from my book A Life Lived & Laid Down for Friends: A Progressive Christology (Wipf & Stock, 2019)
In this rather long chapter, we will be discussing Jesus’ interaction with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. It is well-known story from the gospel of John.
Instead of including the long passage from the Gospel of John 4, I invite you all to get out your Bibles like you would in an old-school Baptist church and turn to gospel of John, chapter 4, and read verse 3-42. And after you do so, return to this chapter and let us delve deep into this story of Jesus’ intriguing conversation with the Samaritan woman.
As the story goes, Jesus is traveling from Judea in the south to his home in Galilee in the north. In between Judea and Galilee is Samaria. Weary from his sojourn, he stops mid-way in the city of Sychar in Samaria. Sychar is significant because on the outskirts of the city is Jacob’s Well which Jacob himself dug. Jesus sat aside the well and rested. His disciples went into town for lunch.
Jesus is alone and a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. This is not surprising. It is a town in Samaria after all. What is surprising is that Jesus talks to her. Samaritans and Galileans don’t usually do this.
Jesus asks her for a drink of water from Jacob’s Well. He doesn’t command it. That it is Jacob’s well is important. Samaritans, Judeans and Galileans (which Jesus is) all share Jacob as a patriarch of their ethnic-religions.
The Samaritan woman is surprised by Jesus’ request for water. She can tell Jesus is not a Samaritan somehow, most likely because of his dialect. She believes he is Ioudaios, a Greek label usually translated “Jew.” Virtually all biblical translations translate this as “Jew.” But there is a great deal of nuance to the label Ioudaios. It’s meaning depends a great deal on context and focus. David Bentley Hart translates Ioudaios as “Judeans.” (We will discuss this in depth this later.)
The Samaritan woman says you are an Ioudaios; I am a Samaritan (from Samaria). We’re not supposed to be talking. Interestingly, Jesus ignores this point of division. He also doesn’t clarify that he is a Galilean and not from Judea. He wants to talk about more pressing matters, matters of the heart. He replies, “If you recognized God’s gift and who it is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
The Samaritan woman retorts, “Lord, you have no bucket and the well is deep; so where do you get the living water from? Surely you are not greater than our Father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons and livestock too?”
The New Jacob
This is a profoundly meaningful statement. The Samaritan woman, following Jesus’ lead, avoids what divides them. She seems to leave their divisions aside, which she initially was focusing on, and goes to unity. She in fact claims camaraderie between herself and Jesus. We share Jacob, she proclaims. “Our Father Jacob, who gave us this well.”
She then asks an important question. “Are you greater than Father Jacob,” the one who unites us? Are you going to supersede our Jacob connection and resort to what divides us?
Jesus implies an answer of “yes.” He is going to replace that old connection with a new connection. Basically, Jesus claims that whereas Jacob’s well gives regular water that will leave a person thirsty eventually, my well gives a water “that gives the life of ages.”
The Samaritan woman indeed wants this water. Who wouldn’t? Who enjoys being really thirsty and having to get and lug water around.
It is crucial to see what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is basically staking claim as a new Jacob whose well gives living water. Not only that, he is claiming that his position of New Jacob will, like the original Jacob, unite Samaritans and Judeans in their real common source, Yahweh. The woman and Jesus share a religious father, Jacob. In Jacob there is unity. Jesus as the New Jacob returns them to the space before the divide, to unity, to Yahweh.
Jesus then breaks the religious language and talk of Jacob by saying go and get your husband and come back. We find out in the following back and forth that the woman doesn’t have a husband, that she’s been married five times (we don’t know why, whether divorce or death), and that her cohabitant is not her sixth. Jesus doesn’t judge her. This New Jacob is a person of grace and forgiveness.
The Samaritan woman is impressed by Jesus’ insight and intuition about her and her life. She asserts, “Lord, I see that you are a prophet.” Then, she changes the subject, it seems. In fact, she changes tactics again. She reverts to division, maybe piqued at his calling out her five marriages and unmarried status. She says “our fathers worshipped on this mountain; and you people say that the place where it is necessary to worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus responds with a mini-sermon. It is the heart of the text. All before leads up to this text. Everything after this text is influenced by it. That it comes in the middle of the story suggests this.
”Trust me, madam, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship [what or who] you do not know, we worship [what or who] we know; because salvation is from the Judaeans; But an hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for indeed the Father looks for those worshipping him so; God is spirit, and it is necessary that those worshipping worship in spirit and truth.”
Because these words of Jesus are so central, we need to discuss it in detail.
First, what is striking in this passage of a few sentences is the number of times the word worship (proskyneō) appears. It appears eight times. This fact alone tells us that worship is the focus of Jesus’ mini-sermon.
Jesus begins his mini-sermon with a crucial line. “An hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
Remember, a central difference between Samaritan and Judean-Galilean faith is that the former sees Mount Gerizim as the center of the universe and the latter sees Jerusalem as the center. Jesus is transcending this divide with his statement. Gerzim, Jerusalem – neither of our people are correct, Jesus seems to say. Our worship of God, period, will one day unite us.
Jesus then differentiates their people’s worship. “You – Samaritans –worship [hos] you do not know. We worship [hos] we know.” Hart and all other translators translate hos as “what” so that we get “You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know.” But hos can also be translated “who” so that we get, You worship who you do not know. We worship who we know.” Hos as who makes more sense.
This statement – you as a Samaritan worship who you do not know and we Judean-Galileans worship who we do know – is a theological statement of fact. I don’t see Jesus’ words as a criticism of Samaritan faith. Samaritans would agree that they worship a God they cannot fully know. Samaritans as we discussed see God as unknowable, ineffable, wholly transcendent. Yahweh is unknowable for the Samaritans, one whom even the faithful do not fully know. However, they still worship Yahweh. They may see God as unknowable, but they still worship him. And worship, the act of humbling oneself before God, itself is an honorable and obedient thing to do.
For Jesus, that he, his disciples, and his people worship a God that is knowable is also true. This is especially true for those who know God as Father and preach God as Father, like Jesus does. In his case, the God worshipped is one who is especially close and knowable, as close as a Father is to his family.
Samaritans worship a Yahweh that is unknowable. Judeans and Galileans worship a Yahweh that is knowable, as knowable as a father is knowable. These are statements of theological fact.
Then Jesus says something that at first blush seems to surely be an exclusivist claim: “Because salvation is from the [Ioudaios].” However, this passage is not as simple or straightforward as it would seem
Judean or Jew?
Ioudaios is a very difficult word to translate. It can refer to someone from the place known as Judea, a province that has Jerusalem at its center. Ioudaios can also refer to someone practicing the ethnic religion that includes following Torah, worshipping Yahweh, and considering yourself part of Israel. In this second meaning, Ioudaios share Israel and Jacob, Israel’s namesake.
Things are further complicated by the fact that some Samaritans considered themselves Ioudaios. And there was a time surrounding Jesus’ time that, politically speaking, Ioudaios incorporated Galilee and Samaria. Judaism scholar Morton Smith gives us a list of what Ioudaios could have referred to:
For clarity, we may recall that the three main earlier meanings were:
(1) one of the descendants of the patriarch Judah, i.e. (if in the male line) a member of the tribe of Judah;
(2) a native of Judaea, a "Judaean";
(3) a "Jew", i.e. a member of Yahweh's chosen people, entitled to participate in those religious ceremonies to which only such members were admitted.
Now appears the new, fourth meaning:
(4) a member of the Judaeo-Samaritan-Idumaean-Ituraean-Galilean alliance
Yet another complicating factor is the fact that if Ioudaios refers to someone living in Judea, Jesus himself would not qualify. Jesus was a Galilean through and through.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “salvation comes from Ioudaios? Does he refer to the place or to the religion of Jacob?
I think Jesus is referring to the latter. But not in the modern sense. He is referring to the ancient Ioudaios who practiced the way of God. He is referring to those who forged the faith of Jacob/Israel and its way of salvation. Jesus referring to the religious meaning of Ioudaios allows him to include himself as a Galilean (and not a Judean) with the term.
I also believe Jesus includes Samaritans in the term Ioudaios. He includes Samaritans not merely in a political alliance, but a religio-political one called the Kingdom of God.
Jesus seems to say to the Samaritan woman you refer to Ioudaios and compare them to Samaritans (Samaratis in Greek) and point to what divides us. But I am referring to something more ancient and lasting and uniting. I am referring to the origin of our salvation, those ancient, faithful followers of God’s way in whose lineage we stand, a lineage I am here to embody.
Let us Meet at Jacob’s Well
Could it be that Jesus is saying something like this in John 4:22: “You all as Samaritans worship God but as unknowable; we worship God but as knowable; we both worship God because salvation originated from the descendants of Jacob.” The focus then becomes on the fact that both worship God and both derive from Jacob whose well they are right next to.
Again, the location of the conversation – Jacob’s well – is key. It is here where Jacob pitched a tent, created an altar in order to worship God, and called that altar El-Elohe-Israel – Almighty God of Israel. This is another point of mutuality.
Samaritans and Judeans both go back to the same center where true worship of God is born: Israel. Of note, “Israel” is a name later given to Jacob. Samaritans and Judeans share a common father, Jacob/Israel.
As I mentioned, one reason to doubt Jesus means Ioudaios in the specific sense of being from Judea is that Jesus is a Galilean. Jesus, as a Galilean, would have likely viewed Judea just as suspiciously as a Samaritan would have. We see this suspicion in how Jesus interacts with the Pharisees who were centered in Judea and represented “Judean Judaism.” In other words, Galileans and Samaritans both experienced political and cultural tension with Judea. Hence, a reference to salvation coming from Judea as in Judeans or “modern Judean Judaism” seems unlikely to me. Jesus is actively resisting “Judean Judaism” by talking with the Samaritan woman. It simply makes more sense that Jesus is using the generic meaning of Ioudaios, as pointing to faithful followers of the faith of Israel/Jacob.
All of this is to say, Jesus is pointing to worship and the shared tie to the shared salvation offered by God. He is pointing to a uniting God worshipped by Jacob and Jacob’s sons and by both Samaritans and Judean-Galileans. And he is proclaiming himself to be the New Jacob. Like the “old Jacob,” he wants to unite and root Samaria, Judea, and his own Galilee again in the single source of God, the God of Israel.
The opening sentence of his mini-sermon thus makes clearer sense. On the ground of God is where salvation resides, not in Jerusalem or at Mount Gerizim.
God as Father and Spirit
It doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes onto to further harmonize the two houses divided from one another. Jesus says, “the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for indeed the Father looks for those worshipping him so; God is spirit, and it is necessary that those worshipping worship in spirit and truth.”
“Father” is how Jesus sees God. On the other hand, the Samaritan school sees God as pure spirit and balk at human-based titles and notions for God, such as human fatherliness. At the end of his mini-sermon, Jesus connects and harmonizes the two, Father and Spirit. God is Father but God is also Spirit. Truth is found in them both. Jesus seems to be saying, let us unite in the true worship of Father God who is also Spirit.
The amazing discussion around Jacob’s Well ends with the woman saying, “‘I know that the Messiah is coming’; – the one called Anointed – ‘when that one arrives he will announce all things to us.’”
Jesus quips, “I am he: I who am speaking to you.” Jesus seems to say, “I just explained it all to you. You don’t need to search any longer.” Before she answers, the disciples arrive.
The Good Samaritan II
The conversation switches to one between Jesus and his disciples after they return from lunch. They arrive and see Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman. They interestingly ignore this odd scene. It is not anything unusual. This is what Jesus does, talk to strangers, and seeks transformation in them.
Again not judged, this time not by the disciples, the Samaritan woman leaves to go into town. She forgets her water jug but doesn’t come back for it. She trusts the situation enough not to worry about it. The jug is also something she no longer needs, her thirst quenched by the living water of Jesus’ well. So she goes into town to tell everyone about Jesus, wondering this is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.
Meanwhile, the disciples nag Jesus to eat. But Jesus talks about another hunger. He says, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
This statement to his disciples seems to parallel his earlier statement to the Samaritan woman. “I have food to eat of which you do not know” sounds a lot like “I have water that you don’t know anything about.” These similar refrains seem to connect and compare the disciples and the Samaritan woman. Jesus goes onto compare them in another kind of mini-sermon.
“My food is that I may do the will of the one who has sent me and may bring his work to completion. Do you not say, ‘Four months yet, and then comes the harvest’? I tell you, Look, lift up your eyes and see the fields, because they are already white for harvesting. The reaper is receiving wages and gathering fruit for life in the Age, so that the one sowing and the one reaping may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘That one is the sower and another the reaper.’ I have sent you to reap that for which you have not labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
A field to harvest is the food equivalent of a well to get water from. The field is ripe and ready to harvest. The seeds were planted by the prophets, the sages, and the patriarchs, by the anointed ones before and the Anointed One now, from Jacob to the New Jacob. The field to harvest is the Kingdom and the life of ages it brings.
Jesus points to those who are already on the case, those already doing the work of harvesting the fully ripened field. The implication is the Samaritan woman is harvesting the field.
We have another case where a “good Samaritan” is lifted up as exemplifying the way of God. She is in town telling her friends that she has found the anointed one. She is harvesting the field and reaping the reward of the life of ages. What are you doing, dear disciples? That is what Jesus seems to infer.
We see Jesus’ meaning clarified by the harvest the Samaritan woman brings in. “Many of the Samaritans of that city had faith in him on account of the woman testifying.”
Jesus stays two more days ministering to the Samaritan people. The story ends with these wonderful words of universal restorationist fervor. “We know that this man is truly the savior of the cosmos.”
We’ve gone from the restoration of unity between two peoples deemed enemies to the future restoration of unity between all people. This restoration of unity comes via a Savior who envisions all people joining together.