THE WOMAN AT THE WELL: WHERE DO WE BEGIN?

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I want to begin a series of short, conversational explorations of a well-known story from the Gospel of John. This story is from the fourth chapter…although strictly speaking, the last bit of chapter three should be included as well. The story concerns a well side meeting a very worn out Jesus, and a woman from Samaria.

As John tells it, Jesus is very tired and thirsty and takes a rest by a well while his friends go shopping for food. When a woman comes to draw water, He asks her for a drink. In the ensuing dialog we learn that the request was considered a bit transgressive, and Jesus tries (apparently unsuccessfully at first) to turn the conversation to deeper things. The conversation DOES get on track, however, running into/through or past ethno cultural roadblocks, questions about marriage, and religious traditions. Jesus ends up in the woman’s hometown and the people there get a chance to assess the man and message for themselves.

Of course, stories like this one have multiple layers and that is what I hope to explore over some short(ish) postings in the future. Over the years , I have tried to come up with (or have run across) ways of processing bits of art or media events (stories, theater, film) that takes these different layers into  account when drilling down into the `real meaning’  or perhaps intended significance  of  the work.

Art historians (Like Erwin Panofsky) talk about  the observable content of an artwork (say, thirteen men sitting round a table sharing a meal) the possible conventional interpretation of such  a work (`The Last Supper’) and then an even deeper  level  involving the imagery and symbolism (if any) that might have `spoken’ to the painting’s first viewers, or original intended audience.

Coincidentally, a few painters have tackled this well-known story about the woman at the well. We will touch on that, too.

Another thinker (Linguist Alton Becker) gives some guidelines in analyzing certain forms of theater. I have found his approach helpful. In some ways, it is a bit like Panofsky’s grid….in other ways it is different.

At a micro level, the elements that make up a scene or text (words and phrases) must hang together, meaningfully.

(Then) It helps if we understand the `genre’ or the kind of story we are looking at.

In addition: Will the relationship between the author/storyteller and their (original) audience throw any light on how the storyteller composes and tells the story? Will this insight help our reading?

Next, we have to ask about the world within the story in order to understand the meaning of all the details included.

Then there is the world `around’ the story…and the storyteller, and the audience. What is going on in their `real world’ that casts shadows over the story?

However, these guidelines have their limits. These grids and layers could (unwittingly) shape, distort, or edit the perceived meaning and significance of the art or story we are trying to drill down into.

We also have to combine our caution about OUR grids and categories with some awareness of John’s original audience and their grids built from the culture and history of the time. How did THEY hear the story…and how does that flavor what WE hear?

In addition, we will see the story `works’ as much by symbolism, allusion, and suggestion as it does by plain statement. This too is in keeping with the shared cultural memory of the first audience. They were used to hearing stories and teachings from their own traditions told in this way. The storyteller is pitching his multilayered story to all who have ` ears to hear’ …those who will pick up and synthesize the different echoes and resonances buried in the heart of the story. They will be the ones that get it.

(STAY TUNED FOR MORE)

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