Gospel: John 4:5-26 (27-30, 39-42)
Epistle: Romans 5:1-8
Lesson: Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm: Psalm 95:1-9
CLB Commentary – Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen
This passage has been preached in numerous ways—as a “how to” for witnessing, as an example of a new start in life, as instruction for proper worship, as an exhortation to join in the mission, and so on. When I read this passage I see another example of how Jesus goes to unexpected places and does unheard of things to show that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and that his grace will not be confined by any religious system. I notice that John, like Luke, wrote his gospel in ways that highlight Jesus’ love for those that rabbinical Judaism either despised or ignored as if they were invisible. In this passage alone there is more than one example that Christ rejected the accepted, established religious thought and practice of Israel. Practically everything that Jesus said and did concerning the Kingdom of God would upset the Pharisaical apple cart. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16).
First off, this story immediately follows John’s mention of the Pharisees in verse one—John contrasted the skeptical Pharisees with the Samaritan’s receptivity toward Jesus. Our first glimpse of this is the fact that Jesus even went through Samaria in the first place, since we know that the Jewish people avoided the Samaritans for being a mixed race and for setting up their own worship of Yahweh apart from the temple in Jerusalem. Arriving at Jacob’s spring, Jesus decided to rest there, sending his disciples into the town to buy food. As Jesus rested, a Samaritan woman came to fill her water pot. Though many commentators assume that the woman was alone, and that she came at this time of day because she is an immoral outcaste, the text does not say this. However, just the fact that she is a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that, makes Jesus’ casual conversation with her border on the scandalous—evident in John’s comment in verse 27.
And what about a Jew taking a drink from a vessel filled by a Samaritan? Jesus is not bothered by this either and yet the woman clearly considered his request to be odd, since she answered, “How can you ask me for a drink?” To her words, John added: “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” At this juncture, Jesus turned the conversation in a spiritual direction, offering her living water. The woman does not immediately accept Jesus’ statement, rather, pushing back a bit, she challenged Jesus as to whether he is greater than “our father Jacob.” Does Jesus ignore her question, or take a round about way of answering it? Either way, he refused to debate ancestral greatness–he stayed on topic and repeated his offer to give her living water. She missed his meaning, however, though she appeared ready to have a steady supply of water without having to come to the well.
It is time now for Jesus to reveal more to her about who he is and why he came. His next words touch her heart. He tells her to go get her husband. She responds that she has no husband. The answer that Jesus will give will open her eyes that this is no ordinary Jewish rabbi that she is conversing with.
This woman is usually identified by us as very immoral; after all, she had 5 husbands and the one she is living with now is not her husband. There are several problems with this view, however. For one, hearing Jesus’ words as accusatory and condemning is not consistent with his treatment of others who are considered outcastes by Jewish society—take the woman caught in adultery, for example, where Jesus became her advocate. Secondly, considering Jewish law and culture, it is unlikely that any woman would initiate a divorce (especially five times!). Considering the penalties for adultery and the culture of the day, is it likely that an immoral woman would survive 5 divorces for immorality?
Perhaps, instead, she would have been a victim of divorce for other reasons. Consider this: a group of female students at a Lutheran college in India were asked to dramatize this passage: they saw the text through very different eyes. According to their portrayal of the story, the woman’s first husband divorced her for bringing an insufficient dowry; the second husband divorced her for failing to produce a male heir; the third was an alcoholic who beat her, causing her to run away to escape the violence. The next husband was much older than she was and was also poor and sickly: he died. Her fifth husband divorced her in order to marry a younger woman (K.N. Premanath, Border Crossings: Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007, p. 46).
Looking back at our text now, how did the woman respond to Jesus’ words about her husbands? “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet” (v. 19). His words communicated to her that he knew her story, but instead of condemnation he continued to offer her living water, creating faith, even when she changed the subject to the theology of worship. However, the argument between the woman and Jesus about where to worship God soon became meaningless when she returned to evangelize her village, and brought them out to him. Jesus denied anyone’s claim to “place” (topos) where God should be worshiped, just as he also warned against the anti- Roman, anti-colonial, uprising method of the zealots.
John’s depiction of this encounter contrasts the religion of the Pharisees—a religion that kept people in bondage—with the redemptive reign of Christ who frees us from all bondage. In this account, John gave us a glimpse of Jesus ministering as he typically did with others in the Gospels who had been told that they were excluded from God’s embrace. Then, as now, Jesus revealed Himself as one who not only frees us from our bondage to sin and evil, but as one who also frees us to service with Him in God’s mission of making us all one in His reconciling grace. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). This He did through the vulnerability of the cross and through the power of His resurrection. To God be the glory!