The lesson I would like to offer here is one of the most valuable, but also one of the hardest to communicate to modern and postmodern Western people. We are all descendants of the French and American Revolutions, which did not have much use for “old” containers or even “containment” of any sort. Americans call it “freedom,” but we are going to see Jesus making the case for a much older and biblical freedom than mere freedom from restraints.
This long and truly mystical Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well was already used by the early church in immediate preparation of the new candidates for baptism on Holy Saturday. All the elements of invitation, disclosure, unfolding levels of meaning, intimacy, reciprocity, and enlightenment are here for the taking. This multileveled story surely deserves our overall theme of a “wondrous encounter” of giver, given, and gift.
As is often the case, the story is also a reversal theme (who is giving to whom?), a first-level misunderstanding, an ethical bump in the road, and a deeper conversation, all to move the sincere reader to a needed seeking and questioning, which is exactly what we should want in all Christian beginners. This text could actually be used to exemplify a non-fundamentalist approach to Scripture, as Jesus leads the woman beyond her first literal understanding to an inner and spiritual understanding of what is actually happening. Further, he uses the moment to lead to an interfaith understanding too: “God is Spirit, and those who worship him will worship in Spirit and truth” (4:24).
The story exemplifies Jesus’ non-interest in the religious culture and “denominationalism” of his own day. He not only talks to a strange woman alone (to the scandal of the disciples), but points out that the truth claims of both groups, Jews and Samaritans, are of no final interest to God: “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither here on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.. . authentic worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (4:23); he repeats this twice, and the second time even more strongly (4:24). It is really quite amazing, and one wonders how we continue to defend such artificial divisions to this day, given this statement.
Of course, the whole point is that unless you experience the Spirit, which Jesus says is “the water that I will give which will turn into a spring within you, welling up unto eternal life” (4:14), the whole thing falls apart. If one has not made contact with the Spirit Spring of Water, we will always define ourselves by nonessentials and cultural accidents and external forms and formulas.
And then Jesus leads her to a sweeping and usually unnoticed concluding vision: “Open your eyes and see! The fields are shining for the harvest, the reaper can collect his wages now, the reaper can already bring in the grain of eternal life! The reaper and the sower can rejoice together” (4:35–36). You can hear Jesus’ excitement at the possibilities. Why? Partly because it is all happening now! The word already or now is used three times in the passage, and the phrase “sower and reaper together” conflates any notion of time between action and reward. The sowing is the reaping.
You could also say that he is the reaper and she is the sower, and whatever is happening is happening right now. He has leapt beyond all boundaries of time, morality, and religion to announce a universal and gratuitous victory for God and for humanity that is taking place in the present tense (rather clear in verses 36–38)! This really is great stuff, which could still reform Christian pettiness and division, or any notion of the Gospel as a reward/punishment system that comes after death.
Read the entire story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42) in your preferred Bible.
“God of Spirit and Truth, expand my mind, but even more my heart to receive your great and universal good news. I know that no change of heart happens without a change of mind, and no change of mind happens without a change of heart. Get me started in one place or the other!”