LENT III – “A Thing Eternal”
John 4: 5-42
Trees that sing
dry out all fall;
age into plains.
But the song of water
is a thing eternal.
Federico García Lorca
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman calls for careful study and reflection to uncover the message that John is proclaiming. There are literary and stylistic similarities between chapter 3 and chapter 4. In 3, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with Nicodemus; Jesus reveals himself to him; the message of Jesus is passed on to others. In 4, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with the Samaritan woman; he reveals himself to her as Messiah; the message is then taken to others. Both chapters emphasize that the mission of the church is established upon the foundation of the mission of Jesus. It is important for the mission of the church that Jesus reveals himself to males and females. The inner message of the revelation is that no one is excluded from the salvation which God makes available in the Son. This message is taken from Jerusalem to all parts of the world, and every nation can now hear the gospel. See Acts 2, the message of Pentecost. This mission is made clear in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
Jesus is on his way to Galilee. 4:3. The journey is motivated perhaps by reason of safety, because the Pharisees had heard of his baptizing activities which was not pleasing to them. He is passing through the region of Samaria, and by noon one day he stops in the town of Sychar because he was tired and thirsty. He stops for water at Jacob’s well. The name of the well and the description surrounding it may be a local tradition as it is not attested elsewhere. Perhaps the intention is to emphasize that the Samaritans had a history and tradition relating to Jacob. The well is the scene of encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. His disciples are not with him at the moment. Jesus going through Samaria is the story of the missionary enterprise of the church through the ages. It is the drama of salvation enacted in word and deed, using the estranged soul of human beings as the stage upon which the action takes place. But first, the savior of the world must find the entrance onto that stage. The human soul is a forbidding place. It is what grounds the human being to this earth. It does not easily render itself up. It seldom knows that it is an eternal place of conflict. The soul is the human being in its entirety, the gathering place of all history and culture, all that defines the human. The soul is the ultimate guardian of what is fully and truly human. “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
The drama begins when a woman of Samaria comes to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. She replied by asking Jesus how is it that a Jewish man is asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. Something about Jesus told the woman that he is a Jew. Her question reflects a tradition that Jews and Samaritans did not get along as is seen in the second part of 4:9. In Mt. 10:5 Jesus told his disciples not to enter any Samaritan town. In Luke 9:52 the Samaritans refused to welcome his disciples. In that cultural context, I would have expected at least that the rules of hospitality to have prevailed over cultural differences. John certainly had something quite different in mind as he prepared the scene for the dialogue. While she recognized Jesus as a Jew, in 4:10 he says to her, if you really knew me you would be asking me for living water. Jesus is much more than how he is perceived, as Nicodemus discovered earlier. He does not address her question. The fact that he spoke to her in the first place means that he has moved beyond what was customary and expected. He did not even acknowledge the status quo. He moved beyond it. Also, the fact that she spoke to him shows that she is not bound by custom either. Both of these people arrived at the well having relinquished something of their history.
“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.” This cannot have been the original response of Jesus to the woman. This response was certainly made to a question that John does not offer. He has something different in view. “If you knew,” goes to the fact that she does not know. It is not surprising, for the disciples according to the Synoptic gospels were prohibited from going to the Samaritans and proclaiming the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” See especially 10:14. Jesus cannot have expected her to know who he is. If, indeed, she knew who he was then there would be no need for his revelation as Messiah. The “gift of God” was made clear in 3:16. It is the Son of God. The word for “gift” and the “give” in “give me a drink,” share a common origin. Jesus, the gift of God, is asking for a gift from the Samaritan woman. The word appears again in “given,” referring to the gift of living water. He who is the gift of God offers living water as a gift to the woman. The living water is spring water, running water that does not remain stagnant. It is always moving. However, this is not the point that John wants to make. The water from Jacob’s well belongs to this world. Jesus as living water is the one who has descended and will ascend again. The water from Jacob’s well is of the earth, earthly; Jesus the living water is of heaven, heavenly. John is again using Gnostic ideas to present Jesus. “The gift of God” is none other than “who it is that is saying to you.” These ideas are not a part of the content of faith of the Samaritan woman. She does not know and at that time cannot know who Jesus is, and consequently cannot ask him for the living water.
The dialogue that follows discloses that the Samaritan woman does not understand what Jesus has said. This is somewhat akin to the misunderstanding concerning Jesus in the Synoptic gospels and even in this gospel. Her focus continues to be the well and its traditions. “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well?” The well is also a “gift.” Again, Jesus does not respond to her question about who is greater, Jacob or Jesus. He counters with his own gift. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The contrast is again between earthly and heavenly. The Samaritan woman still does not understand. She wants Jesus to give her this water that she may never thirst nor come back to the well. This may be symbolic language, and John likes to use symbolic language. That she may not thirst again may be symbolic of something lacking in her life, something for which she thirsts always. She may believe that Jesus has the power to quench that inner lack or emptiness. This may be symbolic of her desire to forsake the local tradition or legend associated with Jacob’s well.
Jesus does not respond to her request. She has completely missed the reference to living water and eternal life. As with Nicodemus, so long as the Samaritan woman’s life is determined by the flesh, by what is earthly, she cannot grasp the meaning of what is heavenly. John has accomplished one thing with this part of his narrative: the encounter and the dialogue of the earthly (Samaritan woman) and the heavenly (Jesus). However, John leaves off this discussion and nothing is resolved. He turns his attention to another matter.
The next stage in the development of the narrative will take this encounter to a different level. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to go and get her husband. What importance her husband has for this encounter is not made clear. It appears to be some kind of narrative technique that will allow John another opportunity to disclose who Jesus is. So far, John has shown him as the Word” 1:1; “the true light,” 1:9; “the only Son,” 1:14, 18; “the Lamb of God,: 1:29; “the Son of God,” 1:34; “Rabbi,” 1:38; “the Messiah,” 1:41; “him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke,” 1:45; “the King of Israel,” 1:50. John has not been reluctant to make known who Jesus is.
When Jesus asks her to bring her husband, she replies truthfully that she has no husband. Was Jesus testing her for some reason, since he already knew the answer? Jesus acknowledges her truthfulness, and then points out that she has had five husbands, and the one she currently has is not her legal husband. I have mentioned earlier that she is not afraid to go against custom. She lives her life the way she wants. Her marital situation is not a moral or spiritual matter for her. She is comfortable with her status. Commentators and pastors have tried to allegorize the five husbands, but I do not believe that this is necessary. She is a person who does not appreciate being alone. In my study of Nicodemus I pointed out the manner in which primal solitude is broken and how unity is replaced by multiplicity. The Samaritan woman is someone who does not prefer solitude. She is not embarrassed by having had five husbands. However, she might have been amazed that Jesus knew all this about her as her reply indicates. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Jesus is something other than she earlier perceived. Can this mean that she too is other than she thinks she is? Being in the presence of Jesus has given her a moment of insight into herself, as Jesus held up before her eyes a picture of what he has seen in her. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in I Corinthians 13:12.
John has used the technique of the omniscience of Jesus before with Simon and Nathanael in chapter 1. When Jesus is called a prophet it means he possesses the ability to know things. Consequently, she feels permitted to discuss a religious issue with him, namely, worship. In a somewhat awkward construction, the text makes it appear that other parts of the dialogue are not recorded. She claims that Jesus said people ought to worship in Jerusalem rather than “on this mountain” that is, Gerizim. One of the points of contention between Jews and Samaritans is precisely the location for proper worship. For Jews it was Jerusalem; for Samaritans it was Gerizim. John uses a literary technique to get “worship” into the discussion. He brings the dialogue back to her original question: why a Jew was asking a Samaritan for water. Their conflict revolved around worship.
Jesus says, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” In 2:4, even though the hour is not yet, Jesus still performed the first sign at the marriage in Cana. “The hour is coming” indicates that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time of transition. While they were standing next to Jacob’s well (symbolic of the past) and speaking of worship (symbolic of the future) Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time when history becomes eschatology. “The hour is coming” is a reference to the eschatological moment which is even now dawning for the woman. In the eschatological moment the “neither/nor” of the place of worship is transcended because the Father transcends place and time, sacralizes space and sanctifies worshipers wherever they are. Jesus assures her that the place of worship soon will not be a matter that separates people. Both Jerusalem and Gerizim as geographical points are construed as belonging to “this world,” that is, of the earth, earthly. The Father as what pertains to the heavenly realm transcends the earthly. See revelation 21:22. True worship will rediscover its proper home in the human soul. Jesus in Samaria represents the ultimate triumph of the human soul. This is the true objective of the missionary impulse.
The eschatological moment depicted in “the hour is coming” is not congruent with 4:22. The ideas in this verse do not conform to John’s narrative purpose. The idea that “salvation is of the Jews” finds no place in John’s gospel. Already John informs his readers that “he came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him.” 1:11. It is likely that a later redactor inserted this verse for some purpose to appeal to a local tradition. The conflict is more strongly debated in 8:34-59.
Jesus continues in 23 the idea begun in 21. “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. For such the Father seeks to worship him.” Jesus is more specific here. Not only is the hour coming, it “now is.” The eschatological moment has broken into the present. The hour can mean only the redemptive moment is now. Nicodemus had learned that he had to be born of the spirit to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. In 5:24 Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” One must worship God in spirit. In Revelation 1:10, the visionary says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” Spirit and truth are not ways of worshiping God. Spirit and truth are not attitudes adopted for worship. Spirit and truth are fundamental dispositions of the whole human soul toward the divine. In worship one completely surrenders to the divine, renders up heart and mind, soul and body to the divine, knowing that when the historical moment becomes the eschatological moment one’s entire existence is transformed, and what is called eternal life becomes real and present for one. “And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” 17:3. See Romans 12:1-2 for Paul’s view. The human being who stands in the presence of the divine already stands on holy ground and is thereby already sanctified by the divine. In worship, spirit and truth can simply be called faith. When she hears this, the Samaritan woman becomes reflective. “I know that the Messiah is coming; when he comes he will show us all things.” 4:25. She is not without some understanding of the expectation of redemption. She is awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and this might indicate that she would be receptive when the Messiah presented himself. Jesus replies in 4:26, “I who speak to you am he.” In this one sentence is the entire content of revelation. The coming one, the Omega, is already present in history as the Alpha. History has become eschatology and the redemptive moment is already spreading out from the center, from the place in which the Omega stands, in concentric circles to draw in all of creation. This is the gift that Jesus gives to the Samaritan woman. This is the foundation of the missionary enterprise of the church.
Now, for the first time, she hears the Gospel from the Messiah himself. He who brings the message is himself the message. John does not tell us her immediate reaction, for just at that moment, the disciples of Jesus returned, and when they saw the woman they marveled that he was having a conversation with her. For them this was a matter of propriety. They were not concerned that he was talking with a Samaritan! The issue of Jew and Samaritan is no longer a problem by the time that the Gospel of John was written. This makes its way into the text by its absence in the attitude of the disciples.
At this point there appears to be an interruption in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in 4:31-38. I will discuss this section after I have completed exploring the Samaritan story in 4:39-42.
The woman to whom the Messiah has just revealed himself leaves her water jar (a symbol of her leaving the past; she has now received living water), returns to her town. She told the people, “Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 4:29. She has just met the Messiah, and she immediately brings others to him. See Romans 10:14. She invites the others to find out for themselves, “Can this be the Christ?” The scene picks up again in 4:39 after an interruption of another episode between Jesus and his disciples. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” This is something quite new. According to custom, a woman may not bear testimony. Now, in the eschatological age, something new has dawned. The new creation is gradually emerging. Galatians 4:28. She is not the first to bear witness to the Messiah in this gospel. John the Baptist bore witness, 1:7; Andrew bore witness, 1:41; Philip bore witness, 1:45. But she is the first woman to whom he revealed himself as the Messiah, and she testified to others. The Samaritans invited the Messiah to stay with them and he spent two days in their town. “And many more believed because of his word.” Now that they have heard from the Messiah himself they no longer need the testimony of the woman. Now they can say, “we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” 4:42. John’s message is clearer now. In the missionary work of the church, people can hear the proclamation of the gospel directly or indirectly. They will come to believe and find redemption. To hear the word of proclamation is to be confronted by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In this confrontation the listener is allowed a moment of “soul review” that demands a response: to live in the flesh or to live in the spirit. To live in the spirit is eternal life, lived under the light of Christ and in the eternal presence of the divine. It is a choice between Jacob’s well and living water. Just as the woman had to stand before the Messiah and receive the revelation so also must the others. It is only in the presence of the divine that we can say with certainty “this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Something similar plays out at the crucifixion, when the centurion, in Mark 15:39, and the crowds, in Matthew 27:54 who stood facing Jesus on the cross, said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
Now I must take up 4:31-38. I am not sure what John intended in this passage. It does not seem to fit in here; it has no relationship to what has gone before and what comes after. It seems to be made up of a kind of parable that contains local proverbs or wisdom sayings. The disciples have returned from their shopping trip. They offered Jesus something to eat. Jesus replied, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples misunderstand him and wonder if someone has brought him something to eat. Creating contexts of misunderstanding is one of the literary techniques of John. I wonder if John is saying that not only the Samaritan woman, but even the disciples of Jesus do not understand him. But just as with the Samaritan woman, the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples provides an opportunity for Jesus to define himself and his mission. In 4:34 Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” What is this will? It seems as if the will of God has been presented in 3:16-19. The “will of him who sent me” has to do with the bringing of eschatological salvation to those who believe in him. This is confirmed in 6:38-40. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, and raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes inn him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” It follows, therefore, that the “work” of God that Jesus is to accomplish is salvation defined by “eternal life” and rising up “at the last day.”
Jesus says that this is what he has been sent to do. In 4:38 Jesus tells his disciples “I sent you to reap.” The sending of the disciples, the basis of apostleship, has its foundation in the sending of the Son of God. The proclamation of redemption which constitutes the “work” of the disciples is nothing other than the work of eschatological redemption that Jesus is accomplishing.
The work of Jesus and his disciples is described in 4:35-38 as a harvest. There is a time for sowing and a time for harvesting. The sowing has been accomplished and “the fields are already white for harvest.” The harvesters will reap “the fruit of eternal life.” One sows, another reaps. “He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit of eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.” 4:36. Rejoicing is a characteristic of redemption.
Verse 38 presents some exegetical problems. “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” I have pointed out that the sending of the disciples is established on the basis of the sending of Jesus. Why would Jesus send them to reap where they did not sow? Who are these “others” who did the sowing? This may be understandable only from a later time during and after the development of the young church where missionaries had built churches that were later led by others. If this is so, it reflects John’s understanding of the missionary impulse to build churches and then to move on to other areas where they were ready to sow the gospel.
While I still cannot fit this passage into the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the passage does make clear the whole mission of the church. This may be John’s way of saying, “Go therefore into all the world, making disciples of all nations.”