Wednesday, September 12, 2007

John 4

John 4:1-42: This is a long and lovely story. “Jesus encounters a woman, a foreigner, of questionable reputation, who becomes a hesitant but effective witness, resulting in the conversion of many Samaritans. There is an obvious contrast with the preceding narrative featuring the male rabbinic teacher of Israel who never understands.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As with Luke, unlikely Samaritans are portrayed as people who come to faith, who join the transformational spiritual journey with Jesus. John Sanford asserts that both the Nicodemus story and this one demonstrate that “the capacity for symbolic thinking enables us to be born again through the waters of transformation” (Mystical Christianity, 107). There is a lot going on in this story and as we explore its depths and dimensions, there is much to be learned for our own spiritual journeys. As noted before, Samaritans were not highly regarded by the Jews of Jesus day. While they worshipped the same God, the Samaritans were considered of mixed race, having been conquered by Assyria with resulting intermarriage. Furthermore, they worshipped the God of Israel in various places in Samaria, eschewing Temple worship in Jerusalem. That Jesus speaks to this Samaritan woman in the first place is amazing – another indication that the way of Jesus is the way of reaching across and breaking down social barriers. The interchange between Jesus and the woman is full of word association and word play. The word for “living water” is related to the word for “life” used in the first chapter – the Word brings life. There is also an interesting contrast between the way each talks about the source of their water. The woman in talking about the deep well uses the Greek word for a human constructed well. Though it may be very deep, all such wells ran out over time. Jesus speaks of a spring of water, using a Greek word that refers to a naturally occurring, renewing stream – a seemingly inexhaustible source. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the symbol of living water had been used of God. To receive Jesus as a source of power from God is to open oneself to living water, to God coming within and changing one’s life so that it is eternal life. The woman’s story comes out in the course of her conversation with Jesus, and for John it is important to assert that Jesus sees into the human heart. But Jesus does not shun or judge this woman – he tries to help her come to faith, to take the next step in her spiritual journey. But as often happens in our own lives, when something uncomfortable comes to light, we change the subject. The woman asks Jesus a religious question about the difference between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus does not fall into the trap, or rather expands the question. The question is not “where” but “how.” God is looking for people who worship “in spirit and truth.” “The implication is that one can worship God only in an inner spirit of moral integrity, genuineness of character, and self-perception” (Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 116). Maybe what is being said is that this kind of life is itself worship of God, and that our gathering for worship services is meant to be in service of forming this kind of life. An early Christian named Irenaeus once wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To worship is to glorify God, and glorifying God seems to have something to do with moral integrity, genuineness of character, self-perception, with living fully, with having springs of living water gush forth from within. This again seems too much for the woman, who wants now to talk about the coming Christ. But the Christ is present in Jesus! This is the first of many occasions where Jesus will identify himself with an “I am” statement. There are echoes of the Exodus story where God speaks to Moses, identifying Godself as “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In John’s gospel, Jesus is the one in whom God is being made known. In John’s gospel as well, Jesus will find a number of ways to finish “I am… - - - bread, light, shepherd, sheep gate, resurrection and life, way-truth-life, true vine. “These nouns are common symbols from religious and human experience, and the ‘I Am’ identifies Jesus as the one who meets basic needs and desires” (New Interpreters Study Bible). God in the remarkable and in the ordinary! The conversation is ended by the arrival of the disciples who are taken aback that Jesus is talking to this woman. The conversation has made a deep impression on the woman who goes and tells others (again, sharing good news about what is happening in one’s life, sharing one’s story is what “evangelism is all about). There is an interlude, the disciples encourage Jesus to eat. He takes their very literal encouragement and turns it into an opportunity to speak symbolically – he has bread, the bread of living the life God calls him to live. One is reminded of the temptation scene in the other gospels where Jesus asserts that humans don’t live by bread alone. Verse 38 suggests that the disciples will continue the work Jesus began. Back to the Samaritan woman – her sowing is beginning to reap a harvest, as many come to believe because of her words. But others have come to Jesus and experienced him first hand. We tell our story in hopes that others will be curious enough, interested enough to check out Jesus for themselves.

John 4:43-54: Jesus returns to his home region in Galilee. Though there may have been some initial skepticism, that seems to have changed. While in Cana, a royal official approaches Jesus, asking Jesus to heal his son. Jesus seems to disparage him a bit, putting down his quest for signs and wonders, but the man’s response is one of genuine concern for his child, not a seeking after some other kind of sign. John’s gospel seems to contain some ambivalence towards signs – they can invite faith, but faith needs to go deeper than this. Jesus tells him his son will live, and it turns out to be true. There is a sign, and the official who witnessed it comes to believe. Jesus is shown to be one who gives life, and one receives this life through faith. In the Fourth Gospel especially, faith is not hostile to knowledge but is an adjunct to it. Faith, as the early Christians understood it, had nothing to do with making oneself believe in things that could not be understood or blindly assenting to doctrinal formulations one could not understand…. In the biblical view, faith is not a category of the intellect but of the soul. The mind needs to know so it does not live in darkness, the soul needs faith or it loses its strength and will to live, and mind and soul need each other and the gifts of knowledge and faith that they bring to one another. [Faith] is an action from the soul that enables a person to place her trust in a living reality; [it is] a quality of the soul that springs from the soul and is nourished in the soul by the object of faith (Mystical Christianity, 124, 125). I cite this rather long passage to help us see that faith, which is often translated by the words “to believe” is much more than we usually mean when we talk about belief. Healing, wholeness, well-being, living waters, eternal life come through faith in Jesus as the Christ, in trusting that in Christ God really was and is at work doing something unique (this is not to say that God acts only in Jesus). We open ourselves in faith. We trust. Our lives are changed, and as our lives are changed we in turn work to change the world by bringing the life, love and compassion of Jesus to others – both in sharing good news and in acts that are themselves healing for others.

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