traditionally, women would go to the well in the early (and cooler) hours of the day.

From the opening verses, John engages the reader with a bit of shock value: this is going to be quite a story. Will we heed his advice and pay attention to the truth of Jesus? 


Questions for reflection and discussion: What is the value of shaking up the reader a bit before getting to the main message? How does John do that in his story? What is John’s ultimate goal in writing his book—and what is your responsibility as a reader?

This week's devotions were written by Catherine McNiel. Catherine and her family have been part of WBC since 2008. Her husband, Matthew, is the director of Puente del Pueblo, our church’s ministry that serves residents of West Chicago. Catherine is the author of Long Days of Small Things and All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World.

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