This is a risky conversation, here at Jacob’s well in the land of Samaria: Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans are kindred peoples, distant relatives, both tracing their lineage to Jacob, the patriarch of Israel. Samaritans and Jews are cousins, but they are not friends. There is tension between the two, racial tension, strained relationships, rooted in a history of mutual offense, even violence. 150 years before this conversation at the well, a Jewish ruler destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. More recently, Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, littering it with bones, animal bones, human bones perhaps, making the temple grounds unclean in time for the holy days of Passover.
At Jacob’s well, Jesus and the Samaritan bring those histories, those identities, those antagonisms with them. Hostility is the context of this encounter. And Jesus doesn’t help matters with strange way of speaking, the way he invites misunderstanding.
He’s thirsty. He asks her for water. She points out the strangeness of his presence, as a Jew, in Samaritan territory. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans,” the narrator explains in verse 9, just so we know how odd it is for Jesus to do this, to show up here.
Why are you here? she asks. And Jesus response doesn’t seem like an answer at all. You should be asking me for running water, he says—or, as our translations put it, living water.
She is totally confused, and it sounds like it’s all Jesus’ fault. Because he first asks her for water, and in the next breath he’s offering water from some other spring, invisible to her, and the whole time he doesn’t explain why he’s there in the first place, a Jew in Samaria.
Jesus has this tendency in John’s Gospel—to baffle, to perplex, to confuse: the more he talks, the more confusing it gets. We heard a similar story last week, the conversation with Nicodemus where he somehow understood Jesus as saying that he had to reenter his mother’s womb and undergo birth all over again. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus responds, so puzzled by the words of Jesus,
the absurdity of the imagery. Even his friends scratch their heads when they talk to him, even the disciples are mystified at Jesus.
Later in the story, in chapter 6, his followers get so confused that they decide to give up. “This teaching is difficult,” they say as they return to their homes. “Because of this,” it says, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:60, 66).
When I read these stories in John’s Gospel, these stories about Jesus and his baffling conversations, I feel like I’m in the strange world of a Bob Dylan song, like “Talkin’ World War III Blues”—I still don’t understand what’s going on in that song, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing it again. Actually, the Bob Dylan moment that reminds me the most of Jesus is his interview from 1966, when he was 24 years old, a few months before the release of his album, Blonde on Blonde.
The interviewer was trying to understand what Bob Dylan was about. He was especially interested in Dylan’s shift away from folk music. His questions were straightforward, but Dylan wouldn’t give the interviewer what he wanted. Here’s a great example: The interviewer asks, “What made you decide to go the rock-‘n’-roll route?” And this is how Dylan responds: “I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a ‘before’ in a Charles Atlas ‘before and after’ ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs… The next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?”
The interviewer, a bit confused, asks: “And that’s how you became a rock-‘n’-roll singer?” “No,” Dylan says, “that’s how I got tuberculosis.”[i]
There’s so much confusion here, willful confusion, playful, but also a very serious attempt to refuse to give an answer that would fit within the rules of the questioner, to reject a response that would fit within the world as it is, words that would affirm what is already here.
Instead, Dylan leads the interviewer into a strange world, full of twists and turns, following the logic of dreams and visions, answers that open up a different world. With his bizarre answers, full of confusion and misunderstanding, Dylan ends up pointing elsewhere, beyond what makes sense to us now, given our world, given what we understand, the limits of our imagination.
This is the style, the style of communication, in the story we heard today and last week, and we will keep on hearing as we work our way through the book of John—in the confusion and misunderstanding, Jesus’ strange responses to straightforward questions, how he uses familiar words but in unusual ways, with unusual meanings, language that seems like it comes from another world.
I prefer a Jesus who tells it like it is, speaking clear answers, making sure everyone understands exactly what he’s saying, exactly what he’s asking for, exactly what he’s offering. If I’m going to follow Jesus, I want to know where I’m going, where’s he’s leading, and I want him to be available all along the way to clarify the directions, to make sure I’ve understood it right. I want my faith to be straightforward, faith seeking understanding, faith growing in knowledge and confidence—a life of faith without misunderstanding.
But the Jesus we read about in John’s Gospel is like Bob Dylan, never giving us exactly what we want, instead mystifying our sense of what we know, of our assumptions about our lives and the world and God.
To follow Jesus is to take the wandering path into our unknowing, into the undoing of what we thought we know about God, in order that we may discover the mystery of a life held by God, the realities of God’s presence—that no matter how little we know about God, God knows us. That’s what we discover in Jesus—that we are known, and loved. “Come see the one who told me everything about me,” the Samaritan woman tells her friends.
Faith is not about what we know, it’s about being known. It’s not about how much we think we know about God, it’s about how much God knows us and loves us.
And the life of faith is this: Letting ourselves be known and loved, letting another know us and love us. Because in their love, we find ourselves held by mystery of God, a mystery we return to every week, here, with each other: Living water, refreshing our souls, washing through our lives—the Spirit pouring through us.
[i] “Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan,” February 1966: http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/66-jan.htm