Jesus Method of Teaching: Between Symbolism and Literality

John 4

6Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. 7There came a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus said unto her, Give me to drink.

 Jesus; the son of man was asking for a drink of water to crunch a natural physical thirst. This request would not be usually approved by tradition.

9Then said the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that you, being a Jew, ask drink of me, who am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.  10Jesus answered and said unto her, If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that said to you, Give me to drink; you would have asked of him, and he would have given you living water.

 Jesus tells the woman that He was above tradition. He began explaining to her who He was and the nature of his mission, using symbolism. He talked about this gift of the living water that He was given by God. This living water that crunches the thirst for evermore.

11The woman said unto him, Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from where then have you that living water?  12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his sons, and his cattle?

Immediately, the woman understood what Jesus meant and directly begun debating his statement.

First argument:
The well is deep and you have no tool to draw the water with: The Samaritan woman questioned Jesus’s legitimacy, assuming that he was not equipped enough for the hard mission.

Second argument:
The woman compared Jesus’s gift to the legal heritage passed down by Jacob through a rhetorical question: are you greater than our father? This translates to a modern-day sarcastic comment: you can’t be serious? What type of gift could you possibly have to outweigh what our ancestor has done; which was finding water in an extremely deep well!

Although the Samaritan woman seemed to be comparing Jesus’s proclaimed gift to Jacob’s known gift, on a deeper level, she was comparing his spiritual mission with that of Moses. In this highly symbolic comparison, water became the equivalent of salvation, and the depth of the well which meant hard work is the symbol for the law that Moses gave.

The Samaritan woman, rather indignant, asserted that nobody else before or after the founder of the well was anyone able to do such thing. Of course, if the woman was really talking about mere water, she would have known that Abraham and Isaac both dug up several wells.  Genesis 26:18 And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham: and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

This, in fact, is evidence that the woman was using symbolism in her conversation with Jesus.  The woman added that since nobody else has provided water (salvation) for the people,  and since the water they provided was hard to get (law), then their way must be the only way to get water (or to reach salvation).

Based on this premise, the woman indirectly made two rhetorical but meaningful questions;

1-who Jesus thought He was to make such a claim of equality to Moses? 

2-How could Jesus claim that He could outdo the work of the elders (Moses’ law) and provide water (salvation) without a tool to dig or to withdraw the water from the deep well and without hard work?!

13Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinks of this water shall thirst again: 14But whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

Jesus did not answer the woman’s question about his tools; his credentials. This, He will allow her to find out for herself through his revelations. He switched talking about the nature of the water of the well (the nature of the salvation) passed down by Jacob (Moses). This (spiritual) water, Jesus explained, may satisfy the temporary need of the body (it temporary appeases the conscience), but doesn’t crunch the thirst eternally (does not save).
What Jesus meant was the fact that the ‘legal’ well may help people get by in this life by moderating their wild instincts, but it will not change their core nor offer them salvation and eternal life.

By this, Jesus was saying (indirectly of course) that He does not need Jacob’s tool to dig a similar well, neither does He need a bucket to draw from this well (a traditional seat in the temple) because the water he’s offering is of a different nature.
The woman then responded: “15Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come here to draw..

The woman had already recognised the truth in what Jesus said. She believed him and told him about her wiliness to be saved. This Samaritan woman was tired of the infinite sacrifices she was making to draw water from the well; the sacrifices she was making to be forgiven of her sins. She now longed to be forgiven once and for all.

16Jesus said unto her, Go, call your husband, and come hereFor some reason, now that the woman consented to be saved and was prepared to hear more, Jesus began as though trying to withhold information from her. In fact, He was not withholding information, but instead, He was about to show her the way. 

In the above request He made, Jesus was showing the woman that the way to salvation was not a vicious circle of sin and penance or sacrifice. The eternal salvation is to come out of sin; once and for all. He did so by redirecting her back to her own village, her own dwelling where her own family members could be found. He asked her about the very thing that was the source of her burden, that is; her fear and guilt.  The woman’s fall was the driving force behind her continuous seeking for forgiveness.

17The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, You have well said, I have no husband: 18For you have had five husbands; and he whom you now have is not your husband: that said you truly.

Jesus knew the source of the women’s distress. He knew that her life was not right but he didn’t condemn her for she had already condemned her self. But He brought the subject up to show her that even in that situation, she can still enjoy the eternal living water.

19The woman said unto him, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and you say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

In verse 19, the Samaritan woman finally found the answer to a previous question she asked about Jesus’s spiritual credentials. She found out that Jesus was a prophet because He knew her major life events without knowing her. Yet, the woman needed to know more about the theological aspect of salvation to understand how far did Jesus depart from the traditional law of Judaism.

21Jesus said unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when you shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22You worship you know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. 23But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him.

Jesus explained bluntly that Judaism, although a true religion, was already something of the past because the temple will no longer be a physical place. Worship as God requires it from now on is worship that has no physical place apart from the Spirit and the Truth. 

25The woman said unto him, I know that Messiah comes, who is called Christ: when he comes, he will tell us all things.

The intelligent woman fully understood that Jesus was carrying a new message and that the only messenger who will be carrying such a message would be no less than the Messiah himself. So, rather than asking him a direct question on his relationship with the Messiah, she just announced that she was prepared to wait patiently for the Messiah to come and explain things. In this, she was also making a statement that she was not prepared to accept a new message except through the Messiah.

26Jesus said unto her, I that speak unto you (,)  am he.

Jesus assured the woman that He was the Messiah and that the way to salvation for her was where He pointed earlier. So, overwhelmed with joy, she proceeded to do his will. She went back to the village not only to put her life straight and reconcile with her community but also to help spread the good news.

31In the meanwhile his disciples besought him, saying, Teacher, eat. 32But he said unto them, I have food to eat that you know not of.

In this point onward, the writer of the gospel tackles symbolism openly. After the encounter between Jesus and the woman which was highly charged with symbolism, the writer is calling on us (the readers) to pay attention to the fact that Jesus spoke in parables and symbols.

33Therefore said the disciples one to another, has any man brought him anything to eat?

Unlike the Samaritan woman, the disciples did not understand the meaning of Jesus statement. They took it literally. In such a culture, women used symbolism more than men in their daily life. Repressed and controlled, women mostly resulted in indirect signs to express themselves even among each other, to avoid being confrontational. Men, on the other hand, being in a position of power in the household, spoke their minds directly and had no need for signs and symbols.

34Jesus said unto them, My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.  35Say not, There are yet four months, and then comes harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.  36And he that reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit unto life eternal: that both he that sows and he that reaps may rejoice together.  37And in this is that saying true, One sows, and another reaps.  38I sent you to reap that on which you bestowed no labor: other men labored, and you are entered into their labors.

Jesus continued talking about the harvest that the Samaritan woman was on her way to reap; a harvest that Jesus himself had sown. But He was also promoting his disciples to be prepared for the harvest. Jesus was the only true power of the message but everyone else will be reaping for a wage (Heaven), including the disciples themselves. Jesus, the true farmer, was the only one who will not be receiving a wage for his work, for He came from Heaven and He was the owner of the land.

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