Commentary on John 4:5-42
The second and third Sundays in Lent juxtapose two characters unique to the Gospel of John.
Last week, we were introduced to Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night and lasts all of nine verses in his conversation with Jesus before fading into the night from whence he came. This week narrates another character’s encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well. The contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman is striking. Given the fact that they appear one right after the other in the Gospel, we are meant to notice this contrast in all of its detail. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an insider, a leader of the Jews. He is a man, he has a name, but he comes to Jesus by night. The character to whom we are introduced in this week’s text is a Samaritan, a religious and political outsider. She is a woman, she has no name, but she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight. And the contrast between their conversations with Jesus is even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectations and engages Jesus in theological debate (4:20). Whereas Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God (3:17), the woman at the well hears the actual name of God, “I AM” (4:26–“he” in the NRSV is not in the Greek text). While Nicodemus’s last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, “How can this be?” the last words of the woman at the well, also posed as a question, “He cannot be the Christ, can he?” lead her to witness to her whole town.
The more salient disparity between Nicodemus and the woman at the well frequently directs our preaching of John 4:5-42 toward reducing Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman to that which exemplifies Jesus for the outsiders. “See, Jesus did not come for the important people of the world, like Nicodemus, but for the no-names, the down-trodden,” and, as some older commentaries misinterpreted the Samaritan woman, “the five-time losers.” But then we have to wonder, could this meeting at the well really be about us, for us? If we are honest, do we truly think of ourselves as outsiders? Are we really the marginalized of society, those who are easily cast aside, those about whom others might say, “why is he talking to her?” (4:27) Perhaps the extraordinary aspect of this text is not simply that Jesus is for her, but that she becomes a witness for him.
The Samaritan woman at the well is not a passive recipient of Jesus’ offer. She immediately recognizes the societal barriers and boundaries that keep her in her place (4:9) but at the same time challenges Jesus’ authority over and against the ancestors of the faith (4:12). Like Nicodemus, she first interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, but she is able to ask for what Jesus has to offer rather than question the possibility (4:15). She is not certain that Jesus is the Christ (4:29–the syntax of the Greek expects a negative answer), but she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus. She demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith. The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about growth and change. It is not about having all the answers. If we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our doctrinal constructs, if we believe more in our own convictions that the possibility of revelation, we will be left to ponder whether or not God will choose to be made known. We will have to wonder when and if we will finally feel confident enough, secure enough, and knowledgeable enough, to invite others to “come and see.” We will be forced to admit how many times we have overlooked opportunities for giving testimony about the Savior of the world, satisfied that “Jesus is for me.” The Samaritan woman at the well is an example for us, not as one who claims “Jesus is for me, too,” but as one whose labor helps bring in the harvest (4:34-38). She responds to Jesus in such a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her, and in doing so, her own identity evolves. We learn from the Samaritan woman that in our own encounter with Jesus, not only are we changed, but that which God will reveal to us will change as well.