27 March 2011
The Third Sunday in Lent
I want to start with a question: Is there anyone here, besides, me, who memorized John 3:16 as a child? I’m guessing that those of you who raised your hands are the cradle Protestants, and the rest of you might be cradle Catholics, or you might not have grown up in a church, or you grew up in another country with other traditions.
I had a hunch about Catholics, so I called a friend who grew up Catholic and, sure enough, she did not know John 3:16. However, she had memorized a creed, probably the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creed. And then it dawned on me that, in the Southern Baptist church where I grew up, John 3:16 was used much like a creed, which is ironic because my church claimed that it didn’t use creeds.
A creed is a clear statement of belief, and in my childhood understanding John 3:16 was salvation in a nutshell, simple and clear. Belief in Jesus Christ has been the central focus of Christianity from its earliest days, but what, exactly, is believed about Jesus has actually been quite variable, from the beginning as well as today.
The lectionary of scripture readings follows a three-year cycle, so that each year we read one of the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This is Year A, so most Sundays we have been reading from Matthew.
What about John? The Fourth Gospel is inserted into the Sunday readings during certain seasons, especially the Easter season and Lent. One result of this is that those of us who love the Gospel of John don’t get to hear it every Sunday and neglect the other Gospels, and those of us who have trouble with John are at least occasionally forced to deal with it.
What is special about the Gospel of John? What sets it apart from the other three? And what can we learn from Fourth Gospel as we journey through this Lent?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because it’s easy to make a synopsis or summary of their stories. While each tells the story of Jesus in its own distinctive way, they all tell it in about the same order. John is very different. John includes episodes that are not found in the Synoptics and leaves out episodes that are very important to the Synoptics.
All four Gospels open the account of Jesus’ ministry with the testimony of John the Baptist; however, in the Fourth Gospel there is no mention of Jesus’ baptism. There is also no institution of the Lord’s Supper. Both of those sacraments, which were central to the life of the early church, are alluded to: Baptism in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus – “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” – and in Jesus’ offer of “living water.” The Eucharist is alluded to in Chapter 6, in which Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” and goes on to explain that at some length.
Several stories about Jesus occur only in John: the wedding at Cana; the raising of Lazarus from the dead; and our lesson for today, the Samaritan woman at the well.
Biblical scholars agree that John was the last Gospel to be written, and that it likely was completed during the ’90s of the first century. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written probably around the year 70, some 30 years after Jesus’ death, Matthew and Luke during the 70s to 80s. Each Gospel was developed within a particular community of Christians, was composed of stories that had been told in the community for some time, and was written for the instruction and faith formation of that community.
“Who do you say that I am?” was Jesus’ question that each community had to answer. As the years passed, the followers of the Way reflected on Jesus – who he was for them, who he was in relation to God, and what it all meant in light of events that were taking place in their own time. In the Gospel of John we see the results of 60 to 70 years of history and reflection by a particular community of Jewish Christians. And it is clear when you compare the Gospels that beliefs about Jesus have undergone a lot of development. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ ministry reaches its climax with the Transfiguration, when Jesus is reveled in glory to his three closest disciples. John, however, has no Transfiguration. John’s Jesus is glorified from the start:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
With that background, let us now enter the story of the Samaritan woman.
The story has three parts:
1. Jesus and his disciples, passing through Samaria on their way from Judea to Galilee, stop near the city of Sychar. The disciples go into town to buy food and Jesus sits down by a well, which happens to be Jacob’s well. A Samaritan woman comes and Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Then they have the longest conversation recorded in any of the Gospels between Jesus and any person. By the end of it, she is convinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
2. The disciples return and the woman goes back to her town. She tells everyone there about Jesus, and they come to see for themselves. The disciples urge Jesus to eat, but he tells them he has food they do not know of.
3. Many Samaritans believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. He stays with them for two days, and many more come to believe, as they experience him for themselves.
I’d like to look at a few key points.
First, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria. And, as it says, the Jews and the Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. Why?
Back in 722 B.C.E., the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, was conquered by the Assyrians and most of the people were exiled. The Southern Kingdom of Judea, with its capital Jerusalem, was besieged but not taken. Some Israelites in the north remained and intermarried with the Assyrians. They still worshiped the God of Abraham, but they regarded only the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as sacred and rejected later Jewish scriptures. This is why their place of worship was Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem. So, in the view of the first-century Judeans, the Samaritans did not obey the right laws, and they did not have sound doctrine.
However, by the end of the first century, the Christians have proclaimed the gospel throughout the known world, including Samaria, as we are told in the Book of Acts, Chapter 8. Scholars believe that the community within which John’s Gospel was developed included a group of Samaritan converts.
Jesus sits down beside a well, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. This story usually is interpreted as centering on Jesus’ encounter with a sinful woman. There are others like it: the woman taken in adultery; and one of the four versions – Luke’s – of the woman anointing Jesus.
But as I read this story, I get the sense that there is more to it than meets the eye. First of all, about those five husbands. Even today, when serial monogamy is well accepted in our culture, five marriages would be considered extreme. And, if this woman is an outcast, as the traditional interpretation has it, how did she manage to marry five men and live with a sixth? By the way, nowhere in the scripture passage does it say that she’s an outcast. Some scholars have interpreted the five husbands as a symbolic reference to the five alien tribes that the King of Assyria moved into Samaria after the conquest.
When Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, their conversation follows a pattern that is used repeatedly in John’s Gospel. Jesus says something profound that is misunderstood. “If only you recognized God’s gift, and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him for a drink instead, and he would have given you living water.” The hearer takes the saying literally and responds with a question. We saw this pattern last week in the story of Nicodemus. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Similarly, the Samaritan woman’s question is, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and this well is deep. Where do you expect to get this living water?” She also challenges his apparent disregard for Jacob’s well: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” Jesus responds with an explanation of living water, and the woman is intrigued but she still doesn’t get it.
Then comes the transitional part of the dialogue, when Jesus reveals his supernatural knowledge of the woman’s life. She perceives that he is a prophet and brings up the argument about Samaritan versus Jewish ways of worship, to which Jesus responds, “It doesn’t matter. The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.”
She says, “I know that Messiah is coming; when he comes he will show us all things.” Jesus says to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
The New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, proposed that this dramatic dialogue is based on a tradition that a woman missionary played a primary role in the conversion of the Samaritans to belief in Christ. Bultmann is cited by the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in her pioneering book In Memory of Her.
When the disciples return from town, there is an interlude in which Jesus talks to them about missionary work, using the image of harvest. “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Schüssler Fiorenza tells us that the verb used for labor, kopian, is a technical missionary term that refers to the woman’s giving testimony to her townspeople. Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation is that the Johannine community hearing this Gospel reaps the harvest made possible by the missionary work of a woman who began the conversion of the Samaritans within the community.
The woman leaves her water jar and runs to tell her people about Jesus, just as Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets, and James and John left their boat.
The Fourth Gospel does not stress the special leadership of the Twelve, as the other Gospels do, because this community believes that all members, having received the Spirit and been born anew, are called to a discipleship of equals, women and men, and racially mixed, together. Later, in Chapter 17, Jesus prays not only for the Twelve but also for “those who believe in him through their word,” and the language is almost the same as in the statement that many Samaritans believed in him “because of the words of the woman who testified.” The people then come to full faith because of Jesus’ own self-revelation. The Johannine community whose faith at first was based on the proclamation of the missionaries now stands on its own experience of the presence and revelation of Jesus.
Women play quite a prominent role throughout the Fourth Gospel, and Schüssler Fiorenza details this for us. Jesus’ public ministry begins and ends with stories about women – Mary the mother of Jesus, at the wedding in Cana; and Martha and Mary of Bethany at the raising of Lazarus. After the Pharisee Nicodemus, who never does get it, the Gospel tells of the Samaritan woman. Whereas in the Synoptic Gospels the climactic confession of faith – “You are the Christ” – is made by Peter, in the Fourth Gospel it is Martha of Bethany – the same Martha who slaved away in the kitchen while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet – Martha is the one who says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
According to the Evangelist narrating the Gospel of John, four women and the Beloved Disciple stood under the cross of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the empty tomb and the first to see the resurrected Lord. Schüssler Fiorenza acknowledges the possibility that the narrator of this Gospel might actually be a woman.
Miriam Therese Winter, a professor of liturgy, worship, spirituality, and feminist studies at Hartford Seminary, has written an imaginary Gospel According to Mary, in which she reworks the Gospel stories to show “more clearly how Jesus entrusted to women the essentials of our Christian faith, how women were not only present in all of the important places, but were keepers of the vision” (p. 15). Here is her reading of the story of the Samaritan woman: (pp. 65-66)
The woman said to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so I never have to draw from this well again, so I never thirst again.” Jesus said to the woman, “Go and call those in the community with whom you share a relationship with God and bring them back with you.” “I have no relationship with God,” the woman replied. “Indeed, you have no relationship with God,” he said, “for you have been searching for God through a variety of religious experiences, and now you are affiliated with a tradition to which you are not committed.” “So, you are a prophet,” the woman said.
Jesus said, “Those who drink the water I give them will never be thirsty; no, the water I give will become fountains within them, springing up to provide eternal life.”
In closing, I want to read an excerpt from a blog post written by a friend of Ron Arms, Anne Thomas, in Sendai, Japan. She posted this on March 14, three days after the earthquake and tsunami. (She was able to post this blog because her community had electricity intermittently, in different places.) Ron sent it to Marjory this past Friday, and I’m grateful to Marjory for sending it to the Seekers list serve. This is, I think, one example of what living water looks like in our world today.
Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful. During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. . . . If someone has water running in their home, they put out a sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets. . . . I love this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire group.
When we find the one who gives us living water, what is our response?