The Richer Story

The previous post “What we know?” was part of my musings initiated by a video on YouTube. I was in the midst of preparing materials for our parish website, a feature called “Bible on the Back Porch.” The page tagline reads: “Reading, pondering and studying God’s Word is sometimes best done “on the back porch.” Each week we will try to offer something for you and your ‘back porch time.’”  People are busy and in my area, have long commutes, families, and sometimes in-person bible studies are just not possible. But they can find 20 minutes at home if something is available online. Hence the back porch project.

As I was preparing materials for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (Samaritan Woman at the Well) I was following the format: short article touching on some points, a link to a detailed commentary is the reader wants to go deeper, a 4-5 video offering some insights into the gospel, and when possible, a video giving background on the first reading’s book. (note: the 3rd Sunday of Lent materials is already gone, but looking at the other week’s materials, you can get the idea.)

Where was I? The Samaritan Woman… I happened to run across a YouTube video taken from the popular series The Chosen, a multiseason series about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. I understand it is very popular. The filmmaker, Dallas Jenkins, wanted to offer a portrayal of Jesus by crafting a story arc that focused more deeply on those who encountered Jesus and viewing him through their eyes. The goal was to make the encounters more personal and intimate.

On note on the side: Funding is primarily through crowdfunding. Using a dedicated app and website, the series is free to watch. Viewers are encouraged, but not required, to pay it forward by contributing to fund future seasons. Fundraising for the first season as well as subsequent seasons continues to make The Chosen the most successful crowdfunded TV series or film project to date. As of 2021, viewers had contributed $40 million towards its production.  In late 2022, the creators partnered with a new nonprofit, the Come and See Foundation, to manage funding, which allows contributors to receive a tax deduction for their contribution. Pretty amazing.

I came across Episode 8 of the first Season, “I am He” which includes the encounter with the Samaritan Woman. I was truly ambivalent. Lots of people think that means to not care so much, but the word mean: “having or showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward something or someone” (Merriam-Webster: “The prefix ambi- means “both,” and the -valent and -valence parts ultimately derive from the Latin verb valēre, meaning “to be strong.” Not surprisingly, an ambivalent person is someone who has strong feelings on more than one side of a question or issue.”)

There was a part of me that loved the Biblical foundation. There was a part of me that wondered if there should have been the disclaimer, based on a true story.

Someone posted that this scene was the most challenging for the writers who went through many drafts until they achieved something that truly was a more personal and intimate encounter. I thought that the woman’s acting was powerful and engaging. She was certainly a scene-stealer (but I am sure Jesus would be ok with that). It easily engaged me.

St. John is a master storyteller. His narrative arc within a particular story is masterful as well as the meta-narrative that links and connects the stories throughout the “Book of Signs” (chapters 2-11). The arc of her encounter with Jesus is the counterpart of the one-chapter-earlier encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus. Nicodemus can’t “get past his own self” and misses Jesus’ offer of redemption for the believer. The Samaritan woman, who has none of the advantages of Nicodemus, “gets past her own self.” Here is what I think are the critical verses:

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” 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.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 4:16-20)

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 to 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).  Neither she or Jesus shows any concern for the details of the five husbands. She has made a leap in understanding that Nicodemus couldn’t or wouldn’t make.

How do you capture that dramatic shift in cinema? I have no idea, and I can see why there is the temptation to move away from the biblical account. The scene they produce is human and engaging. In The Chosen, there is a long scene in which the woman’s marital history becomes the locus of why she believes Jesus is the Messiah – all because Jesus begins to reveal names of husbands past and circumstances lived. …and that is where they lost me. Why? Just because they modified the biblical story? No. I think their script diminishes the Samaritan woman of the Bible who makes the leap of understanding that Nicodemus couldn’t.  And she does so without any discussion of marital history.

Note: John has word plays in his stories that are always critical.  Nicodemus was offered to be born anothen (meaning “again” or “from above”). He got stuck on “again” and missed being born from above in the Spirit.  The woman is offered hydor zon – which can be understood as flowing or living water (remember they are at a well not a stream). She eventually moves to an understanding of living water. Then she is offered to call your baal – a word that can mean husband or god. Samaria has a history of multiple false gods introduced by their rogue kings.  I would suggest she understands what Jesus is really asking: where is the true God. And hence the question about worship. She is amazing!

And no… I have no suggestions for the screenwriters. How in the world would you capture that and make  it personal and engaging?

My concern is that people will watch the episode and think they know the real, the richer story of the woman at the well. But you know what… It’s a start. I hope they read the Book

Does this mean I would not recommend The Chosen? Not at all. I hope you watch it. Because I know and believe in  the power of the Word of God however it comes:

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

God’s good purpose will be achieved by many different means.

3 thoughts on “The Richer Story

  1. I am a fan of the series. I love that they have made Jesus’ humanity a major factor in The Chosen. It is beyond comprehension ( a mystery) that 1 member of the Divine Trinity is fully human and relates to us in that way. This is the connection that has engaged millions of viewers. The entire world is being told about Him (again). Evangelizing!! That’s the point !

  2. I’m with you Father, not a whooping fan of The Chosen but have watched the first 2 Seasons as people talk about it. Will do Season 3 soon—it’s a penance 😬. In my prayers. God bless you🙏(so funny, before I was about to hit done I reread what was written and it said “God boss you.”) Hopefully he does daily 👍🥰

  3. “The Chosen” is one of my favorite shows ever made. I think most people understand that they take literary license with the story arcs, but the emotion generated by seeing Jesus portrayed and some of the problems that occur when bringing 12 men together is engaging. I had never thought about Jesus dancing at Cana (and why wouldn’t he at a friend’s wedding?). The show has actually made me think more deeply and use my imagination when reading scripture. I also like the fact that Bishop Baron has been involved as a consultant.

    I’m glad you enjoy it Father. It just gets better as the seasons move on!

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