The Gospel reading last Sunday (John 3) is set in a house in the dark at night, as a prominent named male member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin engages in conversation with a teacher from Nazareth, discussing faith and life.
The Gospel reading this coming Sunday (John 4) is set in the blaze of light at midday in the open air, as an unnamed woman from a village in Samaria engages in conversation with the same teacher of Nazareth, also discussing faith and life.
The contrasts between the two scenes are regularly noted: different genders, different locations, different social status of the people involved, and so on. Often the importance of symbolism in this Gospel, the book of signs, is emphasised. All of this is important, not to be overlooked.
And because of the high-status position of the male, a prominent Pharisee in the capital city, the on-the-edge location of the woman and her uncertain marital status (4:16-18) is often used to push her into a position that the text does not actually state, as a pariah, an outcast on account of her (presumed) immorality. The Pharisee—pariah contrast is enticing. But that is not what I want to support or reinforce.
What I want to offer in this blog, is a reflection on the similarities between these two scenes. Both of the individuals who encounter Jesus engage with him in conversations that move through a series of phases, going deeper into the issues raised. Both conversations proceed by means of a standard narrative technique: a question is posed, an answer is offered, leading to a further question, another response, and still further question-answer interchanges.
This is an age-old technique used in teaching and in story-telling. It was also a standard aspect of the way that teachers of the Law operated in ancient Israel. So the Pharisee of Jerusalem poses the question to the teacher from Nazareth: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and follows this immediately with a second question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4).
After the response from the teacher, the Pharisee asks a further question, “How can these things be?” (3:9)—to which the teacher from Nazareth responds, in the time honoured fashion (answer a question with another question), “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:9-10).
After this, the teacher launches into a longer explanation in response to the questions posed by the Pharisee—an explanation which continues on for some time, leaving many commentators to wonder, just where does the conversation with the Pharisee from Jerusalem end, and where does the interpretive narrative of the evangelist take over? The Pharisee of Jerusalem has managed to draw from the man from Nazareth a teaching of some substance and significance.
When we move on into the next extended story in the Gospel, the conversation between the woman of Samaria and the teacher from Nazareth, we find the same dynamic in play. This conversation also proceeds by means of question and answer.
That, in itself, is significant: the anonymous woman employs the same technique that was demonstrated by the named Pharisee—both of them are functioning as intelligent, thoughtful people of faith, using the regular methods employed by the teachers of the Law in ancient Israel. The woman is implicitly placed on the same level as the man. They are both engaging in the typical rabbinic-style of back-and-forth question-and-answer.
The conversation that the teacher from Nazareth has with the woman is reported in far more length than the earlier one with the Pharisee. The evangelist has maintained the role of the woman as an equal in the conversation. She asks a series of thoughtful questions which lead the conversation in the direction it takes.
The matter of water is the presenting issue. The Samaritan woman asks the man from Nazareth, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). The evangelist here intersperses an editorial comment about the tensions between Jews and Samaritans.
That question leads to a deeper level, reflecting on traditions about water. The woman observes, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”, and then asks, “Where do you get that living water?” She cites traditions common both to Jews and Samaritans: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:11-12)
After the man from Nazareth responds, the focus turns to the pastoral need, the matter of water quenching thirst. The woman asks the man to give him this water “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (4:15). What then ensues is a deepening of the conversation once more, as the ensuing interchange (4:16-18) leads to a clear affirmation, by the woman, of the status of the man in society: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19a).
It is the woman, through the process of question-and-answer, dialogue and discussion, who comes to this affirmation of faith in the man.
But this is not the end of the conversation, and the dialogue that ensues will delve into a significant theological issue, with a strong communal dimension—that of worship. This lifts the conversation out of the strictly interpersonal dimension of woman-to-man, into a broader realm of Samaritan-to-Jew. This next phase of discussion (4:19b-24) deepens the conversation considerably. And the woman, this anonymous person from the much-despised northern group of Samaritans, is holding her own,with the teacher from Nazareth.
To my mind, there are two critical affirmations in what is said to her here: “salvation is from the Jews”, and “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”. The woman has drawn these statements froth from the teacher of Nazareth.
Yet there is a still-deeper level into which the conversation moves; one which culminates in a confession of faith, articulated with caution by the woman (“I know that Messiah is coming”), which is met by a clear affirmation by the man of Nazareth, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (4:25-26). This is the first of a number of key affirmations made in this Gospel, each of which is introduced by the key phrase, “I am”. (See the later declarations, “I am … bread, light, shepherd, door, resurrection, way, truth, life”—all highly significant affirmations.)
It is the woman of Samaria who has drawn forth this first signal affirmation by the teacher of Nazareth.
The conversation ends at this point; but the story continues, with a couple of additional scenes, involving, first, the disciples of the teacher from Nazareth, and then the people of the city where the woman of Samaria lives. What happens in that final scene is of critical importance in understanding the extended dialogue, the ever-deepening question-and-answer, between the woman and the man in John 4.
At this point, we need to consider how the key characters in each of these conversations with the teacher from Nazareth (John 3 and John 4) evolve. The two characters in these conversations demonstrate a movement from their starting point, through a process that, for each of them, leads to a clear statement of faith in that person. Both the Pharisee and the woman are, at the end, clearly depicted as disciples of the teacher from Nazareth.
The Pharisee of Jerusalem, we are told later in this Gospel, followed through after his initial conversation with the teacher (John 3)—in fact, he supported him in a debate in the Jerusalem council (John 7), and after the teacher had died, he publicly joined in the task of anointing his body and laying it to rest (John 19). His belief in what this teacher had taught, was now clear for all to see.
The Pharisee of Jerusalem had taken risks, explored his faith, and made significant changes in his life. He is a named high-status follower of Jesus, at least according to this particular Gospel, and his name is remembered throughout Christian history, by believers across the world: Nicodemus.
The woman of Samaria, we learn as we follow the intricacies of the discussion in just one chapter (John 4), moves from being a curious discussion partner, to someone who recognises something deeper about the teacher and prophet from Nazareth, to making a clear connection with the enduring Hebraic hope for a Messiah—and then, in the final scene, to be the first evangelist to bear witness to this belief (at least, according to this Gospel).
This woman goes back to her city, where she testifies to the one who she had encountered. Sadly, however, she remains without a name, at least as far as the biblical witness attests. She is always “the Samaritan woman”.
Yet this impressive woman leads the people of her city to make the highest confession of faith: “we know he is the Saviour of the world” (4:42).
This week, and this Sunday, let us give thanks for this woman: thoughtful, enquiring and questioning, engaging in conversation, deepening in understanding, growing in faith, practising her discipleship by testifying to Jesus, and standing as the first evangelist in this particular Gospel record.
I am grateful to my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, for the many conversations that we have had about these passages which have deepened my understanding of both characters.
See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/