Gospel of John: “Τί ζητεῖτε;”


The way John told this story—and remember, the timing of things was important to John—it was at the very moment of the woman’s statement about the coming Messiah, and Jesus’ declaration of “YHWH/I AM the very one, speaking to you right now” that the disciples arrived.


And during this came his disciples, and they were marveling he [Jesus] was speaking with a woman—yet, not a one said, “What do you seek?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

John 4:27

To a man, the disciples would not, could not, bring themselves to ask the woman what she was seeking, nor did they ask Jesus why he was breaking with every tradition and cultural more by speaking alone with a woman—a Samaritan woman.

And, when I was reading that first question in Greek, a little niggle went through my thoughts. Where had I seen that phrase, “Τί ζητεῖτε;” before? (Using the English alphabet, that phrase looks something like “Ti zeteite?”) And then it hit me! The last time, it had been in Jesus’ voice, the very first words he had spoke in John’s gospel, to Andrew and John when they left the Baptist’s side to follow Jesus. It was a Hebraism, and meant something like,

“What are you looking for in life? What are you looking for from Me?”

Just let that sink in.

In this highly curated, and poetically written book, every single word counts. There are no extra words, and there are no random words. John meant very much for that question to show up here in just this way. This is the question all of us are to answer, at some point, as we read this gospel.

Here is what I think:

  • I think the disciples heard this last part of the conversation at Jacob’s well.
  • They heard the woman’s spiritual insight and they heard Jesus’ revelation.
  • They saw the powerful miracle of belief happening before their very eyes.
  • They realized, to the marrow of their bones, to the roots of their hair, to the soles of their feet, Jesus had accepted and indeed, if it were possible, anointed a new disciple.

I think they did not know—and more importantly, did not dare ask—whether she was being added to their number. In their already strange, even surreal, apprenticeship with Jesus, virtually nothing had gone as expected.

So there they stood, holding the bread they had purchased in Sychar, hot, hungry, thirsty, emotionally unsettled by simply being in Samaria, let alone having to buy and eat Samaritan food, and now the truly, truly unthinkable was happening as they watched.


Imagine the camera panning over their sweating faces and clouded expressions, then returning to the woman effervescent with joy, the sparkle and jubilation flowing as if from a fountain from within the depths of her out into the desert, splashing them with unwanted gladness. In her exultation, the woman left her water jar and ran back to the town of Sychar to tell them Messiah had come.


Much has been made over the water jar.

Did John mean it to symbolize her old life, having to walk a half mile each way every day to get water, sweet as it was, that would not last?

Perhaps it symbolized her trust in Jesus with the things of her life. After all, he had proven that he knew everything about her, but instead of condemning her, he loved her and entrusted his revelation of himself to her. She knew she was coming back, and that Jesus would be there, taking care of her water jug for her.

Did leaving her jug symbolize repentance, putting down her old life and taking up the new eternal life that Jesus offered her?

Or . . . was her water jar a gift to Jesus and the disciples, that they may refresh themselves at Jacob’s well, while they had their lunch?

There was little she had to give to Messiah, or to his talmidim, but this she did have: a keen eye that missed nothing, and a warm Samaritan heart that welcomed the homeless, aided the widow, and fed the foreigner. This she could leave with the hot and thirsty travelers who had brought Messiah with them, in grateful thanksgiving, the best water in all the land.


Again, imagine the camera cutting to the scene in the town of Sychar. The woman has run, veil and hair streaming behind her, to the village center, where some are sitting and conversing, others are leaned against the walls by their front doors, most are eating their midday repast, and perhaps already laughing and excitedly regaling each other with the unheard of purchase of bread by twelve Jewish men.

“Haha, you should have seen their faces!” laughed one woman, as she broke off a piece of barleycake for her son. “Oh my, yes, I had to talk with them, my man just stared from the awning shade, his arms folded like this,” and she made a great show of folding her arms in such a way as to push the muscles up with her fists. A fresh round of raucous laughter pealed out like flocks of rails and crakes cackling to each other.

Then came the woman, pounding into Sychar’s market square, breathless, glowing, her voice like the timbrels and drums of a victory song, “Come behold the person who recounted to me everything and all I have done—is it at all [possible] this one is the Christ?” (John 4:29)

And, of course, the townspeople were immediately captivated. This would certainly explain their strange and nervous Judean visitors. This day was getting better with every minute. And as it was already their time of rest from labor, the villagers gathered their children and headed out of Sychar’s gate with the excited woman.


Jesus’ gaze must have followed the woman as she ran, knowing she would bring back many who would long to hear his good teaching. As he watched her, the disciples took out the food they had gotten, and urged Jesus to eat.

Jesus’ response caught them off guard.


I have food to eat which you all do not perceive-or-know.

Jesus, to the disciples in John 4:32

Why send them into town for food when he spoke of having food they knew nothing about? This day, hard to believe, was getting even worse. Had the woman brought him food? I picture them looking about the well, walking out and around Jesus to see where he had stashed this food. “Someone has not brought to him [something] to eat?” (John 4:33) It was one of many occasions when they would not understand at all what Jesus meant.

As Jesus watched their confused looks, and listened to their confused questions to each other, none of them at all mentioning what Jesus had just told the woman, he interjected into their disarray,


My food is that I do the will of the One who sent me and accomplish [that One’s] work

Jesus, to the disciples in John 4:34

Jesus was giving them the opportunity to think about what they had witnessed, and to process why they were in Samaria.

In the same way, I think, the Lord does this for you and me today, through the scriptures. As we read, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God brings to mind our current circumstances, and gives us a chance to process them in light of God’s perspective and wisdom.


[Jesus with the woman at Jacob’s well | Henryk Siemiradzki / Public domain]

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