"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 4 Jesus in Samaria: the Living Water (Jn 4.1-42)

Section 4.1: Background (Jn 4.1-6)


GENERAL COMMENTS


Here we have a passage which might have been classed as a mere geographical transition (though these transitions are never 'mere'). However it also provides such important background for what follows that I thought it should instead be regarded as preparation for the whole Samaritan incident. Thus it is linked strongly in the outline with the story of Jesus in Samaria.

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


The MSS are nearly equally divided between reading 'the Lord' and 'Jesus' here. Many scholars (such as Brown 1966 p 164 and the translators of the NRSV) prefer to read 'Jesus'. It is certainly easier to account for a change from 'Jesus' to 'the Lord' (by scribes trying to avoid the awkward repetition of the name 'Jesus') than to explain why 'the Lord' would have been changed to 'Jesus'. Bultmann 1971 p 176 n2 prefers 'the Lord' but finds the entire clause a 'clumsy gloss'. In the circumstances it seems difficult to declare a preference but 'the Lord' is the reading of the earliest MSS that we have (the papyri P66 and P75, both early third century MSS) and several uncial MSS (A (Alexandrinus), B (Vaticanus), and W (Washington)) of the fourth and fifth centuries. I feel we should adopt the earliest reading in such a situation. Certainly in some ways 'the Lord' is the more difficult reading.

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Why was the information that the Pharisees had heard about the ministry of repentance-baptism a signal for Jesus and the disciples with him to move from Judaea to Galilee? There is no clear answer to that in the text. It cannot simply be fear of the Pharisees because, as Brown points out (Brown 1966 p 165), there were also Pharisees in Galilee. Another instance in which this deceptively simple section raises more questions than it answers.

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This verse contradicts Jn 3.22, 26 and 4.1. If the Evangelist himself had wished to make a change, why did he not simply rewrite those three verses rather than adding this one? As it stands Jn 4.2 looks very much like the result of the lack of a final review and edit by the author, such as we have suggested in the introduction. It seems far less likely to have been a later addition by an editor who did not want the statement that Jesus had engaged in a ministry of baptism like that of John the Baptist to go unchallenged, since there is no textual evidence for such a theory. It appears in the early MSS.

It is easy to see why some might object to the notion that Jesus had engaged in such a ministry early in his career. It contradicts the Synoptics, in which there is no mention of such a thing; it raises the potential for theological conflicts over the difference between the repentance-baptism of John and the later post-Resurrection baptism of the apostolic church; and it creates the possibility for some to boast that they had been baptised by Jesus himself. However everything that John and Mark tell us about the early affinity between Jesus' ministry and that of John the Baptist suggests the probability of a ministry of repentance-baptism by Jesus and his early disciples. There is thus no immediately apparent solution to the problem of this verse and we cannot know how the Evangelist may have revised these verses had he done a final edit.

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According to this verse, it was necessary for Jesus to travel through Samaria to get to his destination of Galilee. That was the quickest and most usual route, which is likely what the Evangelist meant, although it is not the only way Jesus might have travelled. Some commentators, however, take the necessity literally and refer to God's providential plans: it was necessary for Jesus to go that way because it was necessary for him to go and evangelise the Samaritans.

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Sychar was apparently a town near the more famous Shechem (modern Nablus in the West Bank). Although some commentators confused the two, Eusebius distinguished them. Sychar is thus very near to Mt Gezerim, where the Samaritans had had a Temple, and still maintained a shrine. It is probable that the modern Aschar is built on the site of Sychar. See Urban C van Wahlde, 'Archaeology and John's Gospel', pp 556-9, in Jesus and Archaeology, ed James H Charlesworth (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2006).

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In this verse John reveals his understanding of the reality of Jesus' humanity. Despite the prologue's claim that the Word became flesh, the Fourth Gospel is often regarded as promoting a lesser sense of Jesus' human nature, in comparison with its high Christological sense of his divinity. But John's Jesus knows fatigue after travelling on foot in the heat of the day. Given this recognition we can also see in his subsequent request for water (in v.7) not a calculated conversational opening designed to introduce a revelatory discourse but the action of a thirsty man.

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