Now when Jesus knew that the Pharisees had heard how he was making and baptising more disciples than John, he left Judaea and came again into Galilee. And he has to go through Samaria. And he comes to a Samaritan town called Sychar near the bit of land that Jacob gave to to Joseph his son; and Jabob’s well was there.So Jesus, dead beat from his journeying, was sitting beside the well; it was about the sixth hour.
A Samaritan woman comes to draw water and Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” (for his disciples has gone off into the town to buy food.)
Then the Samaritan woman says to him, “How come you, a Judaean man, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink? ( for Judaeoi have nothing to do with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered and said to her,”If you knew God’s gift and who it is who is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
The woman says to him, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep, so where will you get that living water? You’re not greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, he, his sons and his cattle?”
Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks of the water I will give him will not be thirsty ever again, but the water I will give him will become in him a spring of water leaping up into the life of the World to Come.”
The woman says to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus says to her,”Go, call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said, “I don’t have a husband.”
Jesus said to her,”You’re right to say ‘I don’t have a husband,’ since you’ve had five husbands and trhe one you have now is not your husband; you spoke truthfully.”
The woman says to him, “Sir, I see you’re a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say Jerusalem is the place where people should worship.”
Jesus says to her,”Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the father neither on this mountain nor even in Jesusalem. You worship what you don’t know; we know what we worship, for God’s rescue comes from the Judaeoi. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the real worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in reality, for the Father is seeking out such people to worship him. God is spirit and his worshippers must worship him in spirit and in reality.
The woman says to him, “I know that Messiah ( we say ‘Christ’) is coming. When that one comes, he will tell us everything.”
Jesus says to her,”I, the man talking with you, I am that one.”
This story is set at a well because in Old Testament narrative, wells are places of encounter and wooing between men and women. The story of Jacob’s meeting with Rachel is a beautiful example. The fact that this is Jacob’s well reminds the reader of Jacob’s wooing and also that he is Israel, the father of the holy people. Jesus has already made reference to Jacob when he hailed Nathaniel as a “son of Israel with no tricks” since Jacob/ Israel was known for his tricks. Here again Jacob represents both the promise and the failure of Israel as God’s people. Something however of Jacob’s trickery finds its way into the dialogue between this man and this woman.
The author introduces the words of his two characters either with the present or the past tense. Obviously the latter is more common in narrating past events, while the use of the present gives immediacy and liveliness. The present is more suited to banter; the past to serious discussion. Here we see that Jesus starts the banter; he says (present tense) “Give me a drink.” The woman readily engages with him also in the present tense. Then we see Jesus shown twice to reply in the past tense, “he answered.. and said,” as he provides serious teaching. But the woman won’t have it. She still “says” in the present tense, teasing him using her ironic wit: “You have no bucket…..where will you get that water?” But suddenly Jesus turns the tables on her; he says (present tense) to her, “Go, call your husband…” The woman is forced away from her banter, into a respectable version of the truth: “the woman answered and said”(past tense). Jesus is shown answering her in the same tense, giving the history of her relationships. Again the author puts the woman into the present, bantering tense, as she tries to deflect a personal question into a theological one. Jesus’ great announcement about the new worship is now introduced in the bantering tense, because it has become part of his “wooing” of the woman. She attempts to fend him off by referring to another man, the Messiah. Finally Jesus reveals himself as the ideal bridegroom, he says (present tense) “I, the man talking with you, I am that one.”
I have examined this at length since so many modern translations simply ignore the verb tenses and miss the fun. The author is presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the true bridegroom not only of Israel but of the Samaritans also.There is much more to this passage as we shall see, but if we miss the comedy of the “wooing” of the Samaritan woman we miss an important aspect of the author’s purpose.
Another aspect of this purpose is the exploration of the meaning of the title Messiah as applied to Jesus. The author is careful to note for his readers that this is the origin of the Greek “Christos” meaning “anointed person”, a literal tranlsation of the Hebrew. But there is a sly detail which gives hint of the author’s understanding of the title. He says that as Jesus sat at the well “it was about he sixth hour” which is the same phrase he uses when Jesus is paraded before the people by Pilate who says, “Here is your king,” to which the crowd replies “Crucify him”. The author is asking his more awake readers to remember this as they read his story of the Messiah/ Bridegroom’s wooing of a Samaritan woman. He is the Jewish Messiah, who upholds the importance of his people, (God’s rescue comes from the Judaeoi), but will be rejected by them and handed over to the Gentiles. Here already the Messiah breaks with the racial bias of Judaean faith, and its prioritising of men, to make overtures to a Samaritan woman. He announces a faith which does not depend on places, races or faces, but on the shared life of creative spirit which is the reality ( Greek: aletheia = unconcealment) of God and his real worshippers. This declaration of God’s radical openness to the world is made real in Jesus’ openness to a woman belonging to a people regarded by orthodox Judaism as foreign and heretical. The cost of this opennness is that other sixth hour where Jesus Messiah will be rejected by his people and sent to the cross. The reader is reminded of the threat to Jesus by the mention of the Pharisees and their spy system in the opening sentence.
Another aspect of this new faith is that God’s openness demands an equal openness from human beings. Jesus challenges the woman to face the reality of her marital relationships. She, like him, like God, must be real. Scholars have suggested that here the author makes the woman stand for Samaritans in general, who were once married to five proper men, the five books of Moses, but are now living in an irregular kind of faith. This seems unlikely to modern readers, but I think it’s possible the author had it in mind. But he is telling a story about Jesus and a woman, which carries the demand for honesty towards God, whether that concerns human relationships or matters of faith.
I have omitted a phrase from verse 2 which says that Jesus did not baptise personally but his disciples did. This is clearly an addition to the original text by somone who found the thought of Jesus baptising offensive.
It is almost impossible to translate the last Greek sentence into decent English. Literally it says, “I am (that one); the one talking to you.” This is a deliberate use of words by the author since it contains the Greek “Ego eimi” ( I am) which for Jewish theology is one of the names of God. He means that Jesus is the presence of God.
IMAGES of this story show its cross-cultural appeal
So many good things here. I especially like the “comedy” of the “wooing”! I had never thought of that and I now realize how superficial my own reading of this chapter has often been. Thank you. I totally accept the “wooing” element of this passage. I don’t buy the “marriage” to the five books of Moses, however. That’s a stretch, considering that the Samaritans held the five books of Moses in the highest regard – to the exclusion of the remainder of the Tanakh if memory serves me; but I could be wrong. But what a brilliant exposition; you’ve given me much to think about when the Orthodox lectionary comes to this chapter later in the spring.
Thanks Kostas, as always.
Yes, I’m not sure about the five books thing myself, and I have found another explanation which I’m checking at present and hope to consider in my next bible blog.