Friday, September 01, 2006

Response: That Samaritan woman

The quote at the end of my previous post comes from a story in John, wherein Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman and teaches her a little about the nature of God's spirit. In the course of the discussion about this story, Scoots said that when the Samaritan woman brings up a religious argument, she is attempting to "distract Jesus from prying into her sketchy personal life".

While Scoots seems to come to excellent conclusions about the point of the story, I disagree with his characterization of the Samaritan woman, and think it is worth providing an alternative reading.

First, notice that the woman's long list of husbands actually shows her not to be a promiscuous woman, but a victim. As far as I know, a woman couldn't divorce a man, so either she had been divorced by all these men, or they had died, or some of both. And as a result, the Samaritan woman was probably living in the next best arrangement she could manage, given her culture and history of husbands. Sure, she might be changing the subject out of shame, but it's just as likely she's changing the subject because dead or deadbeat husbands aren't particularly pleasant to talk about.

Second, it's worthwhile to observe that the discussion Jesus has with the woman parallels the conversation he has with the highly educated Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3. As Thomas Robinson, minister for the Manhattan Church of Christ, writes in "A Community Without Barriers":

Here, Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman in exactly the same manner as he spoke with Nicodemus. He showed the same degree of seriousness, the same concern to lead both to deeper insights, and the same perception as to where they each were in their own spiritual development ... to this Samaritan woman, Jesus chose to begin to reveal the reality of the Spirit, which even Jesus’ closest disciples did not fully understand until years later.

And furthermore,

In the Gospel of John, it is to this Samaritan woman that Jesus chose first to affirm his identity as Messiah. He found in her an openness and a level of understanding that suggested that such a revelation to her could be fruitful. She in turn led others of her town to listen to Jesus and to come to believe in him as the Christ. Thus, remarkably, the Gospel of John suggests that the first real community of believers in Jesus was among the Samaritans, led to their own personal faith (though they were reluctant to admit it) by this Samaritan woman (John 4:39-42)


scoots said...

I think we're looking at a couple of different readings depending on whether you want to approach the story historically or literarily.

Historically, we may understand the woman (from our perspecitve) as a victim. However, I think she also plays a specific literary role, and it's always good to delve into these literary questions since all four Gospels seem so intent on shaping the story of Jesus in particular ways.

I'd say that one reason to think of the woman's situation as sketchy is that the story works especially well (in my opinion) if she functions as a sort of embodiment of scandal for Jesus to come into contact with. When Jesus asks for water, the woman questions his request, noting that she is both a woman and a Samaritan. John makes explicit that Jews don't talk to Samaritans, and then he notes that the disciples were surprised that Jesus would talk to a woman.

So then, supposing that John wants to make the situation even more offensive to the family values crowd, Jesus' comment about this woman's five husbands would work quite well.

John has now set up the most offensive conversation partner he can find for Jesus –– not only a Samaritan, and not only a Samaritan woman, but a Samaritan woman of questionable morality. We should expect that the typical pious Jew (at least in John's opinion) would find the idea of talking to her repulsive.

Then, of course, we get the punch line. I'm not sure how to compare this story with that of Nicodemus. In that situation, Jesus made the educated man look a bit like a fool, which doesn't seem very nice, and here he presses on this woman's life story, which she was obviously trying to be discreet about.

But I guess the point is that both stories lead to a proclamation of the Gospel. Perhaps the disconcerting comments Jesus makes in each case are intended to knock Nicodemus and the woman off balance just enough that he can hit them with the shocking suggestions of new birth and new mode of worship, which we find in these texts.

Both fascinating stories. John's a baffling story-teller.

Matthew said...


Yeah, I think "baffling" is a good one-word description of John. =)