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.