Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4:1-42) in Africa.

A STUDY IN AFRICA of the Johannine Jesus and the Samaritan womancould take a number of directions. A reader response approach couldmatch different aspects of the story with situations of marginalization and exploitation on the Continent. (1) Another approach could explorethe specifically "feminist" dimensions and their implicationsfor the church in Africa and beyond. (2) In my first major work on theepisode, given the dominance of the historical-critical method at thetime, I contextualized my reading of the passage by relating it to thepossible contexts of the Evangelist and his immediate audience. (3) Eventhat seemed a major departure from the beaten track. (4) Since then thesituation has changed, and the scholarship is more open to other ways ofreading the biblical text. (5)This current issue of Theological Studies marks the 30th
anniversary of Virgilio Elizondo's "groundbreaking
dissertation, which addressed the significance of the Galilean Jesus for
U.S. Latinos ... and the 40th anniversary of the option for the poor of
the Latin American Bishops at Medellin" (1968). (6) Such an event
celebrating the Galilean Jesus and the option for the poor calls for yet
another contextual approach. To better situate this study of Jesus and
the Samaritan woman from an African perspective shaped by this double
axis, my contribution invites Jesus and the woman to the Continent where
they share certain elements with Africans--thus the title, "Jesus
and the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4:1-42) in Africa."
The contours of the story are simple. Rejected in Judea, Jesus leftfor Galilee through Samaria, in obedience to the divine imperative ofhis mission. Sitting there exhausted at a well, he enters into dialoguewith a Samaritan woman who has come to fetch water, and leads her tofaith in him as her long-expected Messiah. She abandons her water pot,symbol of her daily and society-gendered chores, goes to the town, andinvites her people to come and encounter Jesus and to discover him forthemselves as she had done. While she is gone, Jesus prepares hisdisciples to enter into the harvest of his work in Samaria, and to reapa fruit that would overcome their inherited prejudices on race, class,and gender. At the end of the encounter, Jesus, the disciples, thewoman, and the Samaritans enter into a communion fellowship,transcending a complex variety of sociocultural, gender, and religiousbarriers that would otherwise keep them apart. Of their own accord, theSamaritans confess Jesus not simply as their expected Jewish Messiah,but as the "Savoir of the world."The proposed invitation of Jesus and the Samaritan woman to Africa
raises certain questions. Who are they in their own contexts before they
take the trip? Under what circumstances will they visit Africa, a
continent of over 52 counties, each with a multiplicity of cultures and
languages, and of a size that cannot be traversed in a day? And what of
the fact that both Samaria and Galilee, taken together, are far smaller
in size and population than some of Africa's largest cities? Whom
would they meet? On what subjects would they dialogue? Are there
situations in Africa with which they would readily identify? What
Messianic expectations would Jesus address in the people of Africa so as
to lead them to faith? Would they listen to the woman's gospel
invitation to come and see a person who told her all that she ever did,
and would they consider him a possible Messiah on that basis? Would they
call him the "Savior of the world," not on the woman's
word, but after meeting him personally, as the Samaritans did? These are
some questions that might guide my study. Interesting as they are,
however, I will focus on the question most salient for this special
issue of Theological Studies, namely, What do Jesus of Nazareth in
Galilee and the Samaritan woman share in common from their own contexts
with those they would likely meet in a "homecoming" visit to
Africa? (7)
The method will be narrative and intertextual. I will first situateJesus and the woman in their context and then examine their encounter inSamaria before taking them to Africa where they will feel very much athome. The Gospel narrative sets the terms of their encounter with theAfrican audience, helping them break through inherited and imposedsociocultural and religious barriers that tear Africans apart. These arebarriers that Africans have internalized and imposed on one another:barriers that hinder them from knowing and receiving God's free andhumanizing gift of community; barriers that keep them from meeting Jesuson their own terms as Savior of the world. The encounter also challengesthe privileged who are equally enslaved to inherited racism andprejudice, which prevent them from seeking God in true worship, fromreceiving God's gift of living water, the Holy Spirit, and fromconfessing Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee as their unmerited, universalMessiah.JESUS OF NAZARETH IN GALILEE
Both Medellin and the culturally contextualized theology of
Virgilio Elizondo highlight the significance of Jesus for the poor and
marginalized today. Jesus of Nazareth was himself poor and marginalized,
though, as God, he was rich (Phil 2:6-11; 2 Cor 8:9; Rom 11:33-36) and
came to enrich all with the gift of unending life, feeding them with
himself, God's life-giving bread from heaven (Jn 6:32-33, 58).
Nathanael, a Galilean from Bethsaida, articulates the prevailing view
when he asks ironically, "Can anything good come from
Nazareth" (Jn 1:46)? Could the long-expected Messiah be from
Nazareth? It is noteworthy that Jesus in Matthew's Gospel decries
Bethsaida as one of the cities that would not repent, despite having
witnessed his miracles, wallowing instead in pride and boasting (Mt
11:21-24). Nathanael, however, is able to transcend his prejudice
against Nazarenes when he encounters Jesus in person (Jn 1:49), much as
the Samaritans did later.
Though Jesus grows up in Nazareth and is popularly known as
"Jesus of Nazareth," (8) Matthew and Luke place his birth in
Bethlehem of Judah, thereby burnishing his geographical and family
credentials by linking him to the royal house and lineage of David (Mic
5:2-3; Mt 2:1-6; Lk 2:1-7). On the other hand, his designation at the
time of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as "the prophet Jesus
from Nazareth of Galilee" directly challenges the traditional view
that prophets do not arise from Galilee and justifies the turmoil it
causes in the whole city (Mt 21:10-11). His mother Mary also lives in
Nazareth, where angel Gabriel meets her (Luke 1:26). Her Magnificat (Lk
1:42-55) reflects an awareness of what tradition thinks of her as a
woman, and celebrates God's radical reversal of that view. (9) It
is perhaps because the only biological parent of Jesus is a Nazarene
that the narrative makes Jesus a Nazarene as well (or Nazorean [Mt
2:23]). In the postexilic era, to prevent mixed marriages by Jewish men,
mothers, not fathers, determined the nationality of Jewish children.
(10) Viewed from the mother's side, Jesus' Nazarene origin has
rich historical and theological significance.
The prejudice against Jesus is not limited to Nathanael's lowopinion of Galileans. His own relatives and neighbors in Nazareth do notthink much of him. All four Gospels agree on this. The Synoptics reportthat Jesus, having overcome the temptations in the wilderness, sets outto proclaim the good news to the poor, but his own people reject him onthe grounds that they know his parents and relatives (Mt 13:53-58; Mk6:1-1-6; Lk 4:16-30). In Luke, Jesus' own people make the firstattempt on his life (4:16-30). (11) In Mark, Jesus is pejoratively called "the son of Mary" (6:4). John moves the rejectioncloser to home when fellow Galileans mock his claim to be "thebread of life that came down from heaven" with the incredulousresponse, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father andmother we know?" (6:41-42). Indeed, John adds that his own"brothers did not believe in him" (7:5) and urge him to go toJerusalem and display himself, accusing him of hiding in Galilee wherethe ignorant could be easily fooled. On the other hand, later in thetradition, James, "the brother of the Lord," becomes aprominent disciple (Acts 15:13-21; Gal 1:18-19).Galilee receives equal contempt from the Judeans, especially the
authorities. Nicodemus cautions the Sanhedrin against condemning Jesus
without first listening to him and finding out what he is doing (Jn
7:51), as required by the law (which Nicodemus does in Jn 3:1-21). They
ask accusingly in reply, however, whether Nicodemus is a Galilean as
well, and challenge him to "search" (with no indication of
where to search!) and "you will see that no prophet is to arise
from Galilee" (Jn 7:52). In other words, Galilee is excluded from
the very possibility of ever producing a prophet, let alone the Messiah.
Still, the leaders are not satisfied and go home disgruntled, unable to
come to grips with this "Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in
Galilee," whose presence and deeds turn their perceptions of
Galileans upside down. The man born blind later challenges them to
revise their view of him on the basis of his deeds, but to no avail (Jn
In John's narrative, however, it is not the leaders'
rejection of the incontestable evidence of Jesus' giving sight to
the man born blind (something never heard of "since the world
began" [9:32]) that confirms their hardheartedness and prejudice;
rather, it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days
(11:39), and the notion that "if we let him go on thus, everyone
will believe in him" (11:48). Again unable to deny the evidence,
the leaders decide to get rid of him quickly, lest the people declare
and install him as king, and the Romans remove them from their posts and
"destroy the nation" (11:47-52; 12:19). In this drama, the
Jewish leaders feel threatened by Jesus as a messiah because of his
deeds--curing the blind, raising the dead, challenging them to reread the Mosaic Law in light of his teaching and deeds. By contrast, however,
the ordinary people, whom the leaders denounce as accursed "rabble
who know not the law" (7:49), are able to perceive God at work in
him and respond positively according to their own messianic expectations
(6:15; 12:12-13).
The pejorative views of Galilee running beneath this narrative go
back to the time of the settlement. Joseph's descendants (Ephraim
and Manasseh, by his Egyptian wife, daughter of the priest of On [Gen
41:45]) and Leah (the nonbeloved wife of Jacob/Israel) are assigned to
Galilee. In the long history of Israel, Galilee more than Judah is
subject to foreign influence and occupation, sustaining the presence of
heterogeneous cultural groups especially from the time of the Assyrian
deportation and importation in 722 BCE (2 Kings 17). In the New
Testament era, cities, fortresses, and garrisons dot Galilee, and the
Roman Decapolis is nearby; Caesarea Philippi, Sepphoris, and the
Jewish-friendly centurion of Capernaum (to name but a few) are all in
Galilee. The Matthean designation of this region as "Galilee of the
Gentiles" (Mt 4:13-16) captures the multiethnic reputation of this
region of Israel. (12)
In sum, the Gospels suggest that the experience of Jesus of
Nazareth in Galilee is colored by prejudice and rejection. For his part,
Jesus chooses to identify himself with this good-for-nothing place. For
Paul, this decision contributes to his conclusion that "Christ
Jesus, who though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself, taking
the form of a slave" (Phil 2:6-11). In the end, rejected and
abandoned, he redeems all humanity and restores us to our God-given
status as children of God (Rom 8:14-17). The mission of Jesus to promote
this status is reflected in his approach to the Samaritan woman, which I
will now examine.
Like Jesus of Nazareth, the Samaritan woman belongs to a people who
are subject to inherited social prejudice because of their origin, and,
in the case of the woman, simply because she is a woman. John's
Gospel states cryptically that Jews "do not share things in common
with Samaritans" (4:9c), which suggests that their lives were
intertwined yet separated. Eating and drinking sustains life, and to eat
and drink with a person--as Jesus was proposing to do here--would be to
identify or be in solidarity with that person. The narrative, however,
highlights the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, which Hebrew
Scripture (2 Kings 17) dates back to the settlement of five nations in
Samaria after the deportation of leading Israelites by Sargon II, the
king of Assyria. The mutual hatred of Jews and Samaritans intensified in
the postexilic period when Zerubabel refused to allow the Samaritans to
help rebuild the Temple (Ezra 4). So around 300 BCE the Samaritans built
their own shrine on Mount Gerizim as a rival to the Temple in Jerusalem;
John Hyrcanus destroyed the shrine ca. 128 BCE. In the New Testament
era, Flavius Josephus reports a desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem
by Samaritans (Antiquities 18.29-30). And Ben Sira sums up Jewish hatred
and prejudice against Samaritans when he writes, "Two nations my
soul detests, and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir
and the Philistines, the foolish people that live in Shechem" (Sir
50:25-26). The rabbis saw Samaritan women as menstruous from birth, that
is, perpetually unclean and consequently a permanent source of
uncleanness for their community. (13) The Jewish leaders in John's
Gospel perceive Samaritans as demon-possessed, and Jesus as one of them
(8:48). Racial prejudice and hatred could not go any further.
On the home front, the Samaritan woman is described as five times
married and now living with someone who is not her husband (4:17-18).
Rabbinic laws allowed marriage a maximum of three times. Critics
conclude from this that the woman in the story leads a loose moral life,
though the text does not explicitly say this. It is enough that she is a
woman and a Samaritan. In this society the five husbands could have been
permitted by levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10), while the sixth might
have refused to marry her. (14) Given the highly gendered moral
standards of the time, however, it is unlikely that such a woman could
have persuaded the man to live with her on her own initiative (assuming
they were living together). Whatever the case, in the narrative world of
John's Gospel the woman, due to her marital history, is likely an
outcast in own her society. That she comes to draw from the well at
about noon, the hottest part of the day when people did not normally
fetch water, supports this impression. Nothing is said about the sixth
man who is not her husband, though it is worth noting that in cases of
sexual immorality, the woman is always at fault (see Jn 8:1-11).
Sociocultural prejudices against the Samaritan woman
notwithstanding, she is not ignorant of her personal worth. She has
traditions and parentage, which even the sneer of a Ben Sira or
one-sided community norms cannot nullify. She traces her ancestry to
Jacob/Israel, the founder of the nation. She reminds Jesus that Jacob
gave them the well where they sit, and he drank from it with his
descendants and their livestock (4:12). The Jewish reader might know
that Joshua testifies that Joseph's bones are buried in Shechem,
and that the land was an inheritance of his descendants (Josh 24:32). In
Luke-Acts, Stephen extends the ancestral connections of Shechem back to
Abraham and the Patriarchs (Acts 7:16). Thus, the woman seems convinced
that, despite inherited and competing claims for Gerizim and Jerusalem
as the fitting place of worship, the Messiah ("God's
Messiah") will put them right (4:25).
She is very much aware of the tense relationship between her people
and the Jews, and the complications this implies for a Jewish man who
would speak with a Samaritan woman (both "you a Jew" and
"me a Samaritan woman" in 4:9 are in emphatic positions);
indeed, she expresses surprise that Jesus seems not to know this. Yet
she has her feet firmly on the ground and her wits about her, and is
able to reason and reach her own conclusions in her dialogue with Jesus.
Contrary to critics who view her character as dependent on the men from
her town to tell her that Jesus is the Messiah, she is not afraid to
engage in conversation with an inimical Jewish male. (15) Once persuaded
that Jesus is the Messiah, she at once runs to the town and convinces
the people to come meet Jesus for themselves. Her action looks forward
to that of Mary of Magdala, who runs to call Peter and the beloved
disciple to come and see the empty tomb for themselves, an action that
engenders the disciples' belief (20:1-10). In short, the woman
lives and is sustained by hope, which helps her transcend and overcome
her sociocultural and religious predicaments. This disposition makes her
ripe for Jesus' self-revelation to her as "the Messiah"
(4:26). Similarly, Mary of Magdala's love for Jesus helps her to
look beyond death, making her an apt bearer of the resurrection message,
the disciple to the disciples (20:17).
These brief analyses of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in their
different contexts have revealed that they share the experience of
rejection, prejudice, and isolation. Jesus is rejected in Judea by his
own people and goes, either by necessity or as part of his divine
mission, to Samaria (4:4) where he finds a hearing and hospitality. The
woman, living on the fringe of her society, goes to the well as part of
her daily assigned chores and is welcomed by Jesus and placed at the
center of his missionary efforts there. For Jesus, not only is society
averse to his speaking in public with the woman (rabbinic law forbade a
man to speak in public to a woman even if she were his own wife). The
Evangelist also intimates that the absence of the disciples (who went to
buy food) is a liberating opportunity for Jesus to engage the woman in
conversation (4:8). The disciples confirm this impression when they
return and are dumbfounded to see Jesus speaking with a woman (4:27).
They are amazed not so much because Jesus is speaking with a Samaritan,
but because he is speaking with a woman (4:27). Yet Jesus' divine
mission is not subject to and cannot be hindered by such considerations.
While the woman is leading her townspeople to encounter Jesus for
themselves, he attends to the disciples, helping them overcome their
learned aversion to public contact with women and, more widely, with
Samaritans by explaining to them their part in his mission there.
Through his dialogue with the woman, Jesus gradually leads her to
transcend the barriers of prejudice and the stigmas of racism and
sexism, and to know and accept God's free gift in himself, who
offers to all who believe in him salvation, "living water,"
and the Holy Spirit (4:7-10; 7:37-39). In the scheme of values portrayed
in this pericope, human traditions of worship cede place to God's
action in the individual's life. It is no longer a question of
worshippers seeking God, but of God seeking people who will worship him
in the way God wants, "in spirit and in truth" (4:24). Such
worshippers surrender their lives to God, making God the organizing
principle of their lives and receiving the salvation that comes with the
divinizing gift of the Holy Spirit freely given to all who follow Jesus
(1:12-13). This worship, neither in Jerusalem nor on the Gerizim
mountain, transcends race, class, and gender (Gal 3:28). Receiving this
message, the woman is freed from the sociocultural shackles that bind
her (see Gal 5:1-2) and is able to lead her own townspeople to the same
The consistent New Testament message embodied in this narrative,
which we seem to have lost sight of over the centuries, is that God does
the seeking and saving of humans, not the reverse. We can trace this
theme back to the Fall and the protevangelium of Genesis (3:15) where
God indicates that the trajectory of salvation will run through the seed
of the woman. What human beings must do is allow themselves to be sought
and found by God, (16) and open themselves to God's free and
unconditional gift of salvation and redemption. In this divine
enterprise no human being has the advantage over another, since all may
receive this gift; God's gift is not based on partiality or on any
human considerations. The Samaritans demonstrate the truth of this
statement by exercising their freedom and God-given right to recognize
and proclaim Jesus as the Savior of the world (4:42).
Before conducting Jesus and the Samaritan woman to Africa, I will
sketch the sociocultual reality that they will encounter, and with which
they will readily identify. The encounter in Samaria takes place at a
well in the course of Jesus' tiring journey from Judea to Galilee.
As was said earlier, Africa is a vast continent of some 52 countries,
each with its multiplicity of languages, cultures, and practices. By
size and population, all of Palestine could fit into one large African
city, such as Lagos in Nigeria, with over twelve million inhabitants.
Where, then, might Jesus and the woman travel, and whom would they meet?
Would they journey to South Africa or Zimbabwe with their postapartheid
problems? to one of the many African countries with ethnic conflicts? or
would they visit the boardrooms of global power where Africa, even at
home, remains marginalized? They could visit the slums of Nairobi where
millions of people are crowded into a kind of West Bank refugee
situation in their own country; or Jesus could simply look around the
airports where women and children are being smuggled out for
trafficking, prostitution, and cheap labor overseas. Were they to visit
the churches, Jesus would hear, perhaps to his surprise, that he had
decreed that women are to be seen not heard; that their role is to labor
cleaning the church and then disappear into the background when the
liturgical functions begin; that they are called to teach seminarians
the "sacred" disciplines and then to become their pupils when
the latter are ordained because Jesus was a male.
Interesting questions emerge from this picture, well worth
pursuing, though not here. Instead I will focus on the realities of
prejudice and rejection that Africans experience from the world
community on the basis of their God-given color, and which we
unfortunately assimilate and apply to one another. Jesus and the
Samaritan woman would encounter and readily identify with this
prejudice. Africa is richly blessed by God in human, land, animal,
mineral, and other natural resources. Africans helped build and continue
to build the economy of the West, in the past through slave labor, and
today through the "brain drain" of intellectuals and
professionals in all fields, a practice akin to what Assyria did to
Samaria and other conquered peoples in ancient times. Africa's
resources have been looted and exploited by colonial masters and
would-be messiahs, in the past as well as in the present. For centuries
Western countries have carted out the wealth of Africa, and now the
Chinese and the Indians are following suit under the guise of helping
Africa develop. Scholars are also beginning to include new messianic
figures, or "husbands" as Musa Dube tags them, (17) in their
studies of colonialism in Africa.
Many Africans believe that the decades of economic aid given to
Africa have ironically weakened their economies, like the autoimmune
disease brought on by HIV/AIDS, which attacks not just the economy but
the very life and survival of the nation. (18) On the global scene, both
in the church and in society, Africans have only to appear and their
color disqualifies them--"Can anything good come from Africa?"
Discriminations based on sex and class, though not peculiar to Africans,
take a distinctive twist where Africans are concerned. These
discriminations are both internal and external. Fortunately these
attitudes are gradually changing. The recent election of Barack Obama as
president of the United States is a significant example. This
history-making event is a realization of the dream of Martin Luther King
Jr. and all well-meaning Americans (black, colored, or white). Two
successive secretaries of state in the administration of George W. Bush,
Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, have been African Americans. Kofi
Annam an illustrious son of Africa, was secretary general of the United
Nations for two consecutive terms, and Francis Cardinal Arinze of
Nigeria was a possible papal candidate in the last election. But racial
prejudice is by no means gone. One recalls the breathless coverage in
the Western press of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, as though
their debut in the world of tennis was a crime of trespass, where blacks
had no right to intrude. Here too, the press grudgingly changed its
mind, thanks to the sisters' sustained excellence.
Here in Africa, Jesus and the woman would discover that they too
would be subjected to all kinds of racial, ethnic, class, and gendered
prejudice. Arguably this multifaceted prejudice is one of the most
debilitating forces impeding development on the Continent. Rwanda,
Burundi, Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe,
Sierra Leone, Liberia, C6te d'Ivoire, even Nigeria with its
"son of the soil" syndrome, all suffer from the debilitating
effects of ethnic prejudice largely inherited from the legacy of
"divide and rule" promoted by the colonial and neocolonial
masters, and internalized by Africans. Like Jesus in Nazareth, Africans
are rejected by their own neighbors, their talents ignored because
people know their parents. "Is this not the son or daughter of ...?
Did I not teach him or her in primary school? Who does s/he think s/he
is? Where did s/he get this knowledge? After all, she is only a
woman!" So many Africans will not believe in their own people.
Worse still, some try to kill them--and they succeed as with Jesus in
Jerusalem--because they feel such talented daughters and sons threaten
their political or religious position.
While these reflections could continue, my point is that prejudice
in all its forms kills and destroys the opportunities and talents God
gives to individuals and communities in Africa and around the globe to
improve themselves and to promote their growth in all spheres of life.
It is self-defeating to reject those talents or to dismiss people on the
basis of race, color, or gender. No human being, male or female, black,
colored, or white, gives life to themselves, or has any say over the
circumstances in which they come into existence. Life in all its
ontological and sociocultural circumstances is a pure gift to every
human being. Awareness of this truth is freeing and should lead all
people to respect others equally. The dialogue of Jesus with the
disciples on their mission (4:35-38) to complete the work of God that he
has begun (4:31-34) highlights this point. Theirs is essentially a
harvesting mission (as with all disciples), a harvesting of the fruit
that Jesus and the Father have sown (4:38). (19)
The fulcrum, then, of the entire episode between Jesus and the
Samaritan woman is her discovery of who Jesus is, of his true identity,
which constitutes "God's gift" given freely to her and to
all who accept this truth (4:10). This exchange constitutes the
foundational text on mission in John's Gospel, embodying the proper
response to its message that "God so loved the world that he gave
his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have
eternal life" (3:16; see also 1:12-13). All who are able to go
beyond ethnic and religious prejudice to encounter the true identity of
Jesus are empowered to truly become children of God, a gift offered on
God's own terms, not on the basis of human considerations. (20)
This brings me to the final part of my study, the encounter and
dialogue between Jesus, the Samaritan woman, his immediate disciples,
Africans, and disciples of Jesus the world over. The contours of this
imaginative meeting are taken from the encounters described in the
Gospel. How does Jesus, the Messiah and Savior of the world, elicit
transformative responses from the woman, the Samaritans, and his
disciples, and what might these events tell us about future encounters
with Africans and other disciples around the globe--sheep who do not
belong to his immediate fold, but whom he wishes to bring into the one
flock under his shepherding (10:16)?
Jesus' proclamation of God's good news to the poor has
two essential components that free their voices and elicit a personal,
liberating option for God's free gift of salvation: the first is
Jesus' humble self-emptying attitude; the second is his respect for
dialogue partners as persons with concerns deserving full attention.
Much has been written about the self-emptying of Jesus and its role as a
model for Christians, especially consecrated persons. Yet one cannot
empty a self that one does not possess. Self-emptying makes sense in the
context of mission where the missionary voluntarily
"decreases" so that the other may "increase" and
have life to the full (Jn 3:30; 10:10). This is the rationale for
Jesus' self-emptying: to make room in himself for humanity, thereby
uniting persons with God. Philippians 2:6-11 underscores this notion
with its claim that "Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of
God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied
himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of
man." In John's pericope Jesus is described as "tired
from his journey," so he sits down at the well and, at the approach
of the Samaritan woman, asks her for a drink, though he himself has a
gift to give that cannot be measured in human terms. (21) This approach
(in which he "stoops to conquer") gives the woman the
advantage: she is a daughter of the soil, with a bucket to draw from a
deep well of longstanding ancestral history.
Once he begins the dialogue, the woman takes the lead, and at each
point Jesus uses her concerns (of water-fetching, marital life, and the
right place to worship) to reveal to her his true identity and convey to
her the gift he offers. With the disciples, Jesus uses their concern for
food. Water and food are indispensable for life; they thus become
fundamental symbols of Jesus' life-giving mission. Second, what
Jesus offers is truly a gift. Once given, it becomes the property of the
receiver ("living water within the person welling up to eternal
life") (4:14). The gift is not dependent on the receiver's
superior status, good will, or benevolence. All receive the same gift
and on equal terms because God, the giver, makes no distinction between
persons in this regard (Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Acts 10:34; 1 Pet 1:17). This
manner of giving truly liberates the receiver (see Rom 5:1-2) and
imparts enabling power to be and to act as a full human being destined
for the fullness of life (10:10).
The woman's excitement over her personal discovery of Jesus
moves the Samaritans (themselves an estranged and outcast people) to
look beyond traditional practices whereby women do not lead men (Sir
9:1-9) and accompany her to meet Jesus "on account of the
woman's word" (4:30). Later, setting aside the lack of
communion fellowship between them and the Jews ("for Jews have no
dealings with Samaritans" [4:9c]), they invite him to theft town.
Jesus graciously accepts and stays there two days, the maximum allowed
by early church practice for a missionary in any given place. (22)
Jesus' humble acceptance of their invitation leads the Samaritans
to confess him as the Savior of the world, not only because of the
woman's word (4:30), but also because they have seen and heard him
for themselves (4:42). If Jesus can be this gracious to Samaritans, whom
his fellow Jews treat not as a people but as dogs, then they conclude he
must be "the Savior of the world."
The passage says nothing about the response of the disciples
(4:31-38). Perhaps a reply is unnecessary. The narrative indicates what
the response is or should be. Beyond the Samaritan woman and her people,
the Evangelist wants to lead his own generation of disciples to embrace
both the content and methods of the mission of Jesus. (23) This is where
the church must pay heed in order to be relevant in Africa and elsewhere
Like his visit to Samaria, a visit from Jesus would challenge
Africans to take a number of steps. First, his visit would call us to
become aware of and to accept God's gift of eternal life and
salvation, which is uniquely ours, regardless of who may have brought
it. Second, he would invite us to get to know him personally and to open
the reality of our lives intimately to him. Third, this knowledge would
challenge us to articulate belief in Jesus based on our own experiences
of him in the concrete settings of our real lives. This is the task of
inculturation to which African and universal church leaders continue to
pay lip-service, but which the Second Vatican Council over 40 years ago
deemed indispensable when it said the proclamation of the gospel must
take into substantial consideration people's own cultures (Gaudium
et spes no. 22). Fourth, African church leaders and those to whom they
proclaim the gospel must stand as equal harvesters of the work of
salvation, reaping what was sown by God alone in and through Jesus
(4:34; 17:4). Fifth, his visit would call women in Africa to recognize
and claim the christological grounds for their right to participate
along with men in all aspects of the church's life.
On a broader scale, the African encounter with Jesus would no doubt
challenge the male clerical church to be open to and let go of their
scandal at "what Jesus wants with woman." The Fourth Gospel
seems to emphasize the importance of women in the story of Jesus. He
calls his mother "woman" (2:4), and the text tells us
"the mother of Jesus" not only gives him birth but also
mothers the launch of his missionary career and his revelatory alpha
sign (archen ton semeion, 2:11). She accompanies him throughout his life
to its completion in the Omega sign of his death and resurrection, where
she receives the mission to mother his newborn child, the church
(19:25-26, 30) into full maturity (Acts 1:14). The Samaritan woman is
instrumental in effecting the conversion of her townspeople and, by
implication, the disciples who would have accompanied Jesus into the
town for the two-day stay, despite their mutual animosity with its
inhabitants. Martha first articulates the confession that is the entire
aim and purpose of the Gospel: that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son
of God, the one who is coming into the world" (11:27; 20:31). Mary
of Bethany performs the last liturgical rites for Jesus, "the lamb
of God," by anointing him for burial (12:7; see 14:8). And Mary of
Magdala loves and follows Jesus beyond death (20:1-2, 11-18), receiving
from him the commission to proclaim the resurrection message that all
believers are henceforth brothers and sisters, children of the same God,
who is father/mother of us all (20:17). If the church in Africa today
wants to participate in what God and Jesus want with women for the
redemption and transformation of humanity, both genders will need to
revisit long-held derogatory attitudes toward women, and learn to
celebrate the gifts that God gives to them for their good as persons,
and for the good of all. (24)
Furthermore, the visit would challenge all disciples to eschew
traditions of racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism that sicken Christian
life, infecting its victims and rendering them incapable of recognizing
who Jesus really is, especially in his brothers and sisters (Mt 25:40,
45). His presence would reveal in full God's gift of salvation that
beckons all Africans to reconciliation, drawing us to cross boundaries
(sociocultural, religious, and political) in forming communion
fellowship with the Trinity and all believers (1 Jn 1:1-4). Jesus would
challenge the church in Africa and elsewhere to look to what the Gospels
tell us of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee in searching for solutions in
ecclesiology (who is or is not church), ecumenism (who has the last word
concerning the right place to worship, how, and when), missiology (who
should evangelize whom, where, and how), and dialogue (a readiness to
rethink traditional practices, positions, and views through a genuine
and respectful exchange that leads to insights inspired by the example
of Jesus). All this is possible when our way of being church is rooted
in what God does and will continue to do in individuals and communities,
irrespective of who they are or where they come from.
This study of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, then,
has surfaced their shared experiences of prejudice, racism, and sexism
flowing from the social norms of their societies. Jesus reaches beyond
these prejudices, however, leading the woman, the Samaritans, and his
own disciples to do the same. Unfortunately, contemporary discourse on
the option for the poor has paid little attention to the role of
inherited and ingrained prejudices in regard to Africans, though changes
are taking place slowly. Second, the discourse on the option for the
poor tends to focus on economic issues as evidenced even by the
expression "option for the poor," which should be understood
to include marginated women, allowing them to participate with an
empowered voice.
In the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, however, Jesus does not
simply opt for the poor, but rather identifies himself as poor so as to
make all rich (Jn 10:7-18; 2 Cor 8:9). His option to identify himself as
poor makes Jesus accessible to all and sundry, helping them to feel and
know they are his equal as human, and at times perhaps his superior, as
we saw in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman. John's narrative
presents Jesus' association with the poor as a deliberate choice,
which enables Jesus' dialogue partners to become aware of, claim,
and celebrate their own God-given dignity, as do the Samaritan woman and
her people (see Gaudium et spes no. 26). Jesus respects and works within
people's own concerns in leading them to where his Father wants
them to be. He eschews the dispute over competing claims and systems of
nationality and worship, leading them instead to focus on God's
action in their lives and in the world, and to see worship as the
celebration of what God does in believers and wants to do in all
God's children everywhere.
In reality, contemporary disciples of Jesus do not have to give the
poor a voice or be their voice, because God has already given each one a
voice in their own right and on God's own terms. By engaging the
woman in respectful conversation as an equal partner (traditions and
taboos to the contrary notwithstanding), Jesus gives the woman the
opportunity to use her God-given voice, thus liberating the great
potential within her. The abiding challenge for those who feel that
theirs is the only voice worth hearing, or who have encroached upon the
voice-space of others in church and society, is to retreat to their own
space and to listen to those they previously thought had no right to
speak. Both Vatican II and John Paul II say that promoting the dignity
of "the human being" is the proper route to empower the poor
and evangelize the rich. Jesus takes this route first by becoming a
human being (1:14; Heb 4:15); and second, in his manner of proclaiming
the good news to the poor--which includes the spiritually poor, since
God's general amnesty excludes none (Lk 4:18-19).
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman reveals that when the
Good News is heard and received, individuals discover living water
welling up from within that promotes life in its fullness. Satisfaction
with this way of living turns committed Christians away from the
accumulation of wealth that impoverishes others, and from calculating
their worth as human beings by the size of their bank accounts. I have
written elsewhere about the corresponding need for a "salvific option for the rich," adopting the same respectful approach toward
them as Jesus adopts toward Zacchaeus. (25) In Luke's description,
Zacchaeus is "a chief tax collector and rich" (19:2b), but he
is moved in response to his encounter with Jesus to redress the fraud he
practiced and the impoverishment he perpetrated (19:8). Jesus, who notes
that "the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost,"
declares in response, "Today salvation has come to this
house," adding that Zacchaeus "is also is a son of
Abraham" (19:9).
In the last analysis, the poor offer a special grace to the rich,
but not because they need the surplus wealth of the rich. The poor call
the rich to become aware of their own God-given status as children of
God, whose primary identity and worth is not measured by bank accounts,
shares of stock, or whether they belong to the G8, G15, or G20 groups of
wealthy nations. They call the rich to the realization that it is
unbecoming of them as human beings and children of God to serve, pursue,
and be pursued by money/Mammon (Jas 2:1-13; 5:1-5). This approach to the
option for the poor (coupled with salvific option for the rich) also
helps ensure that the poor will not simply jump onto the bandwagon of
complacent blindness if they too become rich and, like the fool in Psalm
14:1, feel they have no need of God.
Applying to Africa this discourse on the graces that the poor offer
the rich, I have argued elsewhere that the martyrdom of Africa is hope
for a new humanity. The innocent suffering of Africa is like the blood
of martyrs that soaks, waters, and transforms the entire earth,
including the lives of the guilty. (26) If we keep this transforming
power in mind, Jesus' successful dialogue with the Samaritan woman,
her people, his disciples, and with Africans and the global community
will bear lasting fruit, for the living water that Jesus gives has
become in us "a spring of water welling up to eternal life"
(4:14c), where both rich and poor can come to drink and rejoice together
eternally in God's all-inclusive company. Nurtured and refreshed by
this living water, we are empowered to begin living this way here on
earth, which Jesus teaches us is possible as we pray each day in the
Lord's Prayer to the one Father and Mother of us all.
(1) Musa W. Dube takes this approach in her "Reading for
Decolonization (John 4:1-42)," Semeia 75 (1996) 37-59; and in
"John 4:1-42--The Five Husbands at the Well of Living Waters,"
in Talitha cum!: Theologies of African Women, ed. Nyambura J. Njoroge
and Musa W. Dube Shomanah (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster, 2001) 40-65.
(2) See, for instance, Chris Ukachukwu Manus, "The Samaritan
Woman (Jn 4:7ff): Reflections on Female Leadership and Nation Building
in Africa," African Journal of Biblical Studies 2.1-2 (1987) 52-63;
Justine Kahunga Mbwiti, "Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (John
4:1-42)," in "Talitha qumi!": Proceedings of the
Convocation of African Women Theologians, Trinity College, Legon-Accra,
September 24-October 2, 1989, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Musimbi R. A.
Kanyoro (Ibadan: Daystar, 1990) 63-75; Musa W. Dube, "Jesus and the
Samaritan Woman: A Motswana Feminist Theological Reflection on Women and
Social Transformation," Boleswa Occasional Papers on Theology and
Religion 1.4 (1992) 5-9; and Grant LeMarquand, "Bibliography of the
Bible in Africa," in The Bible in Africa: Translations,
Trajectories, and Trends, ed. Gerard O. West and Musa W. Dube (Boston:
Brill, 2001) 633-800.
(3) Teresa Okure, The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual
Study of John 4:1-42, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen
Testament, series 2, 31 (Tubingen: JCB Mohr, 1988). The work encountered
two major objections while it was still in the making: one was to the
contextual approach adopted; the other and perhaps more serious one was
to the assumption that John's Gospel had something to do with
mission, understood mainly as outreach to unbelievers in the Third World
(on this see ibid. 7-22). Treating the pericope in the African context
was ruled out within that view. Robert Morgan (Theological Book Review
1.3 [1989] 13) faulted its lack of attention to the feminist dimensions
of the episode.
(4) Okure, Johannine Approach xvi-vii.
(5) See, e.g., John S. Pobee and Barbel von Wartenberg-Potter,
eds., New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by
Women from the Third World (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian, 1986);
Musa W. Dube, ed., Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible
(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001); Gerard O. West,
Biblical Hermeneutics of Liberation: Modes of Reading the Bible in South
African Context, rev. ed. (1991; Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis, 1997). In their
continuing seminars on contextual studies, the Studiorum Novi Testamenti
Societas and the Society of Biblical Literature are also trying to
incorporate these newer approaches as valid ways of reading biblical
(6) From the editors' precis (July 31, 2007) describing this
special issue of Theological Studies.
(7) Increasingly, African and African-American scholars are
discovering biblical evidence that the Israelites were in fact Africans.
The Pentateuch suggests that the Israelites spent more than 400 years in
Africa from the time of Jacob/Israel, not counting the sojourns of
Abraham and Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On. Moses
was legally the son of Pharaoh's daughter and completely African by
upbringing (Acts 7:22) at a time when the Israelites did not yet worship
YHWH, as witnessed by the incident of the golden calf. See David Tuesday
Adamu, "The Place of Africa and Africans in the Old Testament and
Its Environment" (Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, 1986);
Adamu, "The Table of Nations Reconsidered in African Perspective
(Genesis 19)," Journal of African Religion and Philosophy 11 (1993)
138-43; Adamu, Africa and Africans in the Old Testament (San Francisco:
Christian Universities, 1998); Teresa Okure, "Africans in the
Bible: A Study in Hermeneutics," a paper given at the International
Congress on the Bible in Africa, Cairo, August 4-20, 1987, and at the
Society of Biblical Literature's seminar on the Bible in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America, New Orleans, November 23-26, 1996.
(8) See Mt 16:14; Mk 6:15; Lk 7:16:39; 24;19; and Jn 7:40, 52.
(9) On the Magnificat and its possible significance for African
women, see Gertrud Wittenburg, "The Song of a Poor Woman: The
Magnificat (Luke h46-55)," in Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Women in
the Church in South Africa, ed. Denise Ekermann, Jonathan A. Draper, and
Emma Mashini (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster, 1991) 2-20.
(10) A typical example is Timothy whom Paul circumcised to be his
traveling companion, because his mother was "a Jewish woman"
(Acts 16:1-3).
(11) See my recent analysis of this episode: "Jesus in
Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30 and //s: An Index to the Question of Poverty in
Africa," a paper presented at the biennial congress of Panafrican
Association of Catholic Exegetes (PACE), Johannesburg, September 2007
(publication of the proceedings is in process).
(12) This is not the place to go into this matter in detail. For
windows onto the political and sociocultural life in Hellenistic and
Roman Galilee see, e.g., Morton Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics
That Shaped the Old Testament, 2nd corr. ed. (New York: SCM, 1987); Sean
Freyne, Galilee, from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, 323 B.C.E. to 135
C.E.: A Study of Second Temple Judaism (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame
University, 1980).
(13) See the extensive study on this in Hermann L. Strack and Paul
Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6
vols. (Munich: Beck, 1922-1961) 1:540-560, especially on the rules of
purity (540M1); food laws (541-42), and worship (542-44); and my
discussion in Johannine Approach 96.
(14) For a similar view see Gail R. O'Day, "John,"
in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon
Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 295-96.
(15) On the woman's sagacity in the dialogue with Jesus, see
Okure, Johannine Approach 108-31, where I have also argued that the
woman's question to her people, "Can he be the Christ?"
parallels Jesus' own method: as he roused her curiosity so she
roused her people's curiosity, leading them to reach their own
personal decision about him. See also Teresa Okure, "John," in
The International Bible Commentary: A Catholic and Ecumenical Resource
for the Twenty-First Century, ed. William Farmer et al. (Collegeville,
Minn.: Liturgical, 1998) 1438-1505.
(16) I made a similar discovery with regard to sacrifice in
Hebrews: while human beings offer sacrifice to God to obtain favors or
to appease God, in the optic of this letter, God is the one who
sacrifices himself in the person of his Son to bring (or, in Pauline
terms, to reconcile [2 Cor 5:18-19]) humans to the divine self. Teresa
Okure, "Hebrews: Sacrifice in an African Perspective," in
Global Bible Commentary, ed. Daniel Patte and assoc, eds., Teresa Okure
et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004) 535-38.
(17) See n. 1 above and my "Impoverished by Wealth: Mama
Africa and Her Experience of Poverty," Pope Paul VI Annual Lecture,
CAFOD, London, November 10, 2007.
(18) The Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) devoted its 16th
Theology Week to the topic; see Teresa Okure, "Africa and HIV/AIDS:
The Real Issues," in The Church and HIV/AIDS in the West African
Context, ed. Ferdinand Nwaigbo et al. (Port Harcourt: CIWA) 66-94.
(19) See Okure, Johannine Approach 136-88.
(20) On the foundational character of 3:16, see ibid. 5-6, esp. n.
(21) See my analysis of the dynamics of interaction in ibid.
91-131; and "John" 1438-1502, esp. 1467-68; and Diarmund
McGann, Journeying within Transcendence: The Gospel of John through a
Jungian Perspective (London: Collins, 1989) 52-60, esp. 53-54.
(22) See Didache 11:4-5; and J. Ramsey Michaels, "The
Itinerant Jesus and His Home Town," in Aathenticating the
Activities of Jesus, ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Boston:
Brill, 1999) 177-93, esp. 190-91.
(23) See Okure, Johannine Approach 129-31,174-75, 197-98, where I
have developed this point.
(24) The attitude of the hierarchical church, which continues to
legislate for the exclusion and silencing of women or gives them only
token considerations that are subject to the "sensitivity of the
faithful" in any local church, is antigospel and anti-Christos. It
is remarkable that in the commentary on "John in an Orthodox
perspective" by Petros Vassiliades (International Bible Commentary,
412-18) none of the passages on women seem to be relevant to this
Orthodox perspective; so too the commentary of Kyung-mi Park,
"John," International Bible Commentary 401-11.
(25) Teresa Okure, "Salvific Option for the Rich: A Gospel
Imperative for Mission in the Twenty-First Century," Third Annual
Mission Lecture of the Holy Cross Mission Center, Notre Dame, Ind.,
February 18, 2007.
(26) Teresa Okure, "Africa, A Martyred Continent: Seed of a
New Humanity," in Rethinking Martyrdom, Concilium 2003/1, ed.
Teresa Okure, Jon Sobrino, and Felix Wilfred (London: SCM, 2003) 3846.
TERESA OKURE, S.H.C.J., received her Ph.D. from Fordham University,
New York, and is currently academic dean of the Catholic Institute of
West Africa, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Specializing in biblical exegesis and gender and intercultural hermeneutics, she has recently published
articles in Mission Studies and Forum Mission and was co-guest editor of
a special issue of the International Journal for the Study of the
Christian Church 8.4 (2008) on ecclesiology in Africa. She is editing a
commentary on John's Gospel and preparing books on the parables of
Jesus in the African context and on women in the life of Jesus.
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