Conversation: Part 2

the first part of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (thru John 4:15). Now we will continue to dive into the details in order to unpack this amazing narrative. Like yesterday’s post, this is a lengthy one. Go call your husband. Jesus introduces a new topic in v.16 possibly to provide a fresh angle on his identity: Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”  Prior to this, Jesus’ invitation to the woman was couched in the metaphor of living water. Now Jesus’ invitation will be grounded in the woman’s own life.16 Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” 17 The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ 18 For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.”

What one makes of vv.16-19 will determine how one understands what follows as well as what one thinks about the transition of the conversation in v.20. The most popular understanding – meaning what readers assume about the text – is that this woman is a sinner. Jesus does not judge her; any moral judgments are imported into the text by interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than her moral laxity. Perhaps the woman, like Tamar in Genesis 38, is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10; see also Luke 20:27-33), and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue commentators but do not concern Jesus.

The woman does not respond with an accusation that Jesus has been snooping into her background, sharing gossip or some other natural reaction. She responds that she believes that Jesus is a prophet – perhaps that great-prophet-like-Moses – The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet”. One should wonder what just transpired in between.

  • At a literal level, the conversation is a moment of revelation for the woman. Jesus’ insight into her words and life leads her to declare him to be a prophet. Her response recalls the response of Nathanael in 1:47-49. With both Nathanael and the Samaritan woman, a demonstration of perception and insight on Jesus’ part leads to a christological confession.
  • There are perhaps OT echoes with the answer response. 2 Kings 17:24 indicates that after the fall of the Northern Kingdom: “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities.” People from five nations were resettled in Samaria. In ancient Hebrew the word for husband was ba’al – “On that day, says the Lord, she (Israel – 10 northern tribes) shall call me, ‘My Husband’ and never again ‘My Ba’al’ “(Hos 2:18). In Genesis, Hagar, the slave wife of Abraham refers to him as ba’al; Sarah, the free wife, speaks of him as adon – both indicating a marital relationship. The term ba’al means “husband”, “lord”, or “master”, and thus became a word for “gods”. A little later in 2 Kings 17:29, we are told “every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities they lived”. Could the five husbands symbolize the five nations and their gods? [Note that 2 Kings 17:30-31 lists seven gods worshiped by the five nations.]

Is this perhaps another Johannine scene when the words are playing at two different levels? At one level he refers to the woman’s past husbands and current relationship. On another level he speaks to the false ba’alims of the Samaritan history and that the god they currently worship is not the husband spoken of in Hosea. Hence, “I can see that you are a Prophet.”

Unlike Nicodemus she is moving beyond her natural limits of understanding. Think about her response to all this: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem. This shift in topic is dramatic. We have moved from the opening questions (Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.) to a response about true worship. The woman understands that she is talking more than just a traveler at the well and so she asks which temple, Jerusalem or Gerizim, is righteous in the eyes of God (Jn 4:20).

In the light of her recognition of Jesus as a prophet, the woman puts before him the most dividing problem that stands between Jews and Samaritans: What is the right worship site, this mountain (Gerizim) or Jerusalem (v.20)? The introduction of this topic is not, as commentators frequently argue, a psychological ploy, a classical evasion to turn the subject away from the embarrassing truth about her morals. Nor is this theological topic and Jesus’ response too difficult for the woman to understand. By asking Jesus about the proper place of worship, the woman is not disengaging from Jesus. Rather, her inquiry about worship is an act of deepening engagement with Jesus, because she anticipates that the prophet Jesus will be able to speak an authoritative word on the subject.

The woman’s question evoked a lengthy response from Jesus. The woman’s comment reflects the present reality of Samaritan/Jewish relations, but in v.21, Jesus directs her attention away from the present to the future. “But the hour is coming” refers to the time of eschatological fulfillment (cf. 5;25, 28). In the eschatological age, the woman’s categories will be obsolete, because neither the Samaritan (“this mountain”) nor the Jewish site (“Jerusalem”) will be the place of worship—both will be replaced in the age to come. Jesus’ words in v.21 also remind the woman of the object of worship: “the Father.” The Samaritan/Jewish conflict so dominates the woman’s perspective that her words to Jesus (v.20) contain no reference to who is being worshiped.

In v.22, Jesus identifies himself with the Jews. The “you” of v.22a is second-person plural, and the “you”/”we” contrast in that verse refers to Samaritans and Jews. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch as Scripture, and so from the Jewish perspective they had an incomplete picture of God (“You worship what you do not know”).

In v.22b, salvation is from the Jews,” Jesus affirms the positive role of the Jews in salvation history. The noun “Jew” is used positively here because it refers to the Jewish people as a whole (cf. 11:19, 45), not the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus reminds the woman of Israel’s place as God’s chosen people in order to caution her that by rejecting the Jews, she risks rejecting God’s offer of salvation. This positive appraisal of the Jews has an ironic undertone when read in the context of the whole Gospel, because it points to one of the Gospel’s central paradoxes. Salvation does originate from God’s own people, the Jews, but some Jews do not receive that offer of salvation in Jesus. For example, the offer of salvation made by Jesus (a Jew) has been rejected by the Jew Nicodemus but will be accepted by the Samaritans (4:42).

The “But the hour is coming” marks a decisive turning point in Jesus’ speech. The hour when conventional understandings of worship would change is coming; in v.23 (But the hour is coming, and is now here), that hour is no longer merely anticipated but has arrived. The ordinary present has been transformed into the eschatological present. In the eschatological present, true worship is no longer defined by place, but as worship “in spirit and truth” (vv.23-24). Worship of God in spirit and truth does not point to an internal, spiritualized worship but to a form of worship that reflects and is shaped by the character of God. That is, the historical problem of Jewish vs. Samaritan worship is transformed into the encounter with the presence of God. “God is spirit” (v.24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit. Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming”) into the moment of in-breaking (“and is now here”).

The woman’s response indicates that she has heard the eschatological promise of Jesus’ words, but not the fulfillment. Jesus has spoken of the coming hour; the woman responds by speaking of the coming One. The Samaritans, like the Jews, expected a Messiah. The Samaritans called their Messiah Ta’heb (“the one who returns”). The Samaritans thought of the Ta’heb as a teacher, which may explain the statement “he will explain all things to us” (v.25). The critical difference between Jesus’ words and the woman’s response, however, is that she does not grasp the eschatological immediacy of what Jesus says. To Jesus’ vision of the in-breaking of the eschatological age, the Samaritan woman responds with traditional eschatological expectations of the future Messiah.

Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman’s traditional eschatological affirmations is simple and bold: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (see notes below.). The NAB translation plays down the boldness of Jesus’ remarks by supplying a predicate (“he” that is not present in the Greek) for the “I am” saying. When the predicate is supplied, the meaning of Jesus’ words becomes, “I am the Messiah you expect.” The “I am” of v.26, however, is not simply Jesus’ messianic self-identification. When Jesus speaks the “I am” in v.26, these words make explicit connections with the divine name of Exod 3:14. Jesus thus speaks an absolute “I am” here, with no predicate (6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:6), in order to identify himself as the one in whom God is known (1:18). The absolute “I am” confirms the words of the Prologue, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). Jesus thus fulfills the Samaritan woman’s messianic expectations at the same time as he transcends them.

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

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