The John 4 narrative has traditionally been interpreted as an evangelistic text where a Samaritan woman’s readiness to accept Jesus’ pronouncements is understood as an act of conversion. Jesus, “the pure Jew” and the ‘living water,’ crosses boundaries by speaking to a Gentile woman, who is perceived as impure. Other texts and interpretations describe her as an outcast and a sinful woman, having had five husbands and living with a man who was not her husband.
Today, there are over 2.5 billion people in this planet who have no access to clean water because of climate change or bad development. Then and now, women draw water from wells. Then and now, women walk several kilometers to get water. In fact, 800 million women and girls spend up to 20 hours a day walking to get water. Actually, it is easier to find a free wifi hotspot than to find a well with water. Why is it not reasonable to think that the woman in John 4 walked quite a distance to get to Jacob’s well? She got to the well late because she walked a great distance, like millions still do, and not because she was a “sinner,” like many of us are taught.
Then and now, women bear the burden of fetching water and in a world where the rich have eternity pools, golf courses, man-made lakes, and water rights, I believe that is a human rights violation.
Who needs a drink?
Read verses 6 to 14
In the first part of the passage, it is Jesus who needs water. But in the exchanges, Jesus commands that he be given water to drink, asserts that he knew something the woman did not, and promises the superior quality of water that comes from him which will never make those who drink feel thirsty again. In response, the Samaritan woman questions why a Jew would even ask for a drink from a woman of Samaria. At the very beginning of the conversation, she pronounces their differences and her subordination. However, her next words exhibit some form of resistance, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” She must have thought, this man is talking about how she should be the one asking for water from him, if she knew him, when he comes to a well with nothing to bring up water and is the one who is so thirsty. She must have felt somewhat incredulous to his claims. If he knew so much and could even offer ‘living water,’ why could he not even draw water from the well himself? And so she asks, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob….?” He answers with finality about the water that he can give as one that “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Who needed a drink? Who was thirsty? Who came to the well? Jesus needed a drink. Jesus was thirsty. And Jesus came to the well. But in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, he convinces her that she needs his living water. The Samaritan woman drew water from a well in Samaria, her own land, and she knew her ancestor, Jacob. Before Jesus came, she did not care for ‘living water’ and was sustained by the water in her well. Why did Jesus have to come and offer her something she did not need? In the story of Zipporah and Moses and in the story of Rachel and Jacob, it is the women who draw from the well and offer drink to all who are thirsty, even if they are strangers. It is an act of hospitality that communities and families are familiar with even to this day. It is in recognition of our common humanity that we open ourselves to those who come to us thirsty. But this very same act opens our communities and societies to domination and subordination, especially when those who come to us assert their superiority. In the Philippine experience, the Spanish came with the cross and the sword, and the Americans came with the Bible and the gun. It was not a ‘holy conversion.’ Caroline Brewer, a historian, calls what happened to the Philippines a ‘holy confrontation.’ Today, communities who once welcomed strangers with thirst-quenching water cannot access their own wells and springs because of trans-nationals’ water rights.
Christ and Christendom
Read verses 16 to 26
In the following texts, Jesus’ character further defines his superiority and the Samaritan woman’s inferiority. He commands her to call her husband, tells her that she worships what she does not know, and salvation only comes from the Jews. Jesus’ questions have been interpreted, especially in the West, as a judgment on the woman’s morality. Because she has had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband, Jesus was reminding her that her behavior, going to the well without other women at noontime and without her husband, were not the actions of a decent woman. In a Bible study with grassroots women, one retorted, “Why did she not ask where his wife was?” In many communities, there are so many rules to regulate women’s behavior. Women who behave differently are considered dangerous and may even be demonized. And the text exhibits clearly these perceptions. The Samaritan woman offers no excuse when Jesus states that she has had five husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband. She does not explain that she had levirate marriages, where women are forced to marry the brother of her husband in his death so that she may bear a son for the dead husband. Who would want to marry five husbands? Or five brothers or male cousins? And why did she now have a man who was not her husband? The question about her husband was to contrast her character with Jesus’ character who she herself, in the text, recognizes as a prophet. And Jesus affirms this saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Many postcolonial readers of the Gospel according to John argue that the narrative characterizes Jesus as the ultimate, the unlimited, and the undeniable savior: the great “I am.” While Jesus vulnerability and humanity is still very evident in the other gospels, Jesus is too messianic in John. He says, “I am the light of the world,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These passages have been interpreted in exclusive, dominant and imperialistic ways as Christianity which began as a people’s movement gradually assumed imperialistic and oppressive institutional forms.
It is imperative that we differentiate the Jesus of the poor and the Jesus of Christendom. The Jesus of the poor, lest we forget was not a Christian. The Jesus of the poor will declare his humanity and will assert that we are all children of God; he will offer water and life for all, especially communities in need and will have no need to declare to be the ‘living water;’ he will offer salvation to those who need God the most and will have no desire to declare that salvation comes from the Jews (or from Christians!); and the Jesus of the poor says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Whether we admit it or not, too many times, our evangelistic and mission projects are often an imposition on communities and do nothing to promote and protect human rights. Our theologies sometimes focus on eternity instead of present realities; on submission to power instead of struggling for equality ; on repentance instead of resistance against structural evil; on our chosenness as people of God instead of defending the rights of women and children and other marginalized communities.
The narrative in John 4 ends with the townspeople saying to the woman who first told them about Jesus, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Too many times, in proclaiming Jesus as Savior, we forget the woman who gave water to Jesus when he needed a drink. We diminish her witness so that we glorify Jesus alone. Today, there are many women like her. She will walk long and far to get to water. She will find herself alone and vulnerable. And today, women may not even have any more water to draw from the well because of climate change. Today, in Palestine, women may no longer have access to wells because they have been bombed or crushed by Israel’s military as they attack Gaza on the ground.
In his birth and death, Jesus was vulnerable and under the domination of the Roman Empire. He experienced thirst like so many women and communities do today. We must critique how Christ is characterized as a superior and dominant male in John 4. We must critique it to honor the memory of the messiah who lived his life for the poor and marginalized until he was executed. Then, perhaps, we can truly begin to journey with women in their struggle for water, human rights and life.