`And, may I add, we had no running water, for example. You had to fetch water in a bucket from the well – which is a wonderful way to learn the value of water.’  

Werner Herzog, filmmaker


What I want to do is wrap up these reflections on the `woman at the well’ story found in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. However, I want to take a bit of a meandering route….something like a river.



There is a long subterranean poem about different kinds of water running through several chapters in the Gospel of John. For John, Jesus inaugurates His ministry by turning well water into wine at a village wedding, and then declares its terms by overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He points out to Nicodemus (and those with him) that ritual washing/baptism of repentance must be supplemented with genuine spiritual rebirth.  Later in that same section His cousin picks up the wedding scene imagery to remind critics that he is only the   `the friend of the bridegroom.’  Jesus then does something that carries hints and echoes of several Old Testament betrothal narratives.  He turns up as an exhausted, thirsty traveler by a well in `enemy territory.’ Nonetheless, He is still  the suitor/Bridegroom….and the Samaritan woman  the potential `bride.’ John draws our attention to the play of words and meanings shifting around the kind of water that Jesus offers the woman. Once again in Jerusalem and close to the sheep pool (and in the shadow of the law?) we are reminded that ritual washing and even `miracle’ water are no substitute for engaging and encountering the person of Jesus.  In the section that follows,  Jesus supernaturally feeds thousands of families, but only His immediate circle  get to see Him walking on water.  In some cultures well or river water, or baptismal font has benign meaning or spiritual potency. It is the larger bodies of water that symbolize untamed spiritual power or chaos. Jesus walks on the surface of this `chaotic’ water demonstrating His `Lordship’ over the wind and the waves….and also suggesting the image of Moses potentially leading Israel through the Red sea. The limitations of this `Moses’ reference  surface when Jesus encounters the crowd he had previously fed.  They had very clear, somewhat limited ideas about what His Lordship and spiritual power `should’ mean in terms of their opposition to Rome. They walk away when Jesus talks to them about a deeper level of engagement with Him.  Then John talks about a temple feast where Jesus describes Himself as the source of a fountain of living water. This leads into a  controversial story about an adulterous woman He is called upon to `judge.’  He `writes in the dust’ the names of all who depart from Him, those who forsake this fountain of living water (compare John 8:1-11 with Jeremiah 17:13)

In the next section, water has changed shape and symbolic value again, and is now a pool called `Sent’ and a man born blind has to make his way there and wash the mud from his eyes. The blind man, like the earlier paralytic is made well, but he is also thrust into a world of uncertainty and alienation from culture and tradition. John’s somewhat fluid adaptation (pun intended) of the water metaphor  in various narrative settings  throws  growing light upon the person of Jesus and the consequences of following Him. Even the pool called `Sent’ carried echoes of earlier symbols and traditions. At one level the pool was `fed’ by a secret aqueduct carved into the temple construction by Hezekiah. He was intent on protecting the water supply into the city. At another level, some have caught a reference to the `gentle stream’ that the prophet Isaiah describes Israel as metaphorically turning away from… prior to their conquest and domination by a foreign political power.



The idea of poetry and multiple layers of significance in Scripture are welcomed by some, viewed more cautiously by others. It was the calcified layer upon layer  of scholarly elaboration and commentary on  the Scriptures of Israel that formed part of the `tradition of the elders’  that Jesus kicked against, saying it  painted a distorted picture of God, and put too much power in the hands of the gatekeepers. The church fathers argued among themselves when it came to synthesizing the different interpretive traditions for scripture. Much later, these synthesized traditions, combined with abuses of ecclesiastical power paved the way for a Reformation.  Some  emphasized an approach to Scripture that involved   collapsing the interpretive layers  into a historically and textually informed  plain sense.

We can learn much by patiently exploring these histories….and learning their lessons. But we can lose much if we do not remain open to what authors like John are doing.


In our exploration of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, we have dipped into cultural history, social science background and also literary allusion and visual art composition in our attempts to deepen our reading and our hearing of the different echoes woven there. In our journey we have touched on the lives of the hero/ancestors of Israel and their wedding stories…in order to suggest that Jesus, as described by John, was the `true bridegroom’ and the real source of `living water.’ Finally we can go back beyond even those stories to a story concerning the founding patriarch of Israel, Abraham himself. Abraham, as you know, was made promises by God. When Abraham trusted God, things went well. When he tried to help God out…….not so much. He and his wife Sarah were promised a child, even in their late years. Things were not progressing according to Abraham’s timetable, so he thought he would move things along by impregnating his handmaid, Hagar. Success. But then Sarah also had a child. This was the one promised by God.  Tension grew between the women of the household. Hagar’s child, Ishmael, fought with the child of promise, Isaac.  Abraham   ended up telling Hagar and child to go. Hagar packed her bags and left. Eventually, the supplies Abraham had given them for the journey ran out. She was alone with her child in the desert. According to the Genesis author she was alone, desperate and facing the bleakest possible future when an angelic being appeared to her, and provided water for her and the child. Hagar gave her mysterious provider a name. If we allow that it was God who undertook on her behalf…then the name `El Roi’ …The One who sees me’ might be one of the earliest names for God we have in the Bible. (See Genesis 16)

I am not alone is hearing an echo of the well story in John 4 here. This story, among others, reminds us that God meets people at points of desperate need. We do not need to speculate how much the woman at the well was in dire straits….in spite of her bold front.  Her words to the villagers about meeting a man who told her everything about her life suggests that there was a depth to the conversation that John barely touches.  John was intent on reminding us that it was Jesus Himself  who initiated this forbidden conversation , and that He was the one who was tired, thirsty and alone when He initiated it.




In our previous explorations of the well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, we have looked at how art and literature might provide us with tools for deepening our understanding  of what we find there.  Please  refamiliarize yourself with the story. It also might be helpful if you go back and read the previous blogs, just to get a sense of  what I am trying to do. I am not attempting an exhaustive commentary. I  am just digging around beneath the surface of the story , and talking about some of the things I discover.

In the book of proverbs, the sage instructs us to feed our enemy if they are hungry, and if they are thirsty give them something to drink. The explanation is that in doing so we will heap `coals of fire upon their head. This is less about hair singeing and revenge, and more about providing `life essentials’ hospitality  so that the `enemy’ will be shamed into rethinking their status and consider becoming a friend.

When Jesus shows up at the ancestral well side in Schechem He is not only alone and thirsty. He might well be seen as `the enemy.’ An `enemy’ asking for a drink…….

The  woman speaks out. She describes the invisible `border wall’ between them.  She is female. A Samaritan. Ethno cultural origins and gender should get in the way of a conversation like this.  There are no dealings between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus’s opening gambit, according to our storyteller, got this woman to put some important cards on the table.

(Sorry…since seeing `Crazy Rich Asians’ I’ve now got game theory, tribal and family traditions, and honor/shame categories on my mind.)

For John’s early audiences, it was the other way round. The Samaritan was regarded as the enemy. The tradition of enmity between them can be traced to stories of origin, as well as recent political outrage. …According to one ancient story in the second book of Kings, the king of Assyria had deported the Israelite inhabitants of the land of Samaria and repopulated the land with members of five other nations. These groups brought their own idolatrous worship practices, which they were forced to modify and combine with the worship of `the one true God. ’   This new population also developed a counter narrative in which they were the `true worshippers,’ with `correct’ temple location and deeper fidelity to the fundamentals of the Law. More recently, during the reign of Antiochus there was an attempt to impose Hellenistic customs  upon the Israelites, leading to profanation of the temple and resulting in  pushback/ the `Maccabean revolt.’ The Samaritans avoided being drawn into the conflict by disavowing any association with Israel.

So, there are stories of origin, contested `worship’ narratives and political distancing… Suffice to say, there was no love lost between these people groups.

We  might  even pick up an echo  of some of these traditional tensions below the surface of the exchange between Jesus and this woman.

But wait, there’s more…….

For me, some of these background details give this familiar `well’ story that third dimension. So do the categories `shame’ and `honor.’   I am suggesting that we look for  emphasis on  these things as we reflect on the cultural background  of the Biblical story. We might  well classify this woman as `guilty.’….Why would she be ashamed, according to her cultural norms?

The woman is described as someone who is shamed in different ways.

She has been through multiple marriages. (In addition to this , she is past the acceptable number) Different Biblical scholars have given different reasons for these multiple marriages. Some suggest adultery. Others propose   that the marriages were childless. She would be blamed.  Impurity and/or infertility are both (equally?) shame factors.

Her ancestors worshipped non Israelite Gods. Some  commentators have suggested that the reference to `five husbands’ was an subtle jab  at the five nations  the King of Assyria relocated to Samaria…….the nations and their Gods. The  reference  to a `sixth who is not your husband’  had more to do with recent  strategically advantageous political liaisons (up to and including Rome?) and less to do with current live in boyfriends.  Let me suggest  that this use of oblique symbolism and imagery (on the part of Jesus, and the storyteller)  might be consistent with the earlier multilevel use of `living water.’


In this narrative world (or narrated scene) it  is fair to say that in the honor/shame system this woman  cannot win for losing.

In addition, it is fair to say she had a mouth on her. When Jesus confronted her about her `five husbands’ some commentators suggest that she was embarrassed by the `reveal’ and tried to `save face’ by changing the subject. According to these commentators she begins by conceding the depth of His insight `I see you are a prophet’ and then veers off   to talk about mountains and temples.

Other commentators pick up more of a sarcastic edge to her words. Her initial pushback acknowledges (?) Jesus’s adroit way of summing up her personal situation (or community’s political situation) but then she presses him for insight into the long standing tensions between the two communities.  If those who pick up an edge to her tone are right, then she is still `in character’  as described by the storyteller.

Whatever assumptions we might make about the woman’s attitude  and her lifestyle, we have to keep in mind that this does not (or should not) preclude the idea of this woman asking intelligent theological questions. She is self-aware, informed, and curious.  Also, she is  transparent enough  in her  testimony to her fellow villagers.  (so…)What else did she and Jesus actually talk about?   What kind of worshippers truly `honor’ God with their worship?  Where does all  of the above   place her in the `spirit and truth’ grid?



Hopefully, for an important message………

broadcast interrupted


A version of this section was published as a standalone’ piece just over two years ago, as `Dead ends and roadblocks.’ I am reposting it because   a:  it is still relevant for some of us…  b:  it uses the story under consideration as a springboard   … aaand c: it serves as an interlude/ breathing space  before we  drill down into Samaritans, multiple husbands, temples, mountains,  and living water.

​In the fourth section of his story about Jesus, John tells us He went on a journey.  In order to get to Galilee Jesus `has to go through Samaria.’

In my last post I  suggested that Jesus went into  Samaria in order to outmaneuver  the religious authorities that were taking an interest in His doings.  This strategic sidestep  opened the door for a significant conversation.

I also suggested that John delights in helping us see  how delays, roadblocks and strategic sidesteps all get woven into the larger patterns and purposes of the story he is telling.

However, I want to begin things here by reflecting on seeming roadblocks, delays and detours in our own lives. Perhaps these, too, can be part of a larger pattern.  Perhaps they might play a significant role in helping or allowing our own practice or creativity to flourish.

I finished high school, enrolled in art school, and began to think seriously about Christian spirituality during what was dubbed `The Swinging Sixties. ’ When I completed my studies at art school in the mid-1970s, the psychedelic hippie era had been eclipsed by the hard-edged punk rock revolution. These were interesting times.

One of the many films I saw during those years comes to mind as I begin to reflect on John’s story of detours and possible delays.

Film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW in 1964. Pasolini was a highly creative artist, poet, and filmmaker who rose to prominence in postwar Italy. His social values and political sympathies tilted decidedly to the left, and he was gay. At one level all this is incidental. At another level, it makes his choice of this subject matter and his approach to the subject a little surprising.  His films were known for exploring and pushing the   limits and boundaries of the medium. They pushed /challenged the boundaries of decency, and threw down a gauntlet to the prevailing social and economic structures of the time. Accordingly, this man was no friend of the church or established Religion.

Nonetheless, when Pope John XXIII extended a conciliatory hand to non-Catholic artists, and sought dialogue with them, Pasolini accepted the invitation to go the town of Assisi for a meeting.

This meeting was arranged, but once word got out that the Pope was in town, the streets were jammed full of traffic and Pasolini was forced to stay in his hotel room…with nothing to do but read the one book he found there. It was during that no doubt frustrating time that the director was inspired to make a film that would be faithful to its source material (he chose Matthew of the four gospels) while remaining faithful to the director’s radical visions about art and society. He shot the film `neo realist’ style in black and white. He cast local people and `actors’ with no professional training. The scripted dialog stayed close to its Matthean roots, and the musical soundtrack drew upon a variety of sources ranging from folk, blues, and classical. The film, in my opinion is uncompromising in its artistic integrity, and singular in its luminous beauty. It married a faithful commitment to media and `limited’ means to a deep connection to its underlying story. This was no sugary Technicolor Hollywood epic.

The film continues to `resonate’ (some fifty years on!) in the hearts and minds of those that see it…regardless of their personal belief or current lack of it.

We can reflect on the fact  that this film was birthed  out of a seeming dead end/roadblock in which a frustrated film director , trapped in a hotel room, looked around for something to read.

Perhaps there are other things we can reflect on, as well.

Pasolini was later asked by (skeptical?) journalists, why he, of all people, had tackled such religious subject matter in his film. This is how he replied.

“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has nostalgia for a belief.”





Jacob’s Wellwellside

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?







`…And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…’


The story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well is one of the more famous stories from the gospel of John. Artists and filmmakers have poured color and light into its outlines. Social  science analysts have attempted to lift the corner of the story’s surface in order to show us something of the social and cultural complexities seething beneath it. Biblical scholars have attempted to unpack hidden elements of this narrative for us by moving behind text and background and dipping into the dynamics of storytelling, poetics, and literary theory.

That’s what I want to begin to explore  here…Ever wanted to be a writer or storyteller?….Ever wonder how the really good ones do it?

One of the mechanics of storytelling that you might have run across as you studied the works of novelists, or considered learning more about the creative writing process is called `foreshadowing’

Wikipedia helpfully points out

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story, or a chapter, and it helps the reader develop expectations about the upcoming events.


So, (you ask, breathlessly) what does `foreshadowing’ have to do with this story about Jesus and the woman at the well? I suggest we turn back a couple of pages, or scroll up a bit and look at the story that closes out the third chapter of John’s Gospel.

In this story  the ambivalent or hostile religious authorities are attempting to engineer a bit of tension between  the followers of john the Baptist and those now `going  over’ to his cousin, Jesus. The storyteller helpfully supplies some chronology. All this happened before John went to prison….for making critical remarks about someone’s marriage (btw).

So, we have the narrative seedlings of intergroup rivalry and tension and the faint reminder of the reasons for John’s exit stage left. In his reported responses, he rejoices that Jesus is growing in popularity and likens his own role to that of a `best man’ at a wedding. There has been another wedding story, not too long ago, in this gospel . In THAT story , Jesus miraculously provided a large amount of wine. John’s remarks not only implicitly link the actions of Jesus to this earlier story they also prepare the ground for what lies ahead.

In order to dig a little deeper into that we need to unpack another literary/cultural device….that of the allusive echo.


Some of you will recall this as the title of a Startrek episode from the late 1960s….or perhaps the  novel by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Others will recall that it was the tile of a British TV series in the early 1960s that explored the causes leading to the Second World War.

I am confident that the  writers of the British TV series intended that their use of the  phrase `all our yesterdays’ echo a line from  Macbeth’s last  soliloquy in Act five of the famous Shakespeare play. `Star trek’….um, not so much. In at least one of  these cases, the writers  imagined  that an exposure to the works of Shakespeare created a `shared cultural context’ for both storyteller and (British) audience. They hoped that this  audience would `get’ a nod towards  the  original  narrative, imagery, or character and see something echoed, however faint, in the contemporary story being presented to them. Such an echo might be more allusive, or even somewhat faint or ambient. It will not offer a point-by-point linear correspondence with its source material.  But it will occur in a shared frame of reference.

Switch gears, here. If we allow that John’s audience `grew up’ under a hearing of the Old Testament stories accompanied by additional elaboration and commentary, then we might allow that they have a dynamic cultural memory potentially more attuned to allusions and echoes drawn from this source material.  Biblical Scholar Richard Hays has profitably/ explored this idea in his books `Echoes of Scripture in the letters of Paul’ and `Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels’    Hays  acknowledges  his own study of literary theory and poetics as a basis for  his ideas in this regard.  He specifically mentions John Hollander’s book `Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After’

At the site that makes `Figure of Echo’ FREELY AVAILABLE to read online, I found this helpful description.

`Looking at echo in its literal, acoustic sense, echo in myth, and echo as literary allusion, Mr. Hollander concludes with a study of the rhetorical status of the figure of echo, and the ancient and newly interesting trope of metalepsis, or transumption, which it appears to embody. Centered on ways by which Milton’s poetry echoes, and is echoed by, other texts, The Figure of Echo deals well with Spencer and other Renaissance writers, with romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, and with echoes of their nineteenth-century forebears in such modern poets as Hardy, Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Williams and Hart Crane.”

`Trope?’    Wikpedia to the rescue….

A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.


Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which reference is made to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a causal relationship, or through another figure of speech.

Of course, for some this is all  going to sound a little too Dead, White and European……a far cry from  the Gospel of John. But similar ideas about literature and poetry exist elsewhere(Asia, for example) ….and, thanks to the scholarship of Richard Hays and others we can pick up on this dynamic in the  play of echoes in Biblical texts and stories.

Here is what John leaves us with at the end of in three

He foreshadows group tension as a theme with a story of smaller intergroup rivalry

We are reminded of John the Baptist’s secondary and diminishing role. John’s `moment in the sun/graceful exit stage left’ comes to us via a speech that includes references to weddings and property transfer.

We will see how all this connects to the story of Jesus meeting the woman by the well.

(Stay tuned)







We are digging into the story about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well.

The last time I posted, I began this exploration of this well-known story from the gospel of john by diving into an art historian’s way of analyzing pictures and a linguist taking a semiotic approach to understanding a form of Asian theater. I did this because I think these tools or lenses might be helpful in looking into all the dimensions this story.(They have helped me.) My other agenda, of course, is to set us up for looking at this story as `art.’

HOWEVER, before we explore the story AS art I want to take another brief (but tangled)detour and touch on how different artists have approached this story.

please click on the links to get to the artworks I refer to.

Above is an early fourth century image from the catacombs of this well known story .

The second link will get you to a comprehensive sampling of the way artists throughout history have approached this episode.

As you will see, painters from  different eras  have framed this story in the compositional and pictorial conventions of their  time, in order to render it palpable or visually accessible to their peers.  Sometimes the landscape surrounding the characters seems more European than Middle Eastern.  Sometimes , the artists will depict lead `players’  and any supporting cast as contemporaries of the viewing audience.

One artist depicted the encounter as an almost convivial get together between two youngish people in their local bar. Jesus and woman share the same horizontal plane, and lean into a conversation, or pause and lean back as one or other scores a point in the friendly exchange. You would have to be `in the know’ to pick up on the momentous theological import of this occasion. The title plate helps.

Theologians and missiologists refer to these kinds of stylistic liberties as `contextualization.’ We can try to move from what they are talking about to (seeing) how these painters employed their tools of the trade. Stereotypically (enough) if we try and bend ideas about `contextualization ‘ around the notion of artistic depictions of biblical stories, we think of exotic cultures and `ethno arts.’  we might gravitate towards paintings involving a blue skinned Christ sitting cross legged beside a well, such as we might see the work of the Indian artist, A.D Thomas.

We might imagine the story as seen through the eyes and artistic skills of He Qui, and find ourselves looking at a brightly colored image that resembles a Chinese paper cut.

We might have harder time thinking about European artists in the medieval, Renaissance and Counter Reformational traditions as `contextualizers’…but this is what they did.

(However)  It is not just dressing up characters and depicting buildings so that they look  like  come from the same historical era as artist and audience.

All these things are balanced   by the economy of gesture. What I mean by this is we can simply recall where the story is going by looking at how Jesus points to himself in some of these paintings, or gestures behind him while making a remark (presumably?) about temples and traditions. The woman at the well seems incredulous that Jesus would ask her for a drink in one canvas. Her open mouth and gesturing hands are eloquent.  In another she looks   somewhat pensive or taken aback when Jesus confronts her about her five husbands(?). All this comes across in a downward glance, or her hand held over her breast. The artist uses Facial expression, body posture, and stylized gesture to underscore a conventional reading of this story in a setting in which art maker and viewer share a social/cultural context and a Christian tradition. .

In the 17th Century  john, Bulwer wrote an entire treatise on the language of gestures, primarily for those in the pulpit. Gestures play a role, not only in helping to tell the story `behind’ the picture…but also in some traditions to impart or underscore somewhat condensed versions of spiritual concepts.

In some depictions of the woman at the well story, the background details and even the well itself is depicted in ways to communicate spiritual significance. Leaving natural representation behind, some iconographers would depict the well so that its shape echoed a baptistery….or its (now) six sides carried a subtle hint of the six ages of man. Even the woman at the well became stylized as an important apostolic figure….saint Photine. We could look at  a picture about this story executed by an image-maker in the orthodox tradition and be confronted by a highly evolved symbolic language and condensed spiritual traditions.

And now for something……….

Someone like the Victorian painter William Dyce took a completely different approach . Dyce tried hard to get all the main points of the story, as he saw them, front and center.

Gone are the packed gestures, and the lush colors and textures that placed the story with a painter and era older European art history. Here, Dyce, in an illustrative style reminiscent of his contemporaries the Pre Raphaelites, composed a picture intended to be read primarily as a visual text…..and a text laden with inescapable theological implications. Christ, in his `humiliation’ is seated lower than the woman descending down the path towards the well. His purple robe (royalty?) is laid aside, while a flesh colored shirt (his incarnation?) gave way to some green cloth pushing through, suggesting perhaps the promise of new life. The thematic signaling `through ‘this illustrative artwork is not a rich feast for the senses as in some great European depictions of this scene in earlier eras of art history. Nor is it coded with the dense and  sometimes obscure allusions made by the iconographers. What Dyce offers  is a painted text, in which the artist wants to make sure  that theologically correct premises about the incarnation and the  new life  were front, center and clearly available  to  the literate observer.

While I think that an artist like William Dyce  needs to be  looked at (appreciatively?) in his time and cultural framework, I also think that John’s original story   and its telling  has much to tell us about the complexities of art and in depth audience engagement.

I am not suggesting that he did not hold to at least some of the ideas artists like William Dyce set out to illustrate. I do want to suggest, however,  that there is much more  we can learn about art, interfaith dialogue, and open questions from John’s approach to storytelling.

(stay tuned)






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.