John in July: A Lonely Woman and a Royal Official (Jn 4)

caryll houselander

A few days ago, a former Catholic priest who now considers himself a Catholic Episcopal Buddhist gave me a book on the essential writings of an English Catholic theologian named Caryll Houselander (1901 – 1954). After a quick dip into her life and wisdom, I have quickly grown to like her. She was a poet, artist, woodcutter and spiritual author and I love how neurotic she was and how she used to take on the youthful ascetic practice of limiting herself to ten cigarettes a day and how she found the piety of Therese of Lisieux “sickening” (as do I, sorry Paul Houston :)). She also had some profound mystical experiences early on in life. While growing up in a convent, during the First World War, when anti-German sentiment was especially high, young Caryll walked into a room where a lonely German nun was weeping while polishing shoes. She writes about seeing a crown of thorns pressed upon the woman’s head, revealing how Christ was suffering in this woman.

Later on, in her teens, Caryll had a vision of a glorious Russian Orthodox icon of Christ the King while walking the streets one night. She later learned that that night the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was assassinated with his family in his basement. When she saw a photograph of the Tsar she recognized his face as the same face of Christ in the icon she saw on the streets the very night he died.

Caryll Houselander saw Christ both in a lonely, ostracized woman and in the emperor of Russia. In Chapter 4 of John, we see Jesus unlocking the same divine beauty in another lonely, ostracized woman (the Samaritan woman) and in another member of royalty (the royal official.)

A Lonely Woman

Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman is scandalous because A) she is a woman and “he who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna” (Pirkei Avot 1:5) and B) because she is a Samaritan.

The Jews ostracized the Samaritans because, after Sargon destroyed Samaria in 723 BCE, five foreign nations moved in and corrupted the Samaritan people with their foreign gods: Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, the Avvites and the Sepharvites (2 Kings 17:29 – 30). In addition to these five nations and their gods, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes added yet another deity by calling their temple on Mount Gerizim the temple of Zeus Xenios and the Samaritans seemed to welcome this addition (2 Maccabees 6:1-2). The Samaritans only considered the first five books to be Scripture and worshipped at Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem.

The Samaritan woman is often seen as a loose and immoral woman who tries to change the subject when Jesus reveals his insight and knowledge about her personal life and her multiple failed marriages. One commentator even suggests that she is trying to seduce Jesus![1] Although later tradition gives her the name St. Photini, the Samaritan woman is unnamed in the text, which means that she serves a “representative figure. ”[2] Since she is a representative figure we might want to hesitate from taking the references to five husbands literally. As someone representing Samaria, the woman has had five husbands (Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, the Avvites and the Sepharvites) and the one she has now (Zeus Xenios) is not her husband. Sandra Schneiders elaborates on this view of the Samaritan woman as a representative figure, calling her “the most theologically sophisticated interlocutor of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel” and suggests that she is “the most likely candidate for the evangelists’ textual alter ego.[3]

Supposing the Samaritan woman literally did have five husbands, this still would not be a sign that she was loose and immoral. As Margaret Barker points out, “She may well have been a victim of her own society. She had had five husbands –divorcing a spouse was usually a man’s prerogative –this means she had been abandoned five times; or she had been widowed fives times and married in succession to her brothers-in-law (Deut 5:5-6; Mark 12:18-23 and parallels). In both cases the reason for the multiple marriages would have been that she was childless: bearing no child was grounds for divorce, since a man was obliged to father two children; and for the same reason, childless widow had to marry a brother-in-law in order to give her first husband an heir. These were Jewish customs, but something similar in Samaria would account for the woman’s having five husbands, and then coming to the well alone at noon, to avoid the other women who would have seen her childless state as a punishment from God.” (Barker, 216)

By understanding the woman in this light, we see Jesus reaching out to someone who has been pushed around by men because of her womanhood, belittled by Jews because of her Samaritan identity, victimized by society and scorned by other women because of her body and its apparent barrenness. Jesus is reaching out to the excluded one who represents a whole community of excluded ones. He is reaching out to someone who is excluded by the excluded.

Jesus asks the Samaritan woman, “Give me a drink.” There is something undeniably sexual about this episode and the Gospel of John as a whole. We’re only on chapter 4 and we’ve already had a several references to weddings. And here we see echoes of Abraham’s servant seeking and finding a wife for Isaac when he asks Rebekah for water from the well (Gen 24:17) and other accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures of men meeting their future wives at wells (Gen 29:1-20; Exodus 2:16-22). The author of John is charging this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman with sexual energy, most likely in order to suggest that Jesus the Bridegroom seeks to take Samaria as his Bride. He is unlocking the divine beauty within the lonely, ostracized Samaritan woman.

When they speak to one another, the reader gets the sense that they really like each other. They appreciate each other’s questions, knowledge, honesty and wit. Whatever thirst or hunger they have for genuine human interaction is being quenched and satisfied. And Jesus wants to give the woman more of this “water” because he can see how much she is lapping it up. He reveals himself to her as the Messiah thus inspiring her to share her experience and testimony with the rest of Samaria. Jesus himself feels satisfied by the encounter, saying to his disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about” 4:32.

And then Jesus’ remarks on the ripe harvest are his way of describing how open and eager the outsiders are in receiving the Messiah. The victims of society are often the most open to letting God unlock the divine beauty within.

A Royal Official

Verses 44 – 45 are confusing and should be rendered thus:

“Jesus himself had testified that a prophet had no honor in his own country, but when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him because they had seen all he had done in Jerusalem when they too had been there for the feast.”

This rendering makes sense in light of Jesus’ lament, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (v. 48)

The royal official, basilikos, wanted Jesus to perform another sign and wonder on his fatally ill son but Jesus urges him to believe without seeing when he says, “Go, your son will live.” Many like to compare this official to the centurion in Matthew and Luke, whose faith Jesus commends: “Truly, I have not found such faith in Israel” (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Here, Jesus does not commend the royal official. Instead, Jesus refuses to take orders. Once again, there is a problem (a more serious problem than lacking wine at a wedding) and it is thrown in Jesus’ face. “Jesus, come! Now! Do something! We’re running out of time!”

“No,” Jesus says, “You go. Your son will live. Believe that your son will live. As a royal official, certainly you understand the power of words. Now believe in the power of my Word.” Jesus empowers the royal official to tap into his own faith. Jesus urges the royal official to see the divine beauty within.

The text is not clear about whether or not the royal official is Jewish. He probably isn’t. Just as the English Catholic Caryll Houselander saw the divine beauty in the Russian Tsar so too did the Jewish messiah see and unlock the healing power of faith in the Gentile royal official.

In this chapter, Jesus reaches out to two outsiders. The victim of society is vindicated as the apostle to the Samaritans and “the most theologically sophisticated interlocutor of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel” and the royal official is invited to not just throw his troubles at Jesus and order him around but to trust in the healing power of faith in the Word and thus tap into his own divine beauty.

[1] Lyle Eslinger, “The Wooing of the Woman at the Well: Jesus, the Reader and Reader-Response Criticism,” Journal of Literature and Theology 1 (1987): 167 – 83.

[2] Raymond F. Collins, “The Representative Figures in the Fourth Gospel,” Downside Review 94 (1976): 26 – 46, 118 – 32.

[3] Schneiders, Written, 251.


One thought on “John in July: A Lonely Woman and a Royal Official (Jn 4)

  1. For an illuminating reading of John 4 in light of Midrash Rabbah (Moses and Zipporah) and mimetic theory, see Astell, Ann W. “‘Exilic’ Identities, the Samaritans and the ‘Satan’ of John.” In Sacrifice, Scripture, & Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, edited by Ann W. Astell and Sandor Goodhart, 397 – 408. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

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