Jesus, undeterred by the violation of cultural norms, which are also put on display when His disciples return and we find that they were “shocked because He was speaking with a woman” (4:27b), engages in a rather in depth conversation with the Samaritan woman. Not only is he speaking with a woman, and not only is He speaking with a Samaritan woman, but He is effectively engaging in a conversation that takes the shape of a rabbinic debate. Of course, this simply does not happen. In that day, women were not considered at all worthy to be involved in such things. The encounter begins with a request for water, and then moves to a conclusion in which Jesus utters words in confirmation of His messianic status, with this following a fascinating give and take.
Most often, the focus of the story becomes the content of the conversation---the questions of the woman, the responses from Jesus, her responses to His words, and the woman’s present marital status. These are legitimate things on which to focus, but they can also create a situation in which we miss seeing the forest because we are looking at all of the trees. With the conversation and its content, not only is Jesus doing cross-cultural ministry, but Jesus is also elevating this woman---flattening out the social dynamics. This causes us to reflect on the developed and developing theological tradition within the church that operated on the basis that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Is this not love at work? Is this not an advance illustration, at least as far as the presentation of the narrative is concerned, of the power of the Gospel.
What follows from Jesus’ declaration of His status as Messiah? The woman returns to her town, saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely He can’t be the Messiah, can He?” (4:29). In response to this, the author reports that “they left the town and began coming to Him” (4:30). Effectively then, this woman becomes the first evangelist. We cannot underestimate how odd it would have been for John’s hearers to learn that “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the report of the woman who testified” (4:39a), especially if we consider that a woman’s testimony was considered to be worthless. We also cannot underestimate how significant it is that a group of Samaritans, at the instigation of a woman with what would have been a rather disreputable standing in the community (on top of the fact that she was a lowly woman) are apparently the first to believe Jesus en masse. This tells us something about the Johannine community, and does so on multiple levels. On one level, it points to the sensitive issue of Gentile inclusion in the church, answering those that may have wanted to reserve the message of the Gospel to Jews alone. On another level, it indicates that there may have been those who believed that women were not to have a prominent role within the church, and serves to silence those that gave voice to such unwarranted opinions. On a third level, it informs us that women were most likely already in prominent roles---including non-Jewish women, with the story serving to underscore the legitimacy of their status.
Now, one may think that this is reading too much into a single instance, but this fits quite well with what is to be found at the end of this Gospel, when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb. She “saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance” (20:1b), and “went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (20:2a), who was the un-named author of this Gospel, with a report that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb. With this, a woman becomes the first witness to an empty tomb. Then, after Peter and the other disciple left, “Mary stood outside the tomb weeping” (20:11a). She went inside the tomb, is reported to have a conversation with “two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying” (20:12b), which is something of an echo of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and then is said to “have turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14b). So a woman who becomes the very first person to see the resurrected Jesus. This parallels the fact that, according to this same Gospel’s witness, that a woman (and a hated Samaritan woman at that) was the first person to hear an explicit declaration from Jesus that He was, in fact, the Messiah, while subsequently becoming the first successful evangelist.
Not only does Mary become the first to see Jesus, but she speaks with Him and is instructed to “Go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” (20:17b) So “Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them what Jesus had said to her” (20:18). Interestingly, there seems to be an indication that Jesus’ own disciples did not necessarily believe Mary’s report, whereas the Samaritans believed the report of the woman. This also gives witness to the nature of the spread of the Gospel and of the church in the days of the composition of this Gospel narrative. Taken together, these two instances provide a context that pushes us into a deeper understanding of what “love” means for this author, for his community, and for the church.