Commentary on John 7:37-52
There is simply no getting around it: this is a very challenging passage on several fronts.
First, it reveals John’s Gospel as, in many ways, a defensive document. If biblical scholars are right, the author of the Fourth Gospel likely wrote this story of Jesus to bolster the confidence of a community of Jewish Christians that had been expelled from the synagogue. (Indeed, next week’s reading offers something of the community’s history in miniature, where those who confess Jesus risk expulsion.)
In this seventh chapter, we sense the conflict rising between Jesus and his opponents. The debate, which turns on things that may seem ridiculous to us — Jesus’ hometown, for starters — was likely a topic of serious contention between those Jews who rejected Jesus (along with those who followed him) and those who believed he was God’s Messiah. Essentially, the tug-of-war between these two sides boils down to who interpreted Scripture correctly, and the author of this Gospel is defending Jesus against charges that he could not have been the Messiah.
Second, John’s Gospel has been used throughout the centuries to justify anti-Semitism. Because those who followed Jesus and those who opposed him are all Jewish, it is something of a historical anachronism to call the whole of the Gospel anti-Jewish (let alone anti-Semitic), and yet if we deny how it has served those who have despised and persecuted the children of Israel we are indulging in a dangerous kind of denial.
For instance, the repeated reports in this chapter and the next (though not in this particular passage) that Jesus’ opponents were out to kill him has led too many Christians over the years to label Jews “Christ-killers.” For this reason, anytime we tread anywhere near such passages we need to exercise great care.
Finally, this is one of the narrative lections that, while perhaps helpful in connecting previous sections with later ones, has no keen theological edge waiting for us to exploit. What then, might we say?
Three possibilities present themselves. First, it is helpful to remember that the division we sense behind the scenes of John’s account is occasioned by a sibling rivalry — a community once joined in their synagogue worship is later divided by differences over whether Jesus is the messiah. As is often the case, sibling rivalries and familial conflicts can be quite painful, and so it is here. Religion still divides families.
A generation or two ago it may have been the prospect of a Protestant marrying a Roman Catholic. Today, perhaps it is a Christian marrying a Jew or Buddhist or, more likely, marrying someone who professes no faith at all. When we struggle with our emotions regarding such unions, we may take some comfort in the fact that such conflict is not new, while we also strive to avoid characterizing those who differ from us in the stark terms of the Fourth Evangelist. (It is helpful to keep in mind that when John’s Gospel was written, Christians likely were the minority and felt themselves to be oppressed. Everything changes when Christians come into power and feel justified to persecute those who once opposed them.)
Second, whether the characterization of Jesus’ opponents is historically accurate or fair, there is no question that the scenario of rushing to judgment is still commonplace. The great mistake of the characters in this story who oppose Jesus is that they will entertain no counter-evidence.
Having convinced themselves that Jesus is their opponent, they curse the crowds who believe in him, ridicule the police who are impressed by him, and intimidate Nicodemus who speaks up for him. Are we not also tempted to brook no arguments that do not support our hopes or biases? How might we, as a community, become a place where we reserve judgment, make space for dialogue, and welcome those who are different from us?
Third, the great issue in John’s Gospel is belief. To believe in Jesus is to be made a child of God and heir to grace (see chapter 1). To not believe in Jesus is to sin (a theme that will be more pronounced in next week’s reading). Belief in Jesus, in this account — and understandably given the history of John’s community — is everything. But notice that when Jesus speaks in this chapter he does not hold faith up as either the criteria for inclusion or standard of judgment.
Rather, he invites all who are thirsty to come and drink from the living water that is the Spirit who will guide Jesus’ disciples into faith and all truth. Belief, as it turns out, is a gift. The Spirit, as Jesus said in the last scene featuring Nicodemus (chapter 3), blows where it will. Hence, when we meet persons who believe differently than we, or profess not to believe at all, perhaps the most fitting response is to welcome them as children of God anyway, praying to, and trusting in, the Spirit of Christ who grants faith in a way that is beyond our comprehension.
Yes, this is a challenging passage. But perhaps it is also a passage that can serve as an example — both negative and positive — for those of us who also live during a time of religious rivalry and the clash between faith and disbelief.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy and loving God,
Your son proclaimed living water to all who are thirsty. We are thirsty, Lord. Quench our thirst with your living water and heal our souls. Amen.
Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult ELW 696, H82 549, 550, UMH 398, NCH 171, 172
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me UMH 393, NCH 283
As the deer runs to the river ELW 331
Wade in the water, Moses Hogan