March 22, 2011
How long does it take to know someone truly? A year, a decade, a lifetime? Whether working alongside someone, putting in the hard work of committed friendship, or sharing the blessings and labors of marriage, we can be confident that we can know a person’s identity, aims, and motivations with the passage of time.
Yet after two millennia, can we be so certain that we know Jesus?
Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is yet another story from John’s gospel that punctures our certainty that we have Jesus triangulated. We may feel as if we know Jesus after generations of slotting him in our christological taxonomies, tradition, and piety. But time and again, Jesus eludes our fully apprehending him.
Last week Nicodemus approached Jesus and began by uttering those deadly words, “We know that you are….” As that conversation progresses, it is clear that this doctor of the faith remains in the dark when it comes to Jesus.
In similar fashion, the Samaritan woman finds herself blinking in incomprehension at every turn of her conversation with the man sitting by Jacob’s well.
What is this man doing at my well? Drawing water is women’s work.
Why is this Jew initiating conversation and even asking to drink from my bucket? Jews consider us to be contaminated mongrel scum.
How can he claim to offer me water? He has no bucket.
What proceeds is a two-person comedy sketch because the woman consistently misses the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words. This alone should be sufficient warning about the level of our comprehension of Jesus.
Still, this unnamed woman demonstrates greater capacity to engage with Jesus than Nicodemus. Where that seminary-trained insider begins with “We know…”, it is the woman’s not knowing that allows Jesus to define who he is on his terms. Her verbal volleyball with Jesus does not come to a fruitless end, unlike Nicodemus’ earlier interaction. Instead, each exchange results in her having an ever higher estimation of her conversation partner. She addresses Jesus as “Sir” (twice), then “prophet”, and then floats a tentative “Messiah”. What seems crucial is her willingness to play ball even after the interaction ceases to be theoretical discourse about social barriers and religious differences. When Jesus says, “Go, call your husband,” it gets personal and meddlesome. But rather than telling Jesus off for sticking his nose in her business, she sticks with Jesus, even if it is only one step forward, two steps sideways. Even and especially in her shame and disgrace, she finds Jesus engaging her.
And perhaps “engagement” captures what is going on here. When she hurries off to tell her neighbors about this traveler and they invite him to stay with them, it sinks in. To those steeped in the Scriptures, John’s account of Jesus by the well conjures up powerful echoes of other occasions when a man meets a woman by the well. Invariably, wedding bells resound.
It is by a well that Moses encounters Zipporah, Abraham’s servant (on Isaac’s behalf) meets Rebekah, and Jacob gazes upon Rachel. In all three stories, the man travels a great distance and meets a woman by a well. In all three, the woman hurries home to tell her community about the traveler, and he is invited to stay. All three stories end with a betrothal.
But can this be a betrothal story? The Samaritan woman appears distinctly unqualified given that she has previously been married five times and is cohabiting with a sixth man. To suggest that Jesus seeks a bride also sounds ludicrous.
Unless we allow Jesus to define who he is and not insist with Nicodemus that “we know.”
The gospel of John has already shown Jesus assuming the role of the bridegroom by providing wine for the wedding at Cana. And just before this, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the bridegroom whose arrival gladdens his heart. At Jacob’s well, Jesus seeks a bride.
But Jesus is a bridegroom beyond the expectations of romantic piety. The conclusion of the story is not just about one person coming to passionate faith. Jesus is not the man of the woman’s dreams, even her religious ones.
The fact that she leaves behind her water jar demonstrates that Jesus so exceeds her desires and expectations that they must be abandoned like old wineskins. She heads back to her community no longer afraid to face her disgrace. “Come and see,” she says, and becomes the first evangelist since Philip sought out Nathanael. Her testimony spurs the community to ask Jesus to abide with them. And following the pattern of the other betrothal stories, the identity of the traveler is revealed in the end. The Samaritan community confesses, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Who is the bride? It is a community who has found themselves addressed and known by Jesus. The woman testifies, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” We don’t know Jesus so much as Jesus knows us. He demonstrates his love by naming our failures (concrete and not hypothetical) and yet offering us living water to satisfy our souls. Experiencing this love frees us to begin to see him as he is.
The marriage proposal is not merely to the “unchurched” Samaritans but the thoroughly “churched” disciples who are just as bewildered. Here too is invitation to know Jesus and be wedded to him, for the disciples glimpse Jesus as they would have before because they see him love these despised Samaritans. When Jesus gets a hold of folks we thought we knew, we see Jesus and them anew. We must discard old scripts if we are to know Jesus and one another truly.
God’s mighty love for the world is shown in the gift of living water, the life of the Spirit. It is the precious gift given by one who knows the Samaritan woman’s thirst and our own. One of the great ironies in John’s gospel is that the source of living water is also the one who cries out, “I thirst,” as he hangs on the cross. Truly, Jesus is the Savior of the world.