The Woman at the Well (Part 1): The Messianic Secret


Read the series.

(Isaiah 42:1-4, Matthew 12:15-21, and John 4:1-42)

To treat the details about Jesus’ meeting with the Woman at the Well would require more than a dozen articles. Rather than repeat the details of typical exposition (important as they are), I propose to address three questions that are sometimes ignored when we ponder this passage. These questions delve into the Jewish context: 1. Why was Yeshua forthcoming about His Messiahship with the woman at the well, but indirect to others? 2. How did Jesus play on the words for salvation (yeshuah) involving His name (Yeshua), perhaps employing midrash from Isaiah 12:3-4? 3. What argument did the Samaritans have for locating their temple on Mount Gerizim?

Today’s installment will address the first question.

1. Why was Yeshua forthcoming about His Messiahship with the Woman at the Well, but not to others?

Some skeptics claim Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. There are many texts, especially within the synoptics (most emphatic in Mark), that suggest Yeshuah avoided directly stating He was the Messiah. Only by connecting obvious dots would one conclude He understood Himself to be the Promised One.

William Wrede’s theory (developed in 1901) of the “messianic secret,” is consistent with the above but then strays far afield. Richard Hayes expressed his disagreement with Wrede in general – but agrees with what I have stated above:

Wrede rightly draws attention to a major motif in Mark’s Gospel; the mysterious elusiveness of Jesus’ true identity.1

Isaiah 42:1-4, coupled with Matthew 12:15-21, explains why Jesus was discreet about His healings and His claim to the Messianic Title. Matthew himself cues us in.

Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1-4, so I will quote from Matthew alone. Please notice in Matthew 12:16-17 indexes Isaiah 42:1-4 as the basis for Jesus demand that those healed be quiet about matters. Thus the Isaiah passage predicted a discreet Messiah, as Matthew interprets it. We can assume that Matthew was among many who understood the Isaiah passage this way.

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

“He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

This text suggests an actual “messianic secret” of sorts, just not Wrede’s version. The people were expected to conclude Jesus was the Messiah based upon His actions and teachings.

Only under oath did Jesus publicly affirm Who He was, as stated in Mark’s dynamic translation per Mark 14:61b-62:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”2

Yes, Jesus confirmed Peter’s confession of faith as Messiah and the Son of God (and, by some interpretations, makes that confession the creed upon which the church is built) in Matthew 16:13-20 privately. But notice Yeshua’s charge to His disciples in vs. 20: “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”

In a few other instances, Jesus approached declaring Himself Messiah in public. In John 8:23-26, Yeshua argues that “I am He”:

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.”

The Samaritan Woman

We first need to understand the Jewishness of the Samaritans. Wikipedia summarizes: “Modern genetic studies support the Samaritan narrative that they descended from indigenous Israelites…genetic evidence [suggests] that Samaritans are closely linked to Cohanim [the Aaronic line], and therefore can be traced back to an Israelite population prior to the Assyrian invasion.”

The Samaritans are best understood as a competing group of Jews who, while genetically intermingled with some gentiles (these gentiles were forced to immigrate to Israel by the Assyrians), the Samaritans often reflected an ancient school of Jewish beliefs with some unique distinctions.3

Sometimes social groups evidence intense hostility toward those who resemble them but diverge in certain areas that might seem minor to onlookers. The animosity between the ancient Samaritans and Jews was well known; the term “Jew” was not just genetics plus monotheism, but included loyalty to the Jerusalem Temple.

Why does Jesus freely state that He is the Messiah to this woman (John 4:25-26)?

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

IMO, the understood “gag order” was not an issue with this woman. As a Samaritan, she recognized only the Torah, not the rest of the Old Testament (thus she had no knowledge of the Isaiah passage). The Isaiah passage itself, however, is more about public proclamation than private discussion.

In addition, the Isaiah passage describes the Messiah’s approach among His people. It is clear that Jesus understood Himself as a Jew,4 while He understood this woman as a Samaritan.

Jesus was a phenomenon in Palestine, thus under watchful Roman eyes. If He could be misunderstood to promote insurrection (as many expected Messiah to do), He would have died before His appointed time. He needed to be rejected by His own (Isaiah 53:1-12).

The Samaritans had a distinct concept of the Messiah. Craig Keener points out:

Later Samaritan documents explain the Samaritan concept of a messiah: the Taheb, or restorer, was a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-18).5

Since the prophecies of the Messiah as a great King who would rule the world from Jerusalem and usher in a golden age was not part of the Samaritan belief system,6 the Samaritan were looking only for the “Great Prophet” Moses predicted. Yeshua was both Messiah in the Jewish sense (He will return to reign) and the Great Prophet that Moses predicted (Acts 3:17-26) as well.

Next time we will address the remaining two questions.


1 Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, p. 45.

2 Jesus was under oath and legally required to answer the high priests question. To fail to do so would show contempt for the office of high priest, an office God ordained. Mark forsakes his previous indirect approach by clarifying to his readers that Jesus did, in fact, understand Himself to be the Messiah. In Matthew 26:64, Jesus responds by saying, “You have said so,” and then proceeds to connect Himself to the Messianic prophecy of Daniel 7:13 to make the point. Jesus probably actually said, “You have said so,” which is actually a stronger affirmation than “I am,” akin to “you said it and how.” But Mark paraphrases to make Jesus’ affirmation clear, even if not quite as forceful. The Sanhedrin certainly had no trouble understanding Him.

3 Modern Judaism recognizes the full Jewishness of the Samaritan people, several thousand of whom still live in Israel (and have all along). Their Rabbis are considered fully accredited; they are generally stricter than even Orthodox Jews. [See “Samaritans,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, 1988, pp.303-304 and The Jewish Encyclopedia “Samaritans” by A. Cowley, Joseph Jacobs, and Henry Minor Huxley,, accessed 3-01-10].

4 The term “Jew” derives from “Judah.” Many northern Jews migrated to Judah before, during, and after the Assyrian conquest of the norther kingdom (Israel) and thus could be described as Jews. The Samaritans were descendants of those who did not migrate.

5 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, p. 274.

6 The Samaritans only accepted the Torah (Pentateuch) but not the rest of the Old Testament.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.