John’s gospel makes it clear that many different kinds of people were attracted to or at least intrigued by Jesus during His earthly ministry. We have already contrasted Nicodemus, a respected spiritual leader, and the Samaritan woman, a social outcast (John 3:1–15; 4:1–26). But despite their many differences, Nicodemus and the woman had one key thing in common: both of them needed spiritual rebirth. And just as Nicodemus did not understand Jesus’ teaching on this subject at first, the Samaritan woman also was perplexed by our Lord’s instruction. She thought Jesus was offering her an abundance of physical water such that she would never have to visit the well in Sychar again (4:7–15).
The woman’s misunderstanding explains why Jesus changed the subject with her, as we see in today’s passage (vv. 16–18). She could not understand the spiritual nature of the water Jesus offered unless she first saw her desperate need of soul renewal, so Jesus directed the conversation to her sin. Our Lord asked her about her husband, drawing from her a confession that she had no husband, and then He displayed supernatural insight into her sordid past. The Samaritan woman was living with a man who was not her husband after having had five husbands who had died or had divorced her. On the surface, her comment that she had no husband was correct, but it hid the fact that she was living in sin. Jesus, being God incarnate, exposed her sin to draw her attention to her need of the Savior.
On account of Jesus’ divine insight, the woman recognized that Jesus was more than a mere man. At the very least, He was a prophet (v. 19). And this prompted her to change the subject. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews worshiped God on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The Samaritans, however, worshiped on Mount Gerizim, near where Jesus met with the woman, because they held to a corrupted version of the Old Testament religion and accepted only Genesis–Deuteronomy, with alterations, as Scripture (v. 20). The woman probably brought up that theological debate to divert Jesus’ attention from her sin.
Jesus did not engage the woman in debate, though He acknowledged the correctness of the Jews’ position by reminding her that salvation comes from the Jewish people (because the Savior is Jewish. Yet, however correct the Jews were on the place of worship under the old covenant, a new order was breaking in and even worship itself would be changed (vv. 21–22).