Conversation: Part 1

This coming weekend is the 3rd Sunday of Lent. In the previous post we delved into all might be implied in the simple opening which tells us where and when. We raised the question of whether it was simple geographical information or was St. John providing theological clues and breadcrumbs. Now we begin to consider the dialogue that ensues. The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman consists of thirteen exchanges, one of the longest dialogues in the Gospel. It is divided into two sections, each section introduced by a request/command by Jesus: (I ) vv.7-15 (“Give me a drink”); (2) vv.16-26 (“Go, call your husband”).

Verse 7 is filled with OT images that figure prominently in the rest of the narrative: “A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” First, Jesus’ request for water recalls the story of Elijah and the widow of Sidon (1 Kgs 17:10-11). In both stories a man interrupts a woman engaged in household work to request a gesture of hospitality. The parallels between Elijah and Jesus suggest the image of Jesus as prophet, a theme that will occupy a pivotal place in Jesus’ conversation with the woman (4:19).

Second, the scene of a man and a woman at a well recalls the betrothal stories of Isaac (Gen 24:10-61), Jacob (Gen 29:1-20), and Moses (Ex 2:15b 21). John 4:4-42 evokes these betrothal stories in order to rework their imagery, however. The story of the wedding feast (2:1-11) and John the Baptist’s parable (3:29) have already introduced wedding imagery into the Fourth Gospel as images of eschatological joy and fulfillment. It is in that context that the messianic/bridal symbolism has credence. Unlike the OT well scenes, Jesus does not come to the well looking for a woman to be his bride, but for a witness who will recognize the Messiah and bring the marginalized and despised people to faith in Him. In the fact that a Samaritan woman becomes that witness (vv.28-30, 39-42).

The Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ request with amazement because it violates two societal conventions. First, a Jewish man did not initiate conversation with an unknown woman. Moreover, a Jewish teacher did not engage in public conversation with a woman (“Hence the sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” p.’Abot 1:5) Second, Jews did not invite contact with Samaritans. The Fourth Evangelist’s aside in v.9 underscores the seriousness of the breach between Jews and Samaritans. A fear of ritual contamination developed into a prohibition of all social interaction.

Instead of answering the woman’s question directly, Jesus invites her to answer her question herself (“If you knew…”). If the woman could recognize the identity of the person with whom she speaks, a dramatic role reversal will take place. The woman would be the one who requests water. “Living water” (hydor zon). As with ańothen from the encounter with Nicodmus, hydor zon has two possible meanings. It can mean fresh, running water (spring water as opposed to water from a cistern), or it can mean living/life-giving water. Once again, Jesus intentionally uses a word with a double meaning..

The Samaritan woman hears only the meaning “running water” in Jesus’ words and so responds to his offer of living water with protests of logical and material impossibility (cf. Nicodemus, 3:4). It is not credible to her that a man who has just asked her for water because he was unable to acquire any for himself should now offer her fresh running water (v.11 a). Her protest leads to a question, “Where then can you get that hydor zon?” (v.11b). This question, like other questions about the origins of Jesus’ gifts (1:29; 2:9; 3:8; 6:5), is ironically charged. The question operates on two levels simultaneously—it makes sense to ask a man with no bucket where he will get water, but the question can also be asked of Jesus’ gift of living water. The irony arises because the reader knows the appropriateness of the question on both levels, but the woman is wary – still clinging to the practical (bucket/deep), but perhaps possessing a sense of the greater things in play (living water).

The woman’s question in v.12 (Are you greater than our father Jacob) is a universally recognized instance of Johannine irony. The immediate source of its irony is clear: for the Fourth Evangelist and most of his readers, Jesus is greater than Jacob, while the woman seems to assume the opposite. (The question is introduced by the interrogative in the Greek text, a construction that anticipates a negative reply: “You are not greater than Jacob, are you?” (cf. 8:53)). Since Jesus has no visible means with which to draw water, the woman’s question seems to imply that only a miracle similar to the one tradition attributed to Jacob at Haran could produce the water. The woman’s response to Jesus is a challenge to match the gift of one of the great forebears of the faith.

Jesus responds to the woman’s challenge by focusing on the permanent effect of the two waters on thirst. Jacob’s gift may have been miraculous and its abundance legendary, but it could not assuage thirst permanently (v.13). Jesus’ gift of living water will, however, do just that (v.14): but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

The contrast between the two waters recalls Isa 55:1-2 (“everyone who thirsts,/ come to the waters”). Jesus’ description of his gift of water in v.14 clarifies the meaning of the expression “living water”: Jesus offers water that gives life. Those who drink from Jesus’ water “will never thirst” (lit., “will not be thirsty forever”), because his water will become “in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v.14). In John 7:37-39 Jesus’ gift of living water is associated with the gift of the Spirit, and it is possible to see that connection in v.14 as well.

The Samaritan woman responds enthusiastically to Jesus’ words (v.15a), but her enthusiasm misses the point. The motivation for her request—that she would no longer have to come back to the well (v.15b)—shows that she has not yet grasped the radical nature of Jesus’ gifts. She continues to see Jesus through her categories of physical thirst and miraculous springs, and so she does not understand the meaning of his “living water.” Her request is ironic to the reader, because it is the right request for the wrong reasons (cf. 6:34).

On the one hand, then, v.15 sounds a note of failure. Although by her request for water the Samaritan woman is seemingly doing what Jesus had earlier said she should do (v.10) – yet she does not know for what she is asking or of whom she is asking it. She thinks that Jesus is a miracle worker who can provide her with extraordinary water. Her misperception is the source of the irony of her response for the reader, because the conversation has led the reader to see that something more is at stake in these verses.

On the other hand, v.15 sounds a note of hope, however embryonic: The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” The woman has gained considerable ground in this conversation. She has moved from seeing Jesus as a thirsty Jew who knowingly violates social convention to seeing him as someone whose gifts she needs. At the beginning of the conversation, Jesus’ words about living water seemed preposterous to her, empty boasts by a man without a bucket (v.11), but in v.15, she believes that Jesus can give water that will assuage her thirst. The woman’s openness to Jesus and her willingness to engage him in conversation stand in marked contrast to Nicodemus, who only greeted Jesus with amazement and resistance (3:4, 9). The Samaritan woman recognizes neither Jesus’ true identity nor the fullness of his gifts, but in v.15, she is willing to receive what she thinks he is offering and hence to acknowledge her need of him.

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

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