Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of John/Chapter 4
Introduction to Chapter 4
In chapter 4, the Baptism introduces the reader to a prominent theme of Wisdom (water) throughout John. First, Jesus reveals himself to a Samaritan woman at the well, which is remarkable since Samaritan women were regarded by Jews as impure. Therefore, Jews were forbidden to drink from any vessel they had handled. In addition, for Jesus to share a drinking vessel with the Samaritan woman was considered unclean and very dramatic.
At the end of chapter 4, Jesus returns to the territory around Cana where he’ll work his second sign by curing a Royal official’s son simply by his word. Jesus told the official to go home and his son would live. The man believed and on arriving home found his son well and that he had been healed at the hour when Jesus spoke his words. This sign may be one of the most vital and significant to us. It shows us that although Jesus is not physically present with us he is able to be spiritually with us. The significance for us is that Jesus is adoni of life. Also, these two revelations are meant to show that Jesus’ mission is to all people.
An important factor to consider before looking at the chapter is the relationship between the people of Judea and the people of Samaria.
The Samaritans also looked down on the Jews as unclean. When Joshuah entered the land he halted between two mountains Ebal and Gerizim. Ebal was named the mountain of cursing and Gerizim the mountain of blessing. Where would you say they placed that ark? Yes that's what the Samaritan scriptures say Mt. Gerizim. But the Hebrew scriptures inexplicably say Mt. Ebal. The Samaritans blame it on the wicked high priest Eli who they say usurped the priesthood and the ark. He also set up a counterfeit tabernacle at Shiloh.
Some Samaritans had intermarried with Assyrians and thus the Jews despised them as traitors and idolaters. The Jews of Judea looked down upon the Samaritans for that reason, among others.
The Samaritans also believe their Bible (the Pentateuch) is the pure one for it is written ion the ancient Hebrew. When the Jews returned from Babylon Ezra had rewritten the Hebrew scriptures from memory using new rounded letters. Jeremiah seems to agree with the Samaritans he wrote:
“How can you say that you are wise and that you know my laws? Look, the Word of Yah has been changed by dishonest scribes.” (Jerm.8:8)
There was great deal of animosity among the Judeans and the Samaritans, and often Judeans would not travel through Samaria to get to Galilee. While this might be an issue of personal safety, it is more likely a result of the utter disdain felt for Samaritans by the Judeans. Also, travelers in those times stayed with relations and friends while on the road, and it was not likely for Judeans to find either of those in Samaria.
This is the first glimpse in the book of John where someone who is not Jewish is promised the opportunity for eternal life. It shows that Jesus is not merely there for the Jews, but for all the peoples of earth who are willing to listen to his message. The Samaritan woman also speaks of the Christ coming, and Jesus reveals himself to her as the messiah. This is the first person he told he was the Messiah.
Verses 1-42 in Chapter 4 of John seems to point out a simple outline of evangelism through the example of Jesus. Jesus has a definite direction toward which he influences this dialogue between himself and the Samaritan woman. First of all, by asking for water, he engages in a conversation based on the context and circumstances of the moment. In asking for a drink of water at a well, Jesus mirrors scenarios seen in Genesis 24, 1 Samuel 9:11, and 1 Kings 17:10. The prophet Elijah also asked for a drink of water from the widow Zarephath while at at a well (1 Kings 17:10). After establishing the event as biblical, Jesus begins to talk with the woman. The odd part of this action is the woman's status. She is not only a woman (a widow, or divorcee), but a Samaritan, a people which were generally looked down by the Jews as apostates and outcasts. Jesus not only engages in conversation, but directs the topic toward spiritual matters, which serve as . His direction is immediately shown by the mention of God and the metaphor of "living water" (v. 10). Jesus offers a source of refreshment, life-giving water (the woman takes to mean literal flowing water). The significance of living-water offered by Jesus is not obvious to the woman, she does not think of something more than physical water even after Jesus mentions in (v.10) 'the gift of God.' Third, Jesus tells her what he has to give her (v. 14), explained by the living water metaphor (wisdom) which leads to eternal life.
After a conversation about the differences in worship, Jesus points the woman the idea of one truth. The author of the gospel is directly contrasting the earlier conversation with Nicodemus with Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well. Irony, interestingly, plays a role as a Samaritan woman grasps who and what Jesus is while 'the learned teacher of Israel' is unable to do this. Living in a world full of pluralism, she seems to ask which way is the correct way to worship. Jesus points out that her people by rejecting the prophets cannot know the way, but the Jews (who refused to live it) at least had preserved the wisdom that the prophets spoke. Salvation come from the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Lastly, Jesus reveals himself as The Way, or The Messiah. This declaration is astounding. He finds a poor woman among outcasts who has a hunger to know God and he reveals himself to her first. That's why the poor are said to be rich in faith.
There is also some controversy as to who the Samaritan woman was. The traditional reading of this text seems to be that the Samaritan woman was some sort of harlot, yet such was not necessarily the case. As was mentioned before, the possibility exists that she had been divorced or widowed. In the culture of Jesus' day the woman had no power over whether or not to divorce and it was always initiated by the husband. If this was the case it is possible that Jesus was questioning her inability to maintain a husband, which would be shameful. Also it could be that she had been widowed 5 times, which sounds absurd except for the fact that a story popular around that time outlined just such a scenario in which a woman was tormented by the deaths of multiple husbands. Yet the man she was presently with was not her husband. If she was living in adultery she would have been stoned by the Samaritans, so the only answer is that she was in a tryst with a single man.If read in this way it is possible that Jesus was actually sympathetic to her difficult past but not willing to overlook her current sinful state. Whatever the case may be it is clear that this line of questioning was intended to show that Jesus had a
knowledge of the woman's situation and thus could speak to her directly. It might also have been a continuation of a motif found elsewhere in John as well as in the Synoptic gospels, that of Jesus conversing and spending time with people who were seen as unclean or sinful by society.
On a whole new level the Northern Kingdom with Samaria as its capital had become the center of Bull worship. Baal, the bull god's name means husband.
Jesus says go call your husband. This woman may have been involved in 5 previous Baal cults and was with her sixth. She seems to not see any condemnation of her marital state but instead, responds as a sincere truth seeker and admits she is not happy with her current Baal cult. Then she asks isn't the El that you Jews worship in Jerusalem the same bull god that we worship on our mountain?
Jesus amazes her by saying they are both wrong. Yah is worshiped in spirit, not in rituals, in temples, on mountains, with sacraments, priests, priestesses, sacrifices, baptisms, ceremonies, tithes and offering etc. It takes place in secret in your closet. The kingdom comes without observation. You can't see it. You cannot go to it, it is in your heart.
The use of spirit here show the weakness of the Greek language. John 1:32 says, "I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him" refers to the angel. Worshiping in spirit means devoid of any externals.
The idea of evangelism is continued once the disciples return from their hunt for food. The Samaritan woman returns to her town and tells the people in the town about this man who knew her so well without ever having met her. This act adds to the process of evangelism because Jesus has inspired the woman to also assist in spreading this good news (v. 28-29). The disciples are then told that the "Fields are ripe for harvest," as Jesus instructs them to evangelize also (v. 35). He explains that "One sows and another reaps," thus sharing the concept that the laborers - such as the fathers of the religion - had already paved the way. Verses 39-42 explain the success of the evangelism in the numbers who believed. It is also important to not leave out verse 38 when analyzing these passages. Jesus states, "I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor." (NAS) Some believe that Jesus was referencing his own labor. Predicting that it is He who has "labored" or better yet will sacrifice his life and that he has sent you, the believers, to "reap" the benefits of his life with out laboring. In other words, Jesus did the work, and the believers could reap the benefits. For instance look back at verse 36 "Already he who reaps is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for life eternal; that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together." (NAS) Those who "reap" these benefits are promised eternal life so that he who sows, Jesus, and he who reaps, believers, will "rejoice together." (NAS)
The water and food metaphor are to show that though the flesh has needs, so does the spirit. The parallel between water and food are in turn Jesus' ways of showing eternal life and the yearning to serve God. The living water metaphor (see v. 10) shows the earthly mentality of the woman. Water was something which she had to work for through the flesh in order to get for the flesh. Jesus, however, gives her this water through his grace. This brings us back to John 1:14 which foreshadows this grace. Aside from grace, truth can be abrasive and hurtful. The combined effort of Jesus' grace and truth are found when Jesus knew the truth about the Samaritan woman, and did not condemn her, but rather guided her in graciousness.
This passage emphasizes some important messages in the form of women and the idea of cultural crossover. The fact that Jesus stops to talk with the Samaritan woman raises questions of Jesus' role and his mission. "In obvious respects it is parallel to the description of the Samaritan mission in Acts 8, which is an important transitional moment in the movement of the gospel preaching from Judaism to the broader world, (Smith 109). Furthermore, the author as well gives the woman justice by showing a breakthrough in understanding Jesus. This contradicts Nicodemus who did not understand Jesus.
This passage shows that God is the God of all people and not just the Jews. When Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman and tells her that a time will come when it will not matter where people worship shows the reader that God loves all people and not just the Jews. Also, this passage is important because of Jesus breaking two cultural norms for that time by talking to a Samaritan who also happened to be a woman.
Faith in Chapter 4 When Christ returns to Galilee and meets the man whose son is dying, He remarks, "Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." (Verse 48) The NIV translation seems to suggest that Galileans as a people struggle with faith, but the non-prejudicial allusion here could be that humanity as a whole struggles with the concept. Accuracy is also extremely important to this point, as 'you people' is one of the thousands of places in the Bible where precise translation is absolutely essential to the intended meaning of the text.
Jesus ministry thus far seems to have been the biggest benefit to the lower classes - to people who seem to have the biggest need. His previous miracles had been visible to minimal people - particularly the servants at the wedding in Cana. Even his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well had been out of contextual norm due to His association with those viewed with a lesser tolerance. However, knowledge about His identity spreads already, as pointed out by verse 45, which says, “They had seen all that He had done in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ ministry turns now to others who have faith, such as the royal official in this section. Despite Jesus’ claim that the people will not believe “unless (they) see miraculous signs” (v 48), the royal official shows faith in Jesus simply by “begging him to come and heal his son” (v 47). The idea that a man would request Jesus to do something shows signs of faith that something good will come of His actions.
The Jewish Passover Feast (a festival) is mentioned in John 2:13 and 2:23. In 2:23 it is noted that "many people saw the miraculous signs he (Jesus) was doing and believed in his name". Most likely, people from Galilee followed him to Jerusalem after his miracle in Cana (John 2:1-11) and then returned to Cana after the Passover Feast, as mentioned later (John 4:45). After going through Samaria, Jesus returns to Galilee at the close of chapter 4 and it clearly states that they welcomed him on the basis that, "they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they had also been there(John 4:45)". There is harmony in chronology of events here.