By Fr. Randy Flores, SVD (Reflection on the Gospel Reading (John 4) for the Third Sunday of Lent)
“When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, at first, she completely misunderstood what Jesus was really asking. What he was offering was the gift of his very self for he is the spring of water welling up to eternal life. In this time of uncertainty and trial, we come to Jesus, the Living Water Himself. He quenches our thirst and allays our fears. In Him we find confidence to come together and face the challenges that the COVID-19 brings.”
This is opening line statement of the Pastoral Letter of our Bishop Nes Ongtioco (Diocese of Cubao) on the COVID-19. It warms our hearts, all of us who are anxious of what this threat might lead us. The final words of the Samaritans in the Gospel comfort us all the more in these troubling times: Jesus–”this is truly the Savior of the World!”
Let me share in this reflection the explanation that Fr. Jean Louis Ska, SJ (my former professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome) wrote more than two decades ago about this Gospel Reading (published in Landas 13 , pp. 81-94).
1. Notice the radical shift of scenes and themes in the narrative:v.
14: Jesus comes to offer the Samaritan woman “spring of water welling up to eternal life.
v. 15: She accepts it saying: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw water.”
vv. 16-18: the discussion shifts: Jesus asks about the woman’s husband.
vv. 19-26: the discussion again shifts. The woman and Jesus tackle a theological question debated between the Jews and the Samaritans: which is the legitimate temple, that of Jerusalem in Judea, or that of Gerizim in Samaria (4:20)?
v. 27: the scene shifts: the disciples return with the food they have bought, they are surprise to see Jesus alone talking with a woman, yet they do not say anything.
v. 28: the scene again shifts: the woman leaves. She also leaves her jar and goes and announces to the town about Jesus.
v. 29: meanwhile (or at the same time as this scene is being presented), a new scene and set of discussion is happening between Jesus and his disciples: about food, sowing, and harvest.
2. The shifts may be due to the following:· the apparent incoherence of this narrative is so because it is the work of different redactors (editors).
· The thread is Jesus, the central character of the scene and the only one who is present from beginning to end. The chapter is a gradual revelation (i.e., progression of confirmation) of Jesus:
–The Samaritan woman sees Jesus as a Jew(4:9);–then she wonders and asks if he could be greater than Jacob (4:12)–soon afterward she calls him a prophet (4:19)
–Jesus reveals to her that she is the Messiah(4:26)–and the Samaritan woman invites the villagers to come and see if indeed he is (4:30).
–the chapter ends with this declaration by the inhabitants of Sychar to the Samaritan woman: “We have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (4:42).
3. We can also understand better the narrative by using the Old Testament to shed light on the seemingly illogical shifts of scenes:
“It was about the sixth hour” (4:6b)
The narrative begins with a journey. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee and is passing through Samaria. He finds himself in a foreign land. Tired, he sits down near a well (4:6). The encounter by the well is a favorite scene in OT connected to courtship and marriage. In Gen 24, Abraham sent a servant to look for a wife for Isaac whom he found at the well; the encounter of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:1-14); the flight of Moses to the country of Midian and his meeting with the seven daughters of the priest of Reuel (Ex 2:15-22). The sequence of events in the narratives has this schema (“meeting near the well”):
1) Journey through a foreign land of man who ends up near a well.
2) One or more women came in the late afternoon (evening) to the well to draw water.
3) Conversation begins.
4) Either the man asks for water to the heard entrusted to the young woman or women.
5) Then the young woman runs home, tells how she has met a man near the well,
6) The man receives an invitation from the parents of the young woman, who generally offer him a meal.
7) Finally the story ends with a marriage (cf. Isaac and Rebecca in Gen 24; Jacob and Rachel (and Leah) in Gen 29, Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2). The woman who came to the well is the future wife.
In John 4, the scene on Jesus and the Samaritan woman has similarities. But notice that the conclusion is different. The scene does not end with the usual marriage. The readers familiar with the Old Testament expect that this scene should end with Jesus marrying the Samaritan woman, but he does not.
The Fourth Evangelist actually gives us a hint that this scene should not conclude with marriage. At the beginning the evangelist John writes, “It was about the sixth hour” (John 4:6), that is “noon.” It is being made clear that at this hour nobody comes to draw water from the well. Gen 24:11 says clearly that Abraham’s servant arrived at the well “at evening time, when women go out to draw water” (or literally, “when those women who draw water go out”). The strange hour indicates that the Samaritan woman goes to the well but does not have the intention to find a husband; or Jesus who sits near the well on that strange hour is looking for a wife. The woman was avoiding encountering other people because she is keeping something secret which we will know later as the conversation unfolds.
“Give me a drink” (4:7)
This request of water signifies an attempt to know the intentions of the other person. The offer of water to the one requesting signifies welcome (see Gen 24:17; 1 Kings 17:10-16).
But notice that the Samaritan woman refuses to give water. In Genesis 24, giving water signifies becoming involved in something that can lead to marriage.
In turn, Jesus offers water, “running water”. In offering water, Jesus acts like Jacob and Moses who, in the versions of Genesis 29 and Exodus 2, give water to the herds of the future wives. In this case, it is the future husband who gives water.
Here we should cite the case of the unfaithful spouse in Hos 2:2-23. In the course of his plea to her the husband, who is God, cites the words of his wife: “For she said: ‘I will go after my lovers who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink’” (2:5). In this text, the unfaithful wife wrongly believes that she receives those gifts from her lovers when they really come from God (2:8). “Giving water” suggests the revelation of the future husband or the real husband. It can also be added that the lovers whom the prophet Hosea talks about are the “Baals”—Hebrew word which means “master”, “husband”—one of whose principal roles in the Canaanite religion to procure fertility for the land by granting rainfall. Water, husband, Baal, lover, fertility, unfaithful spouse: this constellation of themes in Hosea 2 is all found also in John 4.
“Go, call your husband and come here” (4:16)
We are not surprised anymore that the scene shifts to “husband” since from the beginning marriage has been part of the background of the meeting near the well. In accepting the “living water,” the Samaritan woman also accepts that the tone of conversation changes to marriage. The woman is asked to call her husband. The evangelist notes that the woman has had five husbands and that she is living with a sixth man to whom she is not married.
Six. The woman has known six women, and the narrative also talks about the sixth hour, and there were six stone jars at the wedding at Cana (John 2:6). The number six in Hebrew is an imperfect number (the beast 666 in Rev 13:18). The perfect and sacred number is seven. In a series of seven, the seventh element is always different from the sixth. Thus, it is the seventh day of the week which God himself sanctified (Gen 2:1-3). In this case, could a seventh husband be in the waiting? Perhaps, the seventh cannot be like the other six, he must be the only true husband.
“Where people ought to worship” (4:20-24)
The shift from the question about the husband to that of the true place of worship is just as abrupt as that between the conversation about the living water and the conversation about the husband. The “missing link” of this sudden shift can be found again in Hosea 2. The Samaritan woman with many husbands has many traits in common with the unfaithful spouse in this chapter in Hosea. Moreover, note that the setting is the same for both, Samaria (4:4). From false husbands to false gods, the relation is easy to connect relation. It follows from this that the question about the “true” religion and the worship of the “true God” is the same as the question about the “true husband,” for the Samaritans as well as for the Jews.
After this the disciples arrive. “The woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people: “Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’” (4:28-29). Why did the woman leave her jar? Didn’t she come to draw water from the well? The fact is that her hurried departure corresponds to the schema of the OT narratives mentioned earlier: the future wife runs to her parents’ house to announce that she encountered a man near the well (Gen 24:28; 29:12b; cf. Ex 2:18). Here the Samaritan woman goes to the inhabitants of her village. Hadn’t she come to draw water from the well at noon in order to avoid hearing them say what Jesus had just revealed to her, something she now admits without embarrassment? The Samaritan woman has been changed and this kind attitude from her part is the best proof of the fact. The people of the city are intrigued by the words of the woman, so they come to see Jesus (4:30).“
The fields are already white for the harvest”(4:35)
While the people are arriving from Sychar, Jesus is having conversation with his disciples. The problem we have once more is to connect this conversation of Jesus and his disciples about food, sowing and harvest, with what precedes it. Note that the in the scenes in the Old Testament of meeting near a well, the man is invited to a meal (Gen 24:33; Ex 2:20).
Then the conversation shifts to the harvest. Again, we see the unity of the entire narrative when we use the Old Testament to interpret it, particularly we resort to Hosea 2. At the end of this oracle God announces that he is going to seduce his unfaithful spouse so that she will return to him, and the text describes the fruits of this conversion: God gives her fertility, wheat, new wine, and fresh oil (Hos 2:14-23, spec. 2:22). The country which had been transformed into a desert shall become fertile once again (2:3 and 2:15).
So, the shift of conversation to harvest is understandable. Jesus cites a proverb: “Do you not say, “There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for the harvest” (4:35).
In Israel the harvest begins in April-May. Four months earlier is the month of December, the height of winter. By this time slowing comes to an end. The normal gap between sowing-time and harvest-time is about four months. On the other hand, Jesus is talking of a harvest that is already ripe even if it immediately follows sowing. What harvest is he talking about? It cannot be anything other than the coming to him, while he is talking with his disciples, of the Samaritans in order to find out if he is the message. The two scenes unfold simultaneously, and this is in order to show how the Samaritans coming to Jesus represent the “harvest” of Samaria who re-discovers her true husband and her fertility. The return to the true husband is symbolized by the image of a land which yields an abundant harvest.
At the start the narrative portrays a woman with a tortured life who, little by little, comes to represent her people and her land. That is why, at this stage, the narrative does not say exactly that the woman has re-discovered her husband. It is the Samaritans who come to look for Jesus and it is they who play the most important role in the end. In fact, they pick up and relay the baton from the woman, because now they are playing the role of the future wife in the narratives of the meaning near the well. There is thus an interchange of roles. The Samaritan woman now becomes the “sower” of the word of which she is a witness (4:3). The disciples reap what the Samaritan woman sowed.
The different levels are linked together and superimposed one upon the other, but the main line of the narrative remains sufficiently clear for one who can understand the allusions that are made to the Old Texts. Afterwards, as in the other narratives of a meeting near a well, Jesus is invited to stay in the house of his hosts (“and he stayed there two days”). In this way we return to the traditional schema. This narrative is different, in that it lacks the last element, that of the marriage. Instead the narrative concludes with a profession of faith: “We know that he is truly the savior of the world” (4:42).
John 4 uses the Old Testament motif of an encounter of future spouses near the well. On the other hand, the narrative repeatedly draws on Hosea 2, the story of an unfaithful wife. Where do we situate the Samaritan woman? — with the unfaithful wife, of course. The problem for her is certainly not to find a husband, but rather to put order into her life. She must find her one true husband, just as Samaria ought to find or rediscover her one true God. In this case we cannot have a marriage where there has already been one for a long time between God and his Samaritan people. Jesus comes to restore this marriage, this broken alliance, and the Samaritans are the first ones to reveal the unsuspected depths of this salvation which now extends to the whole universe (4:42; cf. 4:21-26).