Dr. Piet van Veldhuizen
Give me a drink
Summary of my doctoral dissertation, published in Dutch in 2004
The question under investigation in this book is, whether reading John 4,4-42 (referred to as John 4 henceforth) as a well story might enlighten the intrinsic coherence of this utterly complex text.
Quite frequently in recent years it has been argued that the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is told along the lines of an existing narrative pattern that we know from Genesis 24 and Genesis 29,1-30, and to some extent also from Exodus 2,15-21:
a man, traveling into a foreign land, comes to a well; a maiden enters on the stage and an encounter takes place; after the maiden has gone home to report on the encounter, the man is invited inside. In the above-mentioned Old Testament stories, as well as in several comparable stories from other traditions, the encounter finally leads to marriage. In this book, these stories will be called well stories.
The relation between John 4,4-42 and the Old Testament well stories has been noted in biblical studies, but until now it has not been made sufficiently clear exactly what contribution to the meaning of the Gospel story is made by this relation. It is therefore not surprising that part of the biblical scholars judge the relation itself either far-fetched or irrelevant. The text of John 4 is abundant in allusions and implicit references to Scripture as well as to the surrounding Gospel text. Someone who claims that the relation to the well stories is of particular importance for the meaning of the John 4 narrative as a whole, should therefore be able to demonstrate how this relation sustains the coherence of the text, and sustains those other allusions as well rather than excluding them. That is the challenge taken up in this investigation.
Because, however, there would be a danger of imposing a forced coherence upon the text if we would approach it as a well story from the very outset, the coherence of the text is first examined from a couple of different perspectives. These perspectives are: the literary structure of John 4; patriarchal traditions, especially those about Jacob, that play a role in the narrative; the way in which the narrative deals with the Jewish-Samaritan dispute; and the water symbolism that is present both in John 4 and in the surrounding chapters of the Gospel.
Preliminary to these approaches, chapter 1 examines how in the history of John 4 exegesis the relation to the Old Testament well stories was (or was not) acknowledged.
First, the concept of ‘narrative pattern’ is defined on the basis of Robert Alter’s idea on the functioning of type-scenes. After Alter in his Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) used the Old Testament well stories as an illustration of his type-scene concept, there has been a constant stream of articles and commentaries applying Alter’s concept to John 4. Most authors uncritically repeat Alter’s definition of the betrothal type-scene, although it is clearly in need of correction. Moreover, the questions to what extent precisely this narrative pattern is applied to John 4, and what the author might have intended by doing so, remain without a clear answer.
In chapter 2 the over-all composition of the John 4 narrative and the internal development of both dialogues are submitted to a literary examination. The internal coherence of the text appears to be fairly strong independently from any relation to the Old Testament well stories. The text in its present shape constitutes a meaningful unity, both in narrative composition and in thematic content. It is therefore not necessary to read John 4 as a well story in order to establish its internal coherence. Indeed, reading John 4 as a well story should be in accord with the coherence stated so far.
In chapter 3, the way in which the scene of the action is introduced in John 4,5-6 serves as a starting point for an investigation upon the patriarchal traditions, most of all Jacob traditions, to which the text of John 4 is referring or alluding. These traditions appear to constitute an integrating element in the narrative. Three aspects of importance are: Sichem as the scene of the encounter, abundance of well water as one of Jacob’s attributes, and the place of worship. The Sichem region, unnamed in John 4 but referred to as ‘the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph’, is a prominent place in patriarchal tradition, but towards the beginning of the Christian Era it has in Jewish ears become a name recapitulating Samaritan worship. Thus the details of the scene setting appear to be closely related to the themes of John 4.
Chapter 4 investigates upon springs and wells and their meaning in biblical and early Jewish literature. In biblical texts the concepts of ‘spring’ (or ‘source’) and ‘well’ are not exchangeable: they possess different, and sometimes even opposite symbolical possibilities. This is important, because John 4 is one of those rare biblical texts in which both ‘spring’ and ‘well’ do occur. A spring is a natural phenomenon. Springs symbolize the free gift of life force and will often occur in poetical texts as a metaphor for God, Torah, or woman. A well is a cultural phenomenon, man-made access to water. Wells will often occur in stories, where water is available, but cannot be obtained without effort. This difference between spring and well corresponds to a large extent with the two kinds of water about which John 4 relates. It is reflected in the opposite positions of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in the first part of their dialogue.
Chapter 5 is largely devoted to the ways in which the Old Testament well stories are retold and commented upon in early Jewish tradition. The question of the relation of John 4 to the Old Testament well stories is then answered in the broader context of early Jewish tradition concerning these stories. The John 4 narrative seems not to be related to one of the Old Testament well stories specifically. Both in narrative pattern and in content there are striking links to Genesis 24 as well as to Genesis 29,1-30 and Exodus 2,15-21. Moreover, John 4 seems to respond to certain ideas in Jewish tradition concerning these stories as we know it from targum and midrash. Two of these ideas are of singular importance: first, the recurring motif of abundant water miraculously rising up when Jacob (or Rebecca, or Moses) comes to the well; and secondly, the stressed contrast between the just man and his bride on the one hand, and the unreliable and religiously impure family of the bride on the other. John 4 is playing on both ideas in its own way: the gift of rising water is in John 4 set against the well of Jacob; and it is not the religiously questionable townspeople of the woman, but the people from the bridegroom’s own circle that fail to take part in shared pleasure.
Chapter 6 presents a number of ‘comparable stories’ from different traditions. All are narratives in which a man and a maiden meet each other at a well or spring, or in which a man asks a maiden for a drink. The purpose of this review is to obtain by comparison a sharper image of the typical qualities of the biblical well stories, and of the way in which John 4 makes use of them.
For our understanding of John 4 the most important common characteristic of practically all well stories is that they consist of two parts playing on different stages: the encounter of man and woman at the well (outside) is followed by a session in the family circle (inside) where the marriage is arranged or consent is given or withheld. For John 4 this means that the first part of the narrative, in which the encounter at the well is told, is requiring a second part in which consent of the community to the essence of that encounter is at stake. Historical-critical reconstructions which assume that the encounter at the well in John 4 was once a story by itself, separate from the acceptance narratives that follow, should be rejected in the light of the common characteristics of the well stories. If there would not have been this tension between the encounter outside and the acceptance inside, there would have been no reason to shape the encounter narrative as a well story.
In John 4, however, there are two community circles in which the acceptance of what happened between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is at stake. The acceptance by the woman’s townspeople is working out surprisingly smoothly if compared by the parallel stories in Genesis 24 and 29 and their renderings in early Jewish tradition. But then it appears that Jesus has to plead for joyful acceptance of what happened in his own circle, that has taken the encounter rather unresponsively. Here again, without Jesus’ plea in the circle of his pupils, considered often as a later insertion, the tension between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, which appeared to be so typical of well stories in different traditions, would be nonexistent. Therefore it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus’ struggle for acceptance of his Samaritan mission by his pupils, as opposed to the smooth acceptance in the Samaritan town, is part of the original composition of the narrative.
It is not only the acceptance scene that is doubled in John 4. Earlier in the narrative, the water motif is doubled as well. The well is not the integrating center of the encounter, for Jesus presents another kind of water in opposition to the water from Jacob’s well. Over against Jacob the giver of water, founder of the well, Jesus presents himself as the giver of essentially different water. Whereas the water from the well reaches back into a venerable tradition, the living water of Jesus reaches forward into life eternal. This contrast between longstanding tradition and the ‘coming hour’, between being defined by what has happened before and being defined by what will happen, is present in Jesus’ words about worship as well. The contrast between the deep well and the springing water symbolizes the contrast between the past of the fathers and the oncoming reality of the Father. Both meet each other in the middle point of the ‘now’ (4,23), where Jesus incorporates the God-given new perspective over against the faits accomplis put forward by the woman.
The most striking difference between the Old Testament well stories and John 4 is about the woman. She is not, like Rebecca, a ‘maiden not touched by man’ (Gen 24,16). However one judges about her history, in the Old Testament narratives she would not be a proper candidate for an encounter at a well. By the fact that the woman to whom Jesus reveals himself is not an untouched maiden, it is made clear that the conditions for this encounter are specified not by the past of men (tradition), but by God’s future. That is why in John 4 no water is drawn up from the deep well of the fathers. There is this different water instead, the new gift of God, which people will carry inside themselves as a fountain linking them to eternity.
Another striking difference with the Old Testament narratives is that in John 4 no marriage is arranged in the end. The concept of marriage is present in and around the narrative in different ways. In the preceding chapter Jesus is called the bridegroom (3,29) and the people that join him are called the bride. Now in the final verse of the Samaritan story (4,42) the woman is mentioned in a significant way. She is not being blessed and sent off by her townspeople as Rebecca is in Genesis 24. It is not the community which steps back to give way to the bride and bridegroom, but it is the woman who is stepping back, now that Jesus and her townspeople have found each other. As the Baptist has proclaimed in 3,29, the bride is a collective. Just as the Baptist accepts that he himself is not the bridegroom, the Samaritan woman appears not to be the bride. In both cases, this does not disqualify them as persons playing a key role in bringing Jesus and his followers together as bridegroom and bride. It is not unfitting for a story in which the traditional water is displaced by water of a different kind, and in which tradition is displaced by an ‘hour’ of a different kind, to end up in a marriage of a different kind.
Now the question remains, for what reasons the author might have shaped his story about Jesus in Samaria as a well story. As we cannot read the author’s mind, we can only point at some possible reasons.
a. The fact that well stories are about acceptance in the community of what happened between two persons ‘outside’ might have suited the author’s ecclesiological ideas: what happens between Jesus and man (woman) is essentially outside of the community’s control - the community is not called to judge or give permission, but to accept and enjoy. Making difficulties is, in the traditional well stories, the role of the villains. Situations in early christian community life might be reflected here. Communities might have had doubts about christian groups which did not stem from their own mission. In John 4 Jesus urges his pupils not to be embarrassed by what he has done to people in their absence, but to accept it joyfully.
b. In the well stories of Genesis 24 and 29, especially in the targumic and midrashic versions of those stories, the engagement is accepted beforehand in the patriarchal family of the bridegroom, whereas acceptance in the family of the bride (the ‘others’) takes time and effort and does not come wholeheartedly. This pattern gives the author of John 4 the possibility to show by contrast that in the case of Samaritan mission it is not the others that raise barriers, but that the own circle of Jewish followers of Jesus finds it difficult to accept that the messiah becomes engaged with Samaritans. The more harsh Jewish tradition judges about the in-laws of the patriarchs, the stronger this reversal of the pattern will work as a judgment about the Jewish-christian community hesitating to accept Samaritan christians.
c. In Genesis 24 and 29 the man is not traveling at random. In both stories, the maiden will run off home to tell that a relative from abroad has shown up. Now the author of John 4 might want to present Jews and Samaritans as relatives to be reunited by faith in Jesus as the messiah. In the Samaritan mission, Judah and Joseph find each others as sons of Israel. It is, however, important to note that this reunion does not take place by virtue of common tradition or shared memory, but on the strength of the ‘coming hour’ made present in the revelation of Christ, that annuls all barriers and privileges.
d. Introducing Jesus as a protagonist in a well story the author of John 4 places him in the circle of the founders of Israel’s tradition. Thus he suggests the patriarchal stature of Jesus as someone standing at the origin of a new way of God and his people.
If, however, John 4 as a story about Jesus is so strongly modelled after those stories about the beginnings of Israel, the contrasts introduced by the author are of singular importance. It is not a new story about the beginnings - it is an eschatological story: the well of the past is replaced by a fountain springing into eternity; the past history of the fathers is replaced by the coming hour of the Father. A woman with a heavy-laden history can therefore replace the maidens of the Old Testament well stories. She is not defined by the past, but by the coming hour instead, just as Jesus is not bound by the limitations of tradition, but is guided instead by what is true in God’s coming hour.
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