I’ve been thinking about tone of voice in the Bible. Anyone who texts, emails, or engages on social media is familiar with the challenge of conveying tone through words alone. We often add emojis to make sure our readers understand.
When I read stories in which Jesus speaks, I’ve started interrogating my “inner ear” that hears Jesus in a booming, declarative voice. Instead, I pay attention to the context. What clues does the story give to show us how the words of Jesus were spoken?
The Woman at the Well
In the account of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Jesus has a conversation that ends with an entire town coming to faith in Him. He begins by speaking to a woman alone—and not even a Hebrew woman, but a despised Samaritan. With one sentence, Jesus reverses the usual interactions between Jews and Samaritans, men and women. He puts Himself in the “lower than” position by asking her for a drink—and thus, for her help. She’s surprised. Jews did not eat or drink with non-Jews, and she knows it.
This startling request generates questions from the woman, and a wide-ranging conversation ensues.
Jesus moves from real water and physical thirst to speaking of living water and spiritual thirst. Note how high-level this dialogue is. Regardless of her sex and ethnicity, the Samaritan woman is well able to engage in thoughtful conversation about theology, and Jesus knows it. She was probably used to being treated poorly by men and, as a Samaritan, treated with contempt by Jews. But Jesus treats her as one who is made in God’s image, worthy of being asked for help, and intelligent enough to engage in theological conversation.
Building Trust through Tone
However, intellectual sparring is not enough to build trust. Jesus goes on to show that He knows and cares about her. Many explanations of this account paint the Samaritan woman as a sexually immoral woman because of her five previous husbands and current living situation. But women in this time did not have the freedom to “husband-hop.” Men could divorce women, not the other way around. More likely, this woman had been repeatedly widowed and/or divorced (perhaps due to infertility). She was likely marked with tragedy, not necessarily immorality alone.
Here’s where tone of voice really comes in. For many years, I “heard” Jesus’ speech here as accusatory: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:17–18). Jesus does expose her living with a man without marriage as sinful, but He shows compassion by stating it as a fact. What if Jesus’ tone was not accusatory but compassionate?
A tender tone fits with how the woman responds. She declares Jesus a prophet and then asks Him a theological question that had divided Jews and Samaritans for generations: Is it proper to worship God on the mountain, as the Samaritans do, or are the Jews correct that the only valid worship is in Jerusalem? (v. 20). If the woman felt accused or ashamed, would she have had the courage to ask a somewhat dangerous, divisive question? After experiencing compassion for her painful situation, perhaps the woman wanted to see if this unusual Jew would extend a similar grace about a hot-button issue—an issue that would have elicited anger or disdain from any other Jewish rabbi.
Directing the Answer to What Really Matters
Jesus’ answer to the woman’s question is also a surprise. Instead of taking a side, He directs her attention to what really matters to God. He brushes aside the question of where to worship and gets to the heart of what’s important—worshiping in spirit and truth. He doesn’t take the bait of a politically and theologically loaded question. He doesn’t respond with condemnation or defensiveness. Instead, He turns the focus toward Himself and declares openly that He is the Messiah. The woman responds with faith.
Jesus doesn’t get offended by our hard questions. He sometimes doesn’t answer them in the way we’d like—and He calls us to repentance when we need it—but He always points us toward Himself and His forgiveness. He reminds us of His identity as our Lord and Brother and of our identity as His beloved.
Jesus meets us where we are, even if we’re alone and laboring in the heat of the day. He knows the truth of us and our lives—our pain, our sin, our weaknesses—and He speaks to us with care and compassion, not condemnation. He points us toward Himself and offers the living water of forgiveness and life with Him. His tone of voice is not harsh, but kind. “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus called out in Matthew 11:28 and calls to us today. “I will give you rest.”
To see how to talk about Jesus with others in the culture in the same manner that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, order Faith That Engages the Culture below.