Saturday, July 30, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 7

I am continuing my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts on this passage. I started an eclectic commentary from John 4:6 to 4:14, and this week I ought to get to John 4:42 if I have any chance of finishing my preparations.

John 4:15
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
When I read this, I can’t help but hear a pitiful tone in the woman’s plea. She wants her old well to work, but it doesn’t. It has become a burden and a chore, and all it yields is lifeless water that has to be replaced every day by her own efforts. As I noted previously, I believe she is speaking on two levels; on one level she is speaking about the physical well and the banality of her existence; on the other she is speaking about her culture and religion. She pleads Jesus to deliver her from the living death that she currently endures.

John 4:16
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Here’s the catch; if you want to be delivered into life, then you’ve got to deal with the death in your life. The woman wanted the living water that Jesus offered, but Jesus tells her that she cannot have both it and the sin that brings death. You can be free, says Jesus; I open the door, but you still need to walk out of the prison.

Why did Jesus tell the woman to go and fetch her husband? It’s another query that I don’t seem able to find a fully satisfying answer to. Possibly, he’s reluctant to “convert” her in the absence of the man who should have been her guardian-protector but, if this is the case, why initiate the dialog with her in the first place? Possibly, he is concerned to “convert” her husband at the same time, though it is almost certain that he will be an embarrassing “no show”. Most likely, Jesus is already fully aware of the woman’s situation, and he uses a social nicety to get to a very tricky subject.

John 4:17-18
“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Remarkably, the woman does not deny her circumstances, but is disarmingly open and frank about them. It’s as if she is saying, “If you want to deal with me, you’ve got to deal with the real me, and not some romantic vision of me that you might have in your head”. I like this kind of bluntness. It tells me that this woman was someone to be reckoned with, and not some simple rustic who is overwhelmed into believing by Jesus’ charisma.

At first sight, Jesus’ reply looks somewhat condescending because he appears to sermonize and blunder about the subject. Did she surprise him with her answer? Did she force him onto the back foot? Such a view, however, does not fit with Jesus’ awareness of her situation because he already knows that she has had five husbands and the latest man in her life is too lazy or self-absorbed to make a decent woman of her. It seems more likely that Jesus is articulating their shared thoughts on the subject. It might be the first time that the woman had found someone who actually acknowledged and engaged in her predicament.

This, I believe, is another example of the conversation occurring in more than one dimension. Doubtless, the immediate subject is the woman’s sexual relations. However, there’s another narrative arc in play that concerns the Samaritans’ legendary unfaithfulness to God (which I explored earlier). Through this exchange, John seems to be saying, “This is the practical outworking of a religion that is faithless”. In other words, the woman’s situation is indicative or typical of the Samaritan way. It has been observed many times before, that human culture tends to take on the character of the Gods it worships. If the Samaritans had been faithless towards the One God, then they would tend to be faithless towards each other in marriage.

John 4:19-20
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Most commentators (e.g. Wright) see this as an attempt by the woman to steer the conversation away from her personal choices. I disagree; if this were the case, she might have been more evasive in her preceding statement, unless Jesus had caught her off guard and she suddenly found herself cornered.

To be fair to the commentators, most of them read this within the context of their pastoral experience, and they have grown wary of the deflections people sometimes use to evade searching questions. As Tom Wright notes, there is no better deflection than religion. Even so, if a deflection is what the woman had in mind, then she succeeded in it by getting Jesus on to the subject in his consequent remarks. I have to object to this on the basis that this supposed ability to deflect Jesus does not sit well with John’s portrayal of him. John’s Jesus is someone who cannot be deflected from his mission.

So, what is going on here? The woman has moved the topic of conversation from husbands to temples. To me, this makes sense when we view the conversation as a multi-layered sandwich, rather than a linear string of comments. If the woman’s marital situation typifies the Samaritan religion, then the conversation should turn to the issue of temples. I have previously commented on the friction between Jew and Samaritan over their respective temples, and I don’t intend to rehash it all here, but suffice to say that this very question is the burning issue of the day. This is the number one item on the agenda, and from it come all the answers to everything else, including the question of how the woman found herself in her situation with her many men. Her question about Temples provides the framework within which she takes her points of reference. The question and its context would have made perfect sense to John’s primary audience, but it looks odd to us because our Temples operate very differently from theirs.

If I were to paraphrase the question, it would be something like this; “We know that our self-identity was given to our forefathers by God, but the well that our forefathers gave us does not deliver life. We know that the way passed to us by our forefathers has become a chore and a burden, and we now find ourselves in a kind of living death. We are looking for a way out, and you Jews have told us that you have it. The problem is, your way is no better than our way, and you only seem intent on obliterating our traditions and self-identity in order to get us to qualify for entry into your Temple. No thanks. We don’t want to come to your party.”

John 4:21-24
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Dear reader, please pay careful attention to what Jesus does not say. If the purpose of Jesus mission was to create a new religion, or even to promote an old one refurbished and made-over, he should have launched into a diatribe at this point about how his temple was better than anyone else’s. But he doesn’t. In fact, he says that neither of the two temples in the shared experience of Jew and Samaritan would be the locale for true worship. Jesus statement is unbelievably revolutionary, even blasphemous. We can only imagine how shocking and scandalous this message would have been in the ancient world.

Jesus emancipates the true worship of God from the bounds of the temple system, but on what basis? Jesus is no proto-humanist, so he is not giving way to a laissez-faire religion in which everybody can do whatever he or she likes, or even decline to take part if they so wish. These options are simply not available in the remainder of John’s Gospel, or in the rest of the Bible. Nor is Jesus promoting the kind of internalized, privatized and psychologised religion that prevails in current western culture (Jesus’ religion was something that was expressed in public and embraced the community, in which the individual was seen as a vital component but not the end-goal). The true worship that Jesus sees is “in the Spirit and in truth”. What I think matters to Jesus is not the location of the worship, whether it be in this building or that, but whether it connects to life outside the temple.

The reason for this paradigm-shift is profoundly simple; God is Spirit. He is not bound in the confines of any temple (even one ordained by God Himself); therefore His worshipers have access to Him wherever they are. Now, we are comfortable with such a notion (partly because we have had 2000 years to get used to it), but if we play it out in the context of first century Judaism, we get some extraordinary and noteworthy results.

I apologize if I repeat myself ad nauseam on the topic, but we have got to understand how profoundly important the temple was in the context of this encounter. The temple was many things, including the focus of the community, the source of its physical sustenance and the bank-vault for its treasures. Over and above these community functions, the temple provided the vital connection between the community and its God; the temple is where you went for forgiveness, cleansing, teaching and worship. The worst thing that could happen to you as an individual would be to be excluded from the temple, or to fail to qualify for entry into it in some way. This is because you would be cut off from all those vital things that you could only get in the temple. You would have no access to forgiveness, for example, and your sins would kill you. In the Biblical idiom, if you were cut off from the temple, you were cut off from life.

Yet, Jesus does away with the temple system.


Because all the things that the temple held forth are now found in Him. Jesus is the true Temple (see Revelation 21:22).

Jesus does not promote a religion or a temple. He claims that everything that the Temple system offers is found in him, and when he comes to you with his living water, you come to life.

If, like the religion of the Samaritan woman, your God-given religion, culture and tradition have become lifeless chores and burdens to you, I suggest it’s because Jesus is absent. He is not interested in obliterating your self-identity, culture, or even religion, though there are some aspects in all these things that you will need to leave behind if your are to embrace Him. He is interested in working with you to bring you to life.

John 4:22
You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
My reading of this is that Jesus is contrasting his heritage with the woman’s. I believe he is saying something like this; “You have some idea of God, but it’s a pretty crude picture and you don’t know it all. We Jews have the right collective experience (through the Temple and Exile) and the means to interpret that experience (the Scriptures, especially the post-Mosaic prophets that you reject). God has chosen it such that the means of your salvation has come into the world through this Jewish heritage. That means of salvation is me, and you can only make sense of me if you understand the Jewish heritage that brought me here.”

John 4:25-26
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The Samaritans had a pretty strong idea that the anointed prophet would come to them to redeem them, much as Moses had done in the past. Jesus audaciously places himself in this role.

There’s a nuance here that’s not fully conveyed in the English translations. In the Greek text, Jesus simply states “I am”; the “he” is added to our English versions to round off the grammar (ἐγὼ εἰμι, egō eimi, see Sharp-eyed readers should know that there is only One who can make this unqualified statement of being; the “I am” of Exodus 3:14. So, Jesus is not only holding himself up as the Messiah that the Samaritans were seeking, he also claims to be the very object of their religion. He is the One to whom their religion should be leading them, which is as clear an allusion to Jesus’ divinity as you can get.

Time is against me, so I’ll have to (reluctantly) skip the interactions between Jesus and his disciples in John 4:27 and 4:31-38.

John 4:28-30
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
John, the master of apparently incidental detail, notes that she left her jars –the symbols of her empty life – at the feet of Jesus. She retains her doubts and reservations, but she dares to hope to believe in him. Her change in heart is evident in the message she takes to her neighbors, who are persuaded to follow her “out of town” towards Jesus.

In reflecting on this, I can’t help but think that faith in Christ is not the “final product” that will push you over the line into a sense of unchallengeable certainty. Rather, it is something that compels you to walk out of your old ways, despite the doubts and reservations that you will always carry with you. This tells me that it is not a sense of certainty that we need to seek, but rather the courage to put one foot in front of the other and to believe that as long as we walk towards Christ, we walk towards life.

John 4:39-42
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
Having started the walk towards Jesus, the entire community began to make the connection with him. It started with one person, but grew and spread to all. I can’t help but sense that this community found itself coming to life, confronting its demons and reconciling its members to each other. The woman, who entered the story as a despised outcast, had opened the door to the community’s renewal. Jesus had given them common ground on which they could to talk to each other. They had been emancipated from a temple-system that they all knew could not deliver. It was like the lights had been switched on and, suddenly, they knew that Jesus had saved them. This new life was not only theirs to claim, but they saw that it could flow out into the world beyond their small town.

John focuses on the receptiveness of these Samaritans to the message of Jesus, but there is sad irony in his account. The Jews, who should have known, found it much harder to receive Jesus’ message (as the author recalls in John 1:11), with the exception of a sizable, dogged minority. John’s implied rebuke to the Jews is something that we would all do well to hear; why try to persuade people to come to your Temple, when you should be persuading them to come to the One to whom your Temple points?

For John, in his delightful account of the Samaritan town, the answer was simple; the One to whom the Temple points is Jesus.

To be continued…

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Thursday, July 21, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 6

I am continuing my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts on this passage. Previously, I started a commentary, and got from John 4:6 to John 4:8. I could not post the following installment because of other commitments over the weekend, so here it is (belatedly).

John 4:9
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).
John refers to her as the Samaritan woman (also in John 4:7). He uses the term that she would use to describe herself. The term “Samaritan” literally means “keeper”, as in “keeper of the law”. Jews used the pejorative “Cuthim”, after the foreign city of Cutha, to imply that they were the foreigners in the land, and not “true” Israelites (see my earlier blog on the origins of the Samaritans). It’s remarkable, then, that John, a Jew (though one with Hellenistic leanings), uses the term “Samaritan”. John’s irenic use of the term is underpinned by one of the major themes of his Gospel, which is that the Word had come to the whole world, not just the world of the Jews.

John lays down a pattern that we ought to follow. By using the words that a person uses to describe himself or herself with, we respect their sense of self identity. If a person self-identifies as “gay”, “Mormon” or "black" or whatever, it seems to me to be something of a violation to substitute my words for theirs, even if I don't share the values that these terms sometimes convey.

The Samaritan woman certainly recognizes Jesus’ self-identity by baldly stating You are a Jew…. Let’s get this clear; Jesus was a Jew. He was not an Aryan, a Greek, and American or something else, despite various attempts by some (for nefarious reasons) to co-opt him into a non-Semitic ethnic identity. Jesus does not correct her on this issue because, frankly, she is right. She thought he was a Jew; he thought he was a Jew and everybody else at the time thought he was a Jew. If you have a problem with the fact that Jesus was a Jew, I can only appeal to you to stop fighting the evidence and get over it. He was.

The Samaritan woman’s surprise at Jesus’ request is articulated in her question How can you ask me for a drink?. She was undoubtedly aware of the taboos around food that the Jews operated under, because the Samaritans shared most of them. According to the Jewish Rabbis, food given by Samaritans was considered unclean, but there was a concession for food bought from them. To her, then, Jesus’ request was odd, made odder by the fact that he had even spoken to her at all. Jesus crossed several racial and ethnic boundaries here; something that was not lost on her.

When John notes that …Jews do not associate with Samaritans, he is being diplomatic in the extreme. The fact of the matter was that they hated each other, and there had been a long a bloody history of animosity between them.

John 4:10
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus answers her question with a riddle and though I have a couple of theories about why, none appear conclusive. Perhaps John is giving us a stylized and truncated version of the original conversation, because he brings us right to the point and omits to tell us if Jesus actually got the drink that he asked for. Perhaps, sensing the woman’s receptiveness to his message, Jesus deliberately steered the conversation in another direction, forsaking his physical needs to capitalize on the opportunity, which would align the discussion he had with his disciples later on in the passage (John 4:31-38).

Jesus’ startling response to the Samaritan woman, which would be a conversation-stopper in most circumstances, parallels his response the opening question of Nicodemus (a Jew) in the preceding chapter (John 3:1-3). Again, this signals to me that John’s Jesus is concerned with treating Jew and Samaritan even-handedly.

The riddle concerns the gift of God, who it is who asks and living water. It is difficult to overlook a Trinitarian formulation here, with such clear allusions to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

(Note that John does not use the term “Trinity”, which was first used by Theophilus of Antioch in about AD180, then Tertullian in AD211, some 120 years after the writing of John’s Gospel (depending on the date of the latter), but the concept is derived from the basic ingredients presented in the NT; there is One God; the Father is wholly God, the Son is wholly God and the Holy Spirit is wholly God; and yet the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other.)

The gift of God is God Himself. He becomes the gift to those He loves, just as husband and wife become their gifts to their spouses in a marriage. The promise of God’s intimate presence amongst His people is a common trajectory in Biblical scripture; for example, Ezekiel’s oracle ends with the statement “And the name of the city from that time on will be the LORD is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). John, of course, sees this intimate relationship brought into tangible reality by the presence of God in Jesus, “made flesh” in the world (John 1:14).

Jesus refers to himself as who it is who asks. This statement might echo Jesus’ role in John 14:16-17, in which Jesus describes Himself as the One who asks the Father for the Holy Spirit.

The living water, like so many things in John’s Gospel, is a both thing and a metaphor. The thing refers to water that is fresh and flowing, not stagnant. Jews were concerned at keeping water “live”, by keeping it moving. Sometimes they would puncture their cisterns so that there would be a notional flow of water through them. Demons, according to Matthew (Matt 12:43), could not cross “living” water. It was the “thing” that brought refreshment, life and cleansing, and it becomes the metaphor for what the Samaritan woman really needs. The water from the well will serve her for a day, but the “living water” that Jesus promises will serve her for life. It’s a metaphor for God the Holy Spirit, who refreshes, animates and cleanses the Church; the Holy Spirit is, quite literally, the life-breath of God, and He is God’s gift of Himself to the Church. That might seem quite a religious and esoteric thing to say, but think of it like this; the Holy Spirit is the very life of God, and this God-life is what gives life to the church.

John 4:11-12
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and flocks and herds?”
This is where commentators differ. Is she a simple rustic, who has missed the point and cannot see beyond the immediate circumstance of the well; or does she engage Jesus in some intellectual sparring? I tend to believe the latter. This is a remarkable exchange; else John would not have bothered to write it down. What I think is happening here is that the woman is remarking on the immediate, visible circumstance, and the underlying truths behind them, which are best understood when they are viewed against the historical conflict between Jew and Samaritan.

Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep Can this woman lift her gaze? Is she captive to the daily drudgery of lifting and fetching water for her man, who could be too selfish to marry her? Perhaps, but her question could be a double-entendre. She could be flirting by equating “this well” to her own sexuality. It would be unlikely that a Jew would arouse her interests, unless she had got bored with the attentions of the Samaritan men she knew. More likely, she is teasing Jesus’ for his Jewish religion, which she would have regarded as being too limited to draw from the well of Jacob.

I believe that she could see beyond the physical well; however all she could see was her Samaritan religion, which, she thought, was sufficient to her and her community (Jacob’s “sons and flocks and herds”) The problem with her religion was that it was bankrupt, which was patently apparent from its failure to sustain a Temple, or to sustain a faithful relationship with God. What she needed, indeed, was some new and living water, to refresh, animate and cleanse her.

John 4:13-14

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
If I am right about the Samaritan woman’s perceptiveness, then she and Jesus are talking on the same wavelength. Both see how bankrupt her religion is. She has likened it to her journey to the well, carried out with tedious monotony, and with always the same result. The journey to the well, day in and day out, was not enough to heal the divisions in the land or to make that vital connection to God that was now broken.

The well is not enough, yet Jesus promises something more in himself; it is something that He has within His gift. He doesn’t promise say “join my religion and it will sort you out” (as the Jewish missionaries to Samaria would have said), but he gives her a personal guarantee. Faith in Christ is not about signing up to a religion, or a program, but believing in Jesus, the person, who gives us his personal guarantee.

…the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up… The gift of the Spirit will be something experienced continually within the very being of those who receive it – like a spring of water welling up within them. The verb used for “welling up” (Greek hallomai) means literally to “jump up”, and in the only other places where it is found in the NT it has that literal meaning (Acts 3:8; 14.10). It is a vivid metaphor for the activity of the Holy Spirit within those who believe in Jesus, reminding us of the experiential as well as the cognitive side of the Christian faith. The fulfillment of this promise (with its future-tense verbs “I will give”, “will never thirst”; “I will give”, “will become”) awaits the coming of the Spirit following Jesus’ exaltation (John 7:37-39). (Kruse)

And now for something completely different. John 4:14 is partially quoted in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. In the film, it appears as part of an inscription on a crusader’s shield in a clue to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. The film infers that eternal life might be gained by drinking from the Holy Grail, which Indiana Jones and his father both do, though the “eternal life” they imbue only survives within the confines of the grail’s secret location. I enjoyed the film, but I do no think that Jesus had this in mind; this “eternal life” is not dunk from a physical grail, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and it is certainly not constrained by locale.

Finally, this last point is actually important in the context of John’s Gospel. Up to this moment in time, the connection to God and the source of life were regarded as being located in the Temple (in Mount Zion for the Jews and in Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans). Jesus brings that connection and that life out of the Temple such that it can be reached by all persons, wherever they are. In John’s idiom, the true connection to God is made in Jesus, not in the Temple.

To be continued…

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Friday, July 8, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 4

I’m returning to my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August. In previous weeks I have been blogging my thoughts on this passage, and in the last couple of weeks I took a minor detour into the issue of marriage. This week I’m returning to the text.

I have read a number of commentaries and they appear to fall into two camps;

• The majority view (Tom Wright, Colin Kruse, Donald Guthrie) that regards the woman as a kind of rustic simpleton who is stunned into believing Jesus by the demonstration of his supernatural knowledge of her marital circumstances

• The minority view (Roy Clements) that the woman engages Jesus in some intellectual sparring

As yet, I don’t see any compelling case in the objective evidence why one view should prevail over the other. I think the decision each individual commentator takes might have as much to do with his own perspective and preconceptions as anything else. For the purposes of my meditations today, I’m siding with the minority view for no better reason than that I like it.

That’s not saying that the “other” camp is wrong, or that it has nothing to bring to the table. I found Kruse’s discussion on the authorship of the Gospel most informative, and all of the commentator’s observations resonate with the Christian experience. I humbly submit that I could be wrong. However, having planted my flag in the minority camp, I now need to defend it.

The issue here is whether I’ve “tuned in” to John’s way of thinking. I’m working from the presumption that John sees significance in everything he writes. One of his distinctive characteristics is the inclusion of apparently incidental detail (“…it was about noon”, “His disciples had gone to buy food…”, “…leaving her water jar…” John 4:6, 4:8, 4:28). These details are not the mere “padding” that gives the story vitality and context; they are integral players and they mark things of real significance. These details are “pointers”, just as the word is a pointer to the reality behind what we can perceive (the trajectory of John 1:1 etc). There are multiple meanings to each pointer, but each one ultimately points to Christ.

Before I proceed, I might need another clarification here. I don’t think John is saying something, but meaning something else. I think he is saying something and meaning something else. John’s meanings overlap in layers. In our 21st Century mind-set, we are used to linear logic (one thing leads to another, and to another, and so on), whereas John stacks his meanings on top of each other. That’s what I mean by “tuning in” when we read his Gospel.

Some of these “pointers” are more easily read than others. Unsurprisingly, the commentators come to a consensus on the “easy” pointers, but the “hard” ones are usually left unattended. So, I offer my “working hypothesis” reading of this passage, as follows, in an attempt to identify the pointers and what it is that they are pointing to. This is a necessarily selective process, and if I omit something of importance, or interpret a pointer wrongly, I sincerely ask for your forbearance.

John 4:6
Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

Jacob’s well provides the scene, but also the context. It is both a real place, and a metaphor. The place is easily identified, but the metaphor is often overlooked. The Samaritans considered themselves to be the true legacy of the Biblical patriarchs. The “well” they drew from was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as it was written in the Five Books of Moses. The remarkable thing here is that Jesus comes into the community that is clustered around this well, which clearly signals that his Gospel might be “from the Jews” (John 4:22), but it is for the world (John 3:16), including those neighbors who are antagonistic to his own people. Jesus takes the initiative in the peace process (see Matt 5:9) and offers an alternative to the cycle of violence between these communities.

Jesus is tired from the journey, and sits down to take a break. Big deal, we might say. John, however, wants us to see Jesus’ true humanity. John stresses that Jesus is no super-human, nor even a god in an “earth-suit”, but his “taking on flesh” (John 1:14) brings him fully into our world and our experience of life and death (see Phil 2:5-11). The proto-Gnostics of the Greco-Roman world, by contrast, could not comprehend why the “pure” Divinity would get entangled and corrupted in the dirt of our material existence, so they devised a speculative scheme in which the “Christ” inhabited the body of Jesus, fleeing just before he died on the cross, and returning at the resurrection. Such a view is strongly contested by John, who sees no distinction between the Jesus the man and Jesus the Divine Logos that originated the entire cosmos (see John 1:1-5, Col 1:16-17 etc).

About noon is the hottest part of the day, when all the sensible people are taking a break indoors. All the commentators note that this is an unusual time for the anonymous woman to be filling her jars, and all infer that she has chosen this time to avoid contact with her neighbors. The patent reason for her evasive strategy is her sexually adventurous lifestyle, which will come to light a little further on in this encounter.

John 4:7-8
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food).
Jesus blatantly crosses several boundaries here, which would have sent his conservatively-minded Jewish peers into conniptions. His behavior is shocking, even scandalous.

First, he crosses over from the Jewish side to the Samaritan side. When John writes “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans”, he is being diplomatic in the extreme. In practice, the two were at each other’s throats, and Josephus records that they had come to violent clashes in the first part of the first century, around the same time as this encounter. Yet, here is Jesus sitting down in Samaritan territory. What is he doing?

Second, Jewish males were expected to be highly prudish in their interactions with women. The Jewish Rabbis taught that it was improper even for a man to talk with his own wife in public. Yet, here is Jesus initiating a conversation with a “half-caste” woman. What is he doing?

Third, in separating themselves from the Samaritans, the Jews considered food touched by Samaritan hand to be unclean. I’m not sure what the Rabbis would have thought of water, but they were extraordinarily fussy about what they ate. Rabbinical tradition made a distinction between food that was given, and food that was bought; the former was considered unclean, but the latter was appropriate (Community Rule/Manual of Discipline 5:14-20, after Kruse). Therefore Jesus’ disciples could buy food from the Samaritans (John 4:8), even though it was a risky business given the tensions between the two communities. Yet, here is Jesus asking the woman to give him water. What is he doing?

Finally, the promised Messiah asks a lowly Samaritan for assistance. We, like John’s primary audience, might think it appropriate for the High King to be served by his subjects. But, what I find shocking here is that he needs her. What is he doing?

On this last point, Jesus could have summoned a thousand angels to tend to him, as Satan so deliciously points out in another context (Matt 4:6). However, the Mighty God and Savior of Israel humbles himself to the point at which he is reliant on the ministrations of a woman. Its not the first time, as Mary’s part in the story richly demonstrates (see the Nativity Narrative in Luke 1:26-38). The theology that I read in this is that God could simply do whatever it is He wants to do, but He has set things up such that He needs our inputs. This, I think, is a purely voluntary position that God adopts, and He does it in order to elevate our humble, inadequate service to the heights of His Grand Plan. In other words, God brings us in as partners in His work, not just it’s passive subjects. God works with us, not simply over us, for our ultimate good. This is of critical importance to Christian thinking; the ultimate purpose of God is not simply to create some kind of abstract perfection; His purpose is to redeem you, and me, and the people around us, whoever they may be. To put it in the New Testament idiom; He comes down to us, that we all might rise with Him.

I have run out of time, and there are other things I need to do this week. But I hope to return to the story in subsequent posts.

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Friday, July 1, 2011

In defence of traditional marriage: Post Script

This week, an email from the Canberra Declaration Team alerted me to the news that the Labor State Conference in Western Australia last weekend passed a resolution supporting homosexual marriage. The Western Australia ALP has joined the ALP state branches in South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory in supporting homosexual marriage including Victoria, which passed a motion supporting homosexual marriage in 2009. Personally, I think the Canberra Declaration crowd are a little too alarmist and reactionary to have a serious impact, but I share their concerns on this issue.

In response, I wrote the following letter to The Honorable Kevin Rudd, my State Member, and my other Parliamentary representatives.

Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010

Dear Sirs,

As a voter in your constituency, I appeal to you to do all you can to oppose the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010, and to retain current Federal Law.

I understand that current Federal Law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. The Bill proposes to change the definition to the union of two people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, thus opening up marriage to same-sex or non-gendered couples (1).

My opposition to this Bill does not, I sincerely hope, arise from a desire to unduly discriminate against persons of differing sexual orientation or gender identity. I believe that marriage understood as the enduring union of husband and wife is both a good in itself and also advances the public interest (2). I sincerely believe that the proposal to redefine marriage by Parliamentary Bill is not in the public interest, despite the high profile protestations of its advocates. I also believe that it is your job, as our representatives in Government, to defend and advance the public interest, even in the face of popular culture.

My primary reason for believing that traditional marriage (between one husband and one wife) is in the public interest is that the stable, loving and exclusive union between biological father and mother provides the optimum environment for raising children. The sociological evidence is overwhelming. The combined force of Mum and Dad cannot be adequately replaced by Mum and Mum, or Dad and Dad, no matter what the Bill's proponents say. Government ought to do all it can to protect the rights of children by upholding and strengthening marriage.

Further, I believe that the Bill discriminates against persons who, for whatever reason, believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. These reasons may be rationally thought out, or they may be more instinctive, but they will be repressed or even outlawed, if the Bill were passed. The worst examples of such discrimination have denied capable parents from fostering children (3), and have caused adoptive charities having to shut their doors (4). The Bill does not present a win-win outcome.

As it stands, the Bill does not even require a person in such a "marriage" to have a sexual orientation towards his or her spouse, which might yield some surprising outcomes with respect to conjugal rights.

If a recent survey in the UK is a reliable guide, we can expect about 1.5% of the population to self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual (5). I imagine that not all these people would be interested in marriage. This divisive Bill would therefore benefit a small minority of the population. I have to ask; at what cost?

At its heart, the Bill seeks to re-orientate marriage around a person's felt needs, but in so doing it fatally wounds marriage as the good and persistent social institution that has served and fostered the public interest for millennia. Our collective experience is that marriage is particularly good in serving the interests of children and women, and I believe it is so precisely because it presents men, especially, with something that's bigger and more important than their felt needs. The Bill attempts to force marriage into being what it is not. It is an ideological crusade that's not based on a sober consideration of the evidence.

One political campaign (for the Sex Party) ran the line "We believe the law should stay out of people's bedrooms". I agree, but the law has already been withdrawn from the bedroom. Why, then, seek to change the law on the basis of an ideological crusade?

Please oppose the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Jacobs


Reply from Kevin Rudd's Offce
Our ref: rlh:rlh_SR/Jun-11-0530
1 August, 2011

Mr Martin Jacobs
[Address given]

Dear Martin

Thank you for contacting Kevin with your concerns regarding same-sex marriage.

Kevin appreciates you taking the time to share your feedback.

As you are aware, the Government has recently supported an amended motion in Parliament. This motion calls upon Members to gauge the views of their constituents on equal treatment for gay couples, including marriage.

Currently, the Government’s position on same-sex marriage has not changed. The Government believes that the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act, that marriage is between man and woman, is appropriate and is part of standard Labor Party Policy.

Kevin understands same-sex marriage is an issue that many people in the community have strong opinions about. As it is the day-to-day job of Members of Parliament to engage with their constituents and gauge their opinions on important matters, Kevin believes that same-sex marriage should be included in these discussions.

Thank you once again for taking the time to share your views.

If there are any other federal government matters with which Kevin may be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact his Electorate Office on [phone number given] or via email- [email given]

Yours sincerely

Rebecca Hansen, Constituent Officer
The Honourable Kevin Rudd MP
Federal Member for Griffith