Sometimes social norms make sense, other times they don’t. Don’t chew with your mouth open makes total sense. Which side of the plate the fork and knife belong on, not so much. Holding a door open for someone makes sense. Everyone facing the same way on an elevator, not so much. You get the idea.
In this week’s session, Jesus intentionally pushed back against some of the social norms of His day, for good reason. The norms He challenged did not simply make no sense, they were harmful. They made some people feel like second-class citizens. And in God’s economy—where every person is an image-bearer—there are no second-class citizens. Everyone is of worth. And everyone is in need of a Savior.
Jesus Demonstrated Purpose and Compassion
Gospels are not biographies. While they have characteristics of a biography, they do not follow the normal formula of one–basically detailing a person’s life in chronological order. None of the Gospel writers presented Jesus’ life and ministry that way. Rather, they each structured their writings to make it as clear as possible that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah who came to earth to rescue people from sin. It is helpful, therefore, to consider how and why a writer presented his content.
In his third chapter, John presented the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus—one of the elite Jews of the day—and then followed that up with Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman in John 4. In doing so, he was presenting an important contrast between the two accounts, all while also showing Jesus’ consistency.
Don’t miss how John 4:4 begins: “He had to travel through Samaria.” Technically, Jesus didn’t have to travel through Samaria. The Jews of that day would actually cross the Jordan and travel on the other side to avoid going through Samaria when traveling between Judea and Galilee. But not Jesus. He chose to travel through Samaria instead—violating the first norm of His day. It was not a map that made Jesus travel through Samaria, but rather compassion. For it was on this journey that He would go on to violate some more norms of His day.
When Jesus arrived at Jacob’s well, He sat down to rest while the disciples went off to find food. As He did, a woman came to draw water and Jesus asked for a drink. In doing so, Jesus immediately cast aside three significant norms of the day.
First, it was not common for a man to speak with a woman in public. Second, it was not common for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan. And third, it was not common for a respected rabbi to speak with a social outcast. (The woman coming to the well at noon likely reveals that she did so to avoid the other women who would have come early in the morning. It is probable that this woman had quite a reputation in the town because of her history with men.) But with one simple request for a drink, Jesus rejected each of these unhelpful, unloving norms of the day.
In this, we see the amazing purpose and compassion of Jesus. It is likely that the reason that He had to go through Samaria was for this encounter with a lonely, hurting woman.
Jesus Demonstrated Love and Mercy
As the conversation between Jesus and this woman advanced, it became apparent that she wasn’t quite getting what Jesus was saying at first. And we cannot really blame her—we have advantage of hindsight and the Scriptures before us. Had we been in her sandals that day, we probably would have struggled to understand Jesus too. Don’t miss that Nicodemus certainly did.
But notice how patient Jesus was. How loving He was to explain what He meant. How merciful He was to not condemn the woman because of her sin. In this moment, Jesus was living out what He had told Nicodemus just before this passage:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.John 3:17 (CSB)
Jesus’ intent was not to berate this woman. Rather, it was to invite this woman to believe in Him so that she might taste the living water He provides.
Jesus Demonstrated Grace and Divinity
After Jesus explained what true worship looks like to the woman, she responded in a way similar to how Nicodemus had approached Jesus—with a statement that seems to be hiding a question.
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ ). “When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”John 4:25 (CSB)
It’s as if she is asking: “Are You the Messiah?” Once again, Jesus seems to pick up on a question veiled in a statement and responded, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.”
And in this moment, Jesus displayed His grace and divinity. He was the one the woman was looking for—the one she needed. And He was ready to provide forgiveness of sin and eternal life with the Father if she trusted in Him.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman was beautiful and powerful. And it all came out of His refusal to follow harmful norms of His day. How about us? Are we willing to go against the norms for the cause of Christ? Are we ready to do the unexpected so that we might help advance the gospel?
The true worshiper is the one who honors him with the right intention and believes with a pure conscience that everywhere he can speak with the one who is incomprehensible.” — Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428)Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on John 24.23-24, quoted in John 1–10, ed. Joel C. Elowsky, vol. IVa in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001) [Wordsearch].