Lent 3: 19 March John 4:5-42
What would it have been like hearing this story in the first readings of the gospel? One can imagine a group of believers, already attuned to the subtleties of its story tellers who had developed special skills which enabled them to give simple stories many dimensions and address the audience at many levels. The listeners would have already smiled at the character of Nicodemus whose stage presence was that of the fool who could think only at one level.
This daring retelling of a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman invites audience applause and knowing nods at many points. If it required a stage setting we might see drapes flanking the scene with hints of the great courtship meetings of the patriarchs at desert wells. The marriage theme is in the air here, too, but the focus is different. Some cultural features would need little explanation. Jews in John’s audience - and their friends - would know about prejudice against Samaritans. Perhaps some had known of Jesus’ parable which subverted the norms by making a Samaritan the hero. The respectable would sympathise with the disciples’ concern (4:27) that Jesus was conversing with a woman in public space. Women were part of the community but had their place; it was not really to be speaking openly with men in this way.
They would also be familiar with the wrangles about the location of the temple and would have certainly sided as good Jews with Jesus’ assessment that the Samaritans were wrong in their claims and that the Jews were the channel for God’s blessings to the world (4:22). While Samaritans had their hopes that God would send an agent of change, a prophet and teacher, a messiah, they were at most an echo of Jewish hopes.
Now fights can be left behind. The drama transcends the rivalry. For Jesus brings something that went beyond both their expectations and makes both claims to holy places redundant. John’s hearers know that well. So they would have laughed when the woman began just like Nicodemus: thinking Jesus was offering literal water (4:15). Like Nicodemus she mouths profound truths without knowing it: Jesus is indeed greater than Jacob (4:12); and certainly the right response is to pray: ‘Give me this water!’ (4:15). But she is still seeing it just as relief from the daily grind.
Recent expositions have argued strongly that John wants us to see the woman only in a good light, sometimes I suspect because that is more comfortable than to dissent from John’s picture. It is hard to read the reference to husbands (who may all have died) and to her unmarried partner without at least catching some whiff of cultural disapproval, which some have suggested explains why she came to fetch water not in the cool of the day when most would come. I suspect she had three things counting against her: being a Samaritan, a woman and a ‘sinner’.
Any one of those counts would be enough for some to shun her. Jesus does not. That may have been the force of the original account which lies behind the dramatic presentation we now find. It would have been its own three point sermon against racial, gender and moral discrimination. But as we have seen, John wants to give us more. While affirming and preserving the message of inclusion implied in Jesus’ actions, John also wants us to celebrate Jesus as the giver of the water of life, the new holy space, which transcends all prior religious claims and aspirations, including legitimate ones. Does John show the woman making that transition?
To some extent that is left to our imagination, but she certainly goes further than Nicodemus. She hesitatingly contemplates: perhaps this is the Messiah (4:29). The grounds she offers do not exhibit much depth of understanding: he told me everything I ever did (4:29). But she is heading in the right direction. Her achievement is to bring others to hear Jesus. It is a positive response on her part with a positive outcome. The people come and acclaim Jesus the saviour of the world (4:42). It may remind us of one of those sermons which we felt was not quite on target, but then we heard later that it led to positive change in someone. God uses even our less than adequate responses. The people make it for themselves and are not dependent solely on the woman’s testimony (4:42). Her act empowered them.
4:31-38 provides an interlude which shows the disciples also beginning at the level where Nicodemus and the woman began, in focusing only on the literal (4:33). 4:27 had highlighted the latent sexism of the disciples (4:27). They are not doing well, but then Jesus goes on to shift the focus from the literal, ‘food’, to food as a metaphor for our task and mission and to involve them in the task. In the process Jesus makes a point about solidarity between workers in mission. Some sow; others reap. It is as though a commentary is being provided on the woman and the people of her village. Each action counts, including hers. We don’t have to do everything or be everything. We do not need to control everything. We are not called to be the saviour of the world. We will not always be adequate. It is a good theme for reflection when contemplating clergy burnout. Even Jesus could not do everything - and could not be everywhere: when he was in Capernaum, he was not in Bethsaida, even though people in Bethsaida needed him too, but that was OK. We all live with limitations and it is OK to be human. We damage ourselves when we want to be like gods: leave that tree alone!
This wonderful piece of drama has many levels of meaning. As always in John its central character is God and God’s gift of life through the invitation to live in the holy space of love, the true worship in the Spirit, which is also the living space of the Father and the Son. That love, embodied, cuts across racial and cultural prejudice, affirms women, engages and loves sinners. In a man’s world a woman is the supreme example, exercising ministry, but doing so with the fragility and hesitancy and perhaps inadequacy which happens when ordinary human beings engage in ministry. That is also cutting across a prejudice of perfectionism with which we plague ourselves. The fruit of such faithfulness is the setting free of others from what binds them (including us). It is bringing to birth and caring with that as the goal. The stereotype, Nicodemus, the teacher, will not see this either.
Epistle: Lent 3: 19 March Romans 5:1-11