I have read a number of commentaries and they appear to fall into two camps;
• The majority view (Tom Wright, Colin Kruse, Donald Guthrie) that regards the woman as a kind of rustic simpleton who is stunned into believing Jesus by the demonstration of his supernatural knowledge of her marital circumstances
• The minority view (Roy Clements) that the woman engages Jesus in some intellectual sparring
As yet, I don’t see any compelling case in the objective evidence why one view should prevail over the other. I think the decision each individual commentator takes might have as much to do with his own perspective and preconceptions as anything else. For the purposes of my meditations today, I’m siding with the minority view for no better reason than that I like it.
That’s not saying that the “other” camp is wrong, or that it has nothing to bring to the table. I found Kruse’s discussion on the authorship of the Gospel most informative, and all of the commentator’s observations resonate with the Christian experience. I humbly submit that I could be wrong. However, having planted my flag in the minority camp, I now need to defend it.
The issue here is whether I’ve “tuned in” to John’s way of thinking. I’m working from the presumption that John sees significance in everything he writes. One of his distinctive characteristics is the inclusion of apparently incidental detail (“…it was about noon”, “His disciples had gone to buy food…”, “…leaving her water jar…” John 4:6, 4:8, 4:28). These details are not the mere “padding” that gives the story vitality and context; they are integral players and they mark things of real significance. These details are “pointers”, just as the word is a pointer to the reality behind what we can perceive (the trajectory of John 1:1 etc). There are multiple meanings to each pointer, but each one ultimately points to Christ.
Before I proceed, I might need another clarification here. I don’t think John is saying something, but meaning something else. I think he is saying something and meaning something else. John’s meanings overlap in layers. In our 21st Century mind-set, we are used to linear logic (one thing leads to another, and to another, and so on), whereas John stacks his meanings on top of each other. That’s what I mean by “tuning in” when we read his Gospel.
Some of these “pointers” are more easily read than others. Unsurprisingly, the commentators come to a consensus on the “easy” pointers, but the “hard” ones are usually left unattended. So, I offer my “working hypothesis” reading of this passage, as follows, in an attempt to identify the pointers and what it is that they are pointing to. This is a necessarily selective process, and if I omit something of importance, or interpret a pointer wrongly, I sincerely ask for your forbearance.
Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
Jacob’s well provides the scene, but also the context. It is both a real place, and a metaphor. The place is easily identified, but the metaphor is often overlooked. The Samaritans considered themselves to be the true legacy of the Biblical patriarchs. The “well” they drew from was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as it was written in the Five Books of Moses. The remarkable thing here is that Jesus comes into the community that is clustered around this well, which clearly signals that his Gospel might be “from the Jews” (John 4:22), but it is for the world (John 3:16), including those neighbors who are antagonistic to his own people. Jesus takes the initiative in the peace process (see Matt 5:9) and offers an alternative to the cycle of violence between these communities.
Jesus is tired from the journey, and sits down to take a break. Big deal, we might say. John, however, wants us to see Jesus’ true humanity. John stresses that Jesus is no super-human, nor even a god in an “earth-suit”, but his “taking on flesh” (John 1:14) brings him fully into our world and our experience of life and death (see Phil 2:5-11). The proto-Gnostics of the Greco-Roman world, by contrast, could not comprehend why the “pure” Divinity would get entangled and corrupted in the dirt of our material existence, so they devised a speculative scheme in which the “Christ” inhabited the body of Jesus, fleeing just before he died on the cross, and returning at the resurrection. Such a view is strongly contested by John, who sees no distinction between the Jesus the man and Jesus the Divine Logos that originated the entire cosmos (see John 1:1-5, Col 1:16-17 etc).
About noon is the hottest part of the day, when all the sensible people are taking a break indoors. All the commentators note that this is an unusual time for the anonymous woman to be filling her jars, and all infer that she has chosen this time to avoid contact with her neighbors. The patent reason for her evasive strategy is her sexually adventurous lifestyle, which will come to light a little further on in this encounter.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food).Jesus blatantly crosses several boundaries here, which would have sent his conservatively-minded Jewish peers into conniptions. His behavior is shocking, even scandalous.
First, he crosses over from the Jewish side to the Samaritan side. When John writes “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans”, he is being diplomatic in the extreme. In practice, the two were at each other’s throats, and Josephus records that they had come to violent clashes in the first part of the first century, around the same time as this encounter. Yet, here is Jesus sitting down in Samaritan territory. What is he doing?
Second, Jewish males were expected to be highly prudish in their interactions with women. The Jewish Rabbis taught that it was improper even for a man to talk with his own wife in public. Yet, here is Jesus initiating a conversation with a “half-caste” woman. What is he doing?
Third, in separating themselves from the Samaritans, the Jews considered food touched by Samaritan hand to be unclean. I’m not sure what the Rabbis would have thought of water, but they were extraordinarily fussy about what they ate. Rabbinical tradition made a distinction between food that was given, and food that was bought; the former was considered unclean, but the latter was appropriate (Community Rule/Manual of Discipline 5:14-20, after Kruse). Therefore Jesus’ disciples could buy food from the Samaritans (John 4:8), even though it was a risky business given the tensions between the two communities. Yet, here is Jesus asking the woman to give him water. What is he doing?
Finally, the promised Messiah asks a lowly Samaritan for assistance. We, like John’s primary audience, might think it appropriate for the High King to be served by his subjects. But, what I find shocking here is that he needs her. What is he doing?
On this last point, Jesus could have summoned a thousand angels to tend to him, as Satan so deliciously points out in another context (Matt 4:6). However, the Mighty God and Savior of Israel humbles himself to the point at which he is reliant on the ministrations of a woman. Its not the first time, as Mary’s part in the story richly demonstrates (see the Nativity Narrative in Luke 1:26-38). The theology that I read in this is that God could simply do whatever it is He wants to do, but He has set things up such that He needs our inputs. This, I think, is a purely voluntary position that God adopts, and He does it in order to elevate our humble, inadequate service to the heights of His Grand Plan. In other words, God brings us in as partners in His work, not just it’s passive subjects. God works with us, not simply over us, for our ultimate good. This is of critical importance to Christian thinking; the ultimate purpose of God is not simply to create some kind of abstract perfection; His purpose is to redeem you, and me, and the people around us, whoever they may be. To put it in the New Testament idiom; He comes down to us, that we all might rise with Him.
I have run out of time, and there are other things I need to do this week. But I hope to return to the story in subsequent posts.
• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996
• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.
• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003
• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003