Samaritans and Signs: John 4:27-54

Jesus and the Samaritans (4:27-42)
When the disciples return, they are somewhat shocked to see Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman (4:27). In part this is because she was a Samaritan, but essentially it was not considered proper for a man and woman who were strangers to converse alone. Finding their rabbi chatting alone with an unknown woman could lead to scandalous gossip. The woman, however, believing that Jesus might be the Messiah, runs to tell her friends, and a curious crowd of Samaritans begins to gather (4:28-30).

Before the Samaritans arrive, however, the disciples urge their rabbi to eat (4:31), leading to another rather inscrutable discourse by Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently speaks in enigmatic ways so that the Jews, and even his own disciples, often misunderstand him. John, as editor of the Gospel, and speaking from a post-resurrection standpoint, will generally clarify these teachings. However, John's overall point is that Jesus' teachings and mission can only be understood from the standpoint of the resurrection. Trying to understand Jesus solely as a wise wandering rabbi fundamentally misinterprets his message.

Sowing and Reaping (4:31-38)
In this case, the flow of the narrative seems to be interrupted as Jesus teaches another nourishment metaphor. The life of the spirit, just as the life of the body, must be properly nourished to survive and thrive. However, here there is a twist. Formerly Jesus described the soul of the believer as being nourished by the Spirit. Now Jesus is nourished by the souls he brings unto God, and the wages are life eternal (4:35-36). Thus, the soul who comes to Christ, and the soul who brings another to Christ both receive eternal life. These souls who gain eternal life are the harvest of the Kingdom.

The harvest as an eschatological metaphor is common in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (Is. 27:12; Joel 4:13; Mt. 9:37, 13:24-30; Mk. 4:1-9, 26-29; Lk. 10:2; Rev. 14:14-16). Jesus also teaches the proverb that "one sows and another reaps" (4:37), which in its original biblical context was a curse that an enemies will reap your crops (Lev. 26:16; Dt. 28:30; Mt. 25:26). But Jesus changes the meaning. Others will not unjustly reap the crops of the disciples, but the disciples will justly reap the crop that the prophets of Israel have sown, that both "sower and reaper may rejoice together" (4:36) with eternal life in the coming Kingdom of God of the Messiah.

A Samaritan Messiah? (4:39-42)
A group of curious Samaritans soon arrive at the well. Intrigued by the story of the woman, they invite Jesus to stay with them, and he teaches them for two days. Thereafter many "believed because of his word" that Jesus was "the Savior of the world" (sōtēr tou kosmou) (4:41-42). This is the only verse in John where Jesus is called "Savior" (sōtēr). Indeed, in the Gospels the only other place where Jesus is called Savior is in Luke 2:11. This title comes from the Hebrew Bible where God is often called the Savior of Israel, but the widespread application of this term to Jesus as Savior derives largely from Paul.

Did the Samaritans believe in a coming Messiah? Yes, but with different expectations than the Jews. The Samaritans only accepted the Torah—the five books of Moses—as scripture, and thus rejected the Jewish Writings and Prophets, which contain many of the messianic prophecies used by Christians. For the Samaritans, the expected one was called the Taheb ("he who comes" or "he who restores"), and their messianic expectation was based largely on the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 of a coming "prophet like Moses." According to Samaritan tradition, the Taheb would "reveal the hidden," "offer legitimate sacrifice at Bethel [= Mt. Gerizim]," and "separate the chosen from the rejected." That there was messianic expectation among the Samaritans at the time of Jesus is confirmed by Josephus, who records that during the tenure of Pilate (26-36 C.E.) a Samaritan messianic movement at Mt. Gerizim was suppressed by the Romans (Josephus, Antiquities,18.85-87).

Another question arises: what would it mean in a first-century context that Jesus taught Samaritans? For the most part, the Synoptic Gospels ignore the Samaritans. In Matthew Jesus instructed his disciples to "go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans" (Mt. 10:5). Luke give the most positive portrait of the Samaritans, telling three stories related to them that are not found in any other Gospels. When Jesus needs to stay at a Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem they refuse him hospitality. But when the disciples James and John want to call fire down from heaven to punish the Samaritans they are rebuked by Jesus (Lk. 9:51-56). A Samaritan is the only one of ten healed lepers who thanks Jesus (Lk. 17:11-19). Most notable is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is found only in Luke (10:29-37). Only in John does Jesus himself teach the Samaritans, though in Acts the disciples begin preach to them as well (Acts 8). John probably discusses this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritans to emphasize that Jesus is the Messiah and savior of all Israel and all the world, not just the Jews.

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.