Questions and Meanderings after Sunday Lunch
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. - NRSV, Romans 12:7
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. - New American Standard Version (1995) Romans 12:7
Questions and Meanderings after Sunday Lunch
What happens if I read John Chapter 4 with a male gaze which sees a wicked ostracised woman forced to come to the well in the noon of the day?
Will I see a deeply symbolic dialogue between the Samaritan woman and Jesus at Jacob's Well, the well remembered as El-Elohe-Israel, the well at Shechem with the altar of "God, the God of Israel?i. Will I notice that John, however, says the well is at Sychar, which means "drunken," a serious joke about the power of living water; that water where "those who drink [it...] will never be thirstyii…" The woman asks Jesus "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well…?"iii This question will be echoed later in John 8:53, "Are you greater than our father Abraham?"
Will I ponder all this or focus on the woman as illiterate and uneducated, an outsider, unclean, and shameless. The person sitting next to me in church this morning muttered, "All assumptions." She is correct. Yes, this woman would not have gone to school, but as a colleague remarked to me, "that doesn't mean she wasn't smart." Anyone who has spent time with "uneducated women," should know this. By amping up the stereotype of the ignorant, outcast woman, we unconsciously pander to masculine superiority and miss the startling literary depth of John.
The story follows directly from the story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, male, fine and upstanding, anything but a marginalised outcast. By comparison to the woman, he does not perform well, but she is the exemplar of a disciple. Amy-Jill Levine saysiv
The argument that the woman’s coming to the well at noon indicates her social ostracism, for the other women of the village would wait until the cool of the evening, falters by ignoring John’s literary art. Nicodemus the Pharisaic elder, introduced in the previous chapter, comes to Jesus in the dark of midnight. The Samaritan woman, at noon, understands the “light” Jesus brings; the Pharisee remains in the dark. The setting is symbolic of theological insight, not social ostracism. Nicodemus, who had had a very frustrating conversation with Jesus about being “born again,” may never quite obtain belief. Rather, according to John’s Gospel, he and Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus under one hundred pounds of spices. That’s a lot of spice for a body expected to be resurrected. The woman, on the other hand, is so fully integrated into and accepted by her Samaritan village that, as John states, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done’” (4:39). Towns people are not likely to believe the testimony of a marginalized, shameless sinner.
This woman is an evangelist of the Gospel listed only with Phillip, in John, as one who says "Come and see..."v She has a sophisticated theologically informed conversation with Jesus. It is not she who is rebuked with Jesus' amazed question, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"vi
Yet we see the five husbands…
She is not a prostitute. She doesn't have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms… Yet there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous, yet most preacher's assume the latter.
The difficulty with that interpretation is that it trips up the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, "I see that you are a prophet" and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic. But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. "Seeing" in John, it's crucial to note, is all-important. "To see" is often connected with belief. When the woman says, "I see you are a prophet," she is making a confession of faith.
Why? Because Jesus has "seen" her. He has seen her plight -- of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her -- she exists for him, has worth, value, significance and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet.vii
We bristle at the men who, determined that a woman (Junia) could not be an apostle, decided she must have been Junias, a manviii yet theology which holds male experience as the norm leads us to do something much the same to this woman.
And with that male focus I have never noticed that it is Jesus, the one who has living water, who asks the Samaritan woman for water. Yes, she leaves her water jar behind, a striking symbol of faith in the living water, but he first asks her for water! "Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket."ix We cannot recognise the symbolism of John and then remove this part of the story from his theology as just an incidental fact of the story.
Where else was Jesus thirsty in John? On the cross. And then he died,
and when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came outx.
Stephen Moore says of John that
water and thirst are the connecting images. After Jesus tastes the sponge of vinegar, he states, "It is finished," and dies. At this point the soldiers pierce his side and blood and water flow. Moore points out that the presence of the water is strange and that attempts to literally and medically explain it miss the important metaphorical and theological meaning that the flow of water is trying to direct us to.
Back at the well Jesus told the Samaritan woman that "those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." Moore contends that the water flowing from the side of Jesus after his death is to direct us to the living water Jesus spoke about at the well.xi
E. Scott Jones from whom I have just quoted, goes on to say
The stranger comes to us, thirsty, and we provide water. That stranger then provides spiritual, living water for us. In that act we recognize the presence of the Christ in the stranger. And the water shared with us flows through us benefiting others.
Our acts of hospitality create moments for the Spirit to work. Acts of hospitality and care also become ways the Spirit flows through us. Just as Jesus became a channel of life and blessing and good news for us, we become channels of life and blessing and good news for others.xii
What do we offer to the Christ? There is something here which resonates with Matthew 25.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Perhaps the living water might flow more freely in my life if I considered the idea of co-creation, the thought that God invites us to be a part of the fulfilment and completion of the Creation.
Andrew Prior (Lent 3, March 2023)
ii John 8: 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
iv Levine, Amy-Jill The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Pp135 (Kindle Edition)
v John 1:46, 4:29
vi John 3:9, said to Nicodemus
vii David Lohse https://www.huffpost.com/entry/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753
viii See Wikipedia for an introduction to this: All others in the first millennium of the ancient church also took the name to be feminine, as Bernadette Brooten demonstrated in her 1977 article on Junia; Brooten points to the first commentator on the passage, Origen of Alexandria, who in the 2nd century CE assumed the name to be feminine. She points to additional early Christian commentators, all of whom gave no indication of doubt that the epistle referred to Junia and that she was a woman and an apostle, including Jerome (4th-5th century), Hatto of Vercelli (10th century), Theophylact, and Peter Abelard (both 11th century). Brooten affirms that the earliest instance of someone taking the name to be masculine is Aegidius of Rome in the 13th-14th century, but demonstrates that the name was not commonly seen as masculine until well after the Reformation. Likewise, the most ancient New Testament manuscript versions all read "Junia." The name Junia was also provided as the most likely reading in the Nestle-Åland Greek New Testament from its inception in 1898 until its 13th revision in 1927, at which point (without any new manuscript evidence to bring about the change), the preference changed to the male "Junias"; Junia was not restored until its 27th revision in 1998.
As Greek and English New Testaments shifted back to the "Junia" reading, some modern interpreters sought to question whether the passage really describes Junia as an apostle. While the Greek of Romans 16:7 has often been translated as Junia having been "outstanding among the apostles", which is an inclusive reading that numbers Junia among the apostolic body, some have recently suggested that the Greek warrants the exclusive reading of Junia being "well known to the apostles", therefore excluding Junia from being an apostle. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junia_(New_Testament_person)
ix Anna Carter Florence, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, pp95
x John 20:33
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