Jesus’ words overflow with metaphor: living water, the hour, food, harvest. Each of these metaphors attempts to open reality in fresh ways for his conversation partners. Jesus wants to open the eyes of the Samaritan woman and his disciples so that they can see what is being offered to them in the present instead of continuing to view everything through the lens of old realities. Jesus wants the Samaritan woman to see who is speaking with her at this moment and the gifts that he offers (4:10). He wants her to see that the present moment is the time of eschatological fulfillment (4:23-24). Jesus wants his disciples to see that the harvest is ready now, contrary to popular understandings (4:35). In both conversations (4:7.26, 31-38), Jesus takes familiar images and fills them with new meaning in order to open up for his listeners the possibilities of a life defined by God’s gifts. The metaphors of these verses keep the terms of the conversations always fresh, always suggestive, always open to new meanings in changing circumstances.
Everything is to be newly defined by the arrival of the hour, by the impingement of the eschatological future on the present. God’s salvation is available now, to all who will receive it (cf. 2 Cor 6:2). Salvation will be offered on God’s own terms, however, not necessarily in the form that those who wait on it have determined in advance. The Samaritans’ acclamation of Jesus as savior of the world reminds the reader of that. The savior in whom they put their faith does not conform to their prior expectations. The reality of God’s presence in Jesus redefines their previous categories.
The woman, the disciples, and the Samaritan villagers all received more from Jesus than their conventions and assumptions had led them to expect. One could say that once again Jesus transformed ordinary water into wine. An incredulous Samaritan woman becomes a witness to the gospel, Jesus’ questioning disciples become co-workers in the harvest, the despised Samaritans spend two days with the “savior of the world.” John 4:4-42 is a text of promise, of expectations overturned and surpassed. This text suggests that the life of faith and discipleship will be refreshed and reanimated by attending to Jesus’ vision of transformed reality and, most important, to Jesus himself. Jesus’ metaphors of living water and worship in spirit and truth invite the church to a new relationship to its God and to one another through his incarnate presence.
The closing words of the Samaritan villagers hold the key to understanding the narrative techniques of this text. The Samaritans no longer need the secondary witness of the woman’s word because “we have heard for ourselves” (v.42). Effective witness does not replace the immediate experience of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel; it leads to that experience. John 4:4-42 is narrated so that the readers, too, can sense that they have heard Jesus for themselves. As a result of reading this text, one may come to recognize oneself as a “Samaritan”—one to whom the good news has come in unexpected places at unexpected times.
It is a living parable of the sower and the seed – as well as a tale for those who would think that sowing the living word of God is a task limited to the insiders or professionals church people.
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007). 437-40
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 166-85
- Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 986-88
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 127-44
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 114-50
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 73-82
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 561-73
Dictionaries – David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
- Zdravko Stefanovic, Jacob’s Well, 3:608-9
- James D Pervis, Samaria, 5:914.
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible