Eagle of St John - stained glass

Studying John 4 (7-15, 28-30, 39-41)

Our lesson book cherry-picks some select verses (7-15, 28-30, 39-41) from John 4:1-42, the text we’re studying this week, but as we did when we studied this text a couple of years ago, we’ll probably want to read all 42 verses of this story out of the actual Bible. Some notes on the text from 2021 are here. Some additional questions are here. Here are a couple of additional notes from this reading:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Remembering that we’re reading in John’s gospel, we will probably want to be on the lookout for symbolism, especially for recurrent symbolism. Like water, maybe, which has been a prominent motif in John’s opening chapters. There’s John the Baptist (or, John the Baptizer, if we want to be Presbyterian about it), and a whole lot of baptizing, starting in chapter 1 (vv19-28), and then the “water for purification” changed into wine in chapter 2 (vv1-11), and then the mention of “water and Spirit” in the conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3 (v5). That’s followed by more baptizing (vv22-24), which precipitates John the Baptist’s commentary about needing to decrease, while Jesus increases (v30), and further testimony pointing to Jesus’ divinity.

By the time we get to chapter 4, and this long conversation with a woman – maybe a symbol of wisdom, or a symbol of sin, or maybe who or what she turns out to represent will depend on what she does in the course of this conversation … – at a well – deeply watery – we are already primed to be thinking of the significance of water as a means of entry into life.

It may not be entirely coincidental that the next thing that happens AFTER this episode in Samaria is that Jesus’ RETURNS to Cana “where he had changed that water into wine” just in case we’d forgotten, and heals an official’s son who is at the point of death (vv46-54).

That episode may round off this cycle of water stories Or not, because chapter 5 brings us back to a pool of water, and more healing, explicitly tied to the forgiveness of sins. There’s walking on water in chapter 6. Jesus’ reference to “rivers of living water” flowing from the believer’s heart in chapter 7 (v37-39). There will be a shift to sight and light imagery, and the theme of life for a few chapters. And then, in chapter 13, we’ll be back to water (vv1-20).

All this water is part of the context in which we need to understand this story of Jesus’ conversation with this Samaritan woman.

This story is in the lectionary – just last week, Third Sunday in Lent (A).

CLOSER READING: Once again, some earlier notes on the text are here.

We might consider the remark “he had to go through Samaria” in light of a map of the area. Not going through Samaria would be a long way round from Judea. Whether that’s a sufficient explanation … ?

Here’s one more thing: I’ve always wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ quoting the “saying” “four more months and then the harvest.” But just recently I ran across a source that pointed out that barley sowing begins November/December, and is staggered over four months, with the first barley getting ripe around Passover.

That makes the saying “four more months and then the harvest” maybe something like our saying “don’t count your chickens until they hatch” but also, maybe, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” And also, maybe, whatever we would say if there’s a long, hungry wait and a lot of work to do before seeing the results we’re hoping for.

The story seems to be set around Passover – Jesus and the disciples were, according to John 2:23, in Jerusalem for Passover. Then (John 3:22) they stayed in the area for awhile baptizing people. Then (beginning of our text) they head back home to Galilee. That seems to place this story temporally during the barley harvest. So we could imagine the literal fields are literally ripe for harvesting.

But Jesus is probably not talking about literal fields in v35.

painting of woman, well, Jesus, landscape

Images: Eagle of St. John in stained glass, Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Christ and the Samaritan woman at the Well,” [crop] John Linnell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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