Gospel: John 4:5-42
4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.
It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 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.’
15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving* wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ 43 When the two days were over, he went from that place to Galilee 44(for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in the prophet’s own country). 45When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.
I am sick. The mysterious blend of body, and something else that makes us... us, has refused to work. The body is fine, but relating to other people, especially people who need things from me, is difficult.
If I sit down with a sheet of paper, I can draw circles— six of them— to describe some contributing factors to this illness. Circles one and two have some obvious similarities, although the events they describe are widely separated in time. The third circle bears no relation to either of them, but has a lot in common with the issue I've labelled circle six. And circles six and two do have some connections.
There are moments when these connections feel very speculative; I wonder if I imagine them. Yet, as I said to my doctor, all my pastoral experience suggests I'd be a fool to ignore them; somehow, they are working together to 'gum up the works' that is me. She signed me off for more sick leave without hesitation; she knows a couple of these same circles.
Experience suggests that if I insist on drawing hard and firm lines of the "a = b + c" variety between the circles on my page, which represent the oddly connected events in my life, I will not get well. Healing comes from swimming among the not-quite-definable connections and images, and letting mind and brain and spirit do what they do, which is march in their own dimension, at their own pace, in ways we can only glimpse.
We do this all the time; it is how we function to be us. It's just that being sick makes it much more visible. This normally invisible process is how we live and grow and become more fully human— or not. We pretend we're in charge. We pretend to know cause and effect, and rationality and free choice, forgetting that rationality is an organisation and interpretation— an important rationalisation to be sure— but always a constructed story of prior feelings, which we never quite understand. Hume said reason is a tool of the passions.
Our rationality is always self-serving. It justifies us to ourselves, so it is always suspect. It must always be open to being undone and lost to something deeper, and to swimming way out of our depth. There is a word for our refusal to do this: idolatry. It is idolatry because it is our transient, only half-understood self, claiming to know better than God. My search for hard and definite connections is not only a desire to understand myself in my sickness; it is also my attempt to preserve myself over against my creator and master.
Which brings us to the Gospel of John. John uses a surface narrative of the Jesus tradition— in this case, the story of meeting a woman at a well— and crafts it to invite us, even to provoke us, to enter into deep water which will drag us under, drown us, remake us, and, finally begin to slake our thirst for life. If we will only enter in. If we will only drink.
John is far removed from that kind of juridical and forensic theology which reduces the cross to some sort of cosmic transaction between the Father and the Son. That kind theology seeks to heal a soul with the logic of engineering. It thinks it can explain what is going on within the grace of God. Of course we long to know and to understand what is being given to us, and how it works, but in the end, we can only submit to the swirl of grace around us and witness to what is done to us and given us. We can say he "told me everything I have ever done... he has known me," but to explain the mechanics of that is an act of hubris, and finally, an idolatry, because it pretends to know the mechanics of the unknowable.
John's gospel is, in some ways, very simple: God has loved us from the beginning. Jesus shows us God. If you have seen him you have seen the Father. Follow him, stay with him, and your thirst will be quenched.
But John knows the deep truth of all this, its fuller appreciation and experience, comes from living within the swirl of the imagery, and that like me in my current sickness, we will never be able to define quite what it was that heals us and makes us well. We will know only that we met someone who knew us and "who told us everything we ever did." If we insist on owning this process, as fundamentalism does, then God will not reject us, but we will almost forever hold God at an arm's length until we finally give in and allow ourselves to be drowned in the healing.
This drowning is our greatest fear, of course. In his poem When the Last Day Comes, Kevin Hart says "women will clasp their sons as men," and "there will be time for us to say the right things at last." We long for such a time of restoration and healing. But then he says, "everything is stripped from us, even our names," and we shudder at his words. We are our names... except that our names are our idea of ourselves. Yet if God desires for us "what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived," (1 Cor 2:9) then how can we hold onto even to our name? This too, would be an idolatry and a refusal of completion and salvation.
Before we finally enter the text of John, there is something to say about exegesis, which seeks to discover what John meant to say, and eisogesis, which is the reader imposing their own ideas upon the text, or importing them in. It's generally seen as inappropriate.
I used to work in a computer programming company, home territory for a=b+c kind of knowledge. There is no place there for imagery or allusions. In the case of one complex piece of software, there was a young woman in our client company who could enter data at astonishing speed. My boss, the programming genius, often employed her as a kind of stress test whenever she updated the software. She was watching her enter data into a new version of the program one day, and suddenly cried out, "Stop! What did you just do?"
Jenny filled out the next form more slowly, so that she could be observed. My boss said of her own program, "Good grief! I had no idea you could do that!" Because John has entered the deep water, his Gospel will trigger in us ideas and healings and connections which he never anticipated.
So what more or less loosely connected circles has John drawn on his page as invitation for us?
Firstly, the story carries the symbols and the meaning. It is not meant to be literal truth, or biography; it does not matter, for example, that a sprig of hyssop cannot support a sponge full of cheap wine. (We will come to this incident in John 19:29 shortly.) Insisting the translation must be wrong, and that hyssop must be a textual corruption of a spear (see, for example, R Brown Gospel According to John XII to XXI, Page 909) is the kind of wooden literalism that draws hard lines between the circles, that process I have also called 'owning' or taking control of the story, according to our logic and presuppositions.
Then, especially for men like me, there is the problem of our sexist assumptions. We are enculturated to look down upon women, especially a woman who has had five husbands. And to reduce the gospel to moralising; this is one of the great sins of the church. And also to look down upon Jewish people; we emphasise how much Nicodemus, coming by night, was in the dark. So we forget, perhaps a little, or perhaps we don't see it at all, that Nicodemus is the picture of us all. We are all in the dark, even those of us who are wise, and leaders of our people. We all need a rebirth.
Nicodemus and Photini— at least some of the tradition gives the woman of John 4 a name: Photini means the luminous one— Nicodemus and Photini are not foolish. They're playing the language game of their culture.
[Additional note: It's not that I'm an expert on Jesus' culture. Rather, I ask what other option is there than that she is stupid, and being used as a straw prop? Plus, the conversation sounds like conversations I had with First Nations folk in Central Australia. There is something playful about it. In our language and culture, we would say Jesus has spoken to her in metaphor, and she is extending the metaphor, rather than not understanding the metaphor. She is not uncomprehending, rather, she knows there is stuff she does not know.]
She asks, "How did you get this Living Water? The well of life is deep; are you greater even than our ancestor Jacob? Don't play word games with me. Show me what you say is true."
This is no uncomprehending question. She knows what's at stake, and adds a little barb: "Don't think you are superior to me just because you are a Jewish man. We Samaritans are children of Jacob too— even we women." If we belittle her, or if we reduce the question into a sectarian argument between Jews and Samaritans, it's fair to ask how much else we are missing!
So much is made of her coming to the well at noon: she is obviously a woman of poor reputation, or she would have come in the cool of the dusk with all the other women, we say. Those five husbands prove this to be the case. As we say in Australia, women are reduced to 'damned whores or God's police,' and this blinds us to everything else. We belittle the victims, and the outsiders, the ones who so often bring us the Christ.
So it is, that until this year, directed to focus upon her morality, I have barely seen two of John's circles; circles widely separated in the gospel, just like some of those on my sheet of paper, and yet so obviously connected. Jesus sits at the well. To the woman, he says, "Give me a drink." "It was about noon." (John 4:6) The Greek is hōra ēn hōs hektē.
On the cross he says, "I am thirsty," and they give him a drink. It was hōra ēn hōs ⸃ hektē— about noon.
Is the cross the well?
The drink was common wine, like we might use in the communion in a poor church, soaked up in a sponge, held up on a branch of hyssop. As Brown points out, John's retelling of this tradition is devoid of the Roman mockery of Luke's telling. It is differently told from Mark and Matthew. John reworks the narrative which carries his meaning to grab our attention. It is the moment when Jesus drinks of the wine, the moment when all is finished, and done.
We are meant to wonder, "How could you hold up a sponge-full of wine on something little stronger than a sprig of parsley?" for, of course, you can't. But he doesn't mean us to go down a literalistic rabbit hole and look for a textual corruption. He wants us to ask, "What else would you do with a sprig of hyssop?" Well, at Passover, you used it
to sprinkle the blood of the paschal lamb on the door posts for the Israelite homes. [Exodus 12:22] In describing how the death of Jesus ratified a new covenant, Hebrews 9:18-20 recalls that Moses used hyssop to sprinkle the blood of animals in order to seal the earlier covenant... in John 19:14 we noted that Jesus was sentenced to death at the very hour when the slaughter of the pastoral lambs began in the temple precinct... (Brown pp930)
And when the wine is drunk, and he is dead, our thirst is quenched. From his body flow blood and wine until now. (John 19:34)
I note other conjunctions of time and place in John, which intrigue me. Nicodemus came at night, and when Judas received the bread, and then went out, "it was night." (John 13:30) The woman comes in the noonday.
Themes of light and dark abound throughout the fourth gospel. Here, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman takes place at high noon, in, you might say, the "fullness of light." (John Petty)
There is also a story of Jacob at a well where he first meets Rachel.
6[Jacob] said to them, ‘Is it well with him?’ ‘Yes,’ they replied, ‘and here is [Laban's] daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.’ 7He said, ‘Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.’ 8But they said, ‘We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.’ (Genesis 29:6-8)
Loose associations and allusions flow everywhere here. What stone needs to be removed from the well for this woman in John 4? What makes a well a place of Living Water rather than a dry tomb in the rock? How are the flocks gathered together and watered— who are they?
In Genesis 24:10-16, Abraham's servant meets Rebecca, who will be Isaac's wife, at a well. Is there a hint in John of the "boy meets girl at the well" motif? At these points of betrothal the long story of the faith of Israel moves forward; they are turning points. Is there something happening here between Jesus and this woman, a kind of betrothal? He has crossed all sorts of conventions to speak to a woman who is alone; is there a sexual tension in the conversation?
Despite that question, Petty shares my reaction against our tendency to portray the woman as sexually promiscuous.
The passage is not about the woman's sexual life. Nor it is about her marital history. In all of the four gospels, Jesus never expresses even a scintilla of interest in anyone's sex life, except to stick up for so-called "sexual offenders" when they are criticized or derided by others.
Petty understands that the apparent shift of subject, the non sequiter across to the number of husbands, is actually nothing of the sort. If we are not blinded by morality, and read the conversation as a conversation of faith versus idolatry, and of salvation, there is no change of subject at all. He goes on to say
The "husbands" are symbolic. After their conquest of the region in 722 BC, the Assyrians took about 30,000 native Israelites out of the region and imported people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24) into Samaria. As people are wont to do, they intermarried with each other and with the native, Israelite, population.
These peoples are the woman's "five husbands." The one she is currently with, who is "not her husband," is Rome. Herod the (so-called) Great had ruled the region on Rome's behalf from 37 BC to 4 BC...
I might interject here to point out the lack of separation between religion and faith and politics in the culture of Jesus. Acquiescence to Rome is an idolatry.
Jesus compliments the woman because, as he said herself, "What you have spoken is true." She has no husband. Samaria has had relations with five peoples, and is currently occupied by another who wants nothing to do with her.
Jesus redefines the woman and Samaria. She is not an outcast, half-breed, heretic--she is a truthteller! The Samaritan woman acknowledges and ratifies Jesus' interpretation of her national history. "Lord, I see that you are a prophet."
There is a remarkable survey of the commentary on the text of Lent 3a at A Trivial Devotion: Five Husbands? where Sandra Schneider's commentary is reproduced.
The dialogue on the five husbands is integral to the discussion of Samaritan faith and theology, and the “husbands” are therefore symbolic rather than literal...
First, the exchange about the husband occurs...not as prelude to theological discussion but in the midst of it, that is, after the woman has perceived Jesus’ implicit claim to equality with the patriarchs and before she acknowledges him to be a prophet...
Second, if the scene itself is symbolically the incorporation of Samaria into the New Israel, the bride of the new Bridegroom, which is suggested by the type [of] scene itself, then the adultery/idolatry symbolism so prevalent in the prophetic literature for speaking of Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh the Bridegroom would be a most apt vehicle for discussion of the anomalous religious situation of Samaria...
The third point...Jesus’ revelation to the woman who symbolizes Samaria, of her infidelity is not a display of preternatural knowledge that convinces the woman of Jesus’ power (and thus her helplessness before him), embarrassing her into a diversionary tactic in an effort to escape moral exposure. Rather, it is exactly what she acknowledges it to be when she says in response to his revelation, “I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19). Jesus’ declaration that Samaria “has no husband,” is a classic prophetic denunciation of false worship...
In summary, the entire dialogue between Jesus and the woman is the “wooing” of Samaria to full covenant fidelity in the New Israel by Jesus, the New Bridegroom. ... (John Ashton [b. 1931], “A Case Study: A Feminist Interpretation of John 4:1-42”, The Interpretation of John (Studies in New Testament Interpretation), 247-49)
And in reply to the woman's declaration that he is a prophet, Jesus says, "I am," (Ἐγώ εἰμι) as in "Before Abraham was, I am."
The conversation comes to the question of what makes dark or light, tomb or well, death or life. It comes to what will gush up in us to eternal life, life in a new dimension and reality. To what will feed us seemingly without food, to the simple rituals of water, wine, and scraps of bread, which seem trivial to those who have not seen, and yet can make us drunk (Sychar) on life because they bring us to the fountain of life.
My witness comes from an education in the sciences, and an over-masculised reliance on logic and control. That which could not be replicated and controlled in laboratories and field trials was of little value. Emotions were mostly a sign of failure; to show gentleness was to become a target. I thirsted for knowledge, only slowly realising that what I was seeking was meaning and purpose in a life which terrified me. Meaning and purpose came only as I embraced the imagery of the gospels and let it pull me into the even greater terror of deep water, way out of my depth. It's not only words that matter here, or metaphors, but the deep water of compassion and service which is equally terrifying. Then the words of John become healing. I believe I hear someone who is meeting the same Spirit. I can leave behind the jarring burden of my old life and enter a new reality.
Andrew Prior (2019 Lent 3)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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John 4:5-42 - Seeing the single tree (2014)
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