The Archeology of a Story

Image by Sadao Watanabe

Here’s a little Bible trivia to get us started. In year 1 of the 3-year lectionary cycle we read from Matthew’s gospel biography of Jesus’ life and ministry – except on the Sundays in Lent when after Lent 1 we switch over to John’s account. Except for a return to Matthew on Palm Sunday, it will be John who will also accompany us through the Easter Season.

Among the Evangelists, John’s approach to story stands out from the rest. For Mark, Matthew and Luke, stories flow out of events. They’re called synoptic gospels because they follow a synopsis of events. Stories emerge out of events often arranged chronologically within a broad theological framework. Nevertheless, story arises out of and explains the meaning of a particular event.

In John it’s the other way around. Events are created from stories. There is no event until the story creates one. So instead of following a broad chronology of Jesus life and ministry, John constructs seven stories around which he builds his very distinctive theology of Jesus. We refer to these stories as John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom. Linking the seven sign stories we also find in John many other stories that do not appear anywhere else. Last week we had the story of Nicodemus, the high-ranking member of the Jewish council who comes to Jesus under cover of night. Today we are given the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.

Like all John’s stories Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is multilayered.  My title for today’s sermon is the Archeology of a Story because if we dig down through the multiple story layers, we come to understand how John shapes the story to become a narrative for building of a new and radical type of community.

John’s is a community made up from disparate groupings – coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others among whom were a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new kind of Christian community. In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well – John seems to have in mind this constituency in his community. Yet the story has an overriding message that would not have been missed by the other sections in the Johannine community in Jerusalem around the end of the 1st-century CE.

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well John is weaving a new story from the fragments of older storylines – some close to the surface of current memory – others more deeply buried and encountered only in places where they poke through from below – with the potential to pose serious trip hazards for some in his complex community.

For example, there’s the storyline of contested origins. As Samaritan and Jewish converts come together in John’s radical style Christian community- they brought with them contested origin stories that come into focus around Jacob’s Well. Both Jew and Samaritan each regarded Jacob as the father of their nation – and hence had contested claims to the Well’s ownership.

We see the protruding tip of another more deeply buried story of dispute over the true site for God’s worship. Was it – as the Samaritans claimed on Mt. Gerizim – the ancient holy site of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before its destruction in 721 BCE or as the Jews claimed – at Jerusalem – a more recent development and a claim particular to Judah?  

The story follows a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman he encounters at Jacob’s Well. As noted, in Jesus’ time, this was a place of contested historical and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were the biracial descendants of intermarriage between Assyrian forced foreign migrations (five in total) and the remnants of the Jewish peasantry left following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after 721 BCE. Nevertheless, the Samaritans – the descendants of Samaria – another name for the ancient Northern Kingdom continued to protest their historic and religious claims against a Judahite Jewish population who regarded them as racially and religiously impure.

John intends his story to shock. You might ask, what is so shocking in a man asking a woman for a drink of water? To appreciate how this encounter challenges social taboos of the time let’s group them under the headings of race, religion, and gender.

Firstly, racial prejudice. Imagine a white man in the Jim Crow south asking a black woman for a drink from the colored water fountain. Or imagine today, an Israeli Settler asking a Palestinian woman to draw water for him from Jacob’s Well – which today sits in contested territory within the city of Nablus in Israeli occupied and annex-threatened Palestine.

Secondly, religious bigotry. A Samaritan woman drawing water for a Jew would have rendered the water undrinkable by virtue of ritual contamination. A religiously observant Jew could not have even entered conversation with a Samaritan woman – let alone drunk water from her hand.

Thirdly, gender conventions. As an adult man, like Mike Pence who reputedly will not dine alone with another woman who is not his wife, Jesus could not have looked at – let alone spoken -unchaperoned- to a woman who was neither his wife nor a close female relation. Yet he does – and this shocks the Samaritan woman into asking: How is it, you a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? In her one question she encompasses all three taboos – racial, religious, and gender.

But she’s not the only one shocked. The disciples on returning were astonished that he was alone and speaking with a woman – but no one asked [her] what do you want or [ Jesus] why are you speaking with her? We can imagine what they were thinking though. Honestly Jesus, we leave you alone for five minutes and this is what you get up to!

Beyond its shock value – that where Jesus is concerned always adds value to any story -John is building a crescendo of storyline around the theological theme of recognition – that is – who sees the truth about who Jesus really is – and who doesn’t.

The water from the well is not any old water but living water. It’s not our physical thirst but our spiritual thirst that we seek slaked. Only Jesus alone has the gift of living water. The woman gets this right away and says Sir, give me this water so I may never thirst again.

Jesus then somewhat perplexingly tells her to fetch her husband. She must admit she doesn’t have one to which Jesus says you are right – for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband. This is the point in John’s story when we might ask one another: sorry, but have I missed something here?

It might appear so until we see how John is slowly ratcheting up his theme of recognition. And here is another trip hazard where an ancient story pokes up for the unwary in John’s community. Jesus’ reference to her five husbands is a historical metaphor for the five forced foreign migrations with whom the Samaritans had intermarried. The man she is currently with, and who by-the-way is not her husband, extends the metaphor to include a sixth forced migration into Samaritan territory under Herod the Great in 37 BCE. That this man is not her husband is an allusion to the later Roman prohibition of intermarriage between this last group and the Samaritan population.

The theme of recognition now builds towards the peak of its crescendo. Following Jesus’ comments about worshiping the Father neither here on Mt Gerizim, nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth – the woman speaks about her messianic hope. She now recognizes Jesus as the One. John wants us to note it’s the despised outsider – and a woman to boot – who comes to recognize the truth about Jesus long before it dawns on anyone in his intimate in-crowd of followers.

The rest of the story focuses on the blindness of the disciples. Unlike the Samaritans who now flock to Jesus in response to the woman’s invitation to come and see- a particularly resonant phrase for John because Jesus’ disciples continue to miss the point of his messianic identity and the nature of his mission for which John offers the metaphor of gathering in the harvest.

Through excavating the buried layers within this story, we can see that for John this is not about the past as much as it is about the future.  It’s a story about the building of a new and radical type of community from among the jumble of racial and religious constituencies sharing contested histories. John’s is a community of disparate groupings coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others – among them a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new way of living.

The upshot of the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is that many Samaritans sought out Jesus and asked to stay with him and many more believed in his word. They believed not because someone else convinced them but because they heard and saw for themselves.  The disparate constituencies that made up John’s community could not have missed the point of a story about the building a new way of being in community. Through the reconciling of historic grievances – required a confrontation with ingrained and divisive social and religious prejudice.

Was there ever a story more pertinent for our time?

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