Chapter 4 – the woman at the well
Lectio Divina vs 16-26
As we have been making our unsystematic explorations in John’s gospel, one image that I have repeatedly come back to is that of the Gospel as a Rich tapestry. That through it runs theme after theme like the threads and that at times these threads surface in such a way as to bring out a particular motif. So we explored how ‘The Good Shepherd’ – understood as it must be in terms of Christ the Kingly Priest, is one of combinations of threads, drawn together in Jesus teaching in John Chapter 10.
Well tonight I want to do something a little different, for whilst undoubtedly the idea of a tapestry of themes is one way we can image John’s gospel, another is to realise that the whole gospel is multi layered – that there are levels of meaning and indeed that this is made very explicit in several places. [ Just as an aside, one place where that does not apply is the gospel from this morning, where Jesus says Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. As I said this morning, this is where quite starkly we are faced with at one and the same time a lack of levels of meaning, that the words of Jesus are not open to levels of interpretation, there is but one meaning, yet at that time, that meaning is of the profoundest significance. To be clear I am not saying that the text is open to many different interpretations, although that is difficult, the sheer variety of understandings of the Eucharist reveal most clearly that the church down through the ages has like the disciples struggled with this teaching of Jesus – but that that those interpretations are our attempts to wrestle with the only meaning in the text. This text in and of itself is not replete with levels of meaning ]
So to come back to the multilayered nature of the Gospel, there are places where not only can Jesus be understood on different levels, but that this is made explicit in the text. So Nicodemus understands Jesus in one way, but Jesus wants to open to him another layer of meaning, and it is so with our text this evening. The Samaritan woman is thinking in terms of physical water, Jesus will take her to another level of meaning and understanding.
And this text is SO full of layers, layer upon layer, that we can do only the most cursory survey this evening.
Firstly however, I Do want to connect this passage to the rest of the gospel. John’s gosepl is a whole and we can never hope to do credit to it without having the whole in view as we listen to even a few verses. So I will first briefly highlight three threads present throughout John’s gospel and running through this passage [there are more]. Firstly that of marriage. Now of course we might think that Marriage only comes to the fore in the wedding at Cana – but that is of course a motif – the threads are seen elsewhere and indeed there is a second motif. Indeed we might look at each part of the gospel in this way , seeking out where the motifs are present in the trheads that make up the whole.
In the wedding at Cana, Jesus is portrayed as the true host of the wedding. Here also another thread is found which I will return to in a minute.
Again the motif of marriage and indeed I think given our current turmoil, a far more helpful one than the wedding at Cana, for it reveals Christian marriage to be a sacred and holy mystery, is the encounter of Jesus ‘the gardener’, or to use an older more biblically informed title, the husbandman, with Mary Magdalene. Here in the Garden we see the restoration of the male female complementarity, and also a picture of the union of Christ with his bride the faithful church, the one who defers to him as Rabboni, or teacher.
Well of course we know that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute and so when we come back now to chapter four, we find a woman who as we read the text on the surface level is an adulteress, she has had five husbands and the man she has now is not her husband’. So once more the issue again is marriage, and we should not forget the Old Testament background of the prophets where Israel itself is seen as the faithless bride of God, explicitly in the prophet Hosea.
Well it might seem thus that I am as it were stretching a point here, but not if we remember that John’s gospel must be understood against a rich background of texts and in this case, as I have said before, we cannot read John without at the same time allowing the Revelation of John to inform our imagination and so we may well hear echoing deep in the background of these allusions to marriage in the gospel, these words:
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure’—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’
Now of course we need to be warned at this point. For how easy it is to take the texts of Scripture which are all about Christ, and make them all about us. Yes Marriage is to the fore, but this Marriage in the eschatalogical, final and perfect sense, that is the Union of Christ and the Church. We may begin to make inferences then about what marriage between a man and a woman might perhaps look like, but this is derivative. Unfortunately it seems that of late and indeed through much of history, this fundamental ordering has been reversed. The human is the Image of God, Not God. Human marriage is the image of the Union twixt Christ and the Church, it is Not the lasting fundamental reality. Human marriage is until death do us part – there is NO ‘Re-united’ in Christian theology as marks many gravestones. There is Only the final union twixt Christ and his church. That as much as anything suggests to me that the church at least has No business fooling around with definitions of marriage.
So we must beware of making the Scriptures fundamentally textxs about us, about our lives and not about God and only in that Light about our lives. We struggle not to look at the text through the spectacles of our own culture and we need as far as possible to remove them in order to See what is before us. And so it is with regard to the relationship of Jesus with Women. If this is all we see in this passage, then we miss much.
Not least that most Intriguing characteristic of Jesus’ encounter with women in John’s gospel is that they all have a common theme running through them – they all without exception evoke ‘fruitfulness’. The new Adam encounters a woman and new life comes into being. First at the wedding feast, where Mary incites Jesus into action and the New Wine is Created – to the Samaritan Woman – where the result is that there is a harvest of new life – we read in John 4:35- 42 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Again – fruitfulness.
Then Martha at the grave of Lazarus – Jesus encounters her and calls her to faith and her faith is then the trigger for the Resurrection of Lazarus – Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Finally at the tomb she falters – Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out.
Again Life and then finally in the garden, Mary Magdalene rushes to tell the disciples, I have seen the Lord, the announcement of the Life of Christ set free in the world.
So reading the text with regard to Jesus and women we see far more than our limited contemporary agendas will allow. Again I say, the Scriptures are not primarily about us, they are about God. Our understanding of marriage and the relationship between men and women must tak as its point of reference the life of God and the relationship of Christ to the church.
The third and final thread is that of Life and abundance in regard to spiritual goods. The Wine runs out, the bread does not satisfy, the water leaves you thirsty. In this passage Jesus points through the material to himself, that he in his materiality, in his flesh he is the source of New Wine, bread that does not leave you hungry and a spring of eternal life -and in these three elements revealing the fulness of Life in and through the Spirit of the risen Christ. Christ in and of himself throughout the gospel of John reminds us that we cannot separate out as it were the ‘spiritual Jesus’, the Christ of faith, from Jesus who comes from Nazareth whose flesh we must eat and whose blood we must drink.
And so to the story. As I said it is multi layered and some of these I have now alluded to in exploring three threads amongst many with which this encounter is woven. So for the rest of the time I want to look at the story in two different dimensions. Firstly there is the simple story of the encounter of Jesus with a woman and how that encounter leads to life for her fellow Samaritans.
Firstly we find Jesus at the well. It is interesting to note that there may be a Moses parallel here – we read that Jesus is retreating from the pharisees at this point who have heard he is baptising more than John the Baptist. When Moses flees from his own in Exodus, he too comes to rest by a well where he encounters the daughters of the priests of Midian and draws water from the well for them. So when the woman gets over her shock at being addressed by this Jewish man, Jesus engages her and says ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’ But you have no bucket and the well is deep. Moses drew water from a well, but Jesus is himself the Well – the Law came through moses, Grace and Truth through Jesus Christ.
The disciples have disappeared ‘ to find bread’ (we may think ahead here about Jesus words – they do not yet recognise the Living Bread) and Jesus weary from travel asks the woman for a drink – the woman having got over the shock of being addressed by this Jewish man – Jesus then goes on to say that if she knew who it was who was asking – he would have given you living water. As I pointed out this morning, the woman misunerstands and Jesus rapidly corrects her – Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, she asks? (another layer here to which I shall return) – Jesus responds that those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman understanding that more is afoot replies ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
At which point Jesus seems to divert the conversation – with a discussion of her far from unchequered history – she has been married to four or five different men. NOw of course on the surface as many commentators suggest, in the terms of her time she is the classic ‘fallen woman’, but there is more here. She keeps having to come back to the well, she keeps having to find a new husband – the two I suggest are related. Not because she needs to marry a man who will come to the well himself 🙂 but rather because she has not found ahusband who is Life giving to her. I suggest that here in view is the idea of the husband as the head of the wife, in the sense that he is the Source of Life – that the husband is the one who is to release the wife into the fullness of who she is, in the same way that it is the Life of Christ freely given which allows the church to be the light of the world. The word ‘Head’ in the New testament is also the word for the source of a river. COnservative commentators missing the double meaning and also igniring Christs own words that the one who is First must be the servant of all, refuse to allow the double meaning of the husband who is the head and lays down his life that the wife might come to fulleness of life.
So Yes, she is a sinful woman, but she is searching for life and in Christ she has found it. The discussion then moves to Worship. Some people suggest that the woman, having been found out is trying to dodge the issue, but in fact no. For the site of worship was seen as the place for forgiveness and also the source of life. We remember that Ezekiel vision of the Temple as the source of the River of LIfe, as was Eden, and most importantly, as Christ himself declares himself to be in John 7:38.
The Jews worship God in Jerusalem at the Temple, the Samaritans at Mt Gerizim – where must I go to find forgiveness and life she is asking? What you have said is true, JEsus responds – Salvation does come from the Jews, but that does not mean that you must go to Jerusalem, rather the hour is coming, and is now here, [Time reference] when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
The woman is transformed – she has encountered Christ – she rushes to tell her people, come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done, he cannot be the Messiah, can he? The Samaritans come to Jesus and many believe in his name.
So the surface story, but even this has depths we may miss
Briefly to the underlying story. We may well have noticed that the woman has no name. This is not insignificant. we can come up with lots of reasons for this, but they tend to fail the test of the whole gospel. It cannot be that John has a negative attitude to women as he names several and gives them key roles. No. She has no name because her personal story stands for another story. She is a Samaritan – she lives in the Land of Jacobs well. It is interesting, but I haven’t gone any further than this, that the Samaritan woman’s story focusses on JAcob – we remember that Jesus quite possibly alludes negatively to Jacob when he says of NAthaniel, an Israelite (not a jew mind you, an Israelite0 In whom there is no deceit. JAcob the deceiver. Jesus tells the woman that Salvation does come from the Jews. When JEsus is in conflict with the Jews and it reaches its peak the conflict is around Abraham – If abraham were your father . . .
Furthermore Where you worshipped was a Key area of disagreement between the Jews and the Samaritans. THe Samaritans, tracing their story back more to the patriarchs than to Moses as ‘the Jews’ did (remember that ;The JEws’ also refers in large part to the Pharisees and their attempts to shore up the national religion and sense of citizenship)
The Samaritans claimed that the shrine at shiloh presided over by Eli was a place of false worship and that Mt Gerizim, where they said that Abraham had gone to sacrifice Isaac (mt Moriah) was the true place of worship. HEnce quite possibly the multitudinous references to worship at the high places in the Old Testament, particularly in reference to the Northern Kingdom, whose territory the Samaritans now inherited
Thus the woman can also be understood symbolically as the unfaithful Samaritans who have had many ‘husbands’ – their allegiance has been far from the living God, atleast in the eyes of the Jews, a view Jesus seems to uphold by asking her where ehr husband is and the number five is not insignificant here 2 Kings 17 24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. 25When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26So the king of Assyria was told, ‘The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.’ 27Then the king of Assyria commanded, ‘Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.’ 28So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the Lord. Settled by the people of BAbylon, Cutha, Avva, HAmath and Sepharvaim. Suffice it for now to say that we have five areas ruled over by five kings. The link between Kings and worship is far stronger than it is for us – (cf The Kingdom of God is primarily about worship)
And so we come to a close – with words of Ignatius of Antioch whom I quoted this morning, one of the earliest bishops of the church, made a bishop in AD 67, perhaps even before JOhn wrote is gospel, and someone whom JOhn knew – regarding the sufficiency of the water – however fascinating all the threads and layers – the whole is a portrait of Christ the one whom said those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
Ignatius says this tying together todays gospel and this evening s text ‘My lust hath been crucified, and there isin me no fire of love for material things, but only water living and speaking in me, and saying to me from within “Come to the Father”. I have no pleasure in the food of corruption or in the delights of this life. I desitre the bread of GOd which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David, and for drink I desire his blood which is love incorrubtible’
And all God people said ‘Amen’