This is the fourth `look’ into the well-known story from the gospel of john….Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well. So far, we have looked at how insights from art history and literary theory might deepen our hearing of the story, and if you really want to make sense of what we begin to explore here, then going back and reading the earlier sections `in reverse order of posting’ might help.
What I suggested last time was the story at the end of john 3 sets up the `main story’ in John 4. The hints of group conflict, and then the echoes of wedding imagery in John the Baptist’s remarks all prepare the ground for what comes next.
In this next section, Jesus `has’ to travel through Samaria. If you consult some Biblical commentaries, or bring it up for conversation in a group study, you will learn that Jesus’s apparent detour was all part of God’s plan to reach out to a marginalized people group. This may well be the case, but if you are listening to John tell this story ,along with other stories about religious authorities, group infighting, temple clearing (John 2) and night visits from cautiously appreciative Bible teachers (and their circles of followers) you could be forgiven for thinking that this was simply a strategic maneuver on Jesus’s part. He is avoiding confrontation with the authorities. It is one of a cluster of stories John tells that puts Jesus in charge of His own timetable. Sometimes he uses subterfuge….as with his skeptical brothers who urge him to go to a temple feast. Other times, He simply gives the impression that getting involved with a local situation is simply not on his `to do’ list….like that village wedding, for example… or (later) visiting a mortally sick friend (until too late)
Here, Jesus, as a result of His attempt to outmaneuver inquisitive religious authorities, ends up alone, tired and thirsty by the side of a well. In the wrong part of town.
John’s editorial asides give us insight into his audience. Some needed some clarification on who was doing all that baptizing (not Jesus. Are we hearing a hint re: the disciples and their aspirations?) Some needed to know why Jesus would even speak to a woman who came to the well (the disciples had gone into town.) Others needed to know what all the fuss was about (actually, Jews and Samaritans do not get along) So….we get the sense of a mixed audience….some who were sympathetic (still) to John the Baptist, and a mixture of those familiar with Jewish traditions and customs and those who were not.
In this story, Jesus is alone, tired and thirsty by a well, and appeals to the first person to show up to give him a drink. It is a woman, and while at one level, this interaction seemed very politically incorrect….at another level it drew upon some imagery and narrative that was part of the listening community’s deeper metanarrative.
There are echoes of several Old Testament stories and themes running through this scene. In these earlier stories, key figures such as Isaac, Jacob, and Moses found marriage partners in settings like this one (See Genesis 24, 29 and Exodus 2, respectively). Commentators point out resemblances between these founding/grounding stories in Israel’s history and this vignette involving water, wells, women, and a very thirsty Jesus. According to these commentators, the storyteller is connecting Jesus, at one level, to those historical figures in the Israelite metanarrative. At another level, he is suggesting that Jesus is the `True Bridegroom. ’ John’s earlier story of a village wedding echoes here as does the Baptists’s speech about being the bridegroom’s friend.
Of course, if the storyteller is outlining a scenario on which Jesus steps into the role of the `Bridegroom’ then one might hope that the woman follows suit. The Old Testament characters, Rebekah (Isaac via his servant) Rachel (Jacob) and Zipporah (Moses) all came to the well with companions, virginal purity, an offer of hospitality and the potential of family/clan connections. Some of these hopes, at least initially, are dashed when the Samaritan woman opens her mouth. While she appears knowledgeable about all the reasons why Jesus should not even be speaking to her, she seems to share something of the `informed obtuseness’ of the earlier Nicodemus in her incapacity to drill down beyond the surface meanings of Jesus’s words about providing living water. In fact, for the astute listener, it is her abrasive tongue, and the story’s location that might bring still other associations to mind.
While there are multiple ancestral betrothal narratives echoing in a story Scholars suggest that the one about Jacob that seems especially relevant.
For example, some of the storyteller’s listeners here might (already) be picking up a faint echo from a story about an earlier encounter between Jesus and a rank skeptic, Nathaniel, who nonetheless, gets described as `a true Israelite.’ However, instead of rhetorical questions about `anything good coming out of Nazareth’ the listener hears this woman say `How do you hope to give me a drink? You don’t even have a bucket!’
She takes it further. She asks Jesus how He thinks He measures up against `our ancestor’ Jacob, who `gave us this well….’ She is of course (comically) unaware that she is in the presence of someone to whom `the Father has given ALL things’. In John’s telling, she is in full flight, speaking and acting almost as a living `deconstruction’ of Israel’s metanarrative, with its demure virginal figures who met their future husbands in a place such as this.
However, the story is in for a further twist or two… Her `marital status’ is going to come into play, as evidence of her immorality….or her infertility, or as an oblique commentary on the multiple religious and political affiliations of her `tribe’…the despised Samaritans. Given all these factors, how dare she talk back like this?….and what’s up with those complicated theological questions?