Monday, December 7, 2009

Jesus, the Subversive Radical (Part 4 of 5)

This is part four in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the earlier sections.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman:
John 4:1-42

Early in his gospel account, John records two unique conversations that Jesus shared with individuals. The first was with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, and the second with a Samaritan woman. These two conversations proved very different, yet each revealed important truths about the kingdom of God. Craig Blomberg writes of the striking differences between these two individuals, "He was a powerful, male Jew, probably well off, a religious leader, and a model of piety and wisdom. She was a powerless, female Samaritan, probably poor, unlikely to have had access to any religious education, and an outcast because of her marital history."[1] A Jewish audience in the first century, hearing about these encounters, would be shocked on multiple levels. The conversation with Nicodemus is surprisingly negative, yet the one with the women is surprisingly positive.[2] While the account with Nicodemus has unusual elements, the conversation and conclusion are not nearly as shocking as Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well. This exchange very clearly reveals the heart of Jesus for the social outcasts of his day.

John prefaces his account of the woman at the well with a brief explanation of how Jesus arrived in Samaria. Throughout the gospels, Judea was repeatedly a place of opposition and hostility for Jesus. At the beginning of chapter four, Jesus left Judea because rumors about his ministry were spreading, and He wanted to avoid arrest and his death until the hour appointed by the Father.

On the way to Galilee, Jesus and the disciples stopped in the city of Sychar in Samaria. The disciples went into town to buy some food, and Jesus sat down by a well to rest. When a Samaritan woman came to draw some water, Jesus asked her for a drink. The woman was understandably shocked that a Jewish man would ask her for a drink given the cultural norms of the day.
[4] Jesus broke several social and religious customs to engage this woman.[5] First, Jewish men did not typically engage conversations with women in public. It appears this standard was even higher for a Rabbi.[6] Second, Jews did not associate with Samaritans because they were considered heretics, foreigners, and unclean.[7] Third, there is some evidence in the text to indicate that this woman may have been considered an outcast even among her own people. John records that the interaction took place about the sixth hour, the time of day we refer to as noon. The noon hour was an unusual time for a woman to be drawing water.[8] It was also uncommon for a woman to visit the well alone. Perhaps she came at this hour to avoid other women from the town. This hypothesis is strengthened by the information John gives about her marital history later in the story. Clearly this woman was at the bottom of the social ladder. She was not the type of person with whom a Jewish Rabbi would strike up a conversation with, especially to talk about the things Jesus spoke with this woman about.

Jesus responded to the woman's hesitation by telling her that if she understood who he was, she would be the one asking for a drink. Thinking that Jesus was speaking of physical water, she pointed out his lack of a tool to withdraw water. Jesus explained that the water he offered was a spring of life that leads to eternal life, and would quench her thirst forever. The thirst Jesus spoke of was not a physical thirst for water, rather a thirst in the soul for eternal life in the presence of God.
[9] Though she did not grasp the full nature of what Jesus offered, she was open to Jesus and asked him to give her this living water.[10]

Before responding to the woman's request for living water, Jesus shifted the conversation to discuss the woman's personal matters. It is important to note that while Jesus displayed a remarkable openness to sinners, he always confronts the sin in their life.
[11] We cannot stress his love and compassion to the exclusion of his judgment for unrepentant sin and opposition to the will of God. Jesus called her out by revealing his knowledge of her multiple marriages and apparent fornication, evidenced by her living with a man that was not her husband. The Gospel of John does not give the details of her situation, perhaps for theological emphasis. The details of the woman's sinfulness are not the point of the story. The point is that Jesus knew the messiness of this woman's life, yet he still offered her living water.

The woman reacted to Jesus' knowledge of her situation by calling him a prophet. Directly following this acknowledgment, she asked Jesus a question that seems strikingly out of place. Commentators and writers have contrasting interpretations of what her motives for the question may have been. Leon Morris believes that the woman's question was an attempt to change the subject and steer the conversation away from the uncomfortable topic of her sinfulness.
[12] Frances Gench presents the alternative opinion that the woman was not trying to create a diversion, but rather asking a deeply theological question in response to her revelation that Jesus is a prophet.[13] This is an important question to consider but may not be central to interpreting the passage. Her question regarded the proper location for worship. The Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerazim, the location of the first alter built by Abraham once he entered the promised land.[14] The Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. Jesus pronounced to her that a time was coming when true believers would worship neither at Gerazim nor in Jerusalem. In other words, she was asking the wrong question. The better question would have been, "How are we to worship?" Jesus told her, "God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24 NIV).

It is debatable how much of Jesus' declaration the woman had grasped up to this point, but she understood enough to catch the "messianic implications of what Jesus is saying."
[15] She interjected, "I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us" (John 4:25 NIV). Jesus then very clearly reveals himself as the Messiah.[16] This is extremely significant because it is the only place recorded in the Gospels, prior to his trial, where he clearly disclosed this truth about himself.[17] Jesus revealed his mission more clearly to this woman than he had to his own disciples up to this point. This act might suggest that Jesus was elevating this woman to a position of respect much higher than society subscribed to her.

At this point, the disciples return and are surprised to find Jesus talking with a woman. Their surprise reflects both the deeply ingrained prejudices of the day, as well as the disciple's limited understanding of Jesus' mission. However, on this occasion they refrain from voicing their concern. The woman left immediately, leaving so fast that she forgot to take her water jar with her. She ran into town and invited people to come and listen to this prophet who proclaimed to be the Christ. Although her belief was unsure, she proved to be the most effective witness recorded in the Gospel of John.
[18] Jesus qualified this Samaritan woman of low social standing as a partner in ministry.

The story concluded with many of the Samaritans in Sychar believing in Jesus as the Messiah. Adrian Van Kaam recognizes two stages of faith in the Samaritans conversion experience.
[19] First, they responded to a personal witness account. Second, they encountered Jesus personally and believed in him. This aspect of the story reveals an important truth for all followers of Christ. Gospel faith requires a personal encounter with Jesus; however, many times Jesus uses the personal witness of his followers to draw people into a relationship with him. These witnesses do not have to be perfectly pious or entirely confident. Jesus uses people, like the woman at the well, who live messy lives, lack confidence, and possess limited understanding, but who are nonetheless open to Jesus and what he offers.

The account of the woman at the well is truly remarkable. This story captures a unique portrait of Jesus' mission and values. It reveals the depth of compassion Jesus had for social outcasts, and his ability to overcome the prejudice, sexism, and injustice that permeated his culture. Most importantly, it emphasizes that the grace of God breaks all the man-made barriers created by gender, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 228.
[2] Ibid., 231.
[3] Adrian Van Kaam, The Woman at the Well (Pittsburgh: Epiphany Books, 1993), 15.
[4] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 274.
[7] Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women's Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville: WJKP, 2005), 112.
[8] Morris, John, 258.
[9] Carson, John, 220.
[10] Gench, Back to the Well, 117.
[11] Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 228.
[12] Morris, John, 267.
[13] Gench, Back to the Well, 117. See also, Carson, John, 221-222.
[14] Carson, John, 222.
[15] Ibid., 226.
[16] Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 229.
[17] Morris, John, 273.
[18] Gench, Back to the Well, 123.
[19] Van Kaam, Woman at the Well, 20.

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