Thursday, February 17, 2005

Lent 4: God is in the details

The story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a tiny literary masterpiece. It reminds me of an elegant miniature such as one might see in an illustrated manuscript such as the Hours of the Duc de Berry. Every detail is pregnant with meaning. But the first detail to note is not the text itself but the context. In John 3 Jesus had a long and involved theological discussion with Nicodemus, an articulate, learned leader of the Pharisees. In chapter 4, Jesus has another long and involved theological discussion, but this time it is with a Samaritan woman. Nicodemus was a person of high standing in his community, but this woman (as we shall see) had absolutely no standing. And yet Jesus treats her with the same respect and consideration he showed for Nicodemus.

Second, note the time of day. John tells us that it was "about noon" when Jesus stopped to rest and the woman came out to the well. This is strange, because women did not come to the well in the hottest part of the day. Rather, they came out at dawn or dusk because it was easier to carry home the heavy jars of water when it was cool out. Apparently, this woman does not want to associate with other women, or they do not want to associate with her.

Thirdly, Jesus speaks to her: "Give me a drink." In the first century Jewish men did not even speak to their wives in public, much less would they speak to women outside their own family. Here Jesus addresses a women to whom he is not related, a Samaritan, and (as emerges in their conversation) a woman of dubious reputation. More than anything else, this little story of the Samaritan woman illustrates Jesus' willingness to transgress social boundaries.

But the most telling and poignant detail for me is this: "the woman left her water jar." Of course, this could just be accidental. In her excitement she could have forgotten the heavy jar. But I believe that the author is telling us something. This nameless Samaritan woman had asked Jesus for living water. How appealing that must have sounded to a woman who day after day had to go to the well at a time when she could avoid the company of others. I believe that she left the heavy jar behind because she did not need it any longer; she had received the gift Jesus promised -- living water.