Chiasms, Irony, and Misdirection in John 4

Last night, I once again had the pleasure to lead the sermon discussion at Solomon’s Porch.  It’s impossible to recount all of the wonderful, beautiful, insightful comments by so many people over two different worship gatherings, but here are a few thoughts.  (And if you’re so inclined, I streamed the 7pm sermon discussion from my phone and you can watch the archive of it at Ustream (warning: it’s over an hour long).)

The passage was John 4: 4-42, in which Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well at noon.  Here are some of the insights that I and others brought to this passage:

Nathan Clair mentioned on Facebook how important it seems that John juxtaposes this pericope with the one just before.  In that chapter, Nicodemus, a knowledgable Jew in good-standing, comes under dark-of-night to question Jesus.  Even with Jesus explaining and explaining, Nic doesn’t seem to get it.

Meanwhile, a Samaritan woman who is, both ethnically and theologically abhorrent to Jews, gets what Jesus is about.  Not at first, for course, but over the course of the chiastic dialogue in Act One of this passage.  Here’s how I diagrammed the passage last night:

Truth be told, I basically stole this from my favorite commentary on John by Raymond Brown.  But it really shows what John is getting at by telling the story of the woman who patiently seeks the truth from Jesus and is ultimately rewarded with insight into his messiahship.

We also talked about John’s use of irony, introduced here and seen throughout the Gospel.  In this case, he puts words into the mouth of the woman which she proclaims with incredulity, but, of course, aslo happen to be true: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Finally, this: Mr. T made the point that he’d often heard this passage cited as an example of great evangelism: Jesus calls the woman out on her sin of profligacy and it results in her conversion.  But, the fact is, Jesus doesn’t mention why the woman has had five husbands, nor does that seem to matter much to him.

What is intriguing, however, is that when she abruptly changes the topic from her husband count to the mountain on which the Samaritans worship, Jesus goes right along with her and launches into a high-falutin’ speech on worship in the Spirit and in truth.

Basically, Jesus is questioning her about her living situation, and she says, “Hey, look over there!”  And Jesus goes with it.  Interesting…

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  • Joe L

    Rob Bell describes the woman’s response to be the first century Palestinian equivalent of “So how about them Bears?” – changing a topic that had become uncomfortably personal.

    He also turns around the thinking about five husbands, pointing out that in those days, women didn’t have any real power to divorce a man. Hence, this woman had either been abandoned five times, or had lost her husbands to death. She wasn’t a “loose woman”…she had been discarded over and over, and now being found unworthy of marriage, lived with a man who had least was willing to take her in, even if in dishonor.

    I doubt the ideas are original with Bell, although I heard them there first. But it puts a very different spin on the thing than the traditional interpretation.

  • In my research on this passage, I found the chiastic pinnacle to be the revelation (his first) that he was the Christ. Her confusion and responses mirror those of the disciples.

    The structure looks as follows:
    1) (John 4:1-6) A 7) A1 (John 4:39-42)
    2) (John 4:7-15) B 6) B1 (John 4:31-38)
    3) (John 4:16-18) C 5) C1 (John 4:27-30)
    4) D (John 4:19-26) Climax

    (!) 4:26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

    There are broad implications to the theme I find quite intriguing, even more so than the “hey, look over there!” subplot.

  • “Basically, Jesus is questioning her about her living situation, and she says, “Hey, look over there!” And Jesus goes with it. Interesting…”

    Evangelists are set on their agenda/topic that they charge full steam ahead towards it, whereas Jesus would rather listen and conversate, and isn’t too fixed on the grand message she MUST hear

  • Marusha

    I think this passage shows the lack of something in two camps. The samaritans possessed zeal in their mode of woship but lacked knowledge. The Jews possessed knowledge in their mode of worship but lacked zeal. So it seems that when Jesus said we would worship in spirit and in truth, in Him we would have both zeal and knowledge. I don’t know if this makes sense. It’s still a subject I am delving into.

    So, the samaritans had the mountain and the Jews had the temple. Jesus was the fulfillment. He could give living water. He is the answer to our sin problem.

    The woman found that she couldn’t hide her sin from Jesus and in fact He pointed it out to her. She however found the living water her soul so needed. She found the One who could cause her to turn away from her sin and save her.

  • Tony, thanks for the pointer to Raymond Brown. I have put a couple of his books in my Amazon cart. Both “The gospels and epistles of John” and “The community of the beloved disciple” look good to me. Any other recommendations?

    Also, I watched most of the video you posted so far. Really enjoyed it. I like the format of Solomon’s Porch a lot. I’ve been curious what it’s like. Plus, some good insights I had not heard before. Got me thinking a lot. Where I have been going it’s kind of in between, the teaching is a little like a college lecture (not preachy), and then we open it up for questions at the end. I think there is more integrity in a community approach to understanding than in the typical “I preach, you listen,” approach common in so many churches.

  • RJ

    It has been said that there are three religions of the book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One thing I see in this passage is that Christianity may not be a religion of the book, i.e. the ultimate revelation of God does not come through a written revelation, but through a living revelation.

    I do not mean to take anything away from scripture with this statement. I do firmly believe that scripture is a reliable account of God’s plan for the world. However, it is not the ultimate revelation of God.

    The response of the woman is not to return to her town and share a teaching. Her response is to return to her town and say, “Come and meet a man…” I think that is the mission of the church, connecting people with Jesus.

  • Ryan Braley


    Your last paragraph reminds me of the Psalm 34 passage, “Taste and see that God is good!” (Exclamation added) Much of our role in life is allowing people to taste the goodness of Jesus (the beautiful, mysterious, tasty Jesus) and letting His goodness overwhelm them.

    If God is really good, then we should allow others to taste Him! We don’t even need apologetics for that!


  • I know I’m late here, but one seriously neglected aspect of this passage in a lot of modern research pops up as something of a throwaway line in Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative”.

    The OT well type-scene makes shows Jacob’s well for the singles bar it is. Moreover, the betrothal ceremony always takes the same form–man sees woman, man asks for water, woman does/doesn’t offer water, woman goes and gathers family and village and brings them to the well to meet man.

    Consider that the disciples are surprised to see him but “no one asked him what he was doing.” It’s not because they’re scared–they know what he’s doing–he’s taking a wife. Then, like all things in John, the metaphor is shifted to the cosmological level. Woman=all humanity as the bride of Christ. Basically, when Jesus takes a wife, he takes us all.

  • Jeff Walton

    A little late on the comment board, but the woman may have just as easily been a serial widow paralleled by Tamar in Genesis 38. Or, she may similar to the seven time serial widow in the fictitious question that the Sadducees ask Jesus in reference to the Resurrection. To presume the fact that the Samaritan woman has had 5 husbands and now lives with another who isn’t her husband makes her a serial adulteress, is precisely a presumption. Not every woman sinner is a whore. And, this woman may just as well be the victim of a difficult life. Notice Jesus does not tell her to repent. She does not come to a knowledge of Jesus as Messiah through recognizing her depravity and sin.

    It’s interesting that Jesus engages her in a lively theological dialogue that carries her away from the quotidian concerns of gathering water to an understanding of the living water. She questions and debates Jesus. And, he goes along with it. She, and her community, comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus as Messiah after a progressive conversation and dialogue. John did not have to reduce her character to sinner in order to elevate Jesus character as Messiah. Just a few thoughts. . .

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