by Alfred Edersheim
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE ASCENT: FROM THE RIVER JORDAN TO THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION
JESUS AT THE WELL OF SYCHAR
(St. John 4:1-42.)
THERE is not a district in 'the Land of Promise' which presents a scene more fair or rich than the plain of Samaria (the modern El Mukhna). As we stand on the summit of the ridge, on the way from Shiloh, the eye travels over the wide sweep, extending more than seven miles northward, till it rests on the twin heights of Gerizim and Ebal, which enclose the valley of Shechem. Following the straight olive-shaded road from the south, to where a spur of Gerizim, jutting south-east, forms the Vale of Shechem, we stand by that 'Well of Jacob' to which so many sacred memories attach. Here, in 'the parcel of ground' afterwards given to Joseph,1 which Jacob had brought from the people of the land, the patriarch had, at great labour and cost, sunk a well through the limestone rock. At present it is partially filled with rubbish and stones, but originally it must have gone down about 150 feet.2 as the whole district abounds in springs, the object of the patriarch must have been to avoid occasion of strife with the Amorite herdsmen around. That well marks the boundary of the Great Plain, or rather its extensions bear other names. To the left (westwards), between Gerizim (on the south) and Ebal (on the north), winds the valley of olive-clad Shechem, the modern Nablus, though that town is not in view from the Well of Sychar. Still higher up the same valley, the mud hovels of Sebastiyeh mark the site of ancient Samaria, the magnificent Sebaste of Herod. North of the entrance to the Vale of Shechem rises Mount Ebal, which also forms. so to speak, the western wall of the northern extension of the Plain of Samaria. Here it bears the name of El 'Askar, from Askar, the ancient Sychar, which nestles at the foot of Ebal, at a distance of about two miles from Shechem. Similarly, the eastern extension of the plain bears the name of the Valley of Shalem, from the hamlet of that name, which probably occupies the site of the ancient city before which Jacob pitched his tent on his return to Canaan.31. The reference here is to Gen. xlviii. 22. Wünsche, indeed, objects that this application of the passage is inaccurate, and contrary to universal Rabbinic tradition. But in this, as in other instances, it is not the Gospel, but rather Dr. Wünsche, who is inaccurate. If the reader will refer to Geiger's Urschr. p. 80, he will find proof that the Evangelist's rendering of Gen. xlviii. 22 was in accordance with ancient Rabbinic tradition, which was only afterwards altered for anti-Samaritan purposes. On the other hand, this may be regarded as another undesigned proof of the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
2. The present depth of the well is about seventy-five feet. Most travellers have given more or less pictorial accounts of Jacob's Well. We refer here especially to Mr. King's Report (Quarterly Stat. of the Pal. Explor. Fund, Ap. 1879), although it contains the strange mistake that Jesus had that day come from Jerusalem, and reached Jacob's Well by midday.
3. Gen. xxxiii. 18, 19.
At 'the Well of Jacob' which, for our present purpose, may be regarded as the centre of the scene, several ancient Roman roads meet and part. That southward, to which reference has already been made, leads close by Shiloh to Jerusalem; that westward traverses the vale of Shechem; that northward brings us to the ancient Sychar, only about half a mile from 'the Well.' Eastward there are two ancient Roman roads: one winds south-east, till it merges in the main road; the other strikes first due east, and then descends in a south-easterly direction through Wady Farâh, which debouches into the Jordan. We can trace it as it crosses the waters of that Wady, and we infer, that its immediate neighbourhood must have been the scene where Jesus had taught, and His disciples baptized. It is still in Judæa, and yet sufficiently removed from Jerusalem; and the Wady is so full of springs that one spot near it actually bears the name of 'Ainûn, 'springs,' like the ancient Ænon. But, from the spot which we have indicated, it is about twenty miles, across a somewhat difficult country to Jacob's Well. It would be a long and toilsome day's journey thither on a summer day, and we can understand how, at its end, Jesus would rest weary on the low parapet which enclosed the Well, while His disciples went to buy the necessary provisions in the neighbouring Sychar.
And it was, as we judge, the evening of a day in early summer,4 when Jesus, accompanied by the small band which formed His disciples,5 emerged into the rich Plain of Samaria. Far as the eye could sweep, 'the fields' were 'already white unto the harvest.' They had reached 'the Well of Jacob.' There Jesus waited, while the others went to Sychar on their work of ministry. Probably John remained with the Master. They would scarcely have left Him alone, especially in that place; and the whole narrative reads like that of one who had been present at what passed.6 More than any other, perhaps, in the Fourth Gospel, it bears the mark, not only of Judæan, but of contemporary authorship. It seems utterly incompatible with the modern theory of its Ephesian origin at the end of the second century. The location of the scene, not in Sebaste or Shechem, but at Sychar,7 which in the fourth century at least had so entirely ceased to be Samaritan, that it had become the home of some celebrated Rabbis;8 the intimate knowledge of Samaritan and Jewish relations, which at the time of Christ allowed the purchase of food, but would certainly not have conceded it two centuries later; even the introduction of such a statement as 'Salvation is of the Jews,' wholly inconsistent with the supposed scope of an Ephesian Gospel - these are only some of the facts which will occur to the student of that period, as bearing unsolicited testimony to the date and nationality of the writer.4. For 'the location of Sychar,' and the vindication of the view that the event took place at the beginning of the wheat harvest, or about the middle of May, see Appendix XV. The question is of considerable importance.
5. From the silence of the Synoptists, and the general designation of the disciples without naming them, Caspari concludes that only John, and perhaps Nathanael, but none of the other apostles, had accompanied Jesus on this journey (Chronol. Geogr. Einl. p. 104).
6. Caspari (u. s. p. 103) thinks that John only related that of which he himself was an eyewitness, except, perhaps, in ch. xviii. 33, &c.
7. It is very characteristic when Schenkel, in ignorance of the fact that Sychar is mentioned by the Rabbis, argues that the use of the name Sychar for Shechem affords evidence that the Fourth Gospel is of Gentile-Christian origin.
8. See Appendix XV.
Indeed, there is such minuteness of detail about the narrative, and with it such charm of simplicity, affectionateness, reverence, and depth of spiritual insight, as to carry not only the conviction of its truthfulness, but almost instinctively to suggest to us 'the beloved disciple' as its witness. Already he had taken the place nearest to Jesus and saw and spake as none other of the disciples. Jesus weary, and resting while the disciples go to but food, is not an Ephesian, but a truly Evangelic presentation of the Christ in His human weakness and want.
All around would awaken in the Divinely-attuned soul of the Divine Redeemer the thoughts which so soon afterwards found appropriate words and deeds. He is sitting by Jacob's Well - the very well which the ancestor of Israel had digged, and left as a memorial of his first and symbolic possession of the land. Yet this was also the scene of Israel's first rebellion against God's order, against the Davidic line and the Temple. And now Christ is here, among those who are not of Israel, and who persecute it. Surely this, of all others, would be the place where the Son of David, cast out of Jerusalem and the Temple, would think of the breach, and of what alone could heal it. He is hungry, and those fields are white to the harvest; yet far more hungering for that spiritual harvest which is the food of His soul. Over against Him, sheer up 800 feet, rises Mount Gerizim, with the ruins of the Samaritan rival Temple on it; just as far behind Him, already overhung by the dark cloud of judgment, are that Temple and City which knew not the day of their visitation. The one inquiring woman, and she a Samaritan, and the few only partially comprehending and much misunderstanding disciples; their inward thinking that for the spiritual harvest it was but seed-time, and the reaping yet 'four months distant,' while in reality, as even their eyes might see if they but lifted them, the fields were white unto the harvest: all this, and much more, forms a unique background to the picture of this narrative.
To take another view of the varying lights on that picture: Jesus weary and thirsty by Jacob's Well, and the water of life which was to spring from, and by that Well, with its unfailing supply and its unending refreshment! The spiritual in all this bears deepest symbolic analogy to the outward - yet with such contrasts also, as the woman giving to Christ the one, He to her the other; she unconsciously beginning to learn, He unintendingly (for He had not even entered Sychar) beginning to teach, and that, what He could not yet teach in Judæa, scarcely even to His own disciples; then the complete change in the woman, and the misapprehension9 and non-reception10 of the disciples - and over it all the weary form of the Man Jesus, opening as the Divine Christ the well of everlasting life, the God-Man satisfied with the meat of doing the Will, and finishing the Work, of Him that sent Him: such are some of the thoughts suggested by the scene.9. St. John iv. 33. 10. ii. 13-iv. 54.
And still others rise, as we think of the connection in the narrative of St. John of this with what preceded and with what follows. It almost seems as if that Gospel were constructed in cycles, each beginning, or at least connected, with Jerusalem, and leading up to a grand climax. Thus, the first cycle11 might be called that of purification: first, that of the Temple; then, inward purification by the Baptism from above; next, the symbolic Baptism of water; lastly, the real water of life given by Jesus; and the climax - Jesus the Restorer of life to them that believe. Similarly, the second cycle,12 beginning with the idea of water in its symbolic application to real worship and life from Jesus, would carry us a stage further; and so onward throughout the Gospel. Along with this we may note, as another peculiarity of the Fourth Gospel, that it seems arranged according to this definite plan of grouping together in each instance the work of Christ, as followed by the illustrative word of Christ. Thus the fourth would, both externally and internally, be the pre-eminently Judæan Gospel, characterised by cyclical order, illustrative conjunction of work and word, and progressively leading up to the grand climax of Christ's last discourses, and finally of His Death and Resurrection, with the teaching that flows from the one and the other.11. ii. 13-iv. 54. 12. v.-vi. 3.
It was about six o'clock in the evening,13 when the travel-stained pilgrims reached that 'parcel of ground' which, according to ancient Jewish tradition, Jacob had given to his son Joseph.14 Here (as already stated) by the 'Well of Jacob' where the three roads - south, to Shechem, and to Sychar (Askar) - meet and part, Jesus sat down, while the disciples (probably with the exception of John) went on to the closely adjoining little town of Sychar to buy food. Even this latter circumstance marks that it was evening, since noon was not the time either for the sale of provisions, nor for their purchase by travellers. Once more it is when the true Humanity of Jesus is set before us, in the weakness of His hunger and weariness,15 that the glory of His Divine Personality suddenly shines through it. This time it was a poor, ignorant Samaritan woman,16 who came, not for any religious purpose - indeed, to whom religious thought, except within her own very narrow circle, was almost unintelligible - who became the occasion of it. She had come - like so many of us, who find the pearl in the field which we occupy in the business of everyday-life - on humble, ordinary duty and work. Men call it common; but there is nothing common and unclean that God has sanctified by making use of it, or which His Presence and teaching may transform into a vision from heaven.13. We have already expressed our belief, that in the Fourth Gospel time is reckoned not according to the Jewish mode, but according to the Roman civil day, from midnight to midnight. For a full discussion and proof of this, with notice of objections, see McLellan's New Test. vol. i. pp. 737-743. It must surely be a lapsus when at p. 288 (note o), the same author seems to assume the contrary. Meyer objects, that, if it had been 6 p.m., there would not have been time for the after-events recorded. But they could easily find a place in the delicious cool of a summer's evening, and both the coming up of the Samaritans (most unlikely at noon-time), and their invitation to Jesus 'to tarry' with them (v. 40), are in favour of our view. Indeed, St. John xix. 14 renders it impossible to adopt the Jewish mode of reckoning.
14. See a previous note on p. 404.
15. Godet rightly asks what, in view of this, becomes of the supposed Docetism which, according to the Tubingen school, is one of the characteristics of the Fourth Gospel?
16. By which we are to understand a woman from the country, not the town of Samaria, a Samaritaness. The suggestion, that she resorted to Jacob's Well on account of its sanctity, scarcely requires refutation.
There was another well (the 'Ain 'Askar), on the east side of the little town, and much nearer to Sychar than 'Jacob's Well;' and to it probably the women of Sychar generally resorted. It should also be borne in mind, that in those days such work no longer devolved, as in early times, on the matrons and maidens of fair degree, but on women in much humbler station. This Samaritaness may have chosen 'Jacob's Well,' perhaps, because she had been at work in the fields close by; or else, because her abode was nearer in that direction - for the ancient Sychar may have extended southward; perhaps, because, if her character was what seems implied in verse 18, the concourse of the more common women at the village-well of an evening might scarcely be a pleasant place of resort to one with her history. In any case, we may here mark those Providential leadings in our everyday life, to which we are so often almost as much spiritually indebted, as to grace itself; which, indeed, form part of the dispensation of grace. Perhaps we should note how, all unconsciously to her (as so often to us), poverty and sin sometimes bring to the well by which Jesus sits weary, when on His return from self-righteous Judæa.
But these are only symbols; the barest facts of the narrative are themselves sufficiently full of spiritual interest. Both to Jesus and to the woman, the meeting was unsought, Providential in the truest sense - God-brought. Reverently, so far as the Christ is concerned, we add, that both acted truly - according to what was in them. The request: 'Give Me to drink,' was natural on the part of the thirsty traveller, when the woman had come to draw water, and they who usually ministered to Him were away.17 Even if He had not spoken, the Samaritaness would have recognised the Jew by His appearance18 and dress, if, as seems likely, He wore the fringes on the border of His garment.19 His speech would, by its pronunciation, place His nationality beyond doubt.20 Any kindly address, conveying a request not absolutely necessary, would naturally surprise the woman; for, as the Evangelist explanatively adds: 'Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,'21 or rather, as the expression implies, no needless, friendly, nor familiar intercourse with them - a statement true at all times. Besides, we must remember that this was an ignorant Samaritaness of the lower order. In the mind of such an one, two points would mainly stand out: that the Jews in their wicked pride would have no intercourse with them; and that Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the Jews falsely asserted, was the place of rightful worship. It was, therefore, genuine surprise which expressed itself in the question: 'How is it, Thou, being a Jew, of me askest to drink?' It was the first lesson she learned, even before He taught her. Here was a Jew, not like ordinary Jews, not like what she had hitherto thought them: what was the cause of this difference?17. ver. 8.
18. According to the testimony of travellers the Samaritans, with the exception of the High-Priestly family, have not the common, well-known type of Jewish face and feature.
19. The 'fringes' on the Tallith of the Samaritans are blue, while those worn by the Jews, whether on the Arba Kanphoth or the Tallith, are white. The Samaritans do not seem to have worn phylacteries (Menach. 42 b). But neither did many of the Jews of old - nor, I feel persuaded, our Lord (comp. Jost, Gesch. d. Judenth. vol. i. p. 60).
20. There were, undoubtedly, marked differences of pronunciation between the Jews and the Samaritans. Without entering into details, it may be said, that they chiefly concern the vowel-sounds; and among consonants the gutturals (which are generally not pronounced), the aspirates, and the letter # which is not, as in Hebrew, either #& (pronounced s), or #$ (pronounced sh), but is always pronounced as 'sh.' In connection with this we may notice one of those instances, how a strange mistake comes 'by tradition' to be commonly received. It has been asserted that, if Jesus had said to the woman: Teni li lishtoth ('Give me to drink'), a Samaritan would have pronounced it listoth, since the Samaritans pronounced the sh as s. But the reverse of this is the fact. The Samaritans pronounced the s ('sin') as sh ('shin') - and not the sh as s. The mistake arose from confounding the old Ephraimite (Judg. xii. 5, 6) with the Samaritan mode of pronouncing. The suggestion seems first to have been made - through very doubtfully - by Stier (Reden Jesu, iv. p. 134). Stier, however, at least rendered the words of Jesus: Teni li lishtoth. Godet (ad loc.) accepts Stier's suggestions, but renders the words: Teni li lishchoth. Later writers have repeated this, only altering lishchoth into lishkoth.
21. The article is wanting in the original.
Before we mark how the answer of Jesus met this very question, and so as to direct it to spiritual profit, another and more general reflection presses on our minds. Although Jesus may not have come to Sychar with the conscious purpose of that which ensued, yet, given the meeting with the Samaritan woman, what followed seems almost matter of necessity. For it is certain that the Christ, such as the Gospels describe Him, could not have been brought into contact with spiritual ignorance and want, any more than with physical distress, without offering it relief. It was, so to speak, a necessity, alike of His Mission and of His Nature (as the God-Man). In the language of another Gospel, 'power went out from Him;' and this, whether consciously sought, or unconsciously felt after in the stretching forth of the hands of the sightless or in the upward look of the speechless. The Incarnate Son of God could not but bring health and life amidst disease and death; the Saviour had come to seek and to save that which was lost.
And so it was, that the 'How is it?' of the Samaritan women so soon, and so fully, found its answer. 'How is it?' In this, that He, Who had spoken to her, was not like what she thought and knew of the Jews. He was what Israel was intended to have become to mankind; what it was the final object of Israel to have been. In Him was God's gift to mankind. Had she but known it, the present relation between them would have been reversed; the Well of Jacob would have been a symbol, yet but a symbol, of the living water, which she would have asked and He given. As always, the seen is to Christ the emblem of the unseen and spiritual; Nature, that in and through which, in manifold and divers colouring, He ever sees the supernatural, even as the light lies in varying hues on the mountain, or glows in changeful colouring on the edge of the horizon. A view this of all things existent, which Hellenism, even in its sublimest poetic conception of creation as the impress of heavenly archetypes, has only materialised and reserved. But to Jesus it all pointed upward, because the God of Nature was the God of Grace, the One Living and True God in Whom all matter and spirit lives, Whose world is one in design, workmanship, and purpose. And so nature was but the echo of God's heard Voice, which ever, to all and in all, speaks the same, if there be but listening ears. And so He would have it speak to men in parables, that, to them who see, it might be the Jacob's ladder leading from earth to heaven, while they, whose sight and hearing are bound in the sleep of heart-hardening, would see but not perceive, and hear but not understand.
It was with the ignorant woman of Sychar, as it had been with the learned 'Master in Israel.' As Nicodemus had seen, and yet not seen, so this Samaritaness. In the birth of which Jesus spoke, he had failed to apprehend the 'from above' and 'of the Spirit;' she now the thought suggested by the contrast between the cistern in the limerock and the well of living water. The 'How can these things be?' of Nicodemus finds its parallel in the bewilderment of the woman. Jesus had nothing wherewith to draw from the deep well. Whence, then, the 'living water'? To outward appearance there was a physical impossibility. This was one aspect of it. And yet, as Nicodemus' question not only similarly pointed to a physical impossibility, but also indicated dim searching after higher meaning and spiritual reality, so that of the woman: 'No ! art Thou greater than our father Jacob?' who, at such labour, had dug this well, finding no other means than this of supplying his own wants and those of his descendants. Nor did the answer of Jesus now differ in spirit from that which He had given to the Rabbi of Jerusalem, though it lacked the rebuke, designed to show how thoroughly the religious system, of which Nicodemus was a teacher, failed in its highest object. But to this woman His answer must be much simpler and plainer than to the Rabbi. And yet, if it be Divine teaching, it cannot be quite plain, but must contain that which will point upward, and lead to further inquiry. And so the Divine Teacher explained, not only the difference between ordinary water and that of which He had spoken, but in a manner to bring her to the threshold of still higher truth. It was not water like that of Jacob's Well which He would give, but 'living water.' In the Old Testament a perennial spring had, in figurative language, been thus designated,22 in significant contrast to water accumulated in a cistern.23 But there was more than this: it was water which for ever quenched the thirst, by meeting all the inward wants of the soul; water also, which, in him who had drunk of it, became a well, not merely quenching the thirst on this side time, but 'springing up into everlasting life.' It was not only the meeting of wants felt, but a new life, and that not essentially different, but the same as that of the future, and merging in it.22. Gen. xxvi. 19; Lev. xiv. 5. 23. Jer. ii. 13.
The question has sometimes been asked, to what Jesus referred by that well of living water springing up into everlasting life. Of the various strange answers given, that, surely, is almost the worst, which would apply it to the doctrine of Jesus, supporting such explanation by a reference to Rabbinic sayings in which doctrine is compared to 'water.' This is one of those not unfrequent instances in which Rabbinic references mislead rather than lead, being insufficiently known, imperfectly understood, or misapplied. It is quite true, that in many passages the teaching of the Rabbis is compared to water,24 but never to a 'well of water springing up.' The difference is very great. For it is the boast of Rabbinism, that its disciples drink of the waters of their teachers; chief merit lies in receptiveness, not spontaneity, and higher praise cannot be given than that of being 'a well-plastered cistern, which lets not out a drop of water,'25 and in that sense to 'a spring whose waters ever grow stronger.' But this is quite the opposite of what our Lord teaches. For, it is only true of what man can give when we read this (in Ecclus. xxiv. 21): 'They that drink me shall yet be thirsty.'26 More closely related to the words of Christ is it, when we read27 of a 'fountain of wisdom;' while, in the Targum on Cant. iv. 14, 'the words of the Law' are likened 'unto a well of living waters.' The same idea was carried perhaps even further, when, at the Feast of Tabernacles, amidst universal rejoicing, water from Siloam was poured from a golden pitcher on the altar, as emblem of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.28 But the saying of our Lord to the Samaritaness referred neither to His teaching, nor to the Holy Ghost, nor yet to faith, but to the gift of that new spiritual life in Him, of which faith is but the outcome.24. Those who wish to see the well-worn Rabbinic references will find them in Lightfoot and Schen ad loc.
25. Ab. ii. 9.
26. There is much spurious religious sentiment which, in contravention to our Lord's saving, delights in such expressions as that of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (followed by so many modern hymnologists): 'Qui Te gustant esuriunt, Qui bibunt adhuc sitiunt.' (Ap. Daniel, Thes. i p. 223.) The theology of this is not only sickly, but untrue and misleading.
27. in Bar. iii. 12. 28. See 'The Temple and its Ministry,' pp. 241-243.
If the humble, ignorant Samaritaness had formerly not seen, though she had imperfectly guessed, that there was a higher meaning in the words of Him Who spake to her, a like mixture of ill-apprehension and rising faith seems to underlie her request for this water, that she might thirst no more, neither again come thither to draw.29 She now believes in the incredible; believes it, because of Him and in Him; believes, also, in a satisfaction through Him of outward wants, reaching up beyond this to the everlasting life. But all these elements are yet in strange confusion. Those who know how difficult it is to lodge any new idea in the mind of uneducated rustics in our own land, after all our advantages of civilising contact and education, will understand, how utterly at a loss this Samaritan countrywoman must have been to grasp the meaning of Jesus. But He taught, not as we teach. And thus He reached her heart in that dimly conscious longing which she expressed, though her intellect was incapable of distinguishing the new truth.29. I cannot bring myself to see, as some commentators, any extraordinary mark of rising reverence in the use by her of the word 'Sir' in vv. 11 and 15. It seems only natural in the circumstances.
Surely, it is a strange mistake to find in her words30 'a touch of irony,' while, on the other hand, it seems an exaggeration to regard them simply as the cry of realised spiritual need. Though reluctantly, a somewhat similar conclusion is forced upon us with reference to the question of Jesus about the woman's husband, her reply, and the Saviour's rejoinder. It is difficult to suppose, that Christ asked the woman to call her husband with the primary object of awakening in her a sense of sin. This might follow, but the text gives no hint of it. Nor does anything in the bearing of the woman indicate any such effect; indeed, her reply31 and her after-reference to it32 rather imply the contrary. We do not even know for certain, whether the five previous husbands had died or divorced her, and, if the latter, with whom the blame lay, although not only the peculiar mode in which our Lord refers to it, but the present condition of the woman, seem to point to a sinful life in the past. In Judæa a course like hers would have been almost impossible; but we know too little of the social and moral condition of Samaria to judge of what might there be tolerated. On the other hand, we have abundant evidence that, when the Saviour so unexpectedly laid open to her a past, which He could only supernaturally have known, the conviction at once arose in her that He was a Prophet, just as in similar circumstances it had been forced upon Nathanael.33 But to be a Prophet meant to a Samaritan that He was the Messiah, since they acknowledged none other after Moses. Whether or not the Messiah was known by the present Samaritan designation of Him as 'the Converter' and 'the Returner' (Restorer?), is of comparatively small importance, though, if we felt certain of this, the influence of the new conviction on the mind of the woman would appear even more clearly. In any case it was an immense, almost immeasurable, advance, when this Samaritan recognised in the stranger Jew, Who had first awakened within her higher thoughts, and pointed her to spiritual and eternal realities, the Messiah, and this on the strength of evidence the most powerfully convincing to a mind like hers: that of telling her, suddenly and startlingly, what He could not have known, except through higher than human means of information.30. ver. 15. 31. ver. 19. 32. ver. 29. 33. St. John i. 48, 49.
It is another, and much more difficult question, why Jesus should have asked for the presence of her husband. The objection, that to do so, knowing the while that she had no husband, seems unworthy of our Lord, may, indeed, be answered by the consideration, that such 'proving' of those who were in His training was in accordance with His mode of teaching, leading upwards by a series of moral questions.34 But perhaps a more simple explanation may offer even a better reply. It seems, as if the answer of verse 15 marked the utmost limit of the woman's comprehension. We can scarcely form an adequate notion of the narrowness of such a mental horizon as hers. This also explains, at least from one aspect, the reason of His speaking to her about His own Messiahship, and the worship of the future, in words far more plain than He used to His own disciples. None but the plainest statements could she grasp; and it is not unnatural to suppose that, having reached the utmost limits of which she was capable, the Saviour now asked for her husband, in order that, through the introduction of another so near to her, the horizon might be enlarged. This is also substantially the view of some of the Fathers.35 But, if Christ was in earnest in asking for the presence of her husband, it surely cannot be irreverent to add, that at that moment the peculiar relationship between the man and the woman did not stand out before His mind. Nor is there anything strange in this. The man was, and was not, her husband. Nor can we be sure that, although unmarried, the relationship involved anything absolutely contrary to the law; and to all intents the man might be known as her husband. The woman's answer at once drew the attention of the Christ to this aspect of her history, which immediately stood out fully before His Divine knowledge. At the same time her words seemed like a confession - perhaps we should say, a concession to the demands of her own conscience, rather than a confession. Here, then, was the required opportunity, both for carrying further truth to her mind, by proving to her that He Who spake to her was a Prophet, and at the same time for reaching her heart.34. Comp St. John vi. 6. 35. Comp. Lücke, Evang. Joh. vol. i. p. 588.
But whether or not this view of the history be taken, it is difficult to understand, how any sober interpreter could see in the five husbands of the woman either a symbolical, or a mythical, reference to the five deities whom the ancestors of the Samaritans worshipped,36 the spurious service of Jehovah representing the husband, yet no husband, of the woman. It is not worth while discussing this strange suggestion from any other than the mythical standpoint. Those who regard the incidents of the Gospel-narratives as myths, having their origin in Jewish ideas, are put to even greater straits by the whole of this narrative than they who regard this Gospel as of Ephesian authorship. We may put aside the general objections raised by Strauss, since none of his successors has ventured seriously to urge them. It is more important to notice, how signally the author of the mythical theory has failed in suggesting any historical basis for this 'myth.' To speak of meetings at the well, such as those with Rebekah or Zipporah, is as much beside the question as an appeal to Jewish expectancy of an omniscient Messiah. Out of these two elements almost any story might be constructed. Again, to say that this story of Jesus' success among the Samaritans was invented, in order to vindicate the later activity of the Apostles among that people, is simply to beg the whole question. In these straits so distinguished a writer as Keim37 has hazarded the statement: 'The meeting with the Samaritaness has, for every one who has eyes, only a symbolical meaning, by the side of which no historical fact exists.' An assertion this, which is perhaps best refuted by being simply quoted.38 On the other hand, of all the myths likely to enter into Jewish imagination, the most unlikely would be one representing the Christ in familiar converse with a woman, and she a Samaritan, offering to her a well of water springing into everlasting life, and setting before her a spiritual worship of which Jerusalem was not the centre. Where both the Ephesian and the mythical theory so signally fail, shall we not fall back upon the natural explanation, borne out by the simplicity and naturalness of the narrative - that the story here related is real and true? And, if so, shall we not all the more thankfully gather its lessons?36. 2 Kings xvii. 24 &c.
37. The references here are to Strauss, vol. i. pp. 510-519, and to Keim i. 1, p. 116.
38. Meyer, Komment. vol. ii. p. 208, rightly remarks on the theory of Baur, Hilgenfeld, &c. According to them, the whole of this history is only a type of heathenism as receptive to faith, in contrast to Nicodemus, the type of Judaism shutting itself up against faith. But in that case why make the principal person a Samaritan, and not a heathen, and why attribute to her belief in a Messiah, which was entirely foreign to heathenism?
The conviction, sudden but firm, that He Who had laid open the past to her was really a Prophet, was already faith in Him; and so the goal had been attained - not, perhaps, faith in His Messiahship, about which she might have only very vague notions, but in Him. And faith in the Christ, not in anything about Him, but in Himself, has eternal life. Such faith also leads to further inquiry and knowledge. As it has been the traditional practice to detect irony in this or that saying of the woman, or else to impute to her spiritual feelings far in advance of her possible experience, so, on the other hand, has her inquiry about the place of proper worship, Jerusalem or Gerizim, been unduly depreciated. It is indeed too true that those, whose consciences are touched by a presentation of their sin, often seek to turn the conversation into another and quasi-religious channel. But of neither the one nor the other is there evidence in the present case. Similarly, it is also only too true, that their one point of difference is, to narrow-minded sectarians, their all-in-all of religion. But in this instance we feel that the woman has no after-thought, no covert purpose in what she asks. All her life long she had heard that Gerizim was the mount of worship, the holy hill which the waters of the Flood had never covered,39 and that the Jews were in deadly error. But here was an undoubted Prophet, and He a Jew. Were they then in error about the right place of worship, and what was she to think, and to do? To apply with such a question to Jesus was already to find the right solution, even although the question itself might indicate a lower mental and religious standpoint. It reminds us of the inquiry which the healed Naaman put to Elisha about the Temple of Rimmon, and of his request for a mule's burden of earth from the land of the True God, and for true worship.39. Curiously enough, several instances are related in Rabbinic writings in which Samaritans enter into dispute with Rabbis who pass by Mount Gerizim on their way to Jerusalem, to convince them that Gerizim was the proper place of worship. One instance may here be mentioned,. when a Samaritan maintained that Gerizim was the mount of blessing, because it was not covered by the Flood, quoting in proof Ezek. xxii. 24. The Rabbi replied, that if such had been the case, God would have told Noah to flee there, instead of making an ark. The Samaritan retorted, that this was done to try him. The Rabbi was silenced, but his muleteer appealed to Gen. vii. 19, according to which all the high hills under the heavens were covered, and so silenced the Samaritan. (Deb. R. 3; comp. Ber. R. 32.) On the other hand, it ought to be added, that in Ber. R. 33 the Mount of Olives is said not to have been covered by the Flood, and that Ezek. xxii. 24 is applied to this.
Once more the Lord answers her question by leading her far beyond it - beyond all controversy: even on to the goal of all His teaching. So marvellously does He speak to the simple in heart. It is best here to sit at the feet of Jesus, and, realising the scene, to follow as His Finger points onwards and upwards. 'There cometh an hour, when neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, ye shall worship the Father.' Words of sad warning, these; words of prophecy also, that already pointed to the higher solution in the worship of a common Father, which would be the worship neither of Jews nor of Samaritans, but of children. And yet there was truth in their present differences. 'Ye worship ye know not what: we worship what we know, since salvation is from out of the Jews.'40 The Samaritan was aimless worship, because it wanted the goal of all the Old Testament institutions, that Messiah 'Who was to be of the seed of David'41 - for, of the Jews, 'as concerning the flesh,' was Christ to come.42 But only of present interest could such distinctions be; for an hour would come, nay, already was, when the true worshippers would 'worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father also seeketh such for His worshippers. Spirit is God'43 - and only worship in spirit and in truth could be acceptable to such a God.40. He had formerly taught her the 'where,' and now teaches her the 'what,' of true worship.
41. Rom. i. 3. 42. Rom. ix. 5.
43. It is remarkable, that most of the alterations in the Samaritan Pentateuch are with the view of removing anthropomorphisms.
Higher or more Christlike teaching than this could not be uttered. And she who heard, thus far understood it, that in the glorious picture, which was set before her, she saw the coming of the Kingdom of the Messiah. 'I know that Messiah cometh.44 When He cometh, He will tell us all things.' It was then that, according to the need of that untutored woman, He told her plainly what in Judæa, and even by His disciples, would have been carnally misinterpreted and misapplied: that He was the Messiah. So true is it, that 'babes' can receive what often must remain long hidden 'from the wise and prudent.'44. The words 'which is called Christ' should be within brackets, and are the explanation of the writer.
It was the crowning lesson of that day. Nothing more could be said; nothing more need be said. The disciples had returned from Sychar. That Jesus should converse with a woman, was so contrary to all Judæan notions of a Rabbi,45 that they wondered. Yet, in their reverence for Him, they dared not ask any questions. Meanwhile the woman, forgetful of her errand, and only conscious of that new well-spring of life which had risen within her, had left the unfilled waterpot by the Well, and hurried into 'the City.' They were strange tidings which she brought; the very mode for her announcement affording evidence of their truth: 'Come, see a man who told me all that I have done. No - is this the Christ?' We are led to infer, that these strange tidings soon gathered many around her; that they questioned, and, as they ascertained from her the indisputable fact of His superhuman knowledge, believed on Him, so far as the woman could set Him before them as object of faith.46 Under this impression 'they went out of the City, and came on their way towards Him.'474845. In the original, ver. 31 has it: 'Rabbi (not Master), eat.' Surely such an address to Christ is sufficiently anti-Ephesian. Readers know how thoroughly opposed to Jewish notions was any needless converse with a woman (comp. Ab. i. 5; Ber. 43 b; Kidd. 70 a; also Erub. 53 b). To instruct a woman in the Law was forbidden; comp. the story in Bemid. R. 9.
46. vv. 39, 40. 47. ver. 30.
48. Following the suggestion of Professor Westcott, I would thus give the real meaning of the original. It may save needless notes if I add, that where the rendering differs from the A.V. the change has been intentional, to bring out the meaning of the Greek; and that where words in the A.V. are omitted, it is because they are either spurious, or doubtful.
Meantime the disciples had urged the Master to eat of the food which they had brought. But His Soul was otherwise engaged. Thoughts were present of the glorious future, of a universal worship of the Father by those whom He had taught, and of which He had just seen such unexpected earnest. These mingled with feelings of pain at the spiritual dulness of those by whom He was surrounded, who could see in that conversation with a Samaritan woman nothing but a strange innovation on Rabbinic custom and dignity, and now thought of nothing beyond the immediate errand on which they had gone to Sychar. Even His words of rebuke only made them wonder whether, unknown to them, some one had brought Him food. It was not the only, nor the last, instance of their dulness to spiritual realities.4949. St. Matt. xvi. 6, 7.
Yet with Divine patience He bore with them: 'My meat is, that I may do the Will of Him that sent Me, and that I may accomplish (bring to a perfect end) His work.' To the disciples that work appeared still in the far future. To them it seemed as yet little more than seed-time; the green blade was only sprouting; the harvest of such a Messianic Kingdom as they expected was still months distant. To correct their mistake, the Divine Teacher, as so often, and as best adapted to His hearers, chose His illustration from what was visible around. To show their meaning more clearly, we venture to reverse the order of the sentences which Jesus spoke: 'Behold, I say unto you, lift up your eyes and look [observantly] at the fields, that they are white to the harvest. [But] do ye not say (viz. in your hearts50) that there are yet four months, and the harvest cometh?' The words will appear the more striking, if (with Professor Westcott) we bear in mind that, perhaps at that very moment, the Samaritans, coming to Him from Sychar, were appearing in sight.50. This is a Hebraism.
But we also regard it as marking the time, when this conversation took place. Generally the words, 'yet four months, and then cometh the harvest,' are regarded either as a proverbial expression, or as indicating, that the Lord spake at the Well of Jacob four months before the harvest-time - that is, about the month of January, if the barley-harvest, or in February, if the wheat-harvest, was meant. The suggestion that it was a proverb may be dismissed, first, because there is not a trace of such a proverb, and then because, to give it even the scantiest meaning, it is necessary to supply: 'Between seed-time and harvest there are four months,' which is not true, since in Palestine about six months intervene between them. On the other hand, for reasons explained in another place,51 we conclude, that it could not have been January or February. when Jesus was in Sychar. But why not reverse the common theory, and see in the second clause, introduced by the words, 'Behold! lift up your eyes and observe,' a mark of the time and circumstances; while the expression, 'Do ye not say, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest,' would be understood as parabolically spoken? Admittedly, one of the two clauses is a literal mark of time, and the other is spoken parabolically. But there is no reason why the second clause may not mark the time, while on independent grounds we must conclude,52 that Christ returned from Judæa to Galilee in the early summer.51. See them in Appendix XV. 52. Comp. Appendix XV.
Passing from this point, we notice how the Lord further unfolded His own lesson of present harvesting, and their inversion of what was sowing, and what reaping time. 'Already'53 he that reaped received wages, and gathered fruit unto eternal life (which is the real reward of the Great Reaper, the seeing of the travail of His soul), so that in this instance the sower rejoiced equally54 as the reaper. And, in this respect, the otherwise cynical proverb, that one was the sower, another the reaper of his sowing, found a true application. It was indeed so, that the servants of Christ were sent to reap what others had sown, and to enter into their labour. One had sowed, another would reap. And yet, as in this instance of the Samaritans, the sower would rejoice as well as the reaper; nay, both would rejoice together, in the gathered fruit unto eternal life. And so the sowing in tears is on the spiritual field often mingled with the harvest of gladness, and to the spiritual view both are really one. 'Four months' do not intervene between them; so that, although one may sow and another reap, yet the sower seeth that harvest for which the harvester gets wages, and rejoices with him in the fruit which is gathered into the eternal storehouse.53. We follow Canon Westcott, who, for reasons explained by him, joins the word 'already' to ver. 36, omitting the particle 'and.'
54. It will be noticed that, in ver. 36 ina has been translated 'so that,' the kai omitted, and omou rendered 'equally as.' Linguistically, no apology is required for these renderings. I, however, hesitate between this and the rendering: 'in order that the sower may rejoice along with the reaper.' But the translation in the text seems to agree better with what follows. The whole passage is perhaps one of the most difficult, from the curtness and rapid transition of the sentences. The only apology which I can offer for proposing a new rendering and a new interpretation is, that those with which I am acquainted have not conveyed any distinct or connected meaning to my own mind.
It was as Christ had said. The Samaritans, who believed 'because of the word' (speech) 'of the woman [what she said] as she testified' of the Christ, 'when they came' to that well, 'asked Him to abide with them. And He abode there two days. And many more believed because of His own word (speech, discourse), and said unto the woman: No longer because of thy speaking55 do we believe. For we ourselves have heard, and know, that this is truly the Saviour of the world.'5655. lalia speech, talking.
56. We have omitted the words 'the Christ', in ver. 42, as apparently spurious. In general, the text has been rendered as faithfully as possible, so as to bring out the real meaning.
We know not what passed these two days. Apparently no miracles were wrought, but those of His Word only. It was the deepest and purest truth they learned, these simple men of simple faith, who had not learned of man, but listened to His Word only. The sower as well as the reaper rejoiced, and rejoiced together. Seed-time and harvest mingled, when for themselves they knew and confessed, that this was truly the Saviour of the world.