Saturday, July 30, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 7

I am continuing my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts on this passage. I started an eclectic commentary from John 4:6 to 4:14, and this week I ought to get to John 4:42 if I have any chance of finishing my preparations.

John 4:15
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
When I read this, I can’t help but hear a pitiful tone in the woman’s plea. She wants her old well to work, but it doesn’t. It has become a burden and a chore, and all it yields is lifeless water that has to be replaced every day by her own efforts. As I noted previously, I believe she is speaking on two levels; on one level she is speaking about the physical well and the banality of her existence; on the other she is speaking about her culture and religion. She pleads Jesus to deliver her from the living death that she currently endures.

John 4:16
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Here’s the catch; if you want to be delivered into life, then you’ve got to deal with the death in your life. The woman wanted the living water that Jesus offered, but Jesus tells her that she cannot have both it and the sin that brings death. You can be free, says Jesus; I open the door, but you still need to walk out of the prison.

Why did Jesus tell the woman to go and fetch her husband? It’s another query that I don’t seem able to find a fully satisfying answer to. Possibly, he’s reluctant to “convert” her in the absence of the man who should have been her guardian-protector but, if this is the case, why initiate the dialog with her in the first place? Possibly, he is concerned to “convert” her husband at the same time, though it is almost certain that he will be an embarrassing “no show”. Most likely, Jesus is already fully aware of the woman’s situation, and he uses a social nicety to get to a very tricky subject.

John 4:17-18
“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Remarkably, the woman does not deny her circumstances, but is disarmingly open and frank about them. It’s as if she is saying, “If you want to deal with me, you’ve got to deal with the real me, and not some romantic vision of me that you might have in your head”. I like this kind of bluntness. It tells me that this woman was someone to be reckoned with, and not some simple rustic who is overwhelmed into believing by Jesus’ charisma.

At first sight, Jesus’ reply looks somewhat condescending because he appears to sermonize and blunder about the subject. Did she surprise him with her answer? Did she force him onto the back foot? Such a view, however, does not fit with Jesus’ awareness of her situation because he already knows that she has had five husbands and the latest man in her life is too lazy or self-absorbed to make a decent woman of her. It seems more likely that Jesus is articulating their shared thoughts on the subject. It might be the first time that the woman had found someone who actually acknowledged and engaged in her predicament.

This, I believe, is another example of the conversation occurring in more than one dimension. Doubtless, the immediate subject is the woman’s sexual relations. However, there’s another narrative arc in play that concerns the Samaritans’ legendary unfaithfulness to God (which I explored earlier). Through this exchange, John seems to be saying, “This is the practical outworking of a religion that is faithless”. In other words, the woman’s situation is indicative or typical of the Samaritan way. It has been observed many times before, that human culture tends to take on the character of the Gods it worships. If the Samaritans had been faithless towards the One God, then they would tend to be faithless towards each other in marriage.

John 4:19-20
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Most commentators (e.g. Wright) see this as an attempt by the woman to steer the conversation away from her personal choices. I disagree; if this were the case, she might have been more evasive in her preceding statement, unless Jesus had caught her off guard and she suddenly found herself cornered.

To be fair to the commentators, most of them read this within the context of their pastoral experience, and they have grown wary of the deflections people sometimes use to evade searching questions. As Tom Wright notes, there is no better deflection than religion. Even so, if a deflection is what the woman had in mind, then she succeeded in it by getting Jesus on to the subject in his consequent remarks. I have to object to this on the basis that this supposed ability to deflect Jesus does not sit well with John’s portrayal of him. John’s Jesus is someone who cannot be deflected from his mission.

So, what is going on here? The woman has moved the topic of conversation from husbands to temples. To me, this makes sense when we view the conversation as a multi-layered sandwich, rather than a linear string of comments. If the woman’s marital situation typifies the Samaritan religion, then the conversation should turn to the issue of temples. I have previously commented on the friction between Jew and Samaritan over their respective temples, and I don’t intend to rehash it all here, but suffice to say that this very question is the burning issue of the day. This is the number one item on the agenda, and from it come all the answers to everything else, including the question of how the woman found herself in her situation with her many men. Her question about Temples provides the framework within which she takes her points of reference. The question and its context would have made perfect sense to John’s primary audience, but it looks odd to us because our Temples operate very differently from theirs.

If I were to paraphrase the question, it would be something like this; “We know that our self-identity was given to our forefathers by God, but the well that our forefathers gave us does not deliver life. We know that the way passed to us by our forefathers has become a chore and a burden, and we now find ourselves in a kind of living death. We are looking for a way out, and you Jews have told us that you have it. The problem is, your way is no better than our way, and you only seem intent on obliterating our traditions and self-identity in order to get us to qualify for entry into your Temple. No thanks. We don’t want to come to your party.”

John 4:21-24
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Dear reader, please pay careful attention to what Jesus does not say. If the purpose of Jesus mission was to create a new religion, or even to promote an old one refurbished and made-over, he should have launched into a diatribe at this point about how his temple was better than anyone else’s. But he doesn’t. In fact, he says that neither of the two temples in the shared experience of Jew and Samaritan would be the locale for true worship. Jesus statement is unbelievably revolutionary, even blasphemous. We can only imagine how shocking and scandalous this message would have been in the ancient world.

Jesus emancipates the true worship of God from the bounds of the temple system, but on what basis? Jesus is no proto-humanist, so he is not giving way to a laissez-faire religion in which everybody can do whatever he or she likes, or even decline to take part if they so wish. These options are simply not available in the remainder of John’s Gospel, or in the rest of the Bible. Nor is Jesus promoting the kind of internalized, privatized and psychologised religion that prevails in current western culture (Jesus’ religion was something that was expressed in public and embraced the community, in which the individual was seen as a vital component but not the end-goal). The true worship that Jesus sees is “in the Spirit and in truth”. What I think matters to Jesus is not the location of the worship, whether it be in this building or that, but whether it connects to life outside the temple.

The reason for this paradigm-shift is profoundly simple; God is Spirit. He is not bound in the confines of any temple (even one ordained by God Himself); therefore His worshipers have access to Him wherever they are. Now, we are comfortable with such a notion (partly because we have had 2000 years to get used to it), but if we play it out in the context of first century Judaism, we get some extraordinary and noteworthy results.

I apologize if I repeat myself ad nauseam on the topic, but we have got to understand how profoundly important the temple was in the context of this encounter. The temple was many things, including the focus of the community, the source of its physical sustenance and the bank-vault for its treasures. Over and above these community functions, the temple provided the vital connection between the community and its God; the temple is where you went for forgiveness, cleansing, teaching and worship. The worst thing that could happen to you as an individual would be to be excluded from the temple, or to fail to qualify for entry into it in some way. This is because you would be cut off from all those vital things that you could only get in the temple. You would have no access to forgiveness, for example, and your sins would kill you. In the Biblical idiom, if you were cut off from the temple, you were cut off from life.

Yet, Jesus does away with the temple system.


Because all the things that the temple held forth are now found in Him. Jesus is the true Temple (see Revelation 21:22).

Jesus does not promote a religion or a temple. He claims that everything that the Temple system offers is found in him, and when he comes to you with his living water, you come to life.

If, like the religion of the Samaritan woman, your God-given religion, culture and tradition have become lifeless chores and burdens to you, I suggest it’s because Jesus is absent. He is not interested in obliterating your self-identity, culture, or even religion, though there are some aspects in all these things that you will need to leave behind if your are to embrace Him. He is interested in working with you to bring you to life.

John 4:22
You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
My reading of this is that Jesus is contrasting his heritage with the woman’s. I believe he is saying something like this; “You have some idea of God, but it’s a pretty crude picture and you don’t know it all. We Jews have the right collective experience (through the Temple and Exile) and the means to interpret that experience (the Scriptures, especially the post-Mosaic prophets that you reject). God has chosen it such that the means of your salvation has come into the world through this Jewish heritage. That means of salvation is me, and you can only make sense of me if you understand the Jewish heritage that brought me here.”

John 4:25-26
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The Samaritans had a pretty strong idea that the anointed prophet would come to them to redeem them, much as Moses had done in the past. Jesus audaciously places himself in this role.

There’s a nuance here that’s not fully conveyed in the English translations. In the Greek text, Jesus simply states “I am”; the “he” is added to our English versions to round off the grammar (ἐγὼ εἰμι, egō eimi, see Sharp-eyed readers should know that there is only One who can make this unqualified statement of being; the “I am” of Exodus 3:14. So, Jesus is not only holding himself up as the Messiah that the Samaritans were seeking, he also claims to be the very object of their religion. He is the One to whom their religion should be leading them, which is as clear an allusion to Jesus’ divinity as you can get.

Time is against me, so I’ll have to (reluctantly) skip the interactions between Jesus and his disciples in John 4:27 and 4:31-38.

John 4:28-30
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
John, the master of apparently incidental detail, notes that she left her jars –the symbols of her empty life – at the feet of Jesus. She retains her doubts and reservations, but she dares to hope to believe in him. Her change in heart is evident in the message she takes to her neighbors, who are persuaded to follow her “out of town” towards Jesus.

In reflecting on this, I can’t help but think that faith in Christ is not the “final product” that will push you over the line into a sense of unchallengeable certainty. Rather, it is something that compels you to walk out of your old ways, despite the doubts and reservations that you will always carry with you. This tells me that it is not a sense of certainty that we need to seek, but rather the courage to put one foot in front of the other and to believe that as long as we walk towards Christ, we walk towards life.

John 4:39-42
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
Having started the walk towards Jesus, the entire community began to make the connection with him. It started with one person, but grew and spread to all. I can’t help but sense that this community found itself coming to life, confronting its demons and reconciling its members to each other. The woman, who entered the story as a despised outcast, had opened the door to the community’s renewal. Jesus had given them common ground on which they could to talk to each other. They had been emancipated from a temple-system that they all knew could not deliver. It was like the lights had been switched on and, suddenly, they knew that Jesus had saved them. This new life was not only theirs to claim, but they saw that it could flow out into the world beyond their small town.

John focuses on the receptiveness of these Samaritans to the message of Jesus, but there is sad irony in his account. The Jews, who should have known, found it much harder to receive Jesus’ message (as the author recalls in John 1:11), with the exception of a sizable, dogged minority. John’s implied rebuke to the Jews is something that we would all do well to hear; why try to persuade people to come to your Temple, when you should be persuading them to come to the One to whom your Temple points?

For John, in his delightful account of the Samaritan town, the answer was simple; the One to whom the Temple points is Jesus.

To be continued…

• 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

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