Staring Down the Well

I wrote this paper in a course on the Gospel of John in my third year of University; I’m posting it here for the benefit of my Youth Class as with whom I will be studying John chapters 3 and 4 over the next two Sunday mornings.

Give it a read.

A Pharisee, a ruler of the Jewish people, ventured out by night hoping to find audience with a certain rabbinic teacher; what he found was a teaching far beyond his limited understanding.  A Samaritan woman left her home by the light of day to draw water from Jacob’s well; what she drew was far more than a beverage to satisfy her temporary thirst.  These two individuals – Nicodemus and an anonymous woman – met the man that John the Baptist called “the Lamb of God.” (John 1:29)  They met the Jesus of the fourth gospel.  He spoke to them of rebirth and living water.  They saw these notions as foreign, enigmatic at best; their eyes were set on the physical world they knew and lived in.  The narrative dialogues of John 3 and 4 express a general truth expressed in this text: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:5)  Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman did not understand Jesus when he spoke of things from above; their focus was below because they were from below, steeped in darkness.  Jesus, however, spoke as one from above.  The thematic concerns of these dialogues and these characters reflect a preoccupation with the things of the finite world below; Jesus – and, by extension, the author of this text – radically challenges their perspectives by pointing to the concerns of the infinite world above.

The initial actions of these two individuals display a genuine concern for an exclusively worldly anxiety, that of reputation.  Fear of earthly judgment motivated both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, though in admittedly different ways.  As a member of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus was constantly observed by his peers, the people.  Approaching a man who had previously turned over tables in the temple would not have sat well with his colleagues.  For this reason, the Pharisee came to see Jesus at night, causing their meeting to be far less conspicuous.  By contrast, the Samaritan woman went to the well at noon in the full light of day.  Immediately, one might question her intelligence, knowing that the times to draw water are early morning and late evening when the water is cool.  However, her conversation with Jesus in John 4 reveals the fact that she was a woman of questionable morality; she had had five husbands and was now living with another man.  This revelation suggests that her noontime visit to the well may have been spurred by something greater than ignorance; she went at a time when she knew that the other women of Sychar would not be there, a time when she could avoid their piercing glances and hurtful whispers.  While these two individuals were clearly plagued by fear of judgment, Jesus evidently was not.  He showed that he was willing to associate with anyone, from a religious leader of the Jews to a Samaritan woman, an outcast even among her own people.  Jesus was not concerned with worldly reputation; these dialogues show that he was concerned rather with things above.

Intrinsic in the fact that Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman feared societal judgment are their social roles and values.  Nicodemus clearly valued social standing, at least to an extent.  He was a ruler among the people; whether for selfish or sincere reasons, he apparently sought to rule, to teach.  Conversely, the Samaritan woman married numerous men in an obviously futile search for worldly fulfillment.  Their values, though strikingly different, were entrenched in the ways of the world.  In his dialogue with the Pharisee Jesus related his own purpose: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)  Not to rule.  Not to condemn.  The author shows that Jesus’ purpose in life was higher still; he came to save.  This represents a major theme in the gospel, the idea of the light coming to save those shrouded in darkness.

The most compelling similarity apparent in both of these dialogues is the common failure of these individuals to understand Jesus; he pointed to the things above while they stood there looking at their feet, staring down a well.  In speaking with Nicodemus Jesus said that no individual can, “… see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.[1]” (John 3:3)  The Pharisee, dumbfounded, questioned how a man might re-enter his mother’s womb.  Jesus, of course, was speaking of a spiritual rebirth, a birth of the spirit: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:6)  Nicodemus simply could not comprehend birth apart from the flesh.  Similarly, the Samaritan woman misunderstood Jesus when he told her that, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)  She responded plainly that the well was deep and he didn’t have a bucket.  Again, Jesus was referring to something greater than the physical: “… whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman could not understand that Jesus did not mean real water.  These dialogues serve the purpose of pointing out the futility of dwelling on the things of the flesh.  Rather, Jesus – and the author – shifts their focus above to spiritual birth, spiritual water, and eternal life.

What becomes transparently clear as one examines these dialogues is the realization that the understandings of religion according to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman differ greatly, first in comparison to each other and secondly compared to Jesus.  Nicodemus, though a religious leader, was told that he needed to be born again.  Nicodemus had religion; what Jesus confronts is the fact that Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, is spiritually dead, and therefore needs to be born again.  The Samaritan woman, conversely, was offered living water.  She did not have religion; what Jesus addresses in John 4 is this woman’s spiritual thirst.  Her only understanding of religion was worship in reference to location.  She knew that her people worshiped on the mountain while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem.  This was an understanding Nicodemus would likely have shared.  Jesus lifted their eyes and pointed higher still: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)  Short days after clearing the temple, Jesus clarifies his position; worship is not confined to Jerusalem or the temple just as life is not confined to the flesh.  The purpose of these dialogues is to force the reader to look higher.

The differences between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are substantial to say the least.  But, through his interactions with them, Jesus effectively renders these differences irrelevant.  Nicodemus went out at night to find Jesus.  The Samaritan woman went out in the day not looking for Jesus.  Walking in the dark with open eyes and walking in the light with eyes shut produce the same effective blindness.  Their differences in social status, gender, ethnicity, and religion meant nothing to Jesus because he did not come to condemn.  It was what these two individuals had in common that proved far more important; they were stranded below, transfixed in the ways of the world.  Jesus’ focus was on the things of above because he was from above.  Whether by way of giving light or opening eyes, his motivation was to give sight – spiritual insight – to these individuals and to the readers of this gospel.

[1] NIV text note: or born from above

Matthew Westacott, OWI Youth Leader

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