Wild Lectionary: Love Flows Like a River

The Third Sunday in Lent
John 4

By Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook

John 4 is like a kaleidoscope. From one angle, it is a story about Jesus’ gender-inclusive invitation to dis-cipleship. Turn it slightly and you can see Jesus seeking to heal a hostile history between Samaritans and Judeans. From yet another angle, it speaks to the question of authentic worship.

Today, we’d like to invite you to see it with us from yet another perspective: as a “religion of creation” text that reveals God’s love to be like flowing water.

Narratively, John 4 forms a “diptych” with the preceding story, Jesus’ nighttime encounter with the Jeru-salem leader, Nicodemus. There, Jesus invited the Pharisee to see and enter the realm of God by being “born again/from above.” But like so many elite men, Nicodemus can make so sense of Jesus’ invitation. Jesus offers him the metaphor of flowing, blowing wind/spirit (Gk, pneuma, meaning both “wind” and “spirit”), but Nicodemus doesn’t get it (3.8-9). In contrast, the Samaritan woman will stay with her con-versation with Jesus and eventually become the first “apostle” in John’s gospel, having been “sent” (the meaning of Gk, apostolos) to proclaim Jesus to her people.

As John 4 begins, we are told by the narrator that it was “necessary” (Gk, dei) for Jesus to go through Samaria on his way back to Galilee from Judea (4.3). This necessity is an ironic double entendre. The word dei in Scripture almost always refers to divine necessity: something anyone must do because God commands it. Jesus “must” go to Samaria in order to heal the long-simmering division between “Jude-ans” and “Samaritans.” This division led many men headed to Jerusalem for Scripturally-mandated feasts (the mandate applied only to males; see Deut 16) to go around Samaria by descending the steep rift valley and crossing over the Jordan River. Given what unfolds in this story, the cultural practice of maintaining Judean-Samaritan segregation by crossing the Jordan adds yet another level of irony, for the Jordan was the primary “living water”—that is, water that flows—that defined the Promised Land (“crossing” the Jordan is mentioned sixteen times in Moses’ departure speech that comprises the book of Deuteronomy). That is, people had to cross “living water” to avoid a situation in which Jesus will offer living water. Further irony can be heard for listeners today, who may know that the flowing Jordan has been reduced to a thin trickle because of agricultural abuse, generating new disputes among the peoples dependent on its flow (e.g., http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/basins/jordan/index.stm). That is, the “living water” that formed the border of the Promised Land is itself barely “alive” today. The abundance of the Creator’s provision of living water—celebrated by the religion of creation—has, in this and so many cases, been reduced to imperially-controlled scarcity.

Jesus, we are told, must “go through” (Gk, dierchesthai) Samaria. The word can also be rendered “pene-trate,” underscoring the physicality of Jesus’ embodied mission to bring God’s love into the land of the hated “other.” To discover the root of this hatred, we must travel back over the long history of monarchy and exile. In Jesus’ day, “Samaria” refers to the region between Galilee and Judean. But earlier, Samaria was the capital city of Israel, the northern kingdom that had broken off from the Jerusalem-centered op-pressive monarchy (1 Kg 12). Israel’s rebellion was led by Jeroboam, a former “servant of Solomon” (1 Kg 11.26) who turned on Solomon’s successor, his son, Rehoboam, to lead the Israelites into freedom. Throughout the rest of the Jerusalem monarchy, the “sin[s] of Jeroboam” are mentioned 24 times as the basis for condemning Israel’s own kings. The “sin of Jeroboam” was leading YHWH’s people away from Jerusalem as the center of worship and life.

Near the end of the monarchical period, Jerusalem’s king Josiah attempted to restore unity between the former Israelites and the people of Jerusalem, perhaps in the hope of staving off the growing strength of the Babylonian empire. What is sometimes euphemistically referred to as a policy of “reform” was, ac-cording to 2 Kg 23, a scorched earth campaign of destruction and murder of priests who refused Josiah’s “invitation.” Central to Josiah’s campaign was the crushing of worship at “the high places,” i.e., earth-spots considered sacred by the locals (2 Kg 23.5-15). The culmination of the campaign was the destruc-tion of the altar at Bethel on the southern border, erected by Jeroboam as one of two holy sites that framed the land (with Dan the other in the far north).

After Exile, the Persians sent the former Jerusalemites held in Babylon back to the Land to rebuild the city, its walls and the temple. The Persian elite had its own reasons for seeking to control the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which served as a military base for them for some two hundred years. The former Israel-ites, now “Samaritans, fought to be part of the rebuilding, but were rebuffed by the Persian-supported elite (Ezra 4). In response, the northerners constructed their own temple on Mt. Gerazim, as a parallel to the Jerusalem temple on Mt. Zion. This was the historical situation that it was “necessary” for Jesus to penetrate and to heal: the by-then ancient animosity between Samaritans and Judeans.
Central to Jesus’ mission is the contrast between two sources of water. He meets the woman at a well, which she claims was given to her people by “our father, Jacob,” “Mr. Israel” himself (Gen 32.28). Well water is old, stagnant, and requires much labor to acquire. It pins in place people of arid terrain, who must come repeatedly to the well to survive—until the well runs dry (cf. the capitalist conundrum of wells drilled two thousand feet deep into California’s central aquifer to serve almond production). It also evokes narrative memory of both struggle and joy around wells. For instance, a well saves the life of Ha-gar and her son after they are cast out (Gen 21.19), while just a few verses later, another well becomes a point of dispute between Abraham and King Abimelech (Gen 21.25-32). Abraham’s servant finds a wife for his son, Isaac, at a well (Gen 24) and Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at the same well a generation later (Gen 29). That Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a well would certainly have evoked a nod and a wink from those in the audience who knew the stories of joy emerging from well-courtship scenes.

The “living water” Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is from a different source: God’s own self. Living water was a well-known symbol of God’s care and provision (e.g., Jer 2.13; 17.13). Narratively, the liv-ing, flowing water parallels the blowing, flowing Spirit/wind of love offered to Nicodemus.
Flowing water was also an ancient, prophetic symbol of God’s mishpat vetsedaqah, the “right judgment and right behavior” that was the fruit of the covenant between YHWH and Israel: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5.24). Amos’ image was, of course, central to the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. (see the Lent series here at radicaldiscipleship.net grounded in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of several places where King used this image).
Just as Jesus and the Samaritan woman get into a conversation about the nature and availability of this “living water,” the conversation seems to shift abruptly. Jesus tells her to “Go, call your man and come back” (Jn 4.16). This leads to an often misunderstood exchange about her having had “five men” but liv-ing with one now who is “not your man” (4.18). Sexist interpreters regularly take this as a critique of her marital fidelity. But understood in context, the “five men” refer to the peoples transplanted into Israel by the Assyrian empire in order to dilute the local sense of identity that might stand in resistance to Assyria (2 Kg 17.24-41). The current “man” in this reading is the emperor Domitian and the Roman regime over which he presides as “savior of the world,” an imperial epithet found on Roman coins of the time. What is at stake here is not one woman’s sexual history, but the Samaritans own struggle for their identity as children of Jacob. They, like the Judeans and anyone who receives Jesus (Jn 1.12-13), are invited into the inclusive reign of God that flows across all human-made boundaries.
This leads directly into another pair of contrasting earth-symbols: the “mountains” in Jerusalem and Sa-maria at which people worship. However, a deeper look reveals that worship was not on the mountain itself, as where Moses met YHWH at Mt. Sinai/Horeb (Ex 3, 19, 24, etc.) and Jesus took his disciples to meet God in the synoptic gospels (Mark 9, Matt 17, Lk 9). Rather, it was at the artificial “mountain” of the respective human-made temples that worship took place. The tradition of imperial “mountains” goes back to the Babylonian ziggurat “mountains” mercilessly mocked in the Tower of Babel story as monu-ments to human pretension (Gen 11).

Jesus will not buy into the presupposition implicit in the Samaritan woman’s question, namely, that wor-ship must take place in one of the two sanctioned temples. Rather, he returns to the image of wind/spirit: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4.24). In other words, wor-ship of God must be a life-giving flow, just as living water and blowing wind flow. And as something flowing and blowing, that Spirit knows no human-made boundaries that separate peoples from one an-other and from the earth’s sources of life. Just as Genesis’ mothers and fathers flowed through the land, following the seasons of fertility and growth, so the true God is not pinned to a place, but flows widely and blows wildly (cf. Gen 1.2). To God, there is no “Samaria” or “Judea” or “Galilee.” There is, rather “the Land,” (Heb, ha-eretz) out of which humans were made and which overflows with creative abun-dance as pure gift, beginning with Eden (Gen 2.6-7). This is what Jesus invites the woman and her fel-low Samaritans into: a healing embrace among God, humanity and all of creation (see Song of Songs for an earlier expression of this healing vision, especially as elucidated by Ellen Davis).

The story concludes with the woman’s witness and the invitation by the Samaritans for Jesus to abide with them, where they proclaim him to be what emperor Domitian claimed to be: “the savior of the world” (4.39-42). For this is the nature of “salvation” in the religion of creation: not the imperial peace achieved by military violence, but restored, earthed relationships among diverse peoples and creation, fueled and facilitated by the flowing water/wind of God. Perhaps it is fitting to close with a song that celebrates this promise and hope:

Peace is flowing like a river,
Flowing out from you and me.
Flowing out into the desert,
Setting all the captives free.

Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Photo or video caption “from our local watershed”

2 thoughts on “Wild Lectionary: Love Flows Like a River

  1. Thank you once again for uncovering the richness of the Samaritan woman story in John 4. You’ve named the God known in and through Jesus to be unbounded, free-flowing, erasing barriers, extravagantly loving, intimately connected, healing long standing rifts and available to all wherever you stand (as our friend would say) on the planet. Compelling Word. Rich reflection. Gratitude flowing!

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