January 21, 2012

A Note on John 4

The story of the Samaritan woman in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel has formed a part of the readings at Evening Prayer this week. This has led me to reflect once again on that curious middle: the question of the woman’s husbands. I don’t have time for an extended essay but want to flag a thought to which I might return later for elaboration.

I have long felt that when Jesus says, “The one you have now is not your man,” he is referring to himself. I checked a number of commentaries on John’s Gospel and discovered that my view may be a novel one — and yet it seems rather obvious to me. First to the commentaries, then to my sense of things — again very briefly.

Most of the commentaries put the focus of this section of the encounter on the woman and her moral status. Arguments are raised as to whether the rabbinic “three husband rule” applied to Samaritans — or even if it was a rule. Allegorical interpretations also come to play: reflective of a supposed pantheon of five Samaritan deities — the sixth being the God of Israel imperfectly accepted. Even further afield an allegory of the five senses as opposed to the sixth sense of the Spirit has been suggested.

All of this seems rather far from what appears to me to be going on in this encounter. First of all, this is John’s Gospel — an intense theological work rather than a mere historical record. In addition, certain key words and phrases with emphatic meanings in John’s language show up in the passage in question — not just in the part about the husbands, but throughout the pericope. Crucial among these words is one used by Jesus in his response to the woman: Now.

Second, the whole passage is about Jesus — note how he keeps turning the conversation back to himself. In a way it reminds me of the joke about the actor at the cocktail party, who after going on and on about himself, finally says to his host, “But enough about me. What did you think of my performance?” On this ground alone a detour-with-badinage into the woman’s marital life seems quite beside the point if in the end it does not turn back to Jesus — as do the surrounding passages that make up this dominical sandwich.

In the first case Jesus asks for water but then displays himself as the source from which a living spring will well up to eternal life. In the third case the issue about where to worship is settled by a pointed now (again, the hour coming and here), and in the person of Jesus the Messiah. In between is this seemingly off-topic persiflage about “her man.” Why would Jesus ask for her man if she didn’t have one — as she says she doesn’t. (The ambiguity is exacerbated for us because the passage does not use a distinctive word for husband; it would seem that if she was living with a man, he would be, well, her man even if not her husband, if such a distinction could even be made.) And so the one she “has now” is Jesus — right then and there by the well of Jacob — and he isn’t “her man” because she has not grasped him for Who He Is, or accepted him as He Who Is... yet.

So, in each section of this short three-act play, the focus begins with the woman and her concerns but turns back to Jesus. This triple construction is not at all foreign to the Johannine way of thinking or constructing (e.g. Way, Truth, Life), and the whole incident fits in well with, and has echoes of, the other encounters in which Jesus reveals his true identity to people who do not seem at first to grasp what is being revealed to them — in particular in contrast to the Baptist, who does recognize and testify. Note the dialogue with Nicodemus in the preceding chapter; and also more significantly the verbatim resonance of the woman’s “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” with the later “Are your greater than our father Abraham?” — which leads in the end to another of the great “I Am” proclamations. John 8:53,58).

In short, then, I think it misses the point to read this passage as about the woman’s marital history, and obscures the reason Jesus raised the question in the first place: as a way to point her back to himself. Which is, as I remind us, the stated purpose of John’s Gospel. (20:31)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Castanea_d said...

Thank you for this. I have always found those few verses exceedingly strange, especially in John where every word is of import. Why did Jesus bring this up?

Yours is the first answer I've encountered that makes sense of this.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

A wonderful and illuminating interpretation!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Castanea and RE! Glad it is helpful.

Jesse said...

Very interesting indeed! I confess, I have never paid sufficient attention to this passage. It would seem that at the merely narrative level the woman herself thinks this really is about her and her various marriages ("Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.")

But in the commentary on this passage in the Catena aurea, one of Aquinas's authorities gives a nod in your direction, Tobias. Augustine first asks whether the woman needs her husband so that he can explain the teaching to her (cf. 1 Cor. 14:35): "But this applies only where Jesus is not present. Our Lord Himself was present here; what need then that he should speak through her husband?" So he senses that Christ's presence is important here, and that it obviates the need for a different "husband".

And then he goes on to refer to how "some" interpret the five husbands to mean the five books of Moses: "And the words, He whom thou now hast is not thy husband, they understand as spoken by our Lord of Himself; as if He said, Thou hast served the five books of Moses, as five husbands; but now he whom thou hast, i.e. whom thou hearest, is not thy husband; for thou dost not yet believe in him." That makes the sixth man, who is "not her man", to be Christ, exactly as you suggest here.

It is an interpretation Augustine rejects in the end, because he can't see how embracing Christ can entail a rupture from the five books of Moses, which the Christian continues to embrace according to their "spiritual meaning". (He goes on to favour the "five senses" interpretation to which you have referred.) But take away the equation of the five husbands with the five books, and the reading stands up rather well!

[NB: I've quoted from the Tractarian translation of the Catena originally produced under the supervision of J. H. Newman, and now beautifully reprinted in 4 vols. by Baronius Press.]

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Jesse, for pointing me back to him of Hippo. Interesting that he arrives at that reading via an allegorical course, though it seems to me the "ad litteram" also works.

As to the woman's amazement, I'd put that down to the knowledge of the past five husbands ("He told me everything I did" --i.e., a reference to her past) rather than the present or future in which she gives her adherence to Christ.

In a sermon a few years back I also played with the notion that she leaves her water bucket behind because she has become herself the receptacle of the good news delivered to her people -- bearing the "living water" back to them. So perhaps I am living somewhere between the literal and allegorical myself!

Thanks again, and also for word of the reprint of the Catena.