Lent 3 • John 4:5–26 (27–30, 39–42) • March 27, 2011
By Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.
Life is never the same after you drink of this water!
The familiar Samaritan woman text is seldom set in the context of the Gospel’s broader presentation of Jesus as the one who bears and gives the Spirit, the one upon whom the Spirit rests and who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:29–34). Towards the beginning of the Gospel, the Son’s descent from the Father to become the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is accompanied by the Spirit’s descent and remaining on him. Towards the end of the Gospel, the Son’s ascent to the Father as the glorified Lord is accompanied by the Son’s handing over of his Spirit from the cross and his breathing of the Spirit to the disciples so that they might forgive sinners (19:28–30 and 20:19–23). It is such handing over and breathing upon of the Spirit that fulfills what John refers to as the Son’s baptizing with the Spirit.
Between these bookends, this broad movement from the Son’s descent to his ascent, from his bearing of to his baptizing with the Spirit, we find some pivotal events that expound on Jesus’s identity as sender of the Spirit. One of these events is Jesus’s promise, on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, that rivers of living water will flow from the heart of those who believe in him (7:37–39). At the time, it was customary for the high priest to pour water from the pool of Siloam onto the temple altar where sacrifices were offered to God. In this feast, Jesus, God’s lamb, tabernacle, and temple in our midst, now promises to be the source of life-giving “water.” The evangelist explains to the reader that Jesus was referring to the Spirit whom believers were to receive upon his glorification. In John’s Gospel, the Son’s glorification corresponds to his ascent to the Father, which begins concretely with the Son’s “hour,” or being lifted up on the cross so that everyone who believes in him might have life (Cf. 3:3–15, 17:1–5). It is from that cross that the lamb of God, upon whom the Spirit rests, now hands over his Spirit as the glorified Son to others. From the side of the crucified Jesus, who is the temple (cf. 2:18–22), flowed water and blood, which in John’s highly symbolic Gospel signifies respectively the Son’s sacrificial death and giving of the Spirit (19:34). At the end of the Gospel, the risen Lord, who died for the sin of the world, now also breathes the Spirit upon his disciples, giving them the power and authority to proclaim forgiveness of sins to the world.
Another pivotal event that not only expounds on Jesus’s identity as the giver of the Spirit, but also brings it to fulfillment in a proleptic way (or by anticipation) is his promise of “living water” to the Samaritan woman in John 4. On the basis of John 7, the reference is to the Holy Spirit, the “gift of God” (4:10), whom Jesus will give to all who believe in him, and who will flow from them like “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14b). In John’s Gospel, the Son sent from above speaks the words of God because God has given him the Spirit without measure (3:31–34). Jesus’s words are “Spirit and life” (6:63–65), both Spirit-breathed and Spirit-giving, bringing people to belief in the Son in whom there is resurrection unto eternal life (cf. 6:40). In our text, Jesus’s life-giving words bring with them the life-giving water and gift of the Spirit to the Samaritan woman.
The blessings that follow from such gifting are many, but these are all oriented towards one thing alone, namely, new life according to the Spirit who comes from Jesus. There are a series of stark before-and-after contrasts drawn in the text between life before and after Jesus. The difference lies in the gift of the Spirit who orients the life of the Samaritan in another direction. Life is never the same after you drink of this water! Here are some of those contrasts:
1. John 4:5–15 — Before the gift of the Spirit, the Samaritan woman can only see life in terms of her lineage, her ancestors’ link to Jacob, Joseph, and the blessed well. After the gift of the Spirit, the Samaritan woman must see her life in terms of a more lasting lineage, namely, her relationship with God through Jesus, who is greater than Jacob, and her fellowship with those who put their trust in this Messiah.
2. John 4:16–36 — Before: the Samaritan can only see devotion to God in terms of a particular dear holy place (Mount Gerizim). After: the Samaritan must see devotion to God in terms of faith in Jesus, God’s “truth” (cf. 14:6–7), which amounts to worship “in the Spirit” (cf. 14:15–17). Since Jesus is God’s temple and presence in our midst, one looks for God neither on Mt. Gerizim nor in Jerusalem. Instead, one looks to his Son and Messiah through whom we have access to the Father (cf. 1:18, 14:8–11).
3. John 4:16–19, 27–42 — Before: the reader of the text is invited, along with Jesus’s suspecting disciples, to see the Samaritan woman’s life as one of limitations, disappointments, failures, and sins. After: the reader is invited to see the work of God in the life of a suspect outsider and thus to celebrate her new life in Jesus and the extension of that life through the woman’s bold witness to her countrymen.
The preacher can draw from or focus on any of these contrasts as he proclaims to hearers of the Word that Jesus indeed gives “to you” today the same Holy Spirit, the same water, the same gift of God, that he promised to the Samaritan woman in the past. Such proclamation will have at least the twofold purpose of calling to repentance those who live as if the Spirit had not been given to them (law) and of offering the promise of the Spirit anew to those who feel as if they do not deserve it (gospel).