3rd Sunday in Lent – March 27, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Exodus 17.1-7||Psalm 95||Romans 5.1-11||John 4.5-42|
By David J. Lull
Psalm 95 and John 4 lift up an excellent Lenten practice: Listen to the voice of God! Exodus 17, Psalm 95, and John 4 all mention or allude to “water.” In Exodus 17.1-7, complaint and protest is a form of trusting belief in God’s justice in the face of injustice: a lack of water in the wilderness. The message of Psalm 95, which alludes to the Exodus story, is that “listening” to God’s “voice” brings joy and peace and leads to praise and thanksgiving, but disobedience brings fear and unrest in the face of divine judgment. So, choose “listening”! In John 4.5-42, Jesus shatters human boundaries as he brings God’s living water” to a woman and her Samaritan townspeople, showing that God’s “living water” is for all, and all means all, without exception. Also, Psalm 95 and John 4 touch on the worship God desires. Romans 5.1-11 looks like the odd text out. Yet, it focuses on the character and gifts of God: the character of the one died “for us”—God’s love and Jesus’ faithfulness; and the benefits of Jesus’ death “for us”—peace, access to God’s grace, hope of sharing the glory of God, the love of God, reconciliation, protection from God’s wrath. Also, according to Romans 5 and Psalm 95, disobedience is characteristic of the human condition; and both texts directly (Romans 5) or indirectly (Psalm 95), and in different ways, promise protection from God’s wrath. Finally, Psalm 95, Romans 5, and John 4 all promise access to God’s “rest,” “peace with God,” and “eternal life.”
A summary: The Israelites were quarreling with Moses, and that means they were testing God (verse 7), since God had instructed Moses to lead them in the wilderness. The Hebrew names “Massah and Meribah” mean “test and quarrel” (compare Psa 95.8) The Israelites were complaining about the lack of water in the desert—a reasonable complaint! God addressed their complaint by calmly telling Moses how to get water.
What does this story have to do with Lent? In verse 1, the Hebrew name of the wilderness, “Sin,” has nothing to do with the English word “sin.” Besides, if this story is supposed to be an illustration of the need to repent for “testing and quarreling” with God, or with God’s representative, where is the Israelites’ repentance? Instead of hurling words of judgment against unrepentant complainers, God simply grants their reasonable request for life-sustaining water. Are we are supposed to believe that trust is the only faithful response to God, even when God fails to provide the basic necessities for life? Perhaps, but sometimes complaint and protest express trust, especially when the complainers and protesters expect God to respond by creatively transforming the situation. In the case of the Israelites, their complaint sought to address the injustice when Moses, God’s representative, led them into the desert wilderness without supplying adequate water. Their complaint implies a trusting belief in God’s justice. Perhaps that’s why God does not complain when Israelites “quarreled and tested the Lord” in this story.
This psalm has echoes of the story in Exodus: In verse 1, God is “the rock of our salvation” could allude to the rock at Horeb, which produced water, the Israelites’ “salvation”; and verse 8 is a direct allusion to the Israelites’ quarreling and testing God. The psalmist disapproved of testing and putting God “to the proof.” Instead of complaining and testing God, the psalmist calls for joyfully singing praises “to the Lord” with “thanksgiving” (verse 2). Joyful thanksgiving is the appropriate response to God’s greatness and sovereignty (verse 3). Trust is the appropriate response to the loving care of the God who creates all things and protects them (verses 4-7a). Obedience is the appropriate response to the God whose loathing and anger is directed toward “a people whose hearts go astray, and … do not regard … [God’s] ways” (verses 7b-11).
The contrast between the two sections of this psalm could not be greater: on the one hand, joyful praise and thanksgiving to a loving creator and protector (verses 1-7), and on the other, God’s uncompromising judgment on a disobedient people (verses 8-11). A psalm that begins with joy ends with a horrifying oath, in which God denies a disobedient people access to God’s “rest.” If this psalm is part of a “commentary on the causes of the Babylonian exile” (Marti J. Steussy, Psalms, p. 166), God’s “rest” (Num 10.33; Deut 12.9; 1 Kgs 8.56; Psa 132.14) could be a reference to the land of Canaan, from which the Israelites were exiled, and the temple, which had been destroyed. It could also be a reference to God’s resting place “in heaven,” into which God refused entrance to those Israelites who didn’t “listen” to God’s voice; or it could simply be a reference to God’s peace, denied to a disobedient people.
It would appear that this psalm begins with an upward note of hope and ends with a downward note of hopelessness. The function of judgment oracles, however, is to exhort a disobedient people to change their ways. It’s like the “two-ways” in Wisdom teaching: “listening” to God’s “voice” brings joy and peace (“rest”) and leads to praise and thanksgiving, but disobedience brings fear and unrest in the face of divine judgment. So, this “stern oracle” is supposed to make the singers and hearers of the psalm choose the hopeful, joyful way of obedience, with its promise of God’s peaceful “rest” (compare Steussy, Psalms, p. 166).
The history of Western Christianity is the history of the influence of the Pauline letters. In large part, the transformation of the Jesus movement into a “messianic religion” distinct from Judaism can be attributed to the interpretation of these letters during the first six centuries of the Common Era. No other part of the New Testament can match their influence on the formation of Western churches and doctrine. These letters were central to some of the theological giants of the West—Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, Bultmann, to name a few—whose interpretations of the Pauline letters are among the classics of Christian thought.
Today, however, many progressive Christians are asking whether Paul’s answers to life’s questions are credible any longer, and whether they are “appealing or appalling” (John Dominic Crossan’s phrase). Are Paul’s answers to life’s questions still “good news,” or can they become “good news” again? At the heart of these questions is the increasing preference for the Jesus of the Gospels—or historical re/constructions of Jesus from the Gospels and other sources—and the feminist, womanist, and Latina critiques not only of views of women in the Pauline letters, but also of views of the human condition and of Jesus’ death as its solution, which are at the core of the theology of the Pauline letters.
Romans 5, which is one of the key texts of Pauline theology, is at the core of these critiques. For progressive Christians, that “peace with God” should come through Jesus and his “blood” strikes is a barbaric concept of God. Also barbaric are atonement theories that interpret Jesus’ death “for us” as his substitution for the death penalty that all deserve, or as a cultic blood sacrifice for the remission of sins, or as his appeasement of God’s wrath. That Paul says “peace with God” comes through Jesus and his “blood” and then right away boldly states “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (5.3-4) has led to the idea that suffering is the way of salvation. That idea has persuaded many, especially women and the poor, to accept suffering as their God-given destiny. The description of human beings as “weak,” “sinful,” and “enemies” of God sounds unbearably negative and contributes to self-loathing. “Justification” language is the language of questions no longer asked or no longer of ultimate concern: If God’s very nature is “love,” why do I need to fear God’s “wrath”? If the human condition cries out for liberation from injustice and oppression, why offer “forgiveness” as the solution? If these are the views that Paul espoused in Romans 5, it would be better to preach against what Paul said in this text! But are these Paul’s views? If not, it would be better to preach against these readings of Paul’s words!
Let’s begin by considering the context of 5.1-11 within Paul’s letter. Verse 1 states a conclusion drawn from Romans 4, especially the last verses. There Paul argued that just as God considered Abraham’s faithful, trusting belief in God as his righteousness, God also will consider as righteousness, for Jews and non-Jews alike, faithful, trusting belief in the God who handed Jesus over to death “for our trespasses” and “raised Jesus our Lord from the dead … for our justification” (4.23-25). Faithful, trusting belief is the same, whether it is Abraham’s or that of those who believe in the God who handed Jesus over to death and raised him from the dead. For the God who handed Jesus over to death and raised him from the dead is the same God who promised Abraham that he would be “the father of many nations” and that he would have “numerous … descendants” (4.18).
In Romans 4 and 5.1, Paul used three terms that belong to the same Greek word-group: the nouns dikaiosynē (used throughout Romans 4) and dikaiōsis (used in 4.25 and 5.18), and a form of the verb dikaioō (used in 4.2, 5; 5.1, 9). The term dikaiosynē is frequently translated “righteousness.” Although it could also be translated “justice,” it has to do with a person’s character and treatment of others in the ordinary walk of life. The terms dikaiōsis and dikaioō, on the other hand, are often translated “justification” and “justify,” which reflects the influence of the Latin translation of these terms. As a result, the traditional understanding of these terms is that they refer to judicial transactions in the setting of a court of law. Under the influence of the traditional forensic understanding of the latter two terms, the former term, “righteousness,” tended also to be understood forensically as a declaration of innocence.
Consequently, forgiveness has come to be the center of Pauline theology, in spite of the almost total absence of Greek terms for “forgiveness” in the Pauline letters (used in Romans only in 4.7, which is a quotation of Psa 32.1; and used in the “disputed” letters only in Eph 1.7 and Col 1.14). Instead, at the heart of Pauline theology is the transformative language of liberation and new life, and new creation (see Romans 6-8, 2 Cor 5.17, Gal 6.15, and Philippians 3). Yet, many sermons on passages in the Pauline letters continue to focus on “forgiveness.” I blame the traditional translation and interpretation of Romans 4.25 and 5.1. So, let’s take another look at these verses.
The word “it” in the phrase “it was reckoned to him” in 4.23 refers to Abraham’s faithful, trusting belief, as the full phrase in verse 22 shows: Abraham’s faithful, trusting belief “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (dikaiosynē). The word “it” in the phrase “It will be reckoned to us…” in 4.24 also refers to “faithful, trusting belief,” so that again the full phrase is found in verse 24: faithful, trusting belief “in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” will be “reckoned to us” as righteousness.
In verse 25 Paul seems to have shifted to juridical language (“justification” as the translation of the term dikaiōsis) for the way God deals with “trespasses.” But this wouldn’t be a shift, if dikaiōsis/justification describes God’s act of recognizing (“reckoning”) the trespassers’ faithful, trusting belief in God, “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,” as righteousness. Understood that way, 4.25 is consistent with Paul’s emphasis on the character of faithful, trusting belief as righteousness.
In 5.1 Paul used dikaiōthentes, a form of the verb dikaioō. Traditionally, this verb is translated “justified” (NRSV). But “declared righteous” is also a good translation (see the NET)—it is also a good interpretation of “justification.” Besides, the latter translation captures Paul’s emphasis in Romans 4 on God’s declaration that all, Jews and non-Jews alike, who share Abraham’s faithful, trusting belief in God are truly righteous.
Romans 5.1-11 focuses on (1) the character of the one died “for us” and (2) the benefits of his death “for us.” The benefits are clear: God’s recognition of faithful, trusting belief as righteousness brings peace with God, access to God’s grace, hope of sharing the glory of God, the love of God, reconciliation, and protection from God’s wrath. The character of the one who died “for us” is also clear, except for what seems to be a confusion about the roles of God and Jesus.
The passive voice in 4.25a (Jesus “who was handed over to death for our trespasses”) focuses on Jesus as the object of God’s act of “handing over” Jesus to death. That seems to imply that God not only wanted Jesus to die “for our trespasses,” but actively got him killed. God forbid that it was so! The contrasting passive voice in 4.25b shows that’s not how Paul thought of God’s role in Jesus’ death “for our trespasses.” For there Paul did not continue with the verb “handed over,” but wrote “was raised.” God, and God alone, “raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4.24). Unlike God’s role in Jesus’ resurrection, God was not the only actor in Jesus’ death. Jesus’ own faithfulness—his righteousness—led him to his death. Paul may have thought God wanted Jesus to die “for our trespasses,” but Jesus freely chose to be faithful—righteous—even to the point of his death. God did not kill him! Jesus died at the hands of imperial authorities in the Temple and the Roman governor’s palace. Jesus could have abandoned his faithfulness to save his own life. So, when Paul wrote that God “handed over” Jesus to death, that meant that God affirmed Jesus’ free choice of faithfulness even to the point of death. It also meant that God allowed events to unfold when the imperial authorities freely chose to put Jesus to death (compare the use of the same verb, “handed over,” in Rom 1.24-28).
The same apparent confusion about the roles of God and Jesus comes up again in Romans 5.8. Since Christ’s dying for us while we were still sinners proves God’s love for us, it looks as though God caused Jesus to die “for us” by orchestrating the events that led to his death. Or all the actors, the imperial authorities just as much as Jesus, were carrying out God’s “will.” In either scenario, God’s “love” would be shown in God’s willing or causing Jesus’ death. As in 4.25, so here, although this is a possible interpretation, it is not the only possible interpretation. A better one is that God affirmed Jesus’ free, faithful, righteous death “for us” as one with God’s own love, righteousness, and justice.
God’s love is not about shedding innocent blood as a cult-sacrifice. It is about God’s character as love. At the same time, it is about Jesus’ character as faithful even to the point of dying for others. It is all about the righteous character of God and Jesus, both of whom are worthy of our faithful, trusting, belief, and hope.
When Paul turned to hope, he first identified “the glory of God” as the object of hope (Rom 5.2). The “glory” of God is God’s radiance, majesty, and power, or all the above. It is also the equivalent of the “image” of God (see Rom 3.23). “Glory” is also a status term, equivalent to “honor,” so that “the glory of God” could refer to the honor or approval God grants to those whom God recognizes as righteous—like Abraham and all who share his faithful, trusting belief. The latter interpretation is the one most consistent with Paul’s argument in Romans 4 and the interpretation of “justification” in 5.1 as God’s recognition of faithful, trusting belief as righteousness.
Right after this, Paul spoke of hope that comes from the character built up through the endurance of suffering. However, not all suffering leads to endurance and character! “Although Paul was confident that suffering produced endurance, which led to character and hope, nevertheless for some people suffering in fact leads in the opposite direction, toward despair and even death. Suffering can build character in those who have a healthy ego and a strong sense of the ultimate goodness of life, to say nothing of access to ample resources to endure and recover from suffering. Suffering, however, can crush others less ‘blessed.’ To them, a word of hope may not be the promise of endurance and character through suffering, but through knowledge that nothing ‘in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (8:39, NRSV).” [Cobb/Lull, Romans, 82.]
For Paul, the basis for hope is the love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us” (5.5b). The phrase “the love of God” is ambiguous: Is it God’s love, the love with which God relates to the world, the love that is God’s very nature and character? Or is God the object of love? If Paul meant that God’s loving character is “poured into our hearts” to give us assurance of God’s “glory”—that is, God’s honor and approval of those whose faithfulness endures even in the face of suffering—that would be good news only for those who had the capacity, like Jesus, for faithful endurance in the face of suffering. For many, who lack such capacity, that would be bad news! If the Holy Spirit’s pouring of God’s loving character “into our hearts” refers to the experience of God’s “glory” as God’s power to redeem sufferers from their suffering, many sufferers might be able to live with that. Some, perhaps many, sufferers might also find encouragement, comfort, and hope in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit empowers them to endure suffering by pouring into their hearts the unwavering, faithful love for God that builds strong character in the face of suffering.
Finally, I’ll close out my commentary on this reading with brief comments on a few details in the text. First, the Greek preposition hyper translated “for” in the phrase “Christ died for…” (5.6 and 8) does not have to mean “instead of” or “in the place of,” as in substitutionary atonement theories. A more natural meaning is “on behalf of,” “for the sake of,” “in the interests of,” or “for the benefit of.” A good case in point is Romans 5.7, where dying “for a righteous person” parallels daring to die “for the good.” (The Greek word for “good” has a definite article, but the Greek word for “righteous” does not.) If “the good” is an abstract noun—like the good, the beautiful, the true—it would make no sense to say that someone might dare to die instead or in place of, or as a substitute for, an abstract value. Troy Martin argues strongly for interpreting “the good” as a reference to God, who is the one and only “Good One.” [Troy W. Martin, “The Good as God (Romans 5.7),” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25.1 (2002): 55-70. The traditional translation “for a good person” creates a contrast between “a righteous person” and “a good person” that no one has satisfactorily explained!] In Martin’s interpretation, it makes no sense to say someone might dare to die instead or in place of God, or as a substitute for God! But, it does make sense to say someone might dare to die on God’s behalf, for God’s sake, in God’s interests, or for God’s benefit. So, unless Paul switched his use of this Greek preposition, 5.6 and 8 mean that Christ died for our benefit. The benefit of Jesus’ death includes peace, access to God’s grace, hope of sharing the glory of God, the love of God, reconciliation, and protection from God’s wrath.
The next detail is in verse 9: “his blood” merely refers to Jesus’ death, as we can see in verse 10, which refers to Jesus’ death and life. For an interpretation of justification “in his blood” as reconciliation through Jesus’ faithful death, which is too lengthy even for my already long lectionary commentaries, see the treatment of Rom 3.21-26 in Cobb/Lull, Romans, 63-73.
Next, in verse 10 “his life” refers to Jesus’ resurrection life. Although it could refer to Jesus’ faithfulness in life up to and including his death, that would make the contrast with “the death of God’s son” puzzling. If his death and his life refer to Jesus’ same faithfulness, why would Paul say “much more surely…”? And why would Paul use the past tense when he spoke of reconciliation as a benefit of Jesus’ death, but the future tense when he spoke of salvation as a benefit of “his life,” unless the later referred to an event distinct from his death? It makes more sense, then, for “his life” to refer to Jesus’ resurrection life—“eternal life”—as the salvation God promises in the future (see Romans 6 and 8).
Next, the manuscript evidence for 5.1 is stronger for the hortatory subjunctive: “let us have peace with God.” The style of this passage, however, is not that of moral instruction about what should or needs to be done, but the declaration of what is (“we have peace with God”): “we have been declared righteous,… we have obtained access to this grace, in which we stand,… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” and so on, just to list the indicative phrases in the first two verses. From verse 3 on, all the statements are about what has been, is, and will be. Romans 5.1, therefore, is a statement of the facts: “we have been declared righteous because of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Finally, the phrase “by faith” in Romans 5.1 is at the center of big debate among Pauline scholars. On one side are those who defend the traditional interpretation: namely, that it refers to justification by one’s faith in Jesus Christ. On the other side are those who argue that it refers to justification through Jesus’ faithfulness in his life and death. But these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. If I’m not mistaken, Luther’s view is that justification “through God’s grace alone” is “Christ’s righteousness” received “by faith alone.” In other words, faith in Christ is participation in Christ’s faithfulness, which God recognizes as righteousness, and that’s what “justification” is. For an argument in support of the latter view, see Cobb/Lull, Romans (especially the sections dealing with 1.16-17 and 3.21-26).
With verses 1-4 the author moves Jesus from Judea to Samaria, where our story takes place, and connects our story with the preceding narrative. Some of the themes of these verses cap off themes treated up to this point. From the beginning, this Gospel has portrayed Jesus and his followers as competing with John the Baptist and his followers. Also, the issue was whether John the Baptist or Jesus was the messiah. Two further issues are added in 3.22-4.4: Jesus’ greater popularity, and questions about whether Jesus baptized (3.22) or only his disciples baptized (4.2). Clearly, the author of this Gospel is trying to undercut the obvious conclusion implicit in the tradition about Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptist: namely, that Jesus was one of the Baptist’s disciples and rose to prominence after John’s arrest and execution (compare Jn 3.24 and Mk 1.14; Mt 4.12; Lk 3.20 and their contexts). These issues draw to a close at this point. The one remaining issue anticipates intensifying treatment in the rest of this Gospel: the curious, if not hostile, attention of the Pharisees to Jesus’ growing popularity (4.1).
Another connection between our story and the preceding narrative is that the final testimony of John the Baptist ends with the theme of our story: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” (3.36). Our story, like all the stories about Jesus in this Gospel, identifies Jesus as “the one who comes from above” (3.31), “whom God has sent” (3.34), and in whose hands God “has placed all things” (3.35). In our story Jesus shatters human boundaries as he brings God’s Truth and “eternal life” to a woman and her Samaritan townspeople. Just in case you think “eternal life” is only about unending life-after-death, or about “going to heaven,” the next story yanks us back to earth: Jesus gives life, here and now, to a sick boy in Capernaum (4.43-54), just as he will bring Lazarus back from death’s tomb to life in the here and now (John 11).
Reading stories in this Gospel is helped by knowing the author’s literary technique of moving from the literalist’s misunderstanding to the deeper meaning and truth of Jesus’ words and actions. In this story, the unnamed Samaritan woman takes Jesus literally and thinks of physical water from the well, which can fill a bucket or a drinking cup and which will slake one’s thirst only for a while, but Jesus is talking about water as a metaphor for God’s words and work in the world, which are found in Jesus and which satisfy life’s thirst forever. She also thinks about physical temple buildings, one that used to be in Samaria and one in Jerusalem, which was the focus of the rift between Judeans and Samaritans from the 6th century bce to the time of Jesus, but Jesus talks about the present as the time when God seeks people who will worship God, not in any particular locale—neither on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria nor on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem—but “in Spirit and truth” wherever they are. And the disciples have physical food on their minds, but Jesus talks about food as a metaphor for God’s work in the world, seen in Jesus’ words and deeds. That “food” is the true Eucharistic food!
Our Gospel reading is so long that it helps to break it out into its sections:
- Verses 4-6 set the scene.
- The first section consists of Jesus’ dialogue with an anonymous Samaritan woman, covering four topics:
- “Living water” (verses 7-15)
- The woman’s “husbands” (verses 16-18)
- True worship (verses 19-24)
- Jesus’ messianic self-revelation (verses 25-26)
- The second section consists of Jesus’ dialogue with his disciples over “food” and “harvest” as metaphors for God’s work in the world (verses 27-38).
- The final section consists of Jesus’ dialogue with the townspeople, who declare “he is the savior of the world” (verses 39-42).
So, what’s important about the well’s location on Jacob’s plot of land? It is where Jacob erected an altar and called it “God is the God of Israel” (Gen 33.18-20), built during the Persian period in the 6th century bce, but was destroyed by Judeans in 128 bce. Judeans believed that, unlike temples of the pagan gods strewn all over the eastern Mediterranean world, there should be only one temple for the God of Israel—namely, the one in Jerusalem, the city of King David. Some Jews, especially in Judea, considered Samaritans the same as gentiles and would not share drinking and eating implements with them (4.9). Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and Muslim traditions claim that “Jacob’s well”—the first known mention of which is John 4.6—is the well located today within a Greek Orthodox church in Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and the site of ancient Shechem. Jacob’s land has seen its share of hostilities: Judean-Samaritan, Christian-Samaritan, Muslim-Christian-Samaritan, and now Israeli-Palestinian.
Jesus, a Galilean Jew, offers the Samaritan people of this troubled land God’s “eternal life”! The Jesus of this Gospel “who comes from heaven…, testifies to what he has seen and heard” (3.31-32). What Jesus “has seen and heard” is that God pays no attention to tribal, ethnic, religious, and national boundaries! God seeks anyone who worships God “in Spirit and truth,” whoever they are and wherever they live, and gives them “living water” that “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4.14).
Let those in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories who have ears to hear listen!
Let those in the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran who have ears to hear listen!
Let those in state and federal offices and in labor unions who have ears to hear listen!
Let Democrats, Republican, and Tea Partiers who have ears to hear listen!
Let “gay” people and “straight” people who have ears to hear listen!
Let “white” people and people “of color” who have ears to hear listen!
Let the rich and the poor who have ears to hear listen!
Let us all who have ears to hear listen!
God’s truth, which Jesus “has seen and heard” and to which he testifies, is good news for all, and all means all, without exception!
This Jesus also shattered gender boundaries. He not only asks a non-Jew to share a dipper and/or a water cup, but he engages in conversation with female stranger. How promiscuous of him, and even more promiscuous of her! The Samaritan woman, though showing the same initial misunderstanding of Jesus’ mind-bending metaphorical language characteristic of all of his interlocutors, shows her intellectual capacities by staying in the dialogue and finally “getting it.” Contrast Nicodemus, for example, who remains a nincompoop throughout his dialogue with Jesus in chapter 3! Moreover, it was because of her testimony that many of her non-Jewish townspeople came to believe Jesus was “truly the Savior of the world” (4.39-42). Go girl! Again, Jesus acts on the truth he “has seen and heard” in God: gender boundaries, like tribal-ethnic-religious-national boundaries, are “from the earth,” not “from heaven” (3.31). With God and Jesus, all means all, without exception!
To be sure we get it, the author of this story has not given the Samaritan woman a name. Instead of showing disrespect, it allows a more open-ended, universalizing hearing of this story. The ethnic and gender boundaries Jesus shatters isn’t overly particularized or concretized. He shatters any and all attempts to cast “others” as out-of-bounds where God’s Truth and Abundant Life are concerned.
Moreover, this story is not about the immorality of serial marriages or the immorality of sexual relations outside marriage, though there is no reason to doubt the author of this story and the Johannine community accepted the standards of marriage and sexual morality of their time and culture. On one level, the story trades on those “family values.” But the deeper level of the story is really about monotheistic fidelity to the God of Israel. In Jewish traditions, serial marriages and sexual promiscuity were also metaphors for apostasy and idolatry. Judean traditions portray Samaritans as apostates and idol worshippers (see 2 Kgs 17.34-41). So, it’s possible that the mention of the Samaritan woman’s many “husbands” is a metaphor, like the other metaphors of water, temples, and food.
Finally, let’s return to consider again what’s up with “eternal life.” I’ve proposed that we should think of it as having to do with “abundance,” the quality of life on earth, here and now. Because of the term “eternal,” however, we cannot leave it at that. Since it is life that comes from God, it is everlasting, life that has no end. Throughout the ages and in all sorts of cultures, people have shown the desire for something that is permanent, or gives permanence, in the midst of world in which everything is in flux, and nothing endures very long. From ancient times to the present, many have looked for permanence in transitory things: beauty, health, wealth, fame, status, and power. The lie to such efforts to secure what we value is rust, decay, theft, fickle popularity, etc. Let’ admit it: “life’s hard work and then you die,” and “you can’t take it with you.”
So, what are we to do? Is all dust and to dust all must return? Yes, but the good news of this story, and all good news—whether in Jewish, Christian, or Muslim traditions—is that there is only one eternal resting place, and that is the only Eternal One whose character is Love. Jesus, “the savior of the world,” has seen and heard the Truth from God, that all, without exception, find their eternal resting place in God. Trusting belief in this good news is like water that will never leave you thirsty!
David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.