A Sermon on John 4 by Vincent Hodge
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.
Do we know/recognise who Jesus is?
We encounter a group of stories early in John’s Gospel dealing with faith in Jesus.
These stories, arranged, as they are, around the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, witness a community of particular definite people forming around Jesus.
John has multiple narrative themes drawing on OT scriptures. This was an expected standard form of Jewish teaching showing how Jesus fulfilled Gentile expectations while remaining within orthodox Jewish scriptural expectations.
Jacob and Rachel met at a Well at the sixth hour. Wells brought together Isaac and Rebecca; Moses and Zipporah. Wells signified intimate bonding – man and woman; God and Israel.
John’s account of Jesus and the Woman meeting at the sixth hour at a well is charged with imagery reminding us of God’s love being channelled through marital relationships and human desire; mere acquaintance crossing the threshold into intimate relationship into spiritual communion. She has already had 5 plus 1 intimate partners. Is Jesus the seventh – a biblical number signifying covenant and also completion /perfection?
I pass over this most popular of John’s themes there is also a story that folds the micro story of the Samaritan Woman at Sychar in with the Passion of a Jewish man at Jerusalem linking with key Creation narratives in Genesis. This doublet also creates a most powerful text – valuable especially in oral cultures with detailed capacity of memory –
We are told by John that Jesus is responsible for breathing new life into us through the gift of the Holy Spirit – a gifting that restores us to what was originally gifted and lost in a garden described in Genesis.
That garden sourced four rivers. The Well at Sychar showcases Jesus as a source of living water but mysteriously John says later that Jesus was placed in a tomb in a garden that was at the place of a barren Golgotha. Very odd as history but John’s simple plain description of the meaning of Jesus by the contrast of the waterless and the watered.
John has Desire dominating – the desire to know Jesus as Saviour. What are we seeking? What is our Desire? Where do we stand? Where do we remain? – like so much of John’s writing, his words have intended double meanings!!
The micro stories are part of John’s Gospel declaration that scattered Jews, Samaritans, Galileans and Gentiles will be drawn into a community that share a common belief in Jesus. Jesus lives that original Genesis community experience of faithfulness in God; a lifestyle he desires to pass onto us as man desires food.
SYCHAR – THE PASSION
Outside the City of Sychar we encounter two people standing upon a liminal boundary described in terms of Water and Dust – a doublet that stands on a margin – boundaries, thresholds and margins are where choices must be made – a foretaste of how Jesus’ mission will be accomplished – at Sychar by virtue of Jesus Spirit and in Jerusalem by virtue of the gift of a Paraclete/ Advocate sent by Jesus following his death and resurrection.
Jesus arrives beside Jacob’s Well just as the Samaritan Woman arrives. It is another story set at the sixth hour (noon). This distracts us – we are drawn to matters of their morality but we miss another person’s morality – Pilate.
Whereas Jesus asks the woman for water at Sychar, in John’s earlier stories, all other characters (bar John the Baptist) invariably approach Jesus in order to ask for something from him!
Something different is going on here for John. Jesus – a man- has handed himself over to the woman by his request for water.
It will also be the 6th hour when Pilate hands Jesus over to the mob baying for his crucifixion.
The time is one of the holiest of the Jewish year – it is the time of lamb killing – it is Preparation Day of Passover. Be-hold the Lamb who holds our sins away! John’s unsurprising frequent use of word play. Remember – Pilate’s declaration – Behold the Man! Remember Jesus declaration – Woman:– Behold your Son!
Jesus does not judge the woman but praises her for owning up to the truth that she is living with a man who is not her husband.
The sixth hour – the time when Jesus sat beside the Well and the time when Pilate sat on the Tribune seat at the Stone Pavement (Hebrew = Gabbatha) -a judgement seat.
At the Passion Trial Scene, Jesus has come to bear witness to the truth. The Samaritan Woman is called, in the Greek text, “kalos” – this means beauty, admiration, genuineness, praiseworthy etc.
John uniquely and explicitly parallels the Woman’s character with that of Nathaniel. Nathaniel is identified earlier in John as “…truly an Israelite, in whom there is no guile….”. Jesus mysteriously knows about him from under the fig tree just as he mysteriously knows the woman’s relationships with men!
Remember Eden and Gethsemane are gardens of betrayal for John; The Well is a place of acceptance despite it being named after Jacob who acted with guile and trickery so that Esau lost his birthright when their father, Isaac, died. The serpent in Genesis is also described as “shrewd”, meaning ‘with guile’.
Certainly she misunderstands Jesus request and Jesus addresses her with a retort; it is a copy of the retort he makes to Pilate in the trial Scene :- ”if only you had known/ recognised..”. Both mistake who they have as a dialogue partner! But- Jesus is not intent on insulting the Woman – Jesus is drawing her into a wider world of God’s revelatory word:
Samaritans limited themselves to the First Five Books – The Pentateuch. Samaritans had limited access to spiritual metaphors of water for God actions. Dipsao ( Greek = thirst) occurs frequently in the Psalms and other Wisdom literature of the Greek OT with metaphorical references to the springs of salvation, living water, the courts of the Lord and others. The Prophetical and Wisdom Books were not part of the Samaritan Canon of Scripture.
We should be intrigued that the Gospel isolates Jesus thirst only twice in John’s Gospel – at the abundant well and on the Place of the Skull. The Well and The Passion describe two situations of physical thirst but both are occasions where Jesus hands something of himself over! Two texts – something matters here that is more than just dehydration of the body.
Dust is “thirsty ground”. Dust cries out for water but, remember, when Cain killed Abel, the ground was “watered” by his brother’s blood which was crying out! John’s narrative assumes a well set within a dusty country. The setting is liminal between water and ground – linking the Samaritan Woman, the Crucifixion and Genesis.
One of the Songs of the Suffering Servant which is proclaimed by many Christian Denominations in their Good Friday Passion Service – Isaiah 53:1-2 reads: – “…who could believe what we have heard; and to whom has the power of YHWH been revealed? …. He grew up as a root in dry ( dipsao= thirsty) ground..”
Jesus’ dying as a root in dry ground contrasts with his giving over of his spirit with his last breath. As former man, Cain, moistened the ground with the blood of Abel; the new man, Jesus, moistens it with his own blood and will also breathe spirit and life. Jesus is the Well that waters the desert from death to life as God watered the ground in Genesis; as God moistened the ground with water and spirit from his own life to make us living beings.
The image of ground “being thirsty -dusty” over against the refreshment of Jacob’s Well resonates with the Genesis account where man(sic) is formed from dry ground and placed in a watered garden – the breath of divine life is breathed into that lifeless dust – the living water of God’s life moistens the thirsty ( dry-dusty) ground into a living being.
On Ash Wednesday, the minister prays:
“..remember man(sic) you are dust and to dust you will return…”. Genesis Chapter 3 – the sin of Adam and Eve – recited for centuries in order to stir up a spirit of fearful repentance.
John’s Gospel points back beyond the sin of Adam and Eve to the original ideal in Chapter 2 of Genesis of human created from God’s breath. Jesus is the fruit of the tree of the Cross; hanging in contrast with the fruit consumed by Adam and Eve – their malignant transgression made them naked in the presence of good/evil; Jesus clothes us with God’s holy spirit.
Remember – we were distracted that this Samaritan carried a stigma of immorality as implied in the noon day (sixth hour) trek to the well and engaging with Jesus? More likely is this imagined dialogue from Jesus : – “like you, I thirst: like you I am also a root in dry ground. We are both parched – that is why we are both at the well – we have similar desires!
John’s multi-layered meanings hidden in plain sight – all the while Jesus is hoping for a faith to accomplish a gifting of the Holy Spirit for the Samaritan Woman and her City – a gifting to be accomplished after 2 days; a gifting universally accomplished in the Passion Narrative. An accomplishment based upon people choosing to believe in Jesus.
A COMMUNITY OF ABIDING CHARACTERS
Jesus abided/ remained/ dwelt with those from Sychar for two days – a new theme springs up – delay that gives God glory ( think: raising of Lazarus after 2 day delay – Johannine irony) – faith developing through an abiding/ remaining faithfully with Jesus as a whole person.
John has already made multiple and consistent references to disciples, in his early stories, who abide closely with Jesus – physically and spiritually. At Sychar that theme is strengthened.
Consequent upon the abiding of those two days many Sychar residents eventually name Jesus as the ‘saviour of the cosmos” – a truly Messianic declaration of faith that harks back to John the Baptist’s earlier statement – the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the cosmos – a divine blessing of the reconciliation that will be fully revealed only through the Passion and Resurrection. They did not remain in their Samaritan/Jewish enmity – Johannine irony.
Before John’s gospel reached the version that it is for us today, John’s gospel concluded with this a key verse –
“…Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe…. and that through believing you may have life in his name…”.
But this seems to be contradicted in a retort to the Galileans when Jesus chides them for relying only upon “signs and wonders” in Jesus healing of the Official’s son. It is a recognition story – a recognition by the Official of the whole person of Jesus. It was this level of recognition that eventually also lead to an understanding of Jesus that underpins the Sychars’ faith after abiding / remaining two days.
John’s characters believe in Jesus but often reasons are implied and not explained in the gospel itself; the historically visible reasons seem to be in the background and what is promoted is the sheer fact of a variety of people’s commitment to Jesus marked by their abiding/ remaining close to Jesus – definite characters with definite names – a closeknit growing community of Faith – but a significant number of these stories leave out what appear to us as key pieces of proof information.
The Woman at the Well rushed back to her city to spread the news about Jesus’ arrival. Her new found enthusiasm came from Jesus who “ told me everything I have ever done” – meaning Jesus’ ability to disclose his prior awareness to her of her living with a man who is not her husband and the fact of her previous five husbands. This excitement makes some sense since the woman subsequently confesses in – “…the Messiah, when he comes, will announce all things to us…”. For the Woman it is the beginning of a changed acceptance of who Jesus is but is it the basis for a permanent faith?
The emphasis in her story is not the source of Jesus’ power but the representation of an accomplishment of Jesus, loyalty in doing his Father’s will. Jesus is drawing the scattered together – an accomplishment. The Greek word “teleos” – meaning “perfection/ completion” – is applied to Jesus at the Well and in the Passion narrative when he is “raised/ lifted up” on the Cross leading to giving universal access to the life of Jesus after he ascends back to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
CLEANSING THE TEMPLE – PROPHECY
The Samaritan Woman declared Jesus status as a prophet. Jesus temple protest did not lead to his arrest. His public status was as a prophet, not a political trouble-maker. The trading that Jesus acted against affected the large outer Court of the Gentiles – symbolic of the promise to the Woman that Gentiles will come from all over the world to worship in spirit and truth.
The gaps in the stories that I have alluded to are John’s purposeful claim that “Signs and Wonders” take the narrative only so far. It is Jesus as a whole person within orthodox Jewish tradition who must be the centre of our attention – not just as a wonder worker; not even as Messiah. He is the Beloved Son – The Word of God dwelling/ tabernacling/tenting amongst us as a human being; abiding/remaining ( Greek =“meno”).
Do we remain in the old spirit of sin or with Jesus’ new Holy Spirit –springing up (Greek = enphusesen) in his followers – a fulfilment but also beyond all expectations.
Martin Luther translated one of Isaiah’s most famous phrases about Immanuel – God With Us :
“…if you do not believe then you do not abide..”
Literally it translates a play on words :
“..if you do not hold firm to YHWH, you will have no foothold…” or
“ if you do not stand, you will not understand…”.