Josh, our pastor is on leave in August, so some us “laymen” are filling in for the preaching. I am on the roster for the week of 14 August, with the topic of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42.
I’m going to cheat a little in my preparation by posting some of my thoughts here. I don’t intend to use all of them in my presentation, but if you would like to post a comment or query in advance, please feel free to do so – it will help me discern what might be important or interesting to my audience, rather than what is important or interesting to me.
The Writing of the Gospel
For a more detailed discussion, see the Introduction to John's Gospel in the New Bible Commentary (NBC), from which I gleaned most of the following.
Oral tradition attributes the authorship of John’s Gospel to the Apostle John; the one referred to as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in John 21:7 etc. and I don’t see any compelling reason to contend it.
The author picks up the narrative of Jesus as he enters his public ministry in Galilee, and follows it to Jerusalem (John, like Mark, omits the nativity narrative). There are many intimate details in the accounts that imply the author as an eyewitness, such as the number of stone jars at the marriage in Cana (John 2:6), the name of the guard whom Jesus healed (Malchus, in John 18:10), and the machinations and courtyard layout of Jesus’ trial (John 18:15-18 etc.).
A couple of potential objections need to be noted; nowhere does John identify himself as the author (though this is the norm for Biblical literature), he appears to regard the Jews as a race apart, and his thinking was markedly Hellenistic. The Hellenistic tone of the Gospel of John is probably the strongest objection there is, but I can see an equally strong counter-argument in that the author could have contextualized his message by using the language and perspective of the leading Greek philosophers of the time (including Philo of Alexandria and the Hermetica). This contextualization would fit well with one of the Gospel’s major themes; that the Word had come into the world of all peoples, not just the world of the Jews (as we shall see with the Samaritan woman), and the author saw it as his mission to give the message a meaningful context in the Greek world.
The date for the writing of the Gospel is impossible to pinpoint. There is good ground for supposing that Justin (c AD150) knew and used the Gospel, and possibly that Ignatius (c AD115) also knew it (NBC). Two Second century manuscripts show the existence and circulation of the Gospel. Scholars generally believe that it post-dates the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which puts the writing of John’s Gospel at around AD90.
In considering all this, it appears to me that a young John joined Jesus around AD30, followed him through his ministry, trial and execution, and was profoundly affected by the experience. He would have spoken his recollections through his middle life and wrote them down as he approached old age around AD90.
The current popularity of the Gospel of John
An ad-hoc survey on FaceBook recently posed the question about what part of the Bible people would keep if they were threatened with some kind of sanction for doing so. The Gospel of John was voted Number 1.
I don’t think the person who initiated the survey, nor the people who responded, had any intention of ranking the books of the Bible in order of importance, but I find the survey revealing in terms of the current attitude in the believing community on-line. A couple of decades ago, I think the same survey might have crowned Paul’s epistle to the Romans as Number 1, or perhaps Luke’s Gospel. Romans is strongly didactic (it tells us our status and what we should do about it in concrete terms) and Luke is reassuringly factual, both of which would have suited the Evangelical Church’s sense of self-confidence in the 70’s and 80’s.
By contrast, John speaks in picture-language and draws us into a world of divine mystery in which events and words have a heavenly significance that overshadows their immediate context. Instead of speaking about our situation and our behavior, like Romans, John presents us with the supreme model in the person and story of Jesus. Instead of explaining the unseen realm of God, John describes it and invites us to gaze deeply into it, like an icon. John does not present a mythical super-human Jesus, but grounds his vision of divinity very firmly in human flesh (we’ll see how dependent John’s Jesus is on other human beings in the story of the Samaritan woman).
Given that people who express themselves on FaceBook are more likely to be educated and literate (the minimum requirement is that you can read and write, and drive a computer), they are more likely to be attracted to the intellectual challenge of John’s other-worldy perspective on the world in which we live. Could it be that current Evangelicalism is more inclined to savor the mystery of the Gospel now than a couple of decades ago, when it was all about proclaiming a compelling proof? Perhaps, in future, another book in the Bible will rise in popularity to balance out today's starry-eyed mystics. If I was a gambling type, I might put an outside bet on Ruth.
Later on, I’ll get to the context of this encounter and it’s rather surprising outcomes, before exploring what this story means in our context.