Text: John 4:5-42
There is no “easing into” the fourth chapter of the Fourth Gospel. From the opening question: “How is it that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? to the final affirmation of Jesus being the Savior of the world, and everything in between, this text is twisted and complex, baffling in some places and profound in others, and nuanced at every turn.
John 4 contains one of the longest conversations between Jesus and another person found in all four Gospels. On this basis alone, this dialogue between Jesus and the woman at the well is significant. But it is not just its length that makes it significant or difficult to understand. The complexities surrounding the woman—her identity, her purpose, her understanding of what Jesus is saying to her, even who this man is—are confusing and complicated. Her questions to him are probing and border on argumentative, not a role that women often played in her society. In turn, his responses to her are, at times, just plain weird. The “go and fetch your husband” command seems totally out of place and honestly, inappropriate. It is almost as if Jesus is having a “stream of consciousness” dialogue with this woman. The conversation starts out with a seemingly simple request, “Give me a drink of water” which morphs into talking about well water vs living water, to counting husbands married to or not, to what it means to worship God, even the question of who is God, to food conversations and ending with revelations about the Messiah. Even if we can keep up with this meandering dialogue, we are left with the questions: What does it all mean? Does it teach us anything about faith and justice-love that is relevant for our times? And does it leave us with any hope or good news?
The best place to start in answering these questions is with what we know about the Gospel of John, its historical and theological context. John is usually dated around AD 90-110, much later than the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—that were written between AD 50-70. Scholars do not agree on authorship. Traditionally, Christians have identified the author as “the Disciple whom Jesus loved” mentioned in John 21, who is understood to be John son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. However, these identifications are rejected by the majority of modern biblical scholars leaving the gospel of John anonymous. “Seeing John separated from the other Gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different his Gospel is [and how different his Jesus is]. [But at the heart of John’s gospel,] in consistently metaphorical and symbolic language, is primarily ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’ to what Jesus had become in the life and thought of John’s community.” (Marcus Borg, A Chronological New Testament)
One can only fully understand the diversity of scholarship when it comes to John’s Gospel when we consider what we learned in Sunday school in our Southern Baptist churches about this Gospel and then compare that to the scholarship of theologians like John Shelby Spong. In an article written by Spong, titled Gospel of John: What Everyone Should Know About The Fourth Gospel, Spong offers a number of conclusions that he has reached after a five-year-long intensive study of John’s Gospel. Among his conclusions that are relevant for our understanding of John 4 (and I am quite sure these have rattled the theological cages of many biblical scholars, both clergy and laity, especially among the Baptists) include:
- Many of the characters who appear in the pages of the Fourth Gospel are literary creations of its author and were never intended to be understood as real people, who actually lived in history. This includes Nathaniel, who is introduced with great fanfare in chapter one…as well as the enigmatic character called by the Fourth Gospel “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who is introduced in Chapter 13…Between those two “bookend” characters, we run into such well-known figures as Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman by the well, the man crippled for 38 years and the man born blind, none of whom has ever been mentioned before in any written Christian source and each of whom in all probability is nothing more than the literary creation of the author.
- John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history. For example, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, the literalist, says: “Born again? I am a grown man! How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: “If you know 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 give you living water.” The Samaritan woman, a literalist, responds: “Man, you don’t even have a bucket!”
- The Gospel also exaggerates its details…to counter any attempt to read it literally. For example, Jesus does not just turn water into wine, he turns it into 150 gallons of wine! Jesus does not just give sight to a blind man, he gives sight to a man born blind! Jesus does not just raise a person from the dead, he raises one who has been dead and even buried for four days, one who is still bound in grave clothes and one who, according to the King James translation “already stinketh” with the odor of decaying flesh!
Spong’s conclusions are relevant because if we really believe what we say here at Pullen—that it doesn’t matter if this story of a Samaritan woman and Jesus literally happened but rather what matters is what this story can teach us about faith and the human experience with the divine—then we have an obligation to try and understand what this story is teaching us. What might those lessons be? Consider these.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well teaches us that we have a responsibility to check our assumptions and characterizations about one another, especially those different from us. With this one sentence, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Christian theology has deemed this Samaritan woman a deplorable. “That is the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. In a sermon on this passage, conservative preacher John Piper describes her as “worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.” Piper’s treatment of her is [so] characteristic of how preachers and scholars have treated this woman throughout Christian history. (David Lose, Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well) A simple Google search will produce hundreds of other commentaries and sermons that cast her in a similar light, and even worse.
But it doesn’t stop there. “The time reference to the “sixth hour,” when Jesus is said to have arrived at the well, is often interpreted to mean that the woman comes to the well in the middle of the day to avoid meeting anyone in her embarrassment. As William Barclay writes: “May it be that she was so much of a moral outcast that the women even drove her away from the village well and she had to come here to draw water alone?”‘ (JoAnn Davidson, Another Look At The Samaritan Woman)
The text offers none of this. And if we are to be honest, it is our own misogyny and moral elitism that renders such an interpretation of this text. Nowhere in the text does Jesus regard the woman from a negative perspective. “Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all.” (David Lose) Sadly, Christian tradition through its own misogyny and moral elitism has read these interpretations into this narrative. And we continue to be vulnerable of this sin.
We see a person walking down the street dressed in ragged jeans, worn shoes, and a dirty shirt and assume they are poor or homeless. We encounter a young black man wearing a hoody riding his bike in a predominately white neighborhood and we automatically assume he doesn’t live in the neighborhood and is up to “no good.” We see someone significantly overweight and we think they are lazy. We encounter a woman in a hijab and we think she is being submissive to man. We see a young person with purple hair, face piercings, and tattoos and we think they are a troubled teen whose parents have lost control. We read into the narratives of our lives our own biases and prejudices and righteous assumptions not fully seeing the person behind those biases and prejudices and righteous assumptions. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well teaches us to check the assumptions and characterizations that society, and often time we, place on people.
This conversation between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus also teaches us that we diminish all humanity, including our own, when we put people in boxes according to gender, and role, and education, and moral superiority. This becomes obvious with John’s association of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a learned Jewish rabbi [in chapter 3] and with his conversation with the Samaritan [woman in chapter 4]—[a person who society deems second class].” (JoAnn Davidson) You remember in the story of Nicodemus Jesus says to him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. To which Nicodemus, the learned Jewish rabbi, says: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
The Samaritan woman’s response to Jesus asking for a drink of water is not much different when Jesus says to 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.” At first, she responds much like Nicodemus, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” But this woman doesn’t stop there. She goes a step further and does something that the learned Jewish rabbi didn’t do. She questions Jesus. She says, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” With that, this woman stands in a brief but noble tradition of people who dare to question God. And then, even beyond her audacity to question God, she steps outside the role her society has placed on her as a woman, she steps outside the ethnic boundaries of her day, she steps outside the box that says only those with theological training can engage in theological discourse, she shatters the ceiling of moral superiority, and she owns her rightful place in proclaiming the good news as she returns to her village to tell others about her encounter with the man at the well.
Might it still be true today? That God is speaking less from the popular pulpits and the pious preachers of today and more through the woman who sleeps in her car with her three children or the man who has given up his power and privilege in the workplace to raise his children or the young adult whose wisdom comes from knowing what it is like to suffer from addiction or depression or loneliness and to search for God in the dark night of the soul. This narrative reminds us that the places where we are willing to risk encountering God may be more important than just our desire to encounter God. Are we willing to go to the wells of our society to encounter the divine? Are we willing to drink the living waters that are offered on the edges of our society? Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman stepped out of their boxes, they took risks in their willingness and openness to encounter the divine in the forbidden and restricted places of the “other.” Are we so willing?
Finally, I will close with this last lesson, acknowledging that there are many more to be explored in this story. This last lesson I offer comes from Spong’s study of the Fourth Gospel. He argues that the narratives contained in the Fourth Gospel “have nothing to do with an external God entering humanity in the person of Jesus, [as Christian creeds and traditions have taught] but are rather attempts to describe the experience of the human breaking the boundaries of consciousness and entering into the transformation available inside a sense of a mystical oneness with God. If that is so,” Spong writes, “then the Fourth Gospel [and the stories of the Fourth Gospel] has the potential to become the primary biblical source upon the basis of which Christianity can be changed dramatically to speak with radical freshness to the 21st century. And here is that change: Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine.”
Christianity has a long history of reading every story in the Bible in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance, about our need as humans to be saved by the divine. But this story is not about immorality or sinfulness or our need for repentance; it is about identity. The Samaritan woman who recognizes not only who Jesus is but who she is—a human being with the innate ability to resonate at the divine level along with Jesus. When we merely step into the boxes of Christian tradition without questions or thought, we can only see our story of faith from the perspective of the divine becoming human. But when we have the courage to step outside the boxes that our faith and those our society put us in, we become transformed and begin to see how we, the human, are becoming the divine.
The hope and the good news found in John 4 is that our faith invites us to step outside the boxes that confine us to a narrative of human sin and moral depravity. The Samaritan woman at the well has the courage to change the narrative and in so doing she teaches us how to find in our human selves our own divinity. If we dare to radically shift the narrative as she did, Christianity still has the potential to speak with radical freshness to the 21st century. This is our hope and the good news of the gospel.