If you watch ABC television, you will often see some images of past news stories that we have seen on the ABC channels, and then a woman (could even be Aboriginal) appears in front of a kind of tent and she asks What’s your story?
Let us try in our imagination to return to the end of the first century in the Common Era. There’s an absolute genius of a writer who lives in a largely Christian community in Northern Israel, probably Samaria. This writer is challenged by a question such as “What’s your story?” and decides to write an account of the life of Jesus as it had come to be known by then. This writer was not an eyewitness of Jesus but has seen quite a few bits of manuscripts already circulating about him. (I read somewhere that there are at least 72 gospels or bits of gospels that have come down to us from those times). This writer is a convinced Christian, but has been very up and down lately because the non-Christian Jews in the synagogue drove the Christians out, and in the writers community there are Christians of both Jewish and Samaritan extraction.
So the writer decides to write an account of Jesus’ life that might help the Synagogue Jews have some idea of the importance of belief in Jesus, and also to clear up a few arguments that the Jewish and Samaritan Christians often have. Near the end of this account of Jesus’ life, the writer actually states why this account was written.
John 2030–31:Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. but these are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name.
Year A lectionary readings are from Matthew’s Gospel (we are in Year A), Year B has Mark and Year C has Luke. That leaves John to be split up with 70 readings spread across the three years.(20, 30,20) Each year these readings are largely in Lent and Easter, with a few of them being in more than once.
John’s Gospel account is not a life of Jesus as we have it in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it is stories which might or might not have some historical reality, woven together to make a beautiful tapestry. Nowhere in the synoptic gospels, for example, do we ever find Jesus going to Samaria. In fact when Jesus sends out some disciples on mission, he tells them not to go to Samaritan towns. The woman at the well is a water story, a well story. It is a story told by the Fourth Gospel Evangelist as taking place in the lifetime of the pre-easter Jesus. But it is probably really about the post-resurrection Johannine community struggling with the synagogue over the messianic identity of Jesus. Think of other well stories in the Bible. There are often meetings at wells of future spouses. Abraham’s servant finds Rebekah (future wife of Isaac) at a well; Jacob meets Rachel at a well in Haran; Moses gets a wife after his rescue of seven daughters at a well in Midian. In today’s reading, Jesus meets the woman at the most famous well of all, Jacob’s well in Samaria, that is, Ancient Israel.
Today’s conversation is the longest theological discussion Jesus ever had with anyone in the gospels, and it is with a woman. According to Samaritan theology the messiah would not be a descendant of David, but a prophet like Moses. Perhaps that is why the lectionary compilers gave us the Moses-getting-water- out-of-the-rock story to accompany today’s reading.
After the return of the remnants of the Northern tribes from Assyrian captivity, Samaria’s infidelity to the Mosaic covenant was symbolized by its acceptance of the worship of the false gods of five foreign tribes (2 Kings, 1713-34). That is, Samaria’s Yahwehism was tainted by false worship and therefore even the “husband” she now has (a reference to the God of the covenant) was not really her husband in the full integrity of the covenantal relationship. If the woman represents the Samaritans, and if she claims that in reality Samaria has no husband, the woman is correct (even if unwittingly) using the prophetic metaphor to describe the religious situation of her people. Jesus confirms her answer, “What you have said is true!” The suggestion is that Jesus’ revelation to the woman of her infidelity is, if she represents Samaria, not a magic display of knowledge that convinces her of his power, and causes her to leave her water container and run away. Rather it is exactly what she acknowledges it to be when she says in response to his revelation “I perceive you are a prophet”. Jesus’ declaration that Samaria has no husband is a prophetic denunciation of false worship, like Hosea’s oracle in which the prophet expressing God’s sentiment towards unfaithful Israel says “she is not my wife and I am not her husband” (The whole idea of our relationship with God being like a patriarchal marriage is sexist, isn’t it?)
The entire dialogue between Jesus and the woman probably has nothing to do with the woman’s private moral life but with the covenant life of the community of which she was a part. Jesus is really saying that the question of where to worship has become irrelevant, because just as Samaritan theology taught, the messianic era that has arrived in Jesus will be characterised by true worship of God in spirit. That’s what convinces the woman that Jesus might be the messiah ‘who would proclaim all things to us’. Jesus, in this story proclaims his unambiguous self-identification as messiah and as God of Mosaic revelation, saying “I am”. Literally it is “I am” rather than “I am he”. (And the writer has Jesus say it far earlier in his ministry than he would have said it, if he ever did!)
There are a lot of “I ams” in the fourth gospel. The theologian who wrote it puts into Jesus mouth the very words used of God by Moses. When Moses asked Jahweh whom he would tell Pharoah had sent him, Moses was to say “I am” has sent you. In Greek it is ego eimi and the I am statements are part of John’s theology. I am not convinced Jesus actually said them, but the community from which the fourth gospel came believed them to be true with deep feeling.
The woman meets Jesus at a well, and he offers her living water although he had no bucket. None is needed when the spring flows inside us.
When the disciples returned they were shocked to see Jesus engaged in such a conversation with a woman, especially a Samaritan. One more reflection I’ve been thinking about is that not only might the writer of the fourth gospel be a woman, but she might be the one depicted as that Samaritan woman in today’s story.
Wonderful ideas for you to consider in the series of sermons you are hearing from women.
Lent 3A, Sunday 23rd March, 2014, St Luke’s Concord, Ex 17:1-7, Ps 95, Rom 5:1-11, John 4:5-42