27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:27-34).
There’s a rich interplay of 3 images in this dynamic story that correlate to the three main characters. They are as follows:
Buffet / food……..disciples
another kind of food……Jesus
Each of these images provides a lesson for the reader of the story. Each one invites us to ask: Who am I most like in this story?
Bucket. The woman comes to the well to draw ordinary water to quench her thirst. But Jesus turns water into a metaphor for the new spiritual life he offers as a gift — “living water” that will quench her far deeper thirst. Even better, the “living water” Jesus offers makes it unnecessary to keep coming back day after day (like she does for her physical water). It becomes a spring bubbling up inside of her!
Then John gives us a seemingly unnecessary detail in the text when he tells us that she left her bucket behind as she ran into town to tell her friends about Jesus. Why does he mention this? What does it mean? It’s hard to say for sure, but I think one message John may want to convey is that: The empty bucket symbolizes life apart from God, a life of perpetual thirst and all endless ways we keep trying to fill the void in our heart. Jeremiah warns of the perennial human tendency to abandon God “the fountain of living water” and dig for ourselves “cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all” (Jer. 2:13). The woman has been trying to fill her emptiness with relationships with various men, which has apparently gone horribly wrong for her as she has had five husbands and now a live-in-boyfriend. So, she leaves the bucket behind as a symbolic way of saying, “I’m done with that way of life — the way of life that keeps leaving me thirsty and in need of coming repeatedly back to this well.”
Buffets. While the woman is thirsty for water, the disciples are hungry for food. They miss out on this life-changing encounter at the well because they were so preoccupied with filling their own hungry bellies that they abandoned Jesus and went into town to the nearest “buffet.” One lesson I draw from this is: Disciples should never leave Jesus’ side for even a minute. When they do, they may miss out on a ministry opportunity. Secondly, a word for the contemporary church might be: When the main focus of our spiritual life becomes “getting fed” — whether in a Bible study or the Sunday sermon — we take our eyes off of the mission to reach those Jesus is focused on reaching. We find ourselves at the church buffet while Jesus has long left the church building and is busy bringing the gospel to the lost sheep in Samaria.
Jesus’ food. The interplay of physical and spiritual hunger and thirst comes to a climax as the disciples return and now urge Jesus to eat something. Now we see how different their focuses really are as Jesus responds cryptically: “I have food to eat that you know nothing about….My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Boom.
Let me ask you a question: Have you ever been so wrapped up in a project that you lost track of time, completely ignored your physical hunger and missed a meal? I recall many writing assignments in college and seminary where I would be so lost in the writing that I wouldn’t think of eating supper until well after midnight!
Jesus is consumed with the task the Father had given him, and he finds way more satisfaction and fulfillment in bringing good news to lost and thirsty people than he does in consuming a physical meal. Now, of course, Jesus had to eat. But what if we were so on fire for God and so consumed with own task as the church to be salt and light in a dark and depraved world that our spiritual craving to do further God’s agenda in our world was far deeper than our craving for our next Big Mac or Prime Rib?!
What’s ironic in the story is that both the woman and the disciples started out hungry or thirsty in the story. But in the end it is the stranger, the woman, the despised Samaritan, the reputable sinner who is shown to be the exemplary model of faithful discipleship and witness as she drops everything to run back to tell her friends about Jesus! She throws down the bucket as if to say, “I’m no longer focused on merely physical thirst, I’ve experienced the supernatural living water that is far more important!” Meanwhile, the disciples remain focused on merely physical nourishment which Jesus confronts in his enigmatic saying, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
How about us? Do we KNOW this food of which he speaks? Have we tasted it?
So, who are you most like in this story? Are you the woman thirsting for something that nothing else in this world has been able to satisfy? Are you the disciples whose own appetites keep them distracted from the mission of reaching those who are spiritual thirsty? Or, are you like Jesus, totally consumed with the high call of bringing the light, love and living water of Jesus to those in need?