Exploring the Gospel of John: 4


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church


A Conversation at a Well

John 4:1-43

1.  4:1-6:  The introduction to this episode gives hints to the reader that he/she should understand it, in the light of Genesis 1-67 (where Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, comes to a well, in search of a wife for Isaac); Genesis 29:1-14 (where Jacob encounters Rachel, at a well); and Exodus 2:15-22 (where Moses meets his future wife, Zipporah).

The key theme, in each one of these texts, is betrothal.  We have already seen that the marriage symbolism plays an important role in this Gospel.  It does so in 2:1-12 and in 2:29.  John the Baptism refers to Jesus as the “bridegroom” of the bride.  The reader should understand this, in the light of the Old Testament and the consistent portrayal of God’s relationship with Israel being nuptial, with God as the groom and Israel as the bride (Isaiah 62:4-5; Hosea 2:2-23; Ezekiel 16).  In this episode, we have Jesus in God’s place, as the groom and the Samaritan woman (representing her people) in the place of the bride.  Jesus is the bridegroom.

There is no geographical necessity, when traveling from Judea to Galilee, to pass through Samaria. The idea that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” (4:4) is theological; this is part of his mission from God.  The “sixth hour” (4:6) is probably noon.

2.  4:7-26:  Jesus initiates the conversation with the Samaritan woman, who is surprised at a two-fold breach of propriety.  First, men and women who were unrelated or unknown to each other did not speak in public. Second, Jesus proposes to drink water from something touched by a Samaritan – an extreme breach of purity, from the Jewish point of view.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the northern tribes of Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh, mainly), which the Assyrians had conquered in 723 BC and into which non-Jewish people had mixed.   Jews regarded Samaritans as worse than Gentiles because they claimed to be part of the covenant people but were of mixed ancestry.  In 128 BC, Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim and hostility continued.

Jesus’ request for water allows him to begin to focus on what this woman really needs to hear.  (Jesus followed the same strategy with Nicodemus.)  If the woman knew the “gift of God” (4:10) she would be the one asking Jesus for a drink because he has living water.  In Greek, the phrase, “living water” and “running water” are the same and Jesus plays upon this.  Just as he uses the word, “anothen” (again, from above) to move Nicodemus from physical birth to birth from God, so Jesus attempts to move the woman from water in a well to the living water, given by God himself.  The symbolism of water is important:  In the case of Nicodemus, it meant the cleansing of the Spirit (after Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Water is also associated with wisdom.  In Sirach 15:3, Wisdom, portrayed as a woman, “will feed him with the bread of understanding and give him the water of wisdom to drink.”  This Gospel uses both the themes of God’s wisdom, Incarnate in Jesus, as bread and water [note John 6).  The important thing to note is that the Old Testament does not portray wisdom as an abstract quality but as a person:  in the Septuagint, as sophia or Lady Wisdom.  This personalism continues in the Gospel of John, with Jesus as the wisdom of God.

Like Nicodemus, the woman initially responds to Jesus simply on the human level:  Jesus has nothing with which to draw water.  Where does he get this “living water”?  Her question, in 4:12, which she intends as a mild criticism (“And just who do you think you are?”) opens the way to the heart of the matter:  “Are you greater than our father Jacob?”  Still building upon the running/living water parallel, Jesus attempts to get the woman to make the conceptual shift that she needs to make (remember that Nicodemus never quite made the necessary shift:  “(How can these things be?”):  Jesus is not speaking of physical water but of “eternal life” (4:14).  In Sirach 24:21 (paralleling 15:3), Wisdom says that “those who eat me will hunger for more and those who drink me will thirst for more.”  Jesus clearly surpasses sophia – drinking from him is the end of thirst.  The woman’s response, in 4:15, reflects both a lack of understanding and an openness to receive what Jesus offers.

4:16-18 introduces the issue of the woman’s marital status, which the reader should understand on two levels:  First, it is clear that her [culture] regards as morally suspect – this explains her presence at the well at noon, a time at which no other people are present.  This fact marks her as something of an outcast (the exact opposite of Nicodemus’ social status).  Second, after Hosea 2, the woman’s domestic situation is symbolic of unfaithfulness.  Marital infidelity is one of the Old Testament’s most powerful metaphors for idolatry and unfaithfulness.  The woman’s domestic situation represents the spiritual situation of the Samaritans.

In 4:19, the woman takes a major step toward recognizing Jesus’ identity.  Believing him to be a prophet, she raises what, for her, is the central religious question:  Who is right:  Jews or Samaritans?  Which one of the two rival temples (Gerazim, Zion) is the proper one?  Jesus’ answer is a bit surprising:  The time is now here when geography does not determine the true worship of God – in a sense, asking which temple is the right one is asking the wrong question.  True worship is a matter of a relationship to God, made possible by the Spirit and by the Son (“in truth”).  Real worship is not a matter of location but is a matter which the Son and the Spirit mediates.  But in saying that neither temple is the right one, Jesus is no way diminishes the salvation-historical role of Zion because “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22).  [In short, Jesus announces that the eschatological hour has now come, when temples on a specific mountain can be left behind.] (Remember 2:13-22).

Now comes the moment of revelation: The woman has moved from seeing Jesus as an odd Jew with pretensions (“Are you greater than our father Jacob?”) to seeing him as a prophet (4:19) and then to seeing him as something a bit more than a prophet.  She says that the Messiah will come to straighten out these issues and this provides Jesus with a moment of self-revelation:  “I who speak to you am he” (4:24).  The Greek [phrase] reproduces the affirmation of Exodus 3:14 (God’s self-revelation to Moses) so Jesus’ response to the woman is “I AM the Messiah.”

3. 4:27-30:  Something important has happened.  The story of Nicodemus ended with incomprehension but the woman here leaves the well without her water jar (4:28) and returns to Sychar to witness: “Can this be the Christ?”  The woman’s witness sends others out to meet Jesus.

4. 4:31-38:  With the woman gone and the disciples having returned, the focus now shifts:  The woman’s failure to understand Jesus is now put into some perspective, by the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus’ use of food:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (4:34).  Talk of food leads to the harvest (from which the food comes) and this allows Jesus to make another point:  the eschatological harvest is here.  [The Son has sown this harvest and the disciples and those who followed will reap the harvest.]

5. 4:39-42: Despite her dubious past and religious status, the woman at the well has brought to Jesus a harvest. She has become a catalyst for the Samaritan to receive Jesus.

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Filed under Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John

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