John 4

John 4 may be my least favorite chapter of the book. I know, I’m not supposed to make those kinds of judgements, but I’ll have to live with the consequences.

In the first place, the chapter is too long—it should have ended with the extended woman at the well ordeal. Who made up those chapter divisions anyway? I guess the real problem is that I’m fatigued by the time we’re done with the Samaritan. It’s one of the most over-interpreted passages in the NT. Then, amid my effort not to buy what everyone is selling, Jesus goes overboard on the metaphors. Spiritual water, spiritual food, spiritual harvest. So what does he mean?

You have to feel grateful for the comic relief, but in truth it’s that nervous laughter that gives away our uncertainty. We’re laughing with the woman as she quips: “Dude, good luck without a bucket.” We’re laughing at the disciples as they come back from grocery shopping in awkward silence at finding Jesus exchanging pleasantries alone with a strange woman. We laugh more when, at a loss themselves over Jesus’ persistently cryptic language, the disciples wonder whether Jesus found a snack somewhere else. Yet, all the while, we’re laughing at ourselves, we who don’t have any better idea what is going on here. Well, maybe in hindsight we see a little.

I suppose what really stands out as the heart of the passage is not the meaning of all those little bits of ambiguity but rather the fundamental transition that we witness at this moment. It is a pivotal story in the mission of God, and it’s no small thing that it happens in John’s Gospel. There is plenty out there about Christianity’s recasting of the covenant and the way that hinges on Jewish believers overcoming the distinctives of Judaism. But John does not tend to stand at the center of those discussions. Nonetheless, we have here a vital theological underpinning for the wider mission to come.

The question is posed from the Samaritans’ point of view—their own theological struggles with how to worship a God hemmed in by exclusivists—but the answer is distinctively Jewish, if equally Messianic (read: out of the box). Worship in the covenant has to do with God’s presence, which is why the Jews are on some level justified in the debate the woman references. What Jesus reveals, in keeping with John so far, is that it will continue to be about presence, though not location. The unexpected “gift of God” and “who it is” speaking to her are the vital issues. God is, essentially, making himself available so that anyone anywhere may worship “in spirit and truth” (in contrast to “in the temple”).

Astoundingly, then, Jesus tells his disciples to look around Samaria and see fields ready for harvest and seed planted that will soon require harvest. In Samaria? Say what?! That’s right, “salvation is from the Jews” not just for the Jews—a missional articulation of things that gets far too little press. In one fell swoop Jesus reveals that everyone in the worship argument who is not thinking missionally is wrong, whatever their position. The point is not that we shifted from the where to the how, so that now we entrench in one understanding or another of the how instead. The point is why the shift happened and what it implies.

Anyone want to help me explain what it implies?

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