The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 3 is John 4.5-42, probably the longest reading in the lectionary! It is strange contrast with readings a few weeks ago from the Fourth Gospel which were only a few verses. We are continuing with our progress through the catechetical pattern of the readings in Lent, looking at encounters between Jesus and different individuals:
- Lent 2: Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3.1–17)
- Lent 3: The woman of Samaria (John 4.5–42)
- Lent 4: The man born blind (John 9.1-41)
- Lent 5: The raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-45)
The story is well-known—but common interpretations of the story are worth examining carefully. The woman is in some sense an ambiguous figure, but perhaps not in the ways we might expect. To start our reflection, we ought to remind ourselves of the contrasts with the encounter in the previous chapter:
|Takes place in Jerusalem
|Takes place in Samaria
|Location is the city
|Location is the countryside
|Happens at night
|Happens at noon
|Focuses on a man
|Focuses on a woman
|The man is a Jew
|The woman is a Samaritan
|He is socially respectable
|She is a social outcast
|Nicodemus initiates the dialogue
|Jesus initiates the dialogue
|Nicodemus descends into misunderstanding
|The woman comes to faith
|Nicodemus fails to see Jesus as the world’s saviour
|The woman and her village see Jesus as the saviour of the world
Both these dialogues also hinge on the use of double entendre, with a specific example (being born again, having water to drink) as well as the shared theme of light signifying understanding.
Our reading begins at verse 5, half way through a paragraph—but the opening verses are fascinating in setting the scene. The Fourth Gospel here sets the context with some detailed and realistic historical detail: the Jesus movement has grown out of the John movement, and has now overtaken it in importance and therefore as a threat to the power and influence of the Pharisees. (The note that Jesus himself did not baptise is a fascinating parallel to Paul’s baptismal reticence in 1 Cor 1.14.) The geographical note also follows on from the previous chapters where he has been in the South. It is not, of course, true that ‘he had to go through Samaria’; pious Jews would avoid this by travelling up the Jordan valley in order to avoid contact with the Samaritans whom they regarded as unclean. So this is a statement of divine necessity; Jesus ‘must’ go there to have this encounter.
The opening actions combine symbolic significance with practical realism. The well is where Jacob met Rachel in Genesis 29, and so goes back to the origins of God’s people Israel, named after Jacob’s alternate name after he wrestled with God at the River Jabbok in Genesis 32—so it is freighted with significance in relation to identity and origins. Many commentators see this as hinting at this encounter as a kind of ‘betrothal narrative’, because of Jacob and Rachel, and because Jesus is the seventh (so perfect) man in the woman’s life, after the previous five and the sixth she is with now (so Origen and Augustine). I confess I am not convinced about this reading, since there is no evidence in the text itself of this numerical thinking, and no actual language of betrothal. The double meaning is found around the image of water.
Alongside this, Jesus is simply tired out from his long journey—human, ‘word made flesh’ Jesus—and so sits down. The text says ‘It was about the sixth hour’ which most translations assume means ‘noon’, though Chris Knight argues that this could have meant 6 pm following the Roman system of counting hours:
The Greek of John 4.6 states that this was ‘about the sixth hour’, although some translations give this directly as ‘noon’. However, there were at least two ways of counting hours in the first century and a number of commentators have suggested that John’s gospel uses a different timing system to the Synoptics. The Jewish system referenced the hours from sunrise and sunset. With a typical sunrise of about 6am, the first hour would end at 7am, with 7am also being called ‘the first hour’. Similarly, ‘the sixth hour’ would be midday. The Synoptic gospels use this system throughout.
An alternative system counted hours from midnight, the start of the Roman ‘civil’ day. The sixth hour indicates 6am, but the hourly count restarts at noon so the phrase also indicates 6pm. This is often referred to as the Roman or ‘modern’ system.
I am not sure I am convinced about this, since (apart from anything else) you would then need to explain why there are no others drawing water.
The narrative style is highly characteristic of this gospel, with two parenthetical comments interrupting the flow—the first to explain the absence of the disciples in v 8, and the second to explain the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans in v 9, continuing the combination of both looking quite Jewish as a narrative whilst also explaining its Jewishness.
Jesus initiates the dialogue, and in doing so crosses two massive social boundaries—of men talking to women in public, and a Jew talking to a Samaritan. The surprise of this is confirmed by the woman’s own response. There is a long tradition of also believing that the woman is immoral and shunned by her fellows, which is why she is alone and coming to the well at noon—but Chris Knight I think rightly questions this. There are many reasons why someone might need to get more water during the day, and the discussion of her situation does not mention immorality. Jesus has already crossed large enough barriers in beginning the conversation.
As in the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus changes the direction of the conversation and moves from the mundane to the spiritual. But as a contrast with Nicodemus, the woman offers a feisty response, giving the exchange a sense of verbal jousting, in which the two partners vie for control, not unlike Jesus’ conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7.
The discussion of ‘living water’ seems to slightly jar to the modern reader, until we realise that in Greek this metaphor is the equivalent of our ‘running water’. This allows the woman to bring the conversation back to mundane questions of the physical need for water—but also allows her, for the time being, to continue in her misunderstanding, as she reinforces the association of this place with Jacob/Israel.
The theme of water as a spiritual metaphor is prominent here, and made more so by the context. Water has already been associated with the Spirit in John 3.5, and will be explicitly identified with the Spirit in John 7.38–39, with which Jesus’ comment here has strong parallels. Jesus is the giver of this water; it is ‘living water’, which is both alive and brings life; and it flows from within.
Jesus now switches the conversation in the other direction, from the spiritual to the mundane. The mention of the men in the woman’s life has commonly been interpreted as pointing to her dubious moral status—but Chris Knight rightly challenges this:
The social and human context of marriage in the first century was very different to ours. With an average life expectancy of only about 25 years and an average age at first marriage of about 30 years for men and about 20 years for women, early death of a spouse was not unusual. Divorce was also not uncommon, often requiring little ‘cause’. But divorce was instigated almost exclusively by the husband, not the wife. The livelihood and economic security of most women at this time (outside the rich elite) lay largely in their husband and children, especially if there were no close relatives who could or would support her. Re-marriage was therefore common after a spouse’s death or a divorce and was often the only way for a woman to survive a husband’s death without resort to prostitution, especially while any children were still young. Even if the woman had a surviving male relative, re-marriage would largely be a further business arrangement enacted by this relative and driven by economic necessity, rather than being the woman’s own decision.
What this does illustrate is Jesus’ supernatural insight into her life, and it is this which shifts the focus of the conversation and leads into the woman’s move from misunderstanding to understanding. It is a good lesson for our conversations too; as we listen to what the Spirit is saying, we too might be given insight into things which lead to a breakthrough in conversation.
The woman opens up the key question of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, but Jesus’ response offers a fascinating shift. On the one hand, he is uncompromising in asserting that ‘salvation is from the Jews’, unwilling to concede to her in the inter-religious conflict. However, he then goes on to assert that this question will be transcended, making an implicit connection with water and the Spirit; salvation might be from the Jews, but it is for a much larger group.
What then follows is a fascinating contrast with the dialogue with Nicodemus. In response to the woman’s direct expression of messianic hope, Jesus offers a direct revelation of who he is. Although we do not count it as one of the Johannine ‘I am’ statements, it takes exactly that form ‘I am, the one speaking to you.’
The question of discipleship is now introduced, as the disciples themselves return from their (mundane) mission. Note again that they are not surprised that Jesus is talking to someone known to be immoral, but that he has been talking to a woman.
There is some debate in commentators as to whether the woman really has made the full journey to understanding, in part because of her question (rather than statement) to her compatriots ‘Could this be…?’ Yet there are strong markers here of discipleship language.
First, her invitation to her peers is ‘Come and see’, the language of discipleship invitation that we first heard from Jesus in John 1.39, itself an echo of John the Baptist’s ‘behold’ in John 1.36. Jesus’ own invitation is then taken up by those first disciples in inviting others, as Philip calls Nathanael to ‘Come and see’ in his turn (John 1.46). For churches that are failing to grow, this is very often the thing that is missing—a culture of invitation—and the thing present in those that are growing.
Then the woman draws people in because of her ‘testimony’ (John 4.39), and they in turn testify that they have believed—not just that this is the Jewish Messiah of expectation, but that he is the saviour ‘of the world’ (kosmos), providing another connection back to John 3.16.
The discussion with the disciples has several striking features. First, note the rather bizarre and extreme nature of Jesus’ metaphors here—the Father’s will is the food that Jesus eats! This will be worth bearing in mind when we read the extreme metaphors of eating in John 6.
Secondly, the language of fields ripe for harvest is an eschatological image of judgement and division that we also find in the Synoptics (for example, Matt 9.27–38) which now has a missional dimension. And the distinction between those who sow and those who reap is one Paul again picks up in 1 Cor 3.6.
So this is a story of ambiguity and reversal, but perhaps in not quite the way we might expect. Susan Hylen (in Imperfect Believers) comments:
There is a great reversal here, but it is not the usual one of the excluded sinner graciously offered forgiveness. It is the story of a woman who is spiritually more astute than the great Pharisee Nicodemus. It is the story of a Samaritan woman whose witness to Jesus brings her whole village to the true worship of God.
For a video discussion of the issues here, join James and Ian: