Limited and partial understanding

Lent 3 – 2014

John 4:5-42

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into relationship, allows us to question and reveals the truth. Amen.

 We do not need to know any history to understand that the Jews and the Samaritans regarded each other with suspicion. This is evident in the shock expressed by Jesus that the leper who is a Samaritan is the only one of ten to return to thank him for healing and that it is a Samaritan not a Jew who risks his own safety to assist the man set upon by bandits. The deep antagonism between the Jews and the Samaritans is something akin to that between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, people whose practice and form of the same faith, has, sometime in the past, taken a divergent path one from the other. Adherents of both expressions of Islam believe the others to be profoundly wrong. Such is the depth of their discomfort that the antagonism between the two group spills over into violence as is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The people whom Moses brought to the promised land were one people. However, in the year 931 BCE, the kingdom split into two – the northern kingdom which, in the records of the Kings, is referred to as Israel and the southern Kingdom centred around Jerusalem which became known as Judah. From then on the two groups of people developed quite separately.  In the first century Jews and Samaritans had very little to do with each other but each regarded the other as misguided and as people who had corrupted the true faith.

It is in this context that we need to approach the account of Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well. The story is so familiar that I am sure that you heard it as a story about Jesus’ encounter with a woman of disrepute – a story which reveals Jesus’ inclusive, non-judgemental love. Certainly that is how it has been interpreted for centuries. There are however greater depths to be discovered, particularly if we consider that despite the low opinion the Jews had of the Samaritans the gospel writer is quite matter-of-fact about the Samaritans coming to faith in Jesus. It is possible to draw from this that Samaritans had come to faith and were accepted as members of the community for whom John writes.

Sandra Schneiders believes that this story was included by the Gospel writer to explain or defend the presence of the Samaritans in the Johannine community. The account, she agrees, is a story of Jesus’ radical, inclusive love, but its meaning she argues is much broader and deeper than Jesus’ acceptance of the despised woman. Schneiders writes: “Jesus goes to Samaria, the land of the hated “other”, to confront and to heal the ancient divisions and to integrate into the new covenant  those who were not merely ignorant of, but who were unfaithful to, the old covenant.”(147) In this scenario, the woman, Schneiders argues, is representative of the Samaritan people as a whole and the woman’s discussion with Jesus puts into context and provides a theological explanation for the inclusion of the Samaritans in the community.

A secondary theme running through the story is the place of women in the Johannine community. The woman’s intelligence and strength of character coupled with the disciples’ disquiet at Jesus having a serious theological discussion with her suggests that the leadership of women is a contentious issue in the community – an issue that the writer of the Gospel is trying to address. A significant clue to this meaning is the fact that Jesus’ discussion with the woman is the longest discussion Jesus has with any person in the gospel. Elsewhere, interactions with another person provide an introduction to a monologue from Jesus. In this instance however, the woman remains a significant conversation partner, allowing Jesus to make the point that belief in him transcends that old barriers between Samaritan and Jew thus is able to form a new community – one with a shared faith. Jesus and the woman are not arguing about her morals, but about significant differences in their beliefs.

Differences between the Samaritans and Jews were many. According to the Samaritans Scripture consisted only of the first five books of what we know as the Old Testament. For this reason they placed a greater emphasis on the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses – than on the Kings of Israel. This meant that their messianic expectations were that God would send a prophet like Moses, not a King in the line of King David. They believed that God should be worshipped on Mt Gerizim not in Jerusalem and that when the messiah did appear, he would restore worship in Israel not in Jerusalem. Neither kingdom maintained absolute fidelity to Yahweh, but the northern Kingdom – the Samaritans – were known to have followed other gods.

These significant differences are all addressed in Jesus’ conversation with the woman.

That the discussion between Jesus and the woman is serious and theological is indicated by the woman’s first question: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Then Jesus’ offer of living water causes the woman to wonder whether Jesus is greater than Jacob (the patriarch) who gave the well to Israel. The conversation moves to the question as to where true worship takes place. In response, Jesus claims that, with regard to faith, while the Jews have priority when it comes to salvation, the messiah will reveal that true worship will not be limited to a physical place but will be worship in spirit and truth  – neither mountain will have significant meaning. The woman agrees that the Christ will reveal all things, to which Jesus responds with the words God used to identify Godself to Moses: “I am”. At which point the penny drops and the woman realises that she has been speaking to none other than the Christ. She returns to the city to share the news with the people who themselves come out to the well. They in turn are convinced by their encounter with Jesus that the woman is right declaring Jesus to be the “Saviour of the world”.

In the context of a story about Jesus’ chance meeting with a Samaritan woman, the author of John’s gospel has provided a theological basis for the inclusion of the Samaritans in the new faith that emerged out of Judaism. If worship is not limited to the place associated with one group of people, then all people can worship the one God. Furthermore, the declaration of the Samaritans makes it clear that Jesus is the Saviour not only of the Jews, but of the whole world.

The issue of five husbands takes on an entirely different meaning when we understand that this is a theological not a moral discussion. We do not have to wonder if the woman is a prostitute or whether she has been profoundly unlucky in love, or whether she has been abused or disposed of by one man after another. If, as Schneiders argues, the story is primarily about the inclusion of the Samaritans, the imagery of multiple husbands suggests a reference to the unfaithfulness of the Samaritans. Throughout the prophetic writings and particular in Hosea, those who abandon Yahweh are accused of being “whores”, of running after other gods, abandoning Yahweh, their true bridegroom. 2 Kings 17:13-34 tells us that God rejected the northern kingdom because they worshipped calves, erected a sacred pole to Baal, worshipped all the host of heaven, made their sons and daughters pass through fire and used divination and augury. What is more, their current “husband” is not really a husband because unlike the Jews, the Samaritans are not in a full covenant relationship with God.

This, in my mind, is a convincing explanation of Jesus’ discussion with the woman. All kinds of elements now make more sense to me. In the end though, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are able to integrate these new ideas into your understanding of the story. What does matter is that you accept that every interpretation, every meaning of the biblical story comes from a human source – that is, it is open to question and to reinterpretation. The wisest among us cannot fully know the mind of God as it was expressed in Jesus. Two thousand years after Christ, we can only guess at what he was really saying.

Our understanding is always partial and limited. Just as Jesus exposed the ignorance and misunderstanding of the woman, so if we are open and if our views are not fixed and final, Jesus will meet us where we are and gently but firmly expose our failure to understand and reveal the truth to us.

Schneiders, Sandra, M. Written that you may believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. New York: A Herder and Herder Book, 1999.

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