Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Pharisee and an Outcast

Because all scripture should be read within context, no one verse or passage to be lifted from the place where its author set it,  today we’re going to look at John 4:1-42 as it relates to John 3, where Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  So, crack John 3 [and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, reread John 4 for good measure] and read it.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait…     
Nicodeums Visiting Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner - found at

Now, as we’ve mentioned [repeatedly] before, in chapter 4 we find that Jesus has gone out of his way, literally, to meet this particular woman at this particular well.  But this point becomes crystalline when considering it in such close proximity to that of Nicodemus the Pharisee visiting Jesus.  In the Nicodemus discourse, it is the Pharisee who seeks out Jesus; yet for the Samaritan woman it is the other way around.  Another striking difference between these two accounts is the time at which they happen.  John notes that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, while Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman occurs at noon. 
Again, we’ve established that some scholars deem this an unlikely time for drawing water, and make further claims about the woman’s character based on this fact [including that she has no friends or is not welcome by the other women, which is why she draws her water at noon, alone].[1]  However, as much as this anthropologic information supports the typography of this woman as an outcast, literarily, John is employing one of his preferred tactics, the expression of duality, to further highlight the differences between these two encounters: Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the dark, while Jesus approaches this woman in the light of day.  Thus the insertion of time and location, which are characteristic of John’s gospel, serve to draw the readers’ attention to the polarization of these narratives.  And because the woman’s exchange with Jesus occurs in the light, John paints her as the better example of faith, understanding, and evangelism.

Within the Nicodemus conversation it is the Pharisee who begins the dialogue, as the honor of speaking first is generally afforded to the most socially superior individual.[2]  Even though Nicodemus identifies Jesus as “a teacher who has come from God,” Jesus immediately commandeers the exchange by ignoring Nicodemus’ question; Jesus offers instead a statement that is completely off the subject that Nicodemus has introduced.  In the remainder of their conversation, Nicodemus is left only with questions and Jesus guides the discussion in an increasingly harsh manner through to its cessation.  In the Samaritan discourse, Jesus is the initiator of contact, which does indicate his superior position; however this contact is highly unusual and counter-cultural.  In fact, when the disciples return from procuring food, they are surprised to find him engaged in a conversation with this woman, yet, as Keener suggests, they know Jesus well enough not to question him out loud.[3]      

While Nicodemus initially appeared to have a superior position in his conversation with Christ, “Jesus approached the relationship with the Samaritan woman with all the cards on his side: he was male, he was Jewish, he was a Rabbi.  He came with knowledge, a certain amount of affluence, friends, and the privilege afforded to him as a result of being part of the dominant culture.”[4]  And yet, he brooked interaction with this woman, who by Jewish pietists’ definition would have been considered perpetually unclean from birth due to her Samaritan roots.[5]  And he humbled himself before her, empowering her in their exchange, asking for her help in quenching his thirst.[6]  This humility was so out of the ordinary, the woman comments on it in verse nine, asking how a Jewish man could be requesting a drink from her, a Samaritan woman.[7] It is worth noting that Jesus furthers his expression of humility in showing his willingness to be made unclean by this woman, for as she notes, he has “nothing to draw with,” meaning he would have to use her utensils (4:11). In response to her seeming refusal, Jesus offers a further supplication: the gift of living water.  

During their conversation, each of Jesus’ answers to her questions show that unlike his exchange with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was considered to be one who should understand the things about which Jesus spoke, Christ will treat the Samaritan woman as one who does not yet understand.  She is a perennial outsider, even without a corrupt morality.  At no point does Jesus verbally distance himself from her with increasingly cryptic responses, as he had with Nicodemus; instead, he offers greater amounts of information, without ignoring her questions or impugning her intelligence, though he does allow her to duck to issue of her marital state.  Thus when she states her faith that he is a prophet and later that from the Jews the Messiah is coming and will show the Samaritans all things, Jesus offers her the clearest, most efficient personal Christology yet: “egw eimi,” I am he (4:26).

This statement secures her faith and she immediately acts upon it; she leaves her bucket where it is and departs to call her fellow Samaritans to this man whom she believes is the Messiah.  Yet, Nicodemus, a man who was supposed to be constantly villagent for the consummation of God’s promise, is even rebuked by Jesus for his lack of belief (3:12).  Thus a foreign woman, the last person any Israelite would have expected, heralded the Messiah’s coming.  She called her people to Christ, believing with all that she was that Jesus was the Promised One.  While the Pharisee, a man whom Jesus identifies as “Israel’s teacher” (3:10), had only questions and unbelief.  Thus, when we look at these two passages together, we see Jesus lifting a woman to a place of greater use in his kingdom; for she was ministered to and used by Jesus to announce the reality of his kingdom on earth, in a way that the Pharisee Nicodemus could not, because he could not believe.

And these two scenarios pivot on belief.  One, who should have known better, did not believe.  The other, who was fairly clueless, believed.  And tucked so neatly between these two accounts, not just once, but twice, is the theme of both:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.   Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)

-- And --

The one who comes from heaven is above all.  He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.  Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.   For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.   Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:31b-36)

Thus, the Pharisee isn’t bad because he’s a Pharisee, nor because he’s male.  And the Samaritan woman isn’t good because she’s a woman, or a Gentile, or a sinner.  It is merely because he did not believe.  And she did.

Belief in Jesus Christ is the pivotal catalyst for eternal life. 

Without it, we are dead. 

  Enjoying this study?  Here's a link to other articles in this series: The Women Who Knew Jesus

[1]Craig S. Keener, “One New Temple in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22; Acts 21:27-29; Mark 11:17; John 4:20-24),” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 12 (2009): 82.
[2] Craig Blomberg, “Literary Criticism, Introduction to Mark and Matthew,” Lecture, Gospels and Acts class, Denver Seminary, Denver, CO, September 27, 2011.
[3] Keener, “One New Temple,” 82.
[4]Brenda Salter McNeil, “A More Excellent Way: Race and Gender Reconciliation Through Christ,” Priscilla Papers, 14, (2000):  1-5.
[5] Keener, “One New Temple,” 82.
[6] McNeil, “A More Excellent Way.”
[7] Leonard Swidler, “Jesus in His Encounter with Women,” AFER, 13, (1971):  297-298.

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