In his book Getting Religion Kenneth Woodward, former religion editor at Newsweek Magazine reviews the religious movements, trends and changes he observed in America from the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s up to the Obama administration. The list of formal, informal, organized, and unorganized religious change and invention in this time period is staggering.
- Change in the Roman Catholic church after Vatican II
- Rise and fall of the Protestant Mainline in America
- Rise and fall of the Evangelical Moral Majority movement
- Rise of “movement” religion (Civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT) and its impact on established religions
- Rise and fall of Liberation Theology
- Rise and fall of feminist theology
- “Experiential Religions” such as the drug culture, rise of Hindu religions and practice, Transcendental meditation, Western permutations on Buddhism, New Age
- Therapeutic quasi-religions and cults: Unification Church, Kubler-Ross, EST, Heaven’s gate
The long developmental path of jets and nets had made the world smaller. If you grew up in an insulated subculture where everyone around you agreed that the Bible was God’s revelation to the world you might differ on interpretation but it gave you a basis for adjudicating the limited range of differences among you.
As you became familiar with other formal religious groups and as non-formal religions proliferated the ground of certainty about life beyond what we can test scientifically begins to erode. Pluralism begets skepticism and we begin to look for certainty in personal experience. “I can’t speak for everyone but because of my experience this is what I believe.”
You can find this approach in American evangelicalism and other religions. Personal experience becomes the basis for one’s beliefs and experience then justifies one’s certainty. This connects us to the 16 year old Jehovah Witness youth that Christian Smith introduces us to last week with her mix of non-judgmentalism and assumption of self-evident morality.
Sociology, Psychology and Post-Modernity
We might on one hand note that personal experience is a poor platform for creating community or society upon. Democracy partially fills this gap because we imagine that a stable society can be created by all of these individuals finding agreement on one thing or another and having the political world mirror that agreement.
We are also aware, however, that these personal experiences aren’t quite as “out of the blue” as first person accounts testify to. Sociologists, Psychologists and now brain scientists will testify to the fact that their disciplines major in explaining the foundation of these personal experiences. “Well of course you have found an experience of peace in the arms of your heavenly father because…
- “You were raised in a Christian community and you are looking to recapture the peace, stability and certainty of that community.”
- “Your biological father was distant or abandoned you and this gave you a great need for a heavenly father who would be faithful and never leave you…”
- “Evolution has hard wired your brain to need a father and so you are just doing what your evolutionary programming demands.”
- “Your are developing a meta-narrative to make sense of your world and so you found a community through which you can reinforce and maintain that narrative. All such narratives are constructed out of our desires and needs.”
These disciplines have tempted us to imagine that all there really is is chemistry and physics, yet even physicists have their doubts about materialism as being the final foundation for the thing we call existence.
And so we come to the point of assuming that everyone else (but me) are simply constructed individuals working out the programming done to them by their biological evolution, or their issues in their family of origin, or their group experiences or their groups “meta-narrative”. So we then begin to try to predict, and hopefully manipulate others on the basis of their constructed identities.
We can illustrate this by exposing the assumptions that individual snapshots of people quickly present to our minds. Guess who this person voted for in the last election: Trump or Hillary?
- 60 year old wealthy leader of a “bible believing” church living in a distressed rust-belt mining community?
- Thirty-something year old woman living in California struggling to raise a family after a string of dead-beat dads?
Don’t we assume that identity becomes destiny?
Just in case you imagine that all of this development I’ve laid out before you clearly illuminates either progress or corruption let’s remind ourselves where identity politics finally eddies up? In influence. Aren’t the “spin doctors” of public and political discourse simply trying to re-fashion identity with rhetoric?
If you read Plato’s Republic you’ll meet the Sophists, who believed that finally our political and material fortunes boiled down to rhetoric. You’ll meet skeptics too. You might also remember that before Augustine became a Christian bishop he was a teacher of rhetoric which was in a sense the queen of disciplines in the late Roman Empire. It was assumed that rhetoric, or spinning was the key to inheriting the earth. Have things really changed that much?
The Man from Heaven
Last Week we saw Jesus confronting Nicodemus, an older, established, wealthy man that he must be born “from above” and that flesh can only give birth to flesh, and Spirit must give birth to spirit. We sat that by the end of the gospel of John Nicodemus in fact became a believer and was there to collect his body after his crucifixion.
Does this story demonstrate that Jesus was the man from heaven? Jesus was an observant Jews whose positions in many ways within the culture war of the first century Jews were the closest to the Pharisees from among the menu of the warring Jewish factions. Shouldn’t it make sense that this one religiously conservative Jewish man could reach out to another?
The Gospel of John is a masterpiece of literature. There are multiple dimensions to the book but one that I often find overlooked is how John tells the story of Jesus through interactions with a diversity of people.
- Jesus and John the Baptist
- Jesus and Nathanial
- Jesus and his mother at the Wedding at Cana
- Jesus and Nicodemus
- Jesus and a Samaritan Woman
- Jesus and a disabled man
- Jesus and Simon Peter: Feeding of 5000 and Walking on Water
- Jesus and the Jewish Leaders: Nicodemus makes another appearance
- Jesus and the woman caught in adultery
- Jesus and the man born blind
- Jesus and Mary, Martha and Lazarus
- Jesus and his disciples
- Jesus and his religious/political adversaries
- Jesus and his disciples again
What you may note is that John tells stories of Jesus in conversation and even conflict with many different groups within his world. Last week we saw Jesus engaging Nicodemus, a wealthy and powerful male insider. This week we see Jesus engaging a Samaritan woman who is not only because of her ethnicity and religion on outside of the Jewish world but because of her own story on the fringe of her own people.
Within our own world shocked by pluralism and reeling form it in skepticism if Jesus is the man from heaven, the Son of the Creator God we need confidence that he can productively and authoritatively engage a diversity of identity groups beyond his own and our own. Intersectionalities of gender, ethnicity, religion and power are all over this story between Jesus and a Samaritan woman and we wonder whether Jesus can actually surmount the walls of division that separate our world.
Samaritans and Jews
The Samaritans were not considered to be religiously pure or ethnically pure like the Jews regarded themselves. When the Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel they moved some people out and introduced other people from other parts of their empire. This compiled upon the tension already between the two Hebrew kingdoms over whether Jerusalem had an exclusive claim to being God’s holy mountain. The Samaritans had their own competing holy book that differed in many of the political claims of the holy books of the Jews.
Their history included conflicts where Samaritans sided with the enemies of the Jews in wars and the Jews had burned the temple of the Samaritans at Gerizim. People had long memories and there were real reasons these two groups did not get along.
Jesus could have avoided Samaritan country which Jews had done but the phrase “had to” implies that Jesus is on a mission from God and intentionally sets up what is to follow.
John 4:1–8 (NIV)
1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
There are not only ethnic and religious tension beneath the surface here but gender tensions. Gender is always a factor in conversation and here we find Jesus and this woman alone at a well. We will see that her life is already fraught with gender complexity.
John 4:9 (NIV)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Even though she is a woman she knows where they are standing. They are in Samaritan territory and even though she is on the fringe of her community as noted in her noonday run to the well (the other women would have gotten their water in the cool of the morning or evening) she clearly feels herself able to mock Jesus and his weak position. By virtue of their location and the conflict she has the upper hand and she’s enjoying it.
John 4:10 (NIV)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus sees her mockery and issues his own two part challenge to her. She has positioned herself above him despite her gender but on the basis of her location within the set cultural and religious conflict. He now challenges her to recognize who is speaking to her and ask her for “living water”.
As we mentioned last week Jesus in John loves to use a literary device revolving around ambiguous terms creating a misunderstanding. We saw that last week over “born again/born from above” where Nicodemus defaults to the “earthly” level and is unable to understand the consequence of the “heavenly” meaning. The same happens here for the woman in terms of “living water”.
“Living water” in common parlance would simply mean water from a moving source such as a stream which would be superior to water from a cistern which could have dead animals that would fall in it or simply be holding the algae or dirt that accumulates within. It is very clear, however, that Jesus is about to play on “living water” at an entirely new level.
John 4:11–12 (NIV)
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
She continues to try to assert dominance over Jesus now leveraging and citing her ethnic and political claims. Surely even a Jew will conceded that father Jacob is greater than anyone alive. She is skeptical about Jesus’ challenge.
John 4:13–14 (NIV)
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus continues to riff on the “living water” misunderstanding and heightens it by deepening the misunderstanding. Living water has now become “a spring” as opposed to this well of Jacob and it leads to “eternal life” or “life of the age”. He means there “life of the age to come” or “the life of heaven not earth” or “life outside and beyond the age of decay”. Most Americans here “eternal life” as something describing quantity of time rather than governance of existence. In John “eternal life” is his term somewhat synonymous to the “kingdom of God/heaven” in the other gospels. Jesus has dramatically raised the stakes by making a dramatic claim. He is claiming to be more than just another thirsty, tired man, although he is this. He is claiming to govern the material and metaphysical universe and is extending his claim over her, a woman from a different ethnic and religious group.
John 4:15 (NIV)
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Check. Jesus has accomplished challenge two of what he initially said. She doesn’t recognize him yet, but she’s now asking for his living water even if for only imagining the practical benefits the misunderstanding has raised in her mind.
Getting Personal and Individual
Now Jesus is ready to bring the conversation to another level. She’s been keeping Jesus at arms’ length by asserting religious and political status over him but he’s about to get personal in a miraculous way.
John 4:16–26 (NIV)
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Jesus quickly changes the subject and exposes his identity by exposing what was for her a shameful thing. He does not do this to humiliate her but to reveal to her that he sees all but won’t use her disadvantage to advantage himself over her. Now we have a clue as to why she’s getting water alone, at noon, and not with the other women of the village. Now we might know why she was so quick to try to gain supremacy over the stranger at the well through mockery rather than extending hospitality. Her aggressive posturing involving her ethnicity and religion may have been a defense mechanism hoping to hide her lack of status among her own people. Jesus sees all of this and lets her know he sees it.
She then deflects again to the religious conflict between the Jews.
A contemporary habit of skepticism would likely be to attempt to transcend the religious conflict by saying “who knows?” or “who’s to say who’s right when it comes to religious questions that cannot be adjudicated by scientific or political means” but Jesus doesn’t do that. He takes a side firmly, unapologetically but also respectfully and gently. This religious conflict will in fact be transcended but Jesus claims not only the path of that transcending but also his involvement in it.
She then affirms a point of religious agreement between Samaritans and Jews and he wades in and simply claims that he is it. This is dramatic, shocking, awkward and time-stopping. Where do you go after this if you are this woman?
We don’t know how Nicodemus exited his night time meeting with Jesus but she is afforded no “cut-away” to retreat and ponder. The human mind can’t take this kind of thing in instantly. We are like Peter babbling at the mount of transfiguration.
Getting the Clueless Disciples Up to Speed
John 4:27–38 (NIV)
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
She flees the scene at the coming of the disciples. Her gender vulnerability is exposed and the invading group of disciples changes the power dynamics of the religious/political equation.
What comes next is an exchange with the disciples. Jesus is about to do to his disciples on food what he did to the woman on “living water” but before that the disciples want to question “why were you talking to her” not only sets up the conversation about his, and their mission but also again illuminates the identity boxes that govern their and our worlds.
For the sake of brevity I’m not going to get too deeply into the parable that Jesus uses as he twists his disciples on the food misunderstanding. It is about fulfillment that there, by a well in enemy territory the kingdom of God is invading. It is not a Jewish thing. This God and his Son are the masters of the world and the disciples are going to be his emissaries in ways they are completely unprepared for.
Before we move on we should pause to note the placement of the woman’s report to the town. It sets up the dialogue with the disciples and the section to follow.
Jesus’ sinful, female, outcast yet number-one-in-effectiveness apostle
John 4:39–42 (NIV)
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
The woman who initially tried to keep Jesus at arm’s length through mockery of his disadvantage now with her village extends hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. They stay for two days and in the process many come to believe that he is the Messiah.
Now this issue of “Messiah” is more complicated that we might imagine precisely because of the religious and political conflict between Jews and Samaritans. So much of the gospels focus on Jesus trying to clarify the assumptions of Messiah among the Jews culminating in his work on the cross. What did it mean for Samaritans to embrace Jesus as “Messiah”? Surely the Samaritans wouldn’t imagine the goal of the Messiah would be to elevate the Jews at the expense of the Samaritans? Here we see their recognition of him, fulfilling the first challenge, that he is the “Savior of the world”, which echoes John 3:16 and the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus.
This woman on the fringe of her own society because of her various domestic arrangements now through Jesus brings many in her village into belief, more than the belief that Jesus rejected at the end of chapter 2.
Jesus over our Pluralism and our Identity Silos
The Gospel of John is making an enormous claim, that this Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Son of God come from heaven to save the world from itself.
The struggle for many of us is that pervasive pluralism has left us with a default, often implicit skepticism. We don’t believe that Jesus is Lord of history, Lord of God’s creation. Lord of all. We imagine he is a siloed God who might be meaningful to people raised in the faith or born into a particular culture. John, in this story wishes to show that Jesus in fact reaches across the gender, ethnic and religious boundaries that we imagine are insurmountable. He is both global and personal. He rules over time and space. He is over all that we see but can also reach even you or me and give us the new life born from above.