27.1.11

The Samaritan woman's encouragement to us to engage in theological discourse



We are in Samaria. We are at a well. It is mid-day. This public space of the well becomes a private space because there are no other characters in this scene (4:8) and no witnesses to their dialogue, apart from the reader and no other voices, apart from the narratorial voice.

This Samaritan woman becomes a dialogue partner to Jesus. She is acceptable despite her misunderstanding and her hesitant belief. Jesus is not a reprimanding dialogue partner. It could be his command 'Give me to drink,' (4:7) is less 'harsh and abrupt' (Matthews, 2010, 220) and motivated more by his wanting to reassure her that thirst is his need. Wyckoff (2005, 92) believes that there is 'no suggestion in the Greek text of impoliteness or a demand.' They would both be aware that in a culture where unrelated men and women are not to meet unchaperoned, the honour of both could be easily compromised. In her response to Jesus, the Samaritan woman introduces the idea that theirs is both a gender and an ethnic difference. Here, however, she is safe and intimacy with Jesus is based on the sharing of truths.

Our ideas about intimacy often have sexual connotations and it is interesting that in her disclosure about having five husbands, we regard her immoral, aware as we are of her unusual noon-day visit to the well (so she might avoid day-break or evening crowds). Reader-response theories wonder if the text seeks to undo us for the judgements we impose on the text. She might have outlived her husbands in a culture where levirate marriage was the norm, or more convincingly Schneiders (1997, 249) argues that 'the entire dialogue … has nothing to do with the woman's private moral life.' Schneiders (1997, 247) and Moore (2003, 282) believe there is an allegorical significance to the woman's five husbands being representative of Samaria's colonial past, with the present man representing 'the Samaritans' false worship of the true God,' (Barrett, 1965, 225). Other scholars (Witherington, 1984, 58-59; Thettayil, 2007, 34-35, Neyrey, 2009, 156) are less likely to believe this is the case. We might ask ourselves questions about times in our own lives where worship has been misplaced and another exalted instead of Jesus. Shneiders believes the Samaritan woman is quite able to decode Jesus' metaphorical language and rejoin with similar language of her own, aware that she represents her people before him and that as a people, they are without a 'husband' in the Hebrew pictorial sense of a Yahweh groom to his people, his bride. Reader-response critical approaches do much to uncover the literary games that the gospel's author might be playing. However, Eslinger (1993, 177) over-sexualises the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, in ways that are problematic for an egalitarian hermeneutic which sees the pericope as something pastorally efficacious for women. Delicately handled, it could prove fruitful, in so much as readers are being shown that they too fail to understand Jesus, just like the gospel characters. Perhaps we should be alerted to the importance of coming to an understanding of Jesus in community, just as the other Samaritan citizens, by the end of the pericope, come to faith. Christian fellowship is important and Jesus' is an invitation into this as well as a life within himself.

The growth that has occurred in our character in the pericope is perhaps suggested by the bucket being discarded at the end. Does this hint at the relationship that this woman will come to have with Jesus. She has the living water which gives any bucket a metaphorical redundancy. Her knowledge of who he is also transforms her status within her community as she spreads the good news. In terms of relationship with Jesus, it is interesting to notice that Jesus corroborates with the woman's understanding of his identity at each stage. He is 'a Jew' (4:9) and speaks of what he knows as a Jew. He is 'a prophet' (4:19) because he knows about her life, be this allegorical or not. He is 'Messiah' (4:25) (even though she be hesitant about it- 4:29), indicated with his use of the 'I am', reserved for God in the Old Testament and he is 'the Saviour of the World,' as his message extends from this one Samaritan woman to her entire city. Previous identities are not discarded, they are just subsumed within his ultimate identity. For the woman too her identity transforms so that each of the ways in which she understands herself are held within her ultimate identity as a child of the Father and receiver of eternal life. When she says to Jesus, 'I have no husband', this works also on an inividual level. The gospel writer has revealed to us that Jesus is the true bridegroom at Cana and Jesus is offering a spiritual communion with this woman. The intimacy of relationship with Jesus is there in the text's use of the Greek word μένω at 4:40. Coloe (2007, 146) describes how the verb is used in the context of the Samaritan citizens and their request that Jesus remain (μεῖναι) with them; Jesus does so (ἔμεινεν) for two days. This has a theological meaning because this verb's semantic range: remain, dwell, abide, indicates that mutual indwelling which is a result of true discipleship in the gospel of John.

We are encouraged similarly to see that every aspect of our identity is precious to Jesus, it is not replaced, it is transformed into something new and his is an invitation into a mutual indwelling. 


Speak with Jesus and see what happens!

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