Living water

Third Sunday of Lent; 15 March 2020; Lent 3A (RCL); Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42.

This is one of the most complex dialog scenes in John’s Gospel, and rather befuddling. By the time we arrive at the end of the scene, Jesus has not received his drink of water, and the woman has left her water jar there at the well. Clearly, John is pointing us beyond the initial exchange.

The first thing I notice is that this is an exchange between a man and a woman at a well. All of the patriarchs, and Moses too, met their wives (or their servants met their wives) at wells, asking for water. This is a betrothal story. If this story had followed the template of the OT stories, the woman would have offered Jesus water, and Jesus would have married her. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus asks the woman to go and call her husband. It’s not nearly the non sequitur it appears to be.

However, rather than giving Jesus a drink, the woman responds, “What do you, a Jew, have to do with me, a Samaritan woman?” In the last dialog, Nicodemus, and named Jewish man, comes to Jesus by night. Here, Jesus encounters an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well at noon. She is as startled as she should be.

We have already had a miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In chapter 3, John the Baptist makes a reference to Jesus as a bridegroom. John is clearly establishing the image of marriage and kinship as a model of the relationship to Jesus. At the cross, he will establish a household between his mother and the disciple whom he loved (and notice that there is a jar of wine standing there by the cross).

Jesus asks for a drink of water, and the Samaritan woman launches into a recitation of difference. Jesus responds, as so often in John’s Gospel, with misdirection. He ways, “If you knew who was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” She replies, “You have no bucket. Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” The answer of course, is yes. And Jacob is one of those patriarchs who met Rachel at a well.

She asks for this living water. Jesus says, “Go and call your husband.” She replies that she has no husband, to which Jesus says, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Gail O’Day suggests that she is like the woman in the Sadducees example, having been married to several brothers, and producing no heir, so that this is no smear on her moral character.

I believe that John’s Jesus is using ‘husband’ in a metaphorical sense — YHWH is Israel’s husband. The Samaritans have had five overlords: YHWH, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Hellenists. And now Rome has placed Herod over them, no proper husband at all. No wonder Jesus and this woman wandered through that long exchange about where one should worship God. If this dialog is about husband in that sense, the Samaritans have been pushed about a bit — even by their Judean brothers (the Maccabees destroyed the Mount Gerezim Temple).

She goes off to her village to tell everyone that she has encountered the Christ, and his disciples return. He invites them to look at the Samaritans as a field ripe for harvest. Jesus will repeat the grain analogy when ‘certain Greeks’ approach Andrew and Philip at the festival wanting to see Jesus. He will say, “Now has my hour arrived. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit, but if it does, it bears much fruit.” And then those Greeks drop out of the narrative, leaving open the question, did the Johannine community every invite them in?

At some stage, the Johannine community extended itself to include Samaritans, at least those Samaritans who were willing to worship God in spirit and in truth. In the last scene in the Gospel (before the addition of the breakfast by the sea), Jesus breathes on his disciples and gives them the vocation of forgiving the sins of whoever they will forgive, thereby giving them the power to include those Greeks if they choose. The story of John’s Gospel is the story of a Jewish reform movement dying to its Jewish identity in order that it might bear more fruit by extending ever outward, first to Samaritans (religious cousins), and then to Greeks.

Paul is struggling with the same issue — how to see the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God as fulfillment of the promises to Israel. That is the point of his statement that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’s intention — both Jew and Greek, but that now we have received reconciliation through Jesus.

I wonder who are the Samaritans of our day?

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