New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #5

scriptures-resurrection-758817-printSo here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

The Question: Read Genesis 24:11–51, 29:1–14, and Exodus 2:15–22. What would one of the early readers of John’s Gospel have expected to happen at a well? As you read the story of the Samaritan woman, look for ways in which this expectation is (symbolically) fulfilled and denied in this story. Why is the element of the meal missing (but see verse 34)?

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

Imagine that you are channel surfing and come across this: a nervous-looking teen boy parks his car at a suburban curb, checks the tilt of his bow tie (he’s wearing a tux) in the rearview mirror, and, carrying a corsage, walks to the door and rings the bell. The door is answered by a gruff-looking middle-aged man and–

You can already tell what scene this is, right? It’s prom night, obviously! This is a type scene for late 20th/early 21st century middle-class Americans, and so you know exactly what will happen next: a teen girl in a fancy dress will come down the stairs, the mom will take pictures (perhaps with a tear in her eye), etc. But to anyone unfamiliar with the customs of modern American high schools, the type scene is lost. There’s no pattern to recognize.

Well, the same thing happens with John 4. When Jesus is at a well and a woman comes to draw water, the first audiences knew exactly what was going on: this is the singles bar (er, sorry for offending your Mormon sensibilities–I probably should have said the singles dance) of the biblical world. It would be obvious to them that Jesus would soon marry this woman.

But that is not what happens. (And I’m not suggesting for one minute that it did.) Instead, we find out that this woman has a pretty sketchy marital history (eek–what a woman to be the bride of Jesus!) and that Jesus, instead of proposing marriage, instead engages (ha! didn’t even realize what I did there until I reread it later!) her in a theological debate. What happened to our type scene?!?

Well, Jesus is what happened. He doesn’t play by the established rules. (In what ways has Jesus interfered with your expected type scenes? I think Adam Miller has a lot to say about this.) And I think the way that John tells this story toys with us a little–he sets it up so that we will expect the betrothal scene and then pulls the rug out from under us in the most dramatic way possible. (I think the disciples’ questions in v27 reflect this.)

It may be to pick up on the image frequent in the Bible of the covenant between God and humans as symbolized by the marriage metaphor. Thus, the Samaritan woman does “marry” Jesus in the same way that Israel has “married” God, by knowing who he is and being willing to recognize him (an LDS reader would add: through covenants, although this is not explicit in John). And, given that in virtually any ancient society, marriage is more “the joining of two families” than it is “all because two people fell in love,” the story shows the “family” of Israel (symbolized by Jesus) wed to the “family” of the Samaritans (symbolized by the woman), healing an ancient and bitter (on both sides) rift. We might conclude that one facet of Jesus’ ministry is healing the enmity between rival factions.

Of course, this is hugely shocking since she is not a Jew, but rather one of the hated Samaritans. There’s an important point here about violating expectations and welcoming everyone–everyone–to the table.

Maybe the story plays out this way to challenge notions of appropriate roles for women: they aren’t just for marrying anymore! You can have real theological discussions with them, and even send them out on missions (v28-29, 39).

The upshot of all of this is that the Samaritans come to know that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. That’s something to celebrate, just like a marriage.

16 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #5

  1. Thanks Judy. Also, I think, relevant is the notion that she is the very first to hear a Messianic testimony – Jonh being the only gospel writer to start from and mention at all that Messianic assumption. But I especially like his referral to ‘their’ own holy place, the Gerizim temple. All through the later part of the Old Testament the bible authors tried to eliminate all other holy places in Israel, i.e. other than Jeruzalem. Theirs is a conspiracy of silence on anything other than Jeruzalem. And here comes Jesus who indirectly acknowledges and recognizes Gerizim as a valid temple. Our own religion is always much larger than we tend to think.

  2. In addition to the silence about the temple at Gerizim, there is utter silence about the temple in Egypt at this time. C.T.R. Hayward talks about both of these temples in his “The Jewish Temple: A Non-Biblical Sourcebook”.

    Another thing that struck me was that even though this woman is a Samaritan, she must have been of the house of Israel, (one of those who got left at the Exile). I assume this because Jesus engages her without the clarifications of his other dealings with non-Jewish believers.

  3. Terry, Samaritans considered themselves members of the House of Israel through Ephraim, Manasseh, or Levi. It was Jews who claimed otherwise. The Samaritan religion was basically a variation of Judaism, so Christ wouldn’t have needed to speak with her the same way he spoke to gentiles. That’s why Julie mentions the view of two warring factions from the same family being brought back together.

  4. Indeed, Mary Ann. the Samaritans ARE of the House of Israël, and the division between Jews and Samaritans is the sorry result of the fundamentalism of Ezra and his inheritors. His breaking up of all those marriages in the Book of Ezra and Nehemia, is one of the shocking events in the Old Testament. I can interpret it as a religious strategy but never acknowledge it as inspiration. I salute Ezra as one who compiled and edited the scriptures, but never this marital fundamentalism of his.

  5. Mary Ann and Walter. I don’t think Jesus completely dealt with Gentiles the way he did simply because of a “variation” of Judaism. His mission was specifically to the House of Israel and I’d always heard that at least some of the Samaritans were imported from other areas by the conquerors. I have Gary N. Knoppers’ Samaritans & Jews from 2013 but haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

  6. Terry, yes, the Assyrians imported other groups to the northern region when they conquered it in 722 BC. There was almost 200 years of intermingling between those imported groups with the remnant left behind from the Northern Kingdom before the conflict started between the Samaritans and the Jews. Members of the House of Israel living in what remained of the Northern kingdom are mentioned several times in the Bible during the century leading up to the Babylonian captivity. As Walter said above, it wasn’t until after the captivity that the returning Jews declared the northern inhabitants unfit to be considered members of the House of Israel. The feud that resulted from that decision was intense and led to the conditions in the New Testament.

  7. I have always loved the way that this woman wasn’t afraid to present herself honestly, yet with genuine humility. There is something rather touching in the way that Jesus relates to her, as well, like he can’t bring himself to be overly stern with her, though some aspects of her life obviously are in need of correction.

  8. While I realize that some hookups went on around the watering well sometimes, there’s no way it was ever equated to a singles bar. It’s more like a gas station.
    Still it is interesting to take all ‘well’ scenes in the Bible and compare and contrast them.
    Thanks for the post.

  9. These NT gospel lessons are stellar! Truly insightful stuff here. Thanks as always, Julie.. and keep them coming please. I usually am unable to attend Gospel Doctrine these days, but your posts are great fodder for discussion at home as we read through the gospels as a family.

  10. This is cool. I’d love to have more background on this social more–is that in your book that I already want to buy? =)

  11. Cameron N., I don’t say a whole lot more than I do here . . . just so, so many topics to cover!

  12. Unfortunately, none of this actually came up in Sunday School, and not wishing to derail a well-prepared instructor, I let it be. But it was an awesome FHE for my adult and nearly-adult children! Thanks.

    FHE is so much more fun now than it was when they were small. :)

Comments are closed.