Saturday, February 22, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 8)

Returning to the well in Samaria and to the unusual event there recorded, Jesus can be heard speaking to the aforementioned Samaritan woman and saying “Give me some water to drink” (John 4:7b).  The startling impact that this would have had upon the Samaritan woman should not be underestimated.  It is likely that she would have been completely taken aback by the fact of this Jewish man speaking to her. 

Unless an audience was familiar with the story of Jesus, and presumably John is initially composed and performed for a community or communities that were familiar with the Jesus story, this could be a bit surprising to a listener, especially if the one hearing or ready the story was from one of the Jewish communities of the diaspora.  Of course, the author provides a clue that this Gospel is composed for a mixed audience, as the author is compelled to include the fact that “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (4:9c), which comes on the heels of this woman, startled by the very fact of speaking and the request that it contained, says “How can you---a Jew---ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink” (4:9b).      

Jesus, undeterred by the violation of cultural norms which are also put on display with the report of His disciples’ return and the fact 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---which has great significance in and of itself, as a rabbinic debate would only take place among and between social equals (perhaps not equal in level of honor, but equal in that both sides were able to engage in the social honor competition, which was inaccessible for women in that day).  Of course, things like this simply do not happen.  In that day, women were not considered at all worthy to be involved in such things (honor competition or rabbinic debate), but here, Jesus elevates this woman to the status of social equal. 

The encounter begins with a request for water, and then moves to a conclusion in which Jesus utters words that would appear to be confirmation of His messianic status, with this following what should be recognized as 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 one misses seeing the forest because of the time spent looking at all of the trees.   

With the conversation and its content, not only is Jesus doing cross-cultural ministry, but it must be reiterated that Jesus is elevating this woman.  In this conversation, which is reported by the author of John for in obvious accord with his narrative and wider purpose, Jesus flattens out the social dynamics.  This should prompt a reflection 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. 

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