John 4 – God encounters human

Erkki Koskenniemi
Emilia Mansikka

Jesus and the woman with bad reputation 4:1-42

The story of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is both captivating and beautiful. Typical for the Gospel of John, the narrative of the conversation builds up being a series of the woman’s misunderstandings. Jesus, nonetheless, agrees to discuss with her and at the end of the story not only the woman but also many other citizens of Samaria come to him. Thus, the evangelist allows very insufficient and unwise people to be the target of Jesus’ teaching also in this story.

An important message of the story is that it takes place in Samaria. Jesus leaves Judea and departs to Galilee. If one did not want to travel across the sweating hot Valley of Jordan, he had to cross Samaria. This was unpleasant for most Jews, as Samaritans and Jews were known to loathe each other.

The origin of Samaritan people continues to be disputed. Perhaps the traditional view is correct, that the Samaritans were a mixed group of people who lived in Israel after the 722 BC destruction. The Samaritans considered themselves as true Israelites, but Jews saw them as pagans. There used to be a temple on Mount Gerizim, which competed with the Temple of Jerusalem. Jews had destroyed it in 128, but the holy mountain continued to be an important place of prayer. The hatred among Jews and Samaritans erupted often in Jesus’ time, and blood was spilled when Jewish pilgrims and Samaritans confronted each other. Orthodox Jews deeply despised Samaritans and refused to converse with them. Now John makes clear that Jesus did the exact opposite and that he was also received there.

Many people, who have explained the scene, have drawn their attention on how the woman comes to the well at noon, and from outside of the town. Perhaps this is linked to what Jesus sees in her life: This woman is sinful and despised in her own community. A woman, who has a bad reputation, avoids going to the well at the time other women usually go there. Thus, Jesus would have many reasons to stay away from her, but regardless of that he starts a conversation with the woman, much to her surprise. In the dry areas of Middle East, water is a valuable natural resource. The conversation takes place at a deep well, which Jacob had dug long time ago.

Jesus’ teaching about living water is astonishing. The woman immediately misunderstands and thinks he is talking about a hidden fountain. The water Jesus refers to is, however, something completely different. Jesus does not mention it, but the reader of the gospel knows the answer: the Lord means the light, the truth, the gift of life given by God. Whoever encounters Jesus, will find the true meaning of life and there is no need to search anymore.

Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus sees straight into a person’s heart and through the woman’s fabricated story. She changes the subject quickly from her own life to a safer area and raises the old dispute: Where should God be served, in Gerizim or in Jerusalem? The answer Jesus gives is very typical for the Gospel of John: Not here or there, but in spirit and truth. These words reach their meaning especially after the destruction of Jerusalem. Even when the one and only temple of God had been demolished, God could be approached in prayer wherever. “In spirit and truth” is the opposite of the idea that the service should be tied to a specific place. As we have read the Gospel of John, we know what this means: when we are connected to the Son, the Father is served right, no matter where He is called for help.

The conversation concludes when Jesus reveals himself to the woman as the Messiah, Christ. Her task as a carrier of the light begins immediately.

When the woman is on her way and has not yet returned with the other Samaritans, it is time for a discussion. The frame for this discussion is the woman’s departure and return. In between these points, ostensibly unrelated to the events, takes place Jesus’ talk of sending. Jesus doesn’t need food – the disciples once again misunderstand it – since his food is to do the will of God. Father has sent his Son to the world and the Son doesn’t do anything but the will of the Sender.

Exactly the same way as Father has sent his Son to the world, the Son sends his disciples. There is no lack of work nor a need to sit and wait. The everyday waiting which required very much patience was the wait between sowing and harvesting. What made it difficult to the poor rural people were the shortage of food and hunger. Now the disciples did not need to wait: Jesus had sowed and it was the disciples’ task to reap.

These words apply not only for that time, but also for a later time: when Jesus’ death and resurrection is preached, the outcome doesn’t have to be waited until the final judgement. Anybody who gladly receives the words of Jesus, learns to know the Son and immediately steps from death to life. This is exactly what happened to the sinful and despised people of Samaria.

Official’s faith 4:43-54

Returning to Galilee, Jesus receives a lot of attention. The time when he was rejected (see Mark 6:1-6) is over. Thus, according to John, the modest start in Galilee gained momentum from visiting Jerusalem. The story about the King’s official, who lived in Capernaum, makes us wonder whether it is connected to the story told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. In those passages, the story is about a pagan. However, here it is not mentioned.

The central point in the story is on how this official “believed”. Jesus’ answer to the man’s cry for help is almost rude. A person should believe in Jesus without miracles, signs and wonders, only based on the word. However, Jesus says the words which the man embraces. Thus, “belief” here means trusting that the man’s son is healthy.

On his way back from Cana to Capernaum, the man met people who were bringing him a joyful message: the son was healed exactly at that moment when Jesus spoke the important words. Now the father “believed” and so did all the others. Belief, however, had a completely different meaning. Even though John barely explains it, we understand that his faith now focused on Jesus’ person.

Here we read about matters related to Jesus’ personality and his mission: Jesus is the Son of the Father, who leads us from darkness to light, from lie to truth and from death to life.