By Jean Meade
This week’s readings in our journey through the Gospel of John for the Good Book Club present several episodes where Jesus interacts with strangers, and doing so, gives insight into his person and mission, which begins with the Jewish people and finally extends to the entire world.
Cleansing the Temple: A Parable of Jesus’s Death (2:13–23)
Jesus astonished his fellow Jews when he entered the temple during the Passover and enacted a parable of his sacrificial death and resurrection. First, he made a whip and drove all the sacrificial animals out of the temple. Then he went after the money, pouring out the coins from their boxes. Finally, he overturned the tables and told the pigeon sellers to take the birdcages away.
We often explain this confrontation with the licensed dealers in sacrificial animals by saying they were cheating the poor. Jesus, however, does not say anything about cheating, only that “you shall not make my Father’s house into a house of trade,” claiming that, as the Son of God, he had the right to say what goes on in God’s temple.
Then, when his fellow Jews ask for a sign to justify his outrageous actions, which rudely and forcefully halted the legitimate work of temple sacrifice prescribed in the Torah, he speaks of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in 3 days. Taking him literally, they remark that it took 46 years to build it, as if that was adequate repudiation of his prophecy. Did anyone understand? No, not even his disciples, but they remembered and understood after he was raised from the dead after three days, that he “was speaking of the temple of his body.”
But Jesus was also saying something else; his death would become the final and perfect sacrifice for sin, obviating the need forever for blood sacrifices in the temple, or even a temple at all. That’s why he shoos all the animals out. He is here; they are no longer needed!
Nicodemus the teacher of Israel meets the Messiah (3:1–21)
Perhaps he was there to witness Jesus’ performance art in the temple, or perhaps he only heard scandalized reports of what Jesus did and said, but Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, is fascinated and wants to talk to this strange prophet himself. So he comes to see Jesus by night. That’s the time for secret meetings, conspiracies, and heart-to-heart discussions. Nicodemus knows his Torah, prophets, and writings, so he thinks he can have a learned private discussion of theology with this amazing prophet Jesus without his fellow Pharisees knowing about it.
But Jesus starts talking about being born again to see the Kingdom of God, which flummoxes Nicodemus, who seems as obtuse as the group in the Temple when he asks, literally, “Can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Answer, “You must be born of the Spirit to experience eternal life.”
Now Jesus introduces the discourse on the Spirit which blows where it wills. He links himself to the serpent in the wilderness that healed the Israelites of their snakebites by looking at it. Again he is talking of the significance of his death — when he is lifted up on the cross, those who gaze on him with belief will be healed of their sins and given eternal life. Then the narrator offers what we have come to call the “little gospel”: “For God so loved the world, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The message of belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah is for the whole world, not just the Jews. That means despised people like Samaritans and indeed even Gentiles are to be included along with God’s chosen people, the Jews; and they are introduced in the next encounters.
Interlude: Cousin John at the Jordan River (3:22–36)
John has baptized Jesus along with practically everybody else in Judea but still insists to his disciples and fellow Jews that he is not the Christ. Instead he directly implies that Jesus is: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
Imagine saying that when all of Judea is coming out to the riverside to listen to you speak and watch you baptize. John sets the example for every follower of Jesus: point to Jesus, not to yourself! The narrator adds that the Father loves the Son and those who believe in him are given the power of the Spirit to proclaim who Jesus is: it is not by measure that God gives the Spirit, recalling the words about being born of the Spirit to Nicodemus, and introducing the theme of the next encounter.
Boy Meets Girl: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (4:1–45)
The very first missionary was a woman!
In biblical times, if you want to meet a woman from the neighborhood, check out the local well, often a place of romance in the Bible. Women and girls traditionally were the ones who went to the well to get water for their households. Back in Genesis, Abraham’s servant fulfilled his promise to find a wife for Isaac by going to the well, where he encountered Rebekah (Gen 24:1–67). Subsequently, Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob, on the run after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing from his older brother Esau, meets his beloved wife, Rachel, at the well (Gen 27:1–29:30).
Now, on his journey through Samaria to reach Galilee, Jesus comes along to the very same well and meets a woman there. His disciples have gone off to the city to buy food, so he is alone, just as he was with Nicodemus, when this Samaritan woman approaches with her water jar. Jesus defies all convention by initiating a conversation with her, and actually asking her for a favor, a drink of water. She is equal to the occasion, replying with the obvious question that perhaps many of her sex would have been to reluctant to ask: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” He thinks her worthy of a serious theological discussion, replying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
This dialogue takes a flirtatious turn as she points out he literally has nothing to draw with as she does, the well is deep, and does not give “living water” as far as she knows. “Where do you get that?” she asks. “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well…?” (Possible subtext — remember how Jacob found Rachel at this very well? Jesus might be a good candidate for number husband number six or seven, depending on whether you count the non-husband she’s living with.)
I think Jesus is enjoying this exchange as he gives her a short sermon on just what he has to offer her and to everyone who will listen to him. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In her response, is she being obtuse like all the Jews in the previous incidents or is she taking him seriously, as well as literally? She now calls him Sir. “Sir, give me this water that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
Her seriousness impels him to take her seriously. According to the mores of their time, he should be talking to her with her husband present or not at all, so he says: “Go call you husband and come here.” Her answer, ”I have no husband,” resonates like Mary’s question to the angel Gabriel, “How can this be since I have no husband.” But she is just the opposite in experience from the Virgin Mary. Her answer is true, says Jesus, because she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. But the good news is for her, as well as for the more virtuous, innocent, or well-born.
She immediately realizes this is no ordinary man, and unembarrassed by his uncanny knowledge of her personal history with men, she replies, “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet,” and asks him about one of the main issues that divide Samaritans from the Jews, who look down on Samaritans as not pure-bred children of Abraham and defective in their theology and worship: Can we worship here in Samaria as our ancestors did, or do we need to go to the temple in Jerusalem?
Think of what Jesus has just said to his fellow Jews about the coming obsolescence of the Temple as you hear his reply: “Woman, believe me, the time is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Inspired and emboldened by his words, she says she is looking for the Messiah to come and show them all things. Her faith calls forth Jesus’s first claim to the title Messiah in the Gospel of John: “I who speak to you am he.” Jesus has just had his first and only serious theological discussion with a woman, in a public place, although they are alone, and she’s a Samaritan to boot!
At this climactic moment the disciples reappear and marvel that he is talking to a woman but don’t dare to ask him why. She takes this opportunity to run off and tell everyone in the city to “Come see a man who told me all I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” In her haste she leaves her water jug behind. The great Johannine Scholar, C. H. Dodd, speaks of that water jar left behind as one of the many examples of eyewitness details in this Gospel.
The disciples are as obtuse as everyone else; as Jesus says that his food is to do the work of the Father, they wonder if he found some food to eat. It’s almost comic relief from the intensity of Jesus’ discourse with this woman.
Meanwhile, the Samaritans who listened to her testimony come and ask Jesus to stay with them and, after two days, say they know that Jesus is indeed ”the Savior of the world.” She thus becomes the very first missionary in all the Gospels.
A “Pure-bred” Gentile and the Second Sign (4:46–54)
Jesus moves on to Galilee, where the residents welcome him, despite his previous testimony that a prophet has no honor in his own country. An “official,” that is, a Gentile military officer, no doubt Roman, in Capernaum, has heard that Jesus has come back and he goes to beg Jesus to heal his desperately ill son.
Up to this point, the Gospel account has moved from the center of Jewish life, the temple in Jerusalem and a secret meeting with a teacher of Israel in Jerusalem, to the conversion of many Samaritans because of the testimony of a woman met by chance at Jacob’s well who is bold enough to respond to Jesus’ overture to her.
Now a pagan Roman official comes to beg for a healing from this Jewish preacher and healer. That’s a powerful reversal of roles, the Roman begging the Jew. Jesus heals his child by his word, and thus converts the official and his entire household. Although he has had little preparation to receive it, the miracle is enough for this official to “see the Kingdom of God” through the power of the Spirit that blows where it will. And thus it is the second sign in this Gospel; Jesus has powerfully demonstrated, by his actions, his teachings on the Spirit, and by his deed here, that he is indeed the Savior of the World.
The Rev Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest in the Diocese of Louisiana.