Third Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2020
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this Reading,
but there is available a
The opening chapters in John (chapters 2-4) may be construed as a series of examples to illustrate the theme stated in 1:17, "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The stories in chapters 2-4 illustrate the new thing that has come through Jesus Christ, bringing to fullness that which was incomplete. Consider the following accounts in chapters 2-4 which illustrate how the old religion has been surpassed by the new reality of Jesus Christ:
1. In the miracle at Cana, the turning of water into wine, the new wine of Jesus is so much better than the old wine. As a result of the miracle, the disciples of Jesus believed in him (2:10-11).
2. At the cleansing of the temple in chapter 2, Jesus says to the people, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The statement puzzles the hearers. But John interprets it to be a reference to the resurrection of Jesus, the new "temple of his body" (2:21). The new temple of the body of Jesus takes the place of the old Jerusalem temple that was indeed destroyed in AD 70.
3. In the story of Nicodemus in John 3 there is an encounter between the old religion of Pharisaic Judaism and the new movement represented by Jesus and the Johannine community.
Now in chapter 4 Jesus will confront a Samaritan woman and through her story there will be a new resolution to the age-old alienation between Samaritans and Jews, as well as a true understanding of worship. This is another illustration of the idea that what this world needs is the new thing that Jesus brings.
In many ways, however, the story of the Samaritan woman stands in stark contrast to the Nicodemus narrative in the previous chapter. Note the following differences:
1. Nicodemus is a man, apparently a member of the Sanhedrin, and therefore highly respected. The Samaritan woman has two strikes against her: she is a woman, and she is a Samaritan. The inferior status of women in the ancient world is well known and needs no comment. Note the astonishment of the disciples when they discover that Jesus is speaking to a woman (v. 27). As far as her being Samaritan, the hostility between Jews and Samaritans is well documented and is explicitly referred to in the statement by John that Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (v. 9).
2. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, teacher of the law, the epitome of strict morality. On the other hand, the Samaritan woman is living with a man who is not her husband.
3. The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus occurs at night and is initiated by Nicodemus. The encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus occurs at noon, in broad daylight, and is initiated by Jesus.
4. Nicodemus responds to Jesus with uncertainty, misunderstanding and caution. At the end of the story we do not know whether Nicodemus confessed Jesus as Messiah. With the Samaritan woman, although initially uncertain, she not only ends up believing in him but also goes and tells everybody in town about the encounter she had with Jesus. That results in many Samaritans coming to Jesus, hearing his word, and making the affirmation, "We know that this is truly the Savior of the world" (v. 42).
We might also look at the story of the Samaritan woman from another perspective: the symbolism of water. The theme of water with spiritual symbolism crops up in several places in John. Look at the following occurrences (not counting references to literal, non-symbolic water):
1. The turning of water to wine, as noted earlier, plays on the theme of the newness of Jesus being so much better than the old, and as a result the disciples believe in Jesus (2:11-12)
2. Nicodemus is told he must be born of water and the Spirit (3:5)
3. In the story of the Samaritan woman the symbolism of water is unmistakable (4:14).
4. Rivers of living water springing up from one's belly are explicitly identified as a reference to the Spirit, which believers in Jesus were to receive (7:38-39).
5. It is also possible to see symbolic allusions in the water and blood that came out from Jesus' side on the cross (19:34-35)
The story of the Samaritan woman begins with the note in vv. 1-4 that Jesus "had to go through Samaria" on his way from Judea to Galilee. This necessity may simply be because going through Samaria shortened travel time. On the other hand, John probably implies that Jesus lived his life and did his ministry by divine appointment rather than accidental occurrences. Thus the encounter he will have with the Samaritan woman is not simply accidental but part of the divine purpose which Jesus comes to fulfill.
The introductory paragraph in the story (vv. 1-6) tells of Jesus' arrival in the Samaritan town of Sychar where the story will take place. The story proper, which begins at v. 7, may be viewed as a drama with three acts. The first act consists of two scenes, as it were. The first scene is a dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman on the subject of water (vv. 7-15). The second scene is a dialogue between them on the subject of true worship (vv. 16-26).
The second act (27-42) begins with the return of the disciples who had gone to town to buy food. When they come back, the woman leaves to tell the townspeople about this man with whom she had her amazing encounter. While the woman is gone, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the urgency of the work in which he is engaged, to the point that he has no interest in food (vv. 27-38).
In the third act (vv. 39-42) we see the return of the woman along with fellow Samaritans and the climax of the story in which they confess Jesus to be the Savior of the world.
When I refer to this account as story, I am not making any judgment about the question of historicity of the event. The point of departure for this commentary will be to ask about John's theology concerning Jesus and the Samaritans, not to inquire into the historical credibility of the story. However, I am assuming that an event such as this one is at some level historically plausible in the life setting of Jesus, even though John's theological interests have shaped the story as we have it now.
The story begins as Jesus arrives at Jacob's well at noon, no doubt tired and thirsty from the long journey in the hot sun. This is one of several places in John where the humanity of Jesus is alluded to as a reminder that the Word truly became flesh (1:14). When a Samaritan woman comes to draw water, Jesus asks her to give him a drink. Although Jesus asks for a drink, the text never says that he received one. Later in the story when the disciples come back with the groceries, Jesus does not eat, commenting that his food is to do God's work (v. 34). John, who is concerned with the spiritual symbolism of water and food, intends to show that in Jesus the Samaritan woman and her compatriots will find true spiritual resources.
The woman is surprised that Jesus has asked her for a drink and says, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (v. 9). Here Jesus is given the label Jew by the Samaritan woman, while at 8:48 he is labeled a Samaritan by the Jews. Both of these labels are given to him in less than a friendly manner, to say the least. He is a stranger to both groups. "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him" (1:11). This hostile relationship between Jews and Samaritans apparently goes back to post-exilic times, and after so many centuries the wounds still festered. The use of racial slurs continues to drive a wedge between the two groups.
Jesus tells the woman that if she knew the gift of God and who it was that was speaking to her, she would have asked him and he would have given her living water (v. 10). By breaking the silence and going against the social customs, conventions, prejudices and the hostilities between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus becomes the gift of God that this woman and others need. Someone must take a risk, challenge the unspoken rules of social structures and norms, and break down walls that alienate people, to open up the possibilities of experiencing the gift of God. Jesus takes that risk. There is of course a price to pay when such risks are taken, and Jesus will pay a great price.
The woman cannot understand this unfolding of divine revelation without further help. She misunderstands what Jesus says. Human beings cannot reach God unaided but only through the initiative taken by God in prevenient grace. Thus Jesus must explain what he means. The woman thinks Jesus is offering her literal water, but Jesus helps her understand that what this world has to offer cannot satisfy her deepest needs. The water that Jesus can give her will become "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (v. 12).
The woman still misunderstands what Jesus meant. She says, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water" (v. 15). But perhaps underneath this misunderstanding, much like Nicodemus's puzzle over having to be born a second time, there is a veiled and obscured recognition of a genuine desire for something more than what Jacob's well can provide. Jesus must not only provide those spiritual resources but also bring the woman to the place where she can recognize her need for them and enable her to receive them.
In verses 16-18 another act in the drama unfolds. Jesus tells the woman to call her husband and come back. She says, "I have no husband." Jesus replies that she has spoken the truth in saying she has no husband. In fact, Jesus tells her, she has had five husbands and the one she is living with now is not her husband. At this the woman is surprised that Jesus knows so much about her and begins to surmise that he may be a prophet and turns the subject to a religious issue that has been a bone of contention between Samaritans and Jews. Where is the right place to worship God, she asks, Mount Gerizim, as we Samaritans say, or Jerusalem, as you Jews say (v. 20)?
Let's be careful that we don't turn the woman's surprise and her change of subject into psychoanalysis or theological commentary on the nature of sin. Some commentators have seen in the woman's response a dodging of the sin issue and a quick change of subject to avoid this embarrassing development. The argument goes something like this: Jesus is trying to have her face the reality of her sin, that she is living in adultery, and the reason she came at noon was that she was a prostitute. Now she has to face and confess this sin before she can find satisfaction in her life. But she is not willing to do that and instead comes up with a ploy to shift the attention away from her marital life to a theological discussion that has nothing to do with her sinful life.
That sort of interpretation is actually reading too much into the story. What is John's purpose in structuring the story the way it is? Simply this, that Jesus knows details about her life even though they are perfect strangers. The intention is to bring her to the first step of her faith journey, that is, to help her realize who he is. It was a way for Jesus to get her attention. Nothing is said about her having to confess her secret sin of adultery. That is not the point that the Gospel writer wants to make. This is not to deny that sin must be faced and confessed before there can be true change. But that is not the intent of this story.
The text does not tell us what the woman did about her marital situation. If Jesus was really probing her personal life and she was using delaying tactics to avoid it, Jesus would surely have brought her back to the subject! But nothing of the sort happens in the text. Jesus does not pursue the subject of her marital status. And the text never tells us that she brought her man and had a marriage ceremony to legitimize their relationship. Instead, Jesus gives a lengthy statement about true worship, the subject that the woman herself had brought up, and at the end of it Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah, which in turn leads her to faith in him. In other words, the change in her comes about because Jesus reveals himself to her, not because she did something about her own sin. The change comes not from within her but from Jesus. She is saved not because he reveals her sin but because he reveals himself to her.
This growth in understanding on the part of the woman moves through several stages: first, she calls him a Jew, then sir or lord, then prophet, and finally Messiah. And even beyond that, when the Samaritans come to hear Jesus, the affirmation of faith reaches its climax when they declare that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Step by step Jesus is leading her in her faith journey. It is not a natural growth, evolution, or maturation of faith undertaken by herself alone. Jesus has an active role in leading her to true and liberating faith. This is very similar to the faith journey of the blind man in John 9, one of the Lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent which will be discussed next week.
The subject of true worship, which Jesus discusses with the woman, is at the heart of what John wants to communicate in this story. It is not a digression; it is central to Johannine theology, as will be shown below.
When the woman comes to the realization that Jesus is a prophet, she poses to him a theological issue that divided Jews from Samaritans. Whereas Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim was the proper place of worship, Jews insisted that the proper place was Jerusalem (v. 20). The Samaritans, whose canon included only the Torah (the five books of Moses), could cite Deuteronomy 11:29; 12:5; 27:12 in support of Mount Gerizim as the place of worship appointed by God. Jews, on the other hand, would cite the promises of God to David and Solomon in Samuel and Kings in support of Jerusalem as the proper place of worship.
So who is right, the woman asks. Jesus says, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (v. 21). In verse 23 we find the same time reference, the hour is coming, but it is further qualified with "and is now here." This designation of a future and a present hour is a reference both to the time of Jesus and the later time of the Gospel writer. As in other places in John, we are hearing not only the voice of Jesus but also the voice of the Johannine community. In Jesus Christ true worship is no longer a matter of this place or that place, but a matter of worshiping God in spirit and in truth (vv. 23-24). Spirit and truth are not abstract ideas. They are specifically related to Jesus Christ throughout the Gospel of John. In the farewell discourses Jesus speaks of the Spirit of truth as a reference to the Holy Spirit (14:26:15:26; 16:7).
One may be puzzled by the exclusivist tone of verse 22: "You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews." This does not sound like the inclusivist, reconciling, loving manner and message of Jesus. Given the plural "you" and "we," we may very well be hearing not simply the voice of Jesus but also the voice of the Johannine community. This community was formed by faith in Jesus Christ and is now addressing other groups like Samaritans who are still hanging on to their old traditions without recognizing the fact that God has done something new in Jesus Christ that supersedes the old systems and structures.
The last part of the verse, "salvation is from the Jews," may be even more puzzling to modern ears that are used to political correctness, tolerance of any and all views and perspectives, and an open-mindedness that borders on bland indifference. In contrast, the Gospel of John is written from the perspective of a community that is struggling to maintain its identity in the face of increasing hostility from opponents (see 16:2). Yet in spite of opposition, even from fellow Jews, the Johannine community does not cut itself off from its roots in the Old Testament and in Judaism. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ (5:39). Moses "wrote about me," Jesus says (5:46). The Gospel of John does not deny its Jewish heritage. Salvation is certainly through Christ, but its roots lie in the history of the Jews.
The Samaritan woman knows from her tradition that when the Messiah comes he will proclaim all things, apparently agreeing that the time will come when such differences between Jews and Samaritans about the proper place of worship will fade into insignificance. Thereupon Jesus proclaims to her, "I am he" (v. 26).
It is not certain whether the woman affirms faith in Jesus as Messiah right then and there. She apparently still has some questions in her mind, judging from the way she phrases her announcement to the townspeople: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (v. 29). According to verse 39, many Samaritans believe in Jesus because of the woman's testimony that Jesus has told her everything she has ever done.
Here the basis of faith in Jesus is that he possesses miraculous, supernatural knowledge. This type of faith is still inadequate compared to the final stage of faith when the Samaritans come to hear Jesus himself and on that basis affirm that he is truly the Savior of the world (v. 42). They make this affirmation of faith, they say, no longer because of the woman's word but because they have heard Jesus for themselves. Although human witnesses are useful and are not to be disparaged, the ultimate and definitive revelation comes through Jesus himself (cf. 1:18; 5:34). The faith of the Samaritans is no longer because of what the woman said but because they themselves have encountered Jesus personally. Compared to the word of Jesus as revealer, all other words are lalia (chatter), the word used in verse 42 for the woman's testimony.
Several preaching possibilities may have already suggested themselves in the above reflections on the account in John 4. One intriguing point in the story is the audacity of Jesus to disregard social conventions, customs, and expectations for the purpose of redemptive involvement in the lives of human beings. Jesus simply disregards the centuries-old impasse between Jews and Samaritans and the social taboo of rabbis having lengthy conversations with women in public.
We know from the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus was often criticized for his public behavior in ways that offended such religious and social sensibilities as eating without washing his hands and having dinner with people deemed morally dubious. How willing or ready is the church today as a corporate body or individual Christians to cross barriers that have been artificially erected by society? Has the church really done all that it could to take on the issue of racial prejudice? What about prejudice based on gender and economic status? How ready is the church to minister to people whose morality does not measure up to the church's standards? Jesus had the capacity to liberate people from their bondage, prejudice, and sin because he was himself willing to cross boundaries in order to get close to them.
It should be noted that Jesus acts as he does in this story not as an assumed role in order to accomplish an evangelistic goal. The reason he acts the way he does is that this is who he is. He does not assume a role to accomplish something. He simply is who he is. And because he is who he is, he causes people to take a second look at themselves, at their prejudices, at their assumptions, at their sins.
When you are thirsty, the natural thing to do is to ask for a drink. Why is it that such a simple human act of asking for a drink of water can become such a big deal? Why is it that one cannot talk just to anybody? Why is it that not long ago in American history a black person could not do such a simple thing as getting a drink of water at any old water fountain? Why is it that physical features or skin color will determine which place of worship people will go to on Sunday morning? Has the church today lost its revolutionary character because we have forgotten who we are and have become too much like the culture at large?
I am amazed at the ease with which Jesus can be redemptive for a person of high status such as Nicodemus on one hand and an ordinary or even despised person such as a Samaritan woman on the other hand. He can do that not because he assumes different roles with different people but because he simply is who he is. His character and his person are the source of his redemptive power. He is the Word that has become flesh and dwelt among us.
Perhaps what we need to learn most is not more strategies, plans, methods and programs, as useful as these may be, but a more serious look at who we are and were meant to be as the people of God. If Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God, and if the people of God derive their identity from him, then it is necessary that we explore what it means for the church to be incarnational in this world. In order for the church to be redemptive and a channel for God's gift of grace to the world, it will mean doing things that may challenge the status quo, the social expectations and norms, the artificial boundaries that society has set up, whether racial, economic or political.
What Jesus does in his conversation with the Samaritan woman is at the heart of Johannine theology. At the end of the story many Samaritans will confess Jesus as Savior. But before that happens Jesus patiently must lead one woman in her faith journey. At the beginning of this journey she gives Jesus a name that alienates--Jew. Then she is led to recognize him as prophet, then Messiah, and finally along with fellow Samaritans, Savior of the world.
We become impatient. We want instant results. Discipleship is too time consuming. Rather than allowing individuals to progress in their faith journey at their own pace as God continues to work in their lives, we insist that everything be taken care of in one or two religious experiences.
Recognizing and confessing Jesus as Savior of the world, as great as that is, still is not the ultimate end toward which Jesus is calling people. Throughout the Gospel Jesus repeatedly says that his mission is to accomplish the will of the Father. He has come to point people to God. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the move from the dialogue about spiritual water that Jesus himself will give her to the dialogue about true worship. The move is not arbitrary or coincidental. It is not simply a ploy orchestrated by the woman to avoid a painful subject, the subject of her marital status. The worship of God in spirit and in truth is at the heart of Christian theology.
To state it as simply as possible, the deepest human needs cannot be met simply by focusing on them or even on the means by which Christ can meet those needs. So much of our worship these days is self-directed if not self-centered. Take for example the statement that people sometimes make about a worship service: "I didn't get much out of this service;" or the constant barrage of songs and choruses that focus on human feelings rather than the person of God. The call of Jesus is that we move away from narcissistic preoccupation with ourselves, our own needs, and even our spiritual needs, and move toward a stance of adoration and openness before God in true worship. In other words, when we take our attention away from us and direct it to the worship of God in spirit and in truth, it is then that we begin to experience what it means to have rivers of living water gushing up to eternal life.
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