The Woman at the Well (John 4)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-40) has as much direct discussion of human labor as any story in John; but one has to draw deeply to taste it all. Many Christians are familiar with the woman’s inability to move from the everyday work of drawing water to Jesus’ pronouncements on the life-giving power of his word. This motif permeates the Gospel: the crowds repeatedly show an inability to transcend everyday concerns and address the spiritual aspects of life. They do not see how Jesus can offer them his body as bread (John 6:51-61). They think they know where he is from (Nazareth, John 1:45), but they fail to see where he is really from (heaven); and they are equally ignorant as to where he is going (John 14:1-6).

All of this is certainly relevant for thinking about work. Whatever we think of the intrinsic good of a steady water supply (and every drink we take confirms that it is indeed a good thing!), this story surely tells us that physical water alone cannot confer on us eternal life. In addition, it is easy for modern Westerners to miss the drudgery of the woman’s daily water chores, and ascribe her reluctance to fetch the water to sheer laziness. But the curse on labor (Genesis 3:14-19) bites hard, and she can be forgiven for wanting a more efficient delivery system.

We should not conclude, however, that Jesus comes to free us from work in the grimy material world so that we can bathe in the sublime waters of spiritual serenity. We must first, as always, remember the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work as depicted in John 1: the Messiah made the water in the well, and he made it good. If he then uses that water to illustrate the dynamics of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of would-be worshippers, that could be seen as an ennoblement of the water rather than a downgrading of it. The fact that we reckon first with the Creator, then with the creation, is no slight on the creation, especially since one function of creation is to point us toward the Creator.

We see something similar in the aftermath of the story, where Jesus uses reaping as a metaphor to help the disciples understand their mission in the world:

“Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:35-36).

In addition to providing the palpable blessings of the daily bread for which we are instructed to pray, agricultural work can also serve as a way of understanding the advance of God’s kingdom.

More than that, Jesus directly dignifies labor in this passage. We first have the statement, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work [Gk., ergon]” (John 4:34). It is worth noting that the first appearance of the Greek word ergon in the Bible[1] shows up in Genesis 2:2. “On the seventh day God had finished the work [Gk., “his works,” erga] that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done [again, “his works,” erga in Gk.].” While we cannot be certain that Jesus is alluding to this verse in Genesis, it makes sense in light of the rest of the Gospel to take “God’s work” in John 4:34 to mean the comprehensive restoration or completion of the work God had done in the beginning.

There is something more subtle at work here as well. In John 4:38, Jesus makes the somewhat cryptic statement, “I sent you to reap for that which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” He is referring to the fact that the disciples have a field of Samaritans ripe for the kingdom, if they will only open their eyes to the opportunity. But who are the “others” who have done the “labor”? Part of the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the woman at the well, who is remembered more for her spiritual slowness than for her subsequent effective testimony for Jesus. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did’” (John 4:39). The disciples will simply be reaping where the woman has sown. Yet there is still another worker here: Christ himself. Back at the beginning of the story, we read that Jesus was “tired” from his journey. A more literal translation would be that Jesus was “labored” from his journey. The word translated “tired” is kekopiakōs, literally “labored.” This is the same root that appears in John 4:38 (and nowhere else in John’s Gospel), “…you did not labor [kekopiakate]…others have labored [kekopiakasin]…you have entered into their labor [kopon]…” In truth, Jesus was labored from his journey in Samaria. The field of Samaria is ripe for harvest in part because Christ has labored there. Whatever work we do as Christ’s followers is filled with the glory of God, because Christ has already worked the same fields to prepare them for us.

As we have seen, the redemptive work of Christ after the Fall is of a kind with his creative/productive work from the beginning of time. Likewise, the redemptive work of his followers is in the same sphere as their creative/productive work typified by homemakers drawing water and farmers reaping crops.

Evangelism is one of the many forms of human work, neither higher nor lower than homemaking or farming. It is a distinctive form of work, and nothing else can substitute for it. The same may be said of drawing water and harvesting grain. Evangelism does not displace creative/productive work to become the only truly worthy human activity, particularly since any work well done by Christians is a testimony to the renewing power of the Creator.

That is, in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.