Some Context

This coming weekend is the 3rd Sunday of Lent in lectionary cycle A. The gospel account is that of the Samaritan Woman at the well. It is a long passage and on several days there are two posts. In addition the Tuesday and Wednesday posts are fairly lengthy because St. John has just packed so much into the telling of the encounter. Today’s post is going to provide some context. I’d suggest that while the story stands on its own, it is best read with an eye toward the story that precedes it: Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. It then stands as bookends framing the whole of Jesus’ ministry even as it is positioned at the beginning of the Johannine telling of the story of Jesus. So, before moving ahead let us review the encounter with Nicodemus so that we understand the deep contrasts between these two protagonists.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee (3:1) and a “teacher of Israel” (3:10) a moniker from which we can infer a number of things: he was Jew by birth, married, and the head of rabbinic school. He was not “the man on the street.” He was someone who was particularly familiar with Scripture and the traditions of Judaism. While within the official ranks of Judaism there was likely already great concern about Jesus because of the incident of the cleansing of the Temple (John 2). Was he another would-be-claimant to the title Messiah whose campaign would only bring the harsh response of the Romans? One suspects their judgment was negative, but it seems Nicodemus was curious – but cautious, and so he approaches Jesus under the cover of darkness (3:2). In John’s gospel, a weak, wavering or incomplete faith emerges from the night or darkness. Nicodemus has been attracted by Jesus’ signs, an attraction not to be despised, yet he remains at a distance from true faith.

A dialogue ensues, animated by ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding; a particular feature of Johannine stories. Jesus tells Nicodemus: ““Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born ańothen.” (3:3). I deliberately left the Greek ańothen in place because the word has dual meanings: “again/anew” or “from above.” In American Christianity which so often opts for “from above,” they lose the nuance of the exchange and the inherent choice being offered to Nicodemus.

The expression “born again” has a context and meaning in Judaism of Nicodemus’ day. One is born again when one converts to Judaism, comes of age, is married, crowned a king, ordained a rabbi or becomes the head of a rabbinic school. Nicodemus has done all these things (that pertain to him) and hence the question: “How can a person once grown old be born again?” There is no achievement or milestone left for him and hence the follow-on: “Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” (3:4). Nicodemus apparently does not consider that he is being offered the choice to be born from above. He cannot understand who it is before him and what he offers: two choices, earthly (again) or heavenly (from above), Nicodemus seems to only understand the earthly choice; he does not understand that “without being born of water and Spirit” he will not have eternal life in the kingdom. Nicodemus is being asked to let go of all he knows/believes to be true in order to be “reborn” but from above.

The expression “born again”  is a slogan, a rallying cry, and a test – “Have you been born again.” It is a short-hand to reduce the contemporary Christian experience to a sound bite. While the phrase has its merits, it is also taken out of the context of a much more nuanced dialogue. It flattens the word ańothen to only be connected to an individual’s private moment of conversion. As Gail O’Day notes, it privileges anthropology over Christology. It is the mistake that Nicodemus makes in not grasping the decisive Christological meaning of ańothen – the source of the change: the cross. And in doing so lose the emphasis of the newness of life possible for which there are no precedents. To approach the text of the Nicodemus story already assured that one knows the meaning/translation, is to repeat the experience of Nicodemus.

To approach the text of the Samaritan women already assured that one knows the meaning is to miss an encounter with Jesus that leads her to the newness of life. But then she is a Samaritan. She is a woman. What could she possibly understand that would elude Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel? The answer lies in the telling of the story.

Image credit: Samaritan Woman at the Well,  Rudall30 | -ID 191658499

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