A Provocation: March 19, 2017: The Third Sunday in Lent: John 4:5-42

John 4:5-42
4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

4:6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

4:9 The 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.)

4:10 Jesus 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.”

4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

4:13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,

4:14 but 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.”

4:15 The 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.”

4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

4:17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;

4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

4:19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

4:25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

4:26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

4:27 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?”

4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

4:29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

4:30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

4:32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

4:33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.

4:35 Do 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.

4:36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

4:37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’

4:38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”

4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.

4:41 And many more believed because of his word.

4:42 They 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 Savior of the world.”

A Question or Two:

  • Did you notice that both Jesus and the woman are thirsty in this scene?
  • Why might that be important to the storyteller?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene fascinates interpreters.  To put it more clearly, the woman in this scene fascinates interpreters.  And not always in a good way.

Some interpreters like to think about her as a “loose woman.”

They count up her husbands, noticing her current unmarried state, and they get excited as they imagine her “living in sin.”  (When baritone interpreters use that phrase, they seem always to be thinking of sexual sin.  Can’t imagine why.  Perhaps it’s a hobby of theirs.)  They then decide that the woman is at the well when she is because she is cut off from society because of her sexual shame.  That doesn’t fit too well with the situation later in the scene when the people of the town listen to her and believe Jesus to be the Savior because of her word.  People listen to her.  She seems not to be so shamed and shameful, after all.

And as to the parade of husbands: she has no control over such things.  Husbands die, leaving widows who may not have been able to own property or conduct their own affairs (historians argue about the exact arrangement of things).  And husbands could dismiss wives quite casually, for reasons that included “not finding delight in her,” perhaps because she burned supper.  And the fact that her current mate was not her husband only meant that HE would not grant her official status as a wife.  She again had no control or agency in that area.

Interpreters are also fascinated with the fact that she is a SAMARITAN woman

As a result, they invent all sorts of social practices for which we have precious little historical evidence.  Samaritans and Jews did indeed have a distrust for each other in common, but little else.

But if you begin at that point, you might well miss a main point of the scene

Samaritans and Jews are shown to have a great many things in common beyond distrust.  They have a key ancestor in common: Jacob, whose name was also Israel.  And with that significant name comes a shared history: they both wrestle with God, for one thing.

For another thing, they share the history that goes back nearly to the time of David.  That shared memory shows itself in the way they address each other.  She is a Samaritan.  She calls him a “Judean.”  The word in Greek is Ἰουδαῖος, which is often translated as “Jew.”  “Judean” is a better translation, especially in this scene.  Translating it that way makes it clear that she misunderstands him, at least in some measure.  Jesus is not from Judea, he is a Galilean, and that makes him culturally and linguistically somewhat different.  Judeans could hear the difference any time he opened his mouth.  Others could not.  Imagine not being able to distinguish a New Jersey accent from one rooted in Georgia.  My friends from Texas can tell the difference between West Texas and East.  I can distinguish Wisconsin English from Minnesotan.  Samaritans, apparently, might not be able to make such fine distinctions.

That, however, seems a little unlikely.

It might be more useful (interpretively) to focus, again, on what they share: the memory of the Assyrian Exile.  She is a Samaritan who lives in Samaria.  She remembers that “Samaria” is one of the names given to the old Northern Kingdom that was conquered by Assyria and destroyed in Exile.  This memory and this identification link her with the tribes who were lost forever when Assyria destroyed the old Northern Kingdom some 750 years earlier.  Ever since the Jews of the Northern Kingdom were conquered and scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire, Jewish faith has waited for their return.  Apocalyptic promises of the healing of the world regularly include mention of the re-gathering of the lost tribes.  The woman who meets Jesus in conversation at the well of Jacob/Israel in Samaria embodies a promise of this long-awaited return.

But “Samaria” was a contested symbol.  It was not just a reminder of the loss of 10/12 of the Jewish family.  It was also the name given to the people left behind on the land during the Babylonian Exile.  The name was given to them by Ezra and the other returnees who came to rebuild Jerusalem and re-establish the kingdom and culture that had been destroyed.  Ezra imagined that rebuilding the people required creating sharp separations from the people of the land.  The book of Ruth argues that Ezra was wrong.  Ruth argues that if such rigid rejection had been practiced in the really old days, King David would never have been born.  John’s storyteller agrees.

John’s storyteller, in fact, shows us a woman of Samaria who has real theological competence.

She knows how Jews and Samaritans worship, and knows that her practice is rooted in historical precedent.  The storyteller shows us even more.  The storyteller shows us that this woman expects Messiah (and that she expects Messiah in both Hebrew and Greek, just in case Jesus knows only one of the languages that Jews used to read Torah and to pray).  She is not a shameful, despised outsider, not according to the storyteller.  This woman shows the same deep awareness of the Jewish faith that we just saw in Nicodemus.

And it’s not only her.  At the end of the scene, her entire village is convinced (by her word and that of Jesus) that Messiah has come to rescue the world.  The people of Samaria are revealed to have been waiting along with the Judeans, waiting together with all of the cosmos for the promises of God to be kept.

As interpreters have long recognized, there is more than one voice speaking to tell John’s story.

Some of the voices are harsh and rejecting.  One of the voices has Jesus calling Jews (or Judeans?) the children of the devil.

We need to be done with such voices.  The voice that speaks in this scene tells the story of a world in which there are more allies than rigid rejectors would ever guess.  The voice in this scene sees signs of restoration loose in the cosmos, and expects this to be evidence of the love of God that also sings in the scene with Nicodemus.

And one of the voices that speaks in this scene is that of a woman who clearly understands all of this.

Maybe the fact that she has been pushed away by the patriarchy makes her able to hope for (and recognize) restoration.  Maybe the fact that she has felt the effect of rigid religious rejection has helped her to wait for Messiah.  (There are, after all, descendants of Ezra in every faith and in every community.)  Whatever it is, she gets it.  And the people of her town listen to her.  It’s time we did, too.


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