Everyone knows the Sunday school lessons about the Samaritan woman at the well. The Samaritans were the enemies of Israel, the standard story goes, so for Jesus to “convert” the enemy woman was quite an accomplishment. To make the lesson even more pious, Jesus magically “knows” that she is not married to the man she is currently living with, and [gasp!] has had five husbands before this one. She runs away and brings all of her friends back to meet “a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (KJV). The standard message seems to be that Jesus, like Santa Claus, “knows when you’ve been bad or good,” and certainly this woman must have been some kind of bad to be living with a man who is not her husband, after somehow getting rid of five others. The proof that Jesus is the Christ is his ability to see through all of our pretenses. “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (KJV).
The Sunday school interpretation of the confusing stuff in the middle about not worshiping God on the mountain or in Jerusalem skirts the edges of anti-Semitism. God wants the real Christians to worship him, and always tell the truth. The test for who is or is not a real Christian is clear. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (KJV).
But the Gospel of John is not about piety. It is an impassioned and powerful first century argument for a transformed world. Rather than looking at the gospel in cherry-picked pieces – as the Revised Common Lectionary does in order to support orthodox Christian teaching – consider the interior plan, which only becomes apparent when the gospel is read in its own context.
Water as transformation carries the argument for two and a half chapters. At the wedding in Cana, water is transformed into wine; Nicodemus – the expert on religion who should know this – is invited to transform himself; Jesus and his disciples baptize more people than the Baptizer; Jesus meets the enemy woman at Jacob’s well and offers transformation (living water); Jesus’ disciples don’t get it (surprise), so Jesus attempts the metaphor of food, which he defines as “doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work” – begun by the prophets, and to be completed by Jesus’ followers; the Samaritans (unlike the pharisee Nicodemus) listen to Jesus and realize that “he really is the savior of the world”; and the sequence ends as it began: “Then he came back to Cana, Galilee, where he had turned water into wine.”
The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. Jerusalem was sacked; Temple Judaism had perforce become displaced; competition between the factions that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce. Much the same as the 21st century, when – as Lloyd Geering proposes – humanity is in the midst of the transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism. Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition. There is a place for John’s story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if the metaphors are reclaimed for 21st century cosmology.
John’s metaphor of water into wine, which frames the vignettes with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.” To follow the teachings of Jesus means that one’s life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before. John did not use the metaphor of the refiner’s fire, which purifies, clarifies, decontaminates, as the prophet Malachi claims God’s messenger will do (Malachi 3:1-5). Malachi was warning the priests of Israel that the representative of God’s covenant was coming soon to “purify the descendents of Levi” who had stopped following God’s rule: “‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerors, against the adulturers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me,’ says the Lord” (NRSV).
John is not satisfied with cleansing and polishing. John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed (in the apostle Paul’s words “in the twinkling of an eye) – from injustice and death to justice and life: from water into wine. For 21st century non-theists, this means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.
Just in case anyone thinks that John has made Malachi’s list irrelevant, consider the following update: political leger demain, sex trafficking, corporate bait-and-switch tactics, union busting, blaming the poor for their plight, and hating anyone who looks, speaks, or acts different from the prevailing population. Further, if “God” is seen as “Gaia,” we can apply the same list of atrocities carried out against people to the earth itself. With that understanding, the wrath of God that Malachi invokes with his threat of refinement “until they present offerings in righteousness” can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources. Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, and unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.
When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion (“food” the disciples knew nothng about), then we can talk about worshiping “in spirit and in truth” in the King James language, or “as [God] truly is, without regard to place” (The Complete Gospels scholars translation). Tweet