At the well: some background

SamaritanWomanAtTheWellWho are the Samaritans? In John 4:4-42, Jesus’ ministry enters a new stage. He leaves the confines of traditional Ju­daism and turns to those whom his Jewish contemporaries reckoned as outsiders and ene­mies: the Samaritans. The breach between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the Assyrian occupation of northern Palestine (721 BCE; see 2 Kings 17), but the most intense rivalry began about 200 BCE. The source of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans was a dispute about the correct location of the cultic center (cf. John 4:20). The Samaritans built a shrine on Mt. Gerizim during the Persian period and claimed that this shrine, not the Jerusalem Temple, was the proper place of worship. The shrine at Mt. Gerizim was destroyed by Jewish troops in 128 BCE, but the schism between Jews and Samaritans continued (cf. John 4:9).

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he meets someone who stands in marked contrast to all that has come before in this gospel. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus (3:1-21), he spoke with a named male of the Jewish religious establishment, a “teacher of Israel.” When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, he speaks with an unnamed female of an enemy people.

This long passage con­sists of two main blocks of conversation (vv.7-26, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and vv.31-38, Jesus and his disciples) surrounded by their nar­rative frames. The structure of the text can be outlined as follows:

  • 4:4-6        Introduction: Jesus’ arrival at the well
  • 4:7-26      Conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman
  • 4:27-30    Transition: Arrival of the disciples and departure of the woman
  • 4:31-38    Conversation between Jesus and his disciples
  • 4:39-42    Conclusion: Jesus and the Samaritan townspeople

Jesus’ arrival at the well. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon.

The introduction provides the setting for the narrative. Verse 4 links the Samaritan text to vv.1-3; in order to get from Judea to Galilee (4:3), Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Scholars are fairly evenly divided on whether the necessity of this Samaritan journey is strictly geographical or has theological overtones. The geographical necessity of the trip is supported by Josephus who notes that the most expedient route from Judea to Galilee during the first century was through Samaria. The word translated as “had to” (edei), however, usually is associated in the Fourth Gospel with God’s plan (e.g., 3:14, 30; 9:4). It seems best, therefore, to read the necessity of the journey through Samaria as both geographical and theological. Jesus’ itinerary may have been gov­erned by geographical expediency, but his stay in Samaria was governed by the theological necessity of offering himself to those whom social conven­tion deemed unacceptable.

Verses 5-6 provide a detailed description of the location of Jesus’ conversation with the woman. This description is important because of the OT imagery in which the geography is couched. The references to Jacob and his well introduce the patriarchal traditions that will figure prominently in the conversation between Jesus and the Samari­tan woman (vv.11-14). The description of Jesus’ arrival at the well (v.6b) also establishes the conditions of his request for water in v.7. Jesus was tired from his journey, and he arrived at the well in the heat of the day (“about noon;” lit. “about the sixth hour”).

The Sixth Hour – “It was about noon”  Eisegesis is the process of (mis)interpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas into and on top of the text. It is difficult to know what to make of the literal expression “the sixth hour.” In John’s narrative, when he points to a specific hour it is an indication that he wants the reader to pay close attention. What is not clear is why this encounter between Jesus and the woman happens midday. The women of the developing world typically see the timing of the meeting as a sign that the woman is an outcast in her own village. Water is usually drawn from the well at sunrise and sunset, outside the heat of the day. It is the place/time when women gather to meet, chat and have community. Someone who comes at noon to draw water is either avoiding the others, is unwelcomed to the community of women, has been formerly shunned, or just happens to need water at that time of day. Eisegesis is to insist on one of the first three choices. And that may well be the correct reading, but exegesis (following where the text leads) is always preferable.


John 4:5 Samaria: “Samaria” (Assyrian Samerina) has as it natural borders defined by the valleys of Jezreel and Aijalon on the N and S respectively, by the coast to the W, and by the Jordan river valley on the E. In pre-Assyrian times this region and its population had been referred to after the old Israelite territorial/tribal name Ephraim (in Hosea 36 times and Isaiah 12 times; cf. Jer 31:5–6). As a generalization it refers to the tribal homes of the 10 northern tribes of Israel.  In many instances “Israel” refers to the same region. Sometimes the name Ephraim was reserved only for the hill country of southern Samaria, while the hill country of northern Samaria was called Manasseh. Later, however, the area was repopulated by heterogeneous populations from throughout the Assyrian empire, whom the Judeans of Jerusalem generally regarded with contempt.

John 4: 5-6 Sychar…well: The text in John connects the well with the city of Sychar, but modern opinions on the identification of this town are divided between those who see in the place-name the modern town of Askar located to the north of this well and others who associate Sychar with Shechem. The identification with Shechem has been shaken by recent archaeological evidence indicating that Shechem ceased to exist by the 1st century B.C. Askar has its own well but its water is not as good as the one of the well in question. Yet in spite of the difficulties connected with the identification of the city of Sychar, the well has been confidently identified with Bir Ya˓aqub in the proximity of Tell Balatah. This well is located at the entrance to the ravine which separates Mt. Ebal from Mt. Gerizim inside a Greek Orthodox church. This location is plausible since it agrees with the evidence from the narrative, namely that the well is found at the foot of Mt. Gerizim (John 4:20) and about 1 mile SE of Nablus. It is near the fork of a road which comes from Jerusalem and branches to Samaria and Tirzah respectively. The authenticity of this well is not only based on the details from the story, which agree with its identification, but also upon the fact that all traditions—Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and Muslim—support it. [AYBD 3:608-9]

John 4:5 the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph: The reference reflects the customary inference from Gen. 48:21–22 and Josh. 24:32 that Jacob gave his son Joseph the land at Shechem that he had bought from the sons of Hamor (Gen. 33:18–19) and which later served as Joseph’s burial place (cf. Exod. 13:19; Josh. 24:32). Gen 48:22 reads “I now give to you one portion more than to your brothers” (NSRV; a more literal translations than the NAB). The word for “portion” in Hebrew is šeḵěm. This may well have lead to the later reading of “Schekem” as the city location.

John 4:6 It was about noon: lit. “it was about the sixth hour.” There is no a clear agreement about the meaning There is no a clear agreement about the meaning of hṓra ḗn hōs hektē. Culpepper argues that using the Roman reckoning the scene at the well occurred at 6 pm. However, the expression is used seven places in Scripture for the time of the day. In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard workers are enlisted at equal intervals between the first and the last hours, including the middle of the workday (Matt 20:5), but the workers all receive the same pay. In Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; and Luke 23:44 darkness falls at the sixth hour; according to Mark this took place from the midpoint of the time during which Jesus hung upon the cross until his death. According to John 19:14 Pilate undertook a last attempt to save Jesus at the sixth hour. It seems “it was about noon” is the best translation.

John 4:6 sat down there at the well: ekethezeto houtōs epi tē pēgē expresses a sense of duration and truly settling down for a rest indicating that Jesus was indeed tired from the journey.


  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996):  Zdravko Stefanovic, Jacob’s Well, 3:608-9 and James D Pervis, Samaria, 5:914.
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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