In the reading of scriptures, no less than any great works of literature, it is important to seek passages, sentences and words that provide a key to the author’s aims and intentions. There will always be debate about the keys and about interpretation, but that is precisely where understanding grows, in the dialogue between perspectives. It has been so since John put down his quill, and all the more so since, thank God, his creative masterpiece of Jesus-story-telling entered the canon of Christian scripture a century or so later. It cannot be emphasized too much that the verses 39-42 provide a critical key by which to understand this moment in the life of Jesus.
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
More than anything else, this is a story about belief. It is a commonplace in Johannine interpretation to note that all that will be of importance in the fourth gospel is foreshadowed in the Prologue, the opening verses of chapter one: one scholar, Simon Ross Valentine, neatly observes ‘the Prologue is nothing less than the theological matrix from which the themes of the gospel arise’ [Simon Ross Valentine, “The Johannine Prologue – a Microcosm of the Gospel” (Evangelical Quarterly, 68:3, 1996, 291-304), 292]. Remember the resounding words, He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him? Here, by contrast, Jesus comes to those who are not, in ethnic terms, his own, and they do believe him. We are meant to hear the contrast, meant to observe above all that this is a litmus test of our own response to Jesus: belief, or unbelief? This is, paradoxically, about us.
The believers, those who believe, are in this passage the outsiders. The themes of outsider and insider run throughout the scriptures of our faith, often with a complex, porous ambiguity. Like an Escher sketching (or a Hogwarts stairwell!) in which up-side becomes down-side, the biblical outsider often becomes the insider, and, perhaps of even greater concern, the insider becomes outsider. Perhaps we are warned that we should not be afraid when we see greater faith and Christlikeness in those outsider the boundaries of the faith community than we do from those within. The Spirit of God goes always before, ahead and around us, and here appears to be at work in the life of the Samaritan woman long before the followers of Jesus were willing to be so progressive (if ever they have).
In this scene, as always in John, there are key words floating around, appropriate to the characters’ lives, but appropriate too to ours. There is much about water, living or otherwise, that clearly signifies something more than merely a means of rehydration, as the woman first interprets it. We will find later in the gospel that water, signifying it seems new life, flows from then side of the crucified messiah, and that waters of rebirth are a key motif: there are some 20 references to water in John’s gospel-account, and half or more of these appear to represent something far more eternal than mere H20. There are suggestions of immorality – though a deeper scratch may suggest that this woman’s five husbands may have far more to do with Samaria’s relationship with what were known at the time as the ‘five idolatrous peoples of the East’ of 2 Kings 17 than to any individual serial monogamy, despite the later lifer-choices of Elizabeth Taylor! There is language about reaping and sowing, language about hospitality and rejection, all of which has clear implications for our own applications of this scene to our individual lives.
There is above all language about Jesus venturing into unexpected and unclean places – and finding belief there. We often tend to expect to find God within the comfortable armchair zones of society and faith, rather than in the exposed, risky and unpleasant places. Would we find God in a brothel, or does God belong only in nature walks and churches? The witness of both New and Old Testament is clear: God will escape our comfort zones, as God-in-Christ here clearly demonstrates. But this is not merely about comfort zones: this is about hatred zones. Here it is as though a Benghazi Gaddafi-opponent were chin-wagging with a Tripoli Gaddafi-loyalist. This is the stuff of God at deep risk, a risky edginess that continued on into the life of the Christian community, for it is almost certain that this story is told to both Jewish and Samaritan, as well as gentile Christian members of John’s faith-community.
For ultimately this is a story about belief that transcends of hatred and the healing of hurts. This is the story of belief that transcends ethnic barriers, gender barriers, even creedal barriers, and all those artificial barriers that forget that we are one and all created in the image of the Creator. This is not a story about a wimpish anything goes love-in, a hippie commune or Helen Steiner Rice lovefest of meaningless platitudes, ignoring destructive behaviour and letting it ride on unabated. This is the story of a socially challenging God and openness to God that transcends deep-seated human hatreds. This is a story that challenges us not to plastic platitudes but to transcendent culture-changing belief. Does our belief transcend prejudice?