A model for cross-cultural ministry

Jesus in Samaria : a model for cross-cultural ministry

Eric John Wyckoff


The narrative of Jesus’ missionary journey to Samaria in John 4:4-42 had implications for the first-century Johannine community as they, like Jesus at Jacob’s well, encountered new situations and new cultures. This article proposes that it may hold different but analogous implications for the church in every age. A contextual approach shaped by modern missiology, cultural anthropology, and local/contextual theology highlights the text’s sensitivity to ethnic identity, cultural and religious traditions, past history, prejudice, marginalization, differences in perspective, and human processes in faith development. Read in this light, the passage can provide a model for ministry across cultural barriers in a pluralistic world still crisscrossed by divisions.


In this age of globalization, the church faces the challenge of ministering in a world increasingly shaped by immigration, exile, language barriers, marginalization, and the need to reach out across prejudices old and new. Cultural barriers tied to race, religion, and politics were also a genuine challenge for the early community of believers as they faced a pluralistic and diverse Hellenistic society. Three Second Testament traditions address the issue of cross-cultural ministry in texts that narrate a dialog between Jesus and someone who would have considered him a foreigner. In all three cases his conversation partner is a woman: a Syrophoenician in Mark 7:24-30, a Canaanite in the much-redacted parallel in Matthew 15:1-28, and a Samaritan in John 4:4-42.

The Johannine passage, the most extensive of the three, demonstrates a particular sensitivity to the complex dynamics that come into play when ministry takes place in the context of an encounter between cultures. It may in fact function as a textbook case in how to minister across barriers such as ethnicity, cult, and gender. These hurdles already confronted Jesus’ first-century followers and would only multiply as belief in Jesus continued to spread.

Nomenclature: “Ioudaios”

Only in this pericope does the Greek text of the Fourth Gospel identify Jesus as a “Ioudaios” (John 4:9), a term that has no direct equivalent in English when used for a first-century context. Rendered as “Jew” or “Jewish” in most English-language Bible translations, it indicates “one who identifies with beliefs, rites, and customs of adherents of Israel’s Mosaic and prophetic tradition” (Danker: 478). In the ancient Mediterranean world, Ioudaios also denoted one’s ethnicity and defined one’s place in imperial politics (Oakman: 9).

A growing sensitivity in modern scholarship, upheld by the present journal, avoids the use of “Jew,” “Jewish,” or “Judaism” in referring to the era of the Second Testament:

Incalculable harm has been caused by simply glossing Ioudaios

with Jew, for many readers or auditors of Bible translations do not

practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between

circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary

ethnic-religious-social realities, with the result that

anti-Judasim in the modern sense of the term is needlessly

fostered [Danker: 478].

Present-day Jews belong to religious traditions which for the most part developed after the time of Jesus, and many trace their ethnic origin to other than Palestinian roots (see Malina & Rohrbaugh: 44).

The loanwords normally used to avoid this problem do not prove feasible in the case of John 4:4-42. To speak of Jesus as a “Judean” would be confusing to many readers. “Galilean” would change the meaning of the passage, since it was not with inhabitants of Galilee per se that the Samaritan woman took issue. Even more problematic for the present discussion would be “Israelite,” a term applicable to both dialog partners. For the woman, being a descendent of Jacob and hence an “Israelite” is central to her cultural identity as a Samaritan; this is significant for the overall interpretation of the text. In view of all of the above, the present essay will simply use the untranslated terms Ioudaios (singular) and Ioudaioi (plural) as both nouns and adjectives.

Historical Context

Raymond Brown writes, “There is real reason to doubt that historically during his ministry Jesus converted many Samaritans to his preaching” (Brown 1979: 36). Although colored by the theological and literary interests of Matthew and Luke, the Second Testament includes accounts of Jesus forbidding the disciples to enter any Samaritan town (Matt 10:5), Samaritan villagers rejecting Jesus (Luke 9:52-55), and Philip leading a mission to Samaria only some years after the resurrection (Acts 8:4-25). Together with these factors, the quintessentially Johannine theology, vocabulary, and literary devices of John 4:4-42 make historical critics wary of claiming with certitude anything beyond “echoes of a historical tradition of an incident in Jesus’ ministry” or a “substratum of traditional material” at this narratlve’s historical core (Brown 1966: 175; see also Barrett: 191; Meier: 547-48).

A mission to Samaria in John 4:4-42 is more easily linked to the historical context of the community which produced the Fourth Gospel. Amid numerous open-ended debates over the particulars of that context, there is general agreement on the presence of Samaritan believers alongside Ioudaioi and Gentiles in the Johannine community (Brown 2003: 67-68). In fact, John 4’s depiction of repercussions for ritual purity, Samaritan cultural and religious beliefs, and ancient non-biblical Jacob traditions prompt John Meier to call it the Second Testament’s “most explicit and well-informed passage about the Samaritans” (Meier: 548).

The Samaritans are difficult to define as a group. Geographically, they were not the only inhabitants of the region known as Samaria. Ethnically, they prided themselves in being descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, thus claiming, despite the admixture of other ethnicities, a direct line back to Jacob and Joseph (Anderson 1992: 941). Religiously, the last centuries before the turn of the era found Samaritans and Ioudaioi observing distinct latter-day expressions of the ancient religion of Israel (Meier: 541). The Samaritans worshiped YHWH as the one true God, but revered Mt. Gerizim rather than Mt. Zion as their holy place, thought their line of Levitical priests to be legitimate (as opposed to that of the Jerusalem temple), and accepted only the Torah and not the prophets (nebim) or the “writings” (ketubim) as their sacred Scripture (Meier: 534). They awaited no Davidic (i.e., Ioudaios) Messiah. There are references to a messianic “Moses-returned figure” called the Taheb, a “restorer” or “revealer,” but only in their later writings (Brown 1979: 44; Moloney 1998: 133-34). Significantly, historical evidence debunks the idea that Samaritans’ religion was any more syncretistic than that of their cousins who worshiped in Jerusalem: quite the contrary, it was a more conservative expression of Israelite religion, far less open to changes (Meier: 542).

Prejudice among Ioudaioi at the time, however, was another matter. It painted the Samaritans as mongrels or half-breeds due to intermarriage with non-Israelite groups after the Assyrian invasion of 722-721 BCE. Their priesthood and sanctuary were judged illegitimate, their text of the Torah corrupt, and their cult syncretistic–contaminated by the paganism of their Mesopotamian conquerors. References as early as 2 Kings 17:24-41 or certain derogatory allusions in Nehemiah and Ezra may or may not have referred to the Samaritans, but Sirach 50:25-26, composed later, takes a direct jab at them when it refers to the “foolish people that dwell in Shechem” as “no people” (Anderson 1992: 941-42; Meier: 535-40).

Theories abound regarding the cause of this enmity. Was it rooted in the conflicting political machinations of Judea and Samaria during the Persian and Hellenistic periods? Could it have arisen from a belief that the Samaritans had not sufficiently supported the Maccabean revolt? Did it date back to the north-versus-south antagonism that split the kingdom after Solomon? Was it just simple ethnic prejudice? Or were cult and sanctuary the real points of contention? (Sloyan: 15). Whatever the cause, the hostility inflamed both sides. In 111 or 110 BCE, an army under the Hasmonean high priest John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and razed Shechem (Anderson 2000: 496). Between 6 and 9 CE the Samaritans were the authors of disturbances at Jerusalem’s Passover, and in 52 they slaughtered a group of pilgrims at En-Gannim on the border between Samaria and Galilee (Anderson 1992: 943).

With this deep-seated historical enmity between them, how were Ioudaioi and Samaritans to enter into fellowship with one another and with the risen Jesus in the same Johannine community? John 4:4-42 depicts Jesus masterfully transcending human divisions and inviting the woman, the disciples, the Samaritan townspeople, and ultimately the reader to do the same in order to worship “in spirit and truth” (vv 23, 24). Thus, according to John, it is Jesus himself who models for the believing community, both then and now, how to rise above prejudice in order to give testimony to the truth and draw others into communion with him.

Interpretation of the Text

Diverse methodologies and approaches have led commentators to view this passage’s overall structure in different ways. For the present discussion, it is most appropriate that the structure be examined according to pastoral concerns. Pastoral initiatives involving evangelization or missionary work involve a process. Ideally, a critical assessment of the ministerial context shapes an initial outreach that responds to material and spiritual needs and extends an invitation to communion. This creates a situation where the core content of evangelization can be shared and take root, and where the formation of ministers for that particular context can best be carried out. The goal is a conversion experience which leads to true discipleship on the part of all concerned, including the ministers themselves. These phases or dimensions of pastoral action suggest the following divisions of the text:

* The Ministerial Context: Samaria (vv 4-6)

* Outreach and Invitation: Living Water (vv 7-15)

* Evangelization: In Spirit and Truth (vv 16-26)

* Simultaneous Concerns (vv 27-30)

* Formation for Ministry: The Harvest (vv 31-38)

* Conversion and Discipleship: The Savior of the World (vv 39-42)

This study addresses the text of these thirty-nine verses as it now stands, without deletions or rearrangements based on theories of the Gospel’s composition. Verses i-3 (Jesus’ baptizing ministry and his departure from Judea) are not included, so that the focus may remain exclusively on Jesus’ Samaritan mission.

The Ministerial Context: Samaria (vv 4-6)

The evangelist begins by assessing the present pastoral reality: the particular group of people being ministered to, the necessity of this mission, the specific location in which Jesus has chosen to begin (and its cultural and religious significance), his physical condition, and the time of day. These first three verses establish the setting for the rest of the narrative. The particular geographical, cultural, and theological context introduced here is vital to the passage’s interpretation as a model for cross-cultural ministry.

Verse 4 explains that Jesus passes through Samaria on his way to Galilee because he “had to” (edei in Greek). There is much discussion over why this was so. Credible evidence has been presented that the necessity was theological in nature and not occasioned by geography or tension with the Pharisees (Brown 1966: 169; Okure: 83-86). The all-knowing Johannine Jesus knew that he needed to accomplish among the Samaritans the work of the Father who had sent him (see v 34), and deep-seated animosities precluded his doing that in Judea or Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria.

While the precise location of “Sychar” (v 5) is still debated (see Schnackenburg: 422-23), the evangelist has brought the reader to a geographical area laden with cultural significance. Within close proximity of one another, one finds Mt. Gerizim (the Samaritans’ holy place), Jacob’s well (a symbol of their proud descent from the patriarchs), Joseph’s tomb (in the field that his father Jacob had given him in Genesis 33:18-20), and Shechem (former capital of the independent northern kingdom of Israel). One would suppose that Samaritan readers of the Gospel would have felt drawn in and included by the references to places that were familiar and important to them, and that Ioudaioi or Gentile readers would have had the chance, willingly or unwillingly, to learn a bit about their Samaritan sisters and brothers. The Samaritans’ ancestral link to the patriarchs is being asserted here and the prejudice against them denied, though in an indirect and non-condescending way. The enmity, however, is also made physically present by the context. This narrative will unfold literally in the shadow of the once-proud city and of the ruins of the revered sanctuary that had been destroyed by an army from Jerusalem.

The final element in the scene set by verses 4-6 is the hour. There has been much debate over how to reckon time-of-day references in the Gospel of John, but the majority opinion is that “the sixth hour” (v 6) means twelve o’clock noon (Walker: 69-73). From a cultural standpoint, a woman drawing water this late in the day is unusual and may indicate a desire on her part to avoid the other local women (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 98; Neyrey: 82). In the context of Johannine light/darkness symbolism, however, an encounter with Jesus in the blinding Middle Eastern noonday sun carries no small theological significance. A striking contrast is created with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night and returned to the darkness without believing in him or even understanding what was said (3:1-21). Fixing the time at the brightest possible moment of the entire day, providing a kind of superlative symbol, bodes well for the episode about to commence, despite the barriers that will need to be crossed.

Outreach and Invitation: Living Water (vv 7-15)

These verses could be categorized as the outreach and invitation phase of the overall process of evangelization. Jesus reaches out across the barriers that separate him and the woman to make personal contact. He initiates dialog, and she gradually becomes less guarded and suspicious. The dialog shifts from a discussion of her material needs to an invitation to know God’s gift and who Jesus is, but her lack of understanding signals the need to proceed to the next stage.

In all four gospel traditions, Jesus consistently makes the first move to reach out to the marginalized, often transgressing contemporary social mores and religious strictures in the process. In verse 7 the Samaritan woman enters the scene, and Jesus wastes no time in crossing the cultural boundary between them. He makes a simple request, with no suggestion in the Greek text of impoliteness or a demand. By asking her for a drink, Jesus breaks through a very concrete and personal expression of prejudice: Ioudaioi believed they incurred ritual defilement by contact with food, drink, or anything handled by a Samaritan. Samaritan women in particular bore the humiliation of being stereotyped as “menstruants from the cradle” and hence perpetually unclean according to Leviticus 15:19 (Daube: 137-47). Lest the reader miss any of these dynamics, verse 9b explains that “Ioudaioi have no dealings with Samaritans.”

The story places Jesus at a well and without the company of his disciples. While this performs a certain narrative function, creating a space for the following dialog, it also serves to highlight the fact that this encounter is no accident. It is Jesus who decides to wait by a well at an hour when it would normally be deserted and while the disciples are conveniently away buying food. The purpose he has in mind is to commence his testimony to the Samaritans by means of a personal encounter with this woman, rather than in a formal, traditional context such as his preaching in the Jerusalem temple, given the extenuating circumstances. Moreover, he does so as a missionary: outside his own territory, dependent upon the kindness of those he comes to serve, and without trappings of importance such as an entourage of followers (Okure: 86).

There is much discussion over whether or not this scene is meant to evoke First Testament well scenes, especially as type scenes for wooing. The text does not support such a reading, however. Stronger evidence points to a link with ancient Jacob traditions not found in the biblical text: Targumim of Genesis 28-29 and Numbers 21:16-18 refer to Jacob’s gift of a well from which he wondrously produced flowing (living) water for twenty years (Moloney 1998:121 ; Diaz: 76-77). Martin Noth traces these traditions back to an origin among the Samaritans’ Ephraimite ancestors in that immediate area (Noth: 7947). Hence, it is no wonder that the concepts of Jacob’s well as a source of water and Jacob himself as a giver of gifts are important to the woman; they are intertwined with her cultural identity as a Samaritan. Jesus will adopt them as natural motifs for progressively leading her to believe in him (Okure: 91).

The woman’s response in verse 9 shows that she is quite conscious of the social boundaries that separate her and Jesus. Simply crossing them has not made them disappear. For the moment, his ethnicity obscures any other detail about him, and Jesus is just a “Ioudaios” to her. To the reader who understands who Jesus is, his reaching out to her seems a noble gesture. But from the woman’s perspective, it is highly unlikely that she would feel in any way honored by being spoken to by a Ioudaios, least of all one who is alone and thirsty in Samaritan territory with no bucket.

The real significance of Jesus’ gesture is that he has initiated a dialog, a narrative technique favored by the evangelist. Dialog is an excellent metaphor for cross-cultural ministry or for any pastoral activity geared toward evangelization. Rather than imposing himself on the woman, Jesus invites her to interact with him in a mutual exchange.

The parenthetical element in verse 9, “For Ioudaioi have no dealings with Samaritans,” represents a textual problem. Modern critical texts include it, based on strong witness in ancient manuscripts, but there is also respectable evidence to omit it (Metzger: 177). In either case, it is quite probable that an ancient copyist’s decision to add or drop the phrase would have been motivated by cultural sensitivity, based either on the intended readership’s knowledge of cultural dynamics in first-century Palestine or on the contemporary dynamics within the community of believers.

Verse 10 introduces important thematic material. While Jesus’ invitation to know who he is will set the theme for verses 16-26, his invitation to know God’s gift (the second explicit mention of dorean, “gift,” together with v 5) does so for verses 7-15. Rather than debating the issue of mutual ethnic antagonism between his people and the woman’s, Jesus “transfers the discussion from this socio-religious context of reciprocal contempt and separatism (v 9) to the sphere of God’s relationship and dealings with human beings, where the governing principle is his generous bounty or ‘free gift'” (Okure: 96). The gift of God that Jesus offers is “living water.” On one hand, this could be taken to mean spring water, as opposed to stagnant cistern water. On the other hand, it stands as an example of the Fourth Gospel’s typically open and polyvalent

symbolic language, possibly referring to the revelation that Jesus gives, or to his gift of the Spirit, or to both.

The woman’s response in verses 11 and 12 is replete with Johannine double-entendre, irony and misunderstanding. When she calls him kyrie in Greek, she intends the secular usage, meaning “sir,” unaware as yet that the theological usage, “Lord,” is even more appropriate (Danker: 577-78). She has no idea of the enormous significance of her words when she asks, “Where do you get that living water?” (v 11) and “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (v 12). She sees her material needs but still does not recognize her spiritual needs. Even her reference to Jacob as “our father” can be understood on two levels: if “our” refers to Samaritans, then it stands as an affirmation of their ancestral link to the patriarchs, but if it refers to Jesus and the woman, then it serves as an opportune reminder of the ancient common origin shared by all the descendents of Israel.

Jesus continues to demonstrate in verses 13 and 14 the kind of patience with human processes that is necessary in cross-cultural ministry. So far, he has met the woman not only in the heart of her native land but also in the reality of her human need for water. He now takes this up as a fitting missionary motif to lead her closer to the truth. He explains how the water that he will give (again visiting the theme of gift) will become a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The use of “spring” (pege) alludes to the Jacob tradition, while “welling up” (hallomenou) is a verb used for the action of the Spirit of God in the Septuagint (e.g., Judges 15:14 and 1 Samuel 10:10). “Eternal life” is an important theological term in the Fourth Gospel, referring “not to a promise of eternal bliss after death” but rather to “a fullness beginning now,” typical of realized Johannine eschatology (Moloney 1998: 123). It also far surpasses the twenty years during which Jacob’s well overflowed.

Like the Galileans who ask Jesus, “Give us this bread always!” (6:34) or Peter, who proclaims, “not only my feet, but my head and hands as well!” (13:9), the woman responds in verse 15 with a misunderstanding which evokes humor. Jesus’ outreach has met with some degree of success, as she has come a long way from her guarded suspicion in verse 9, but the fruits of his invitation still remain to be seen. She has yet to move beyond the human level and exhibit any faith whatsoever–the faith she will need to understand, ask for, and receive the divine gift that she is being offered.

Evangelization: In Spirit and Truth (vv 16-26)

This section functions as the explicit evangelization phase of Jesus’ ministry to the woman, beginning from verse 16, where he re-initiates a dialog that could easily have ended in the previous verse. The term “evangelization” is taken here as compatible with the Johannine concept of witness/testimony (see Strathmann: 495-99). Jesus illustrates humanity’s real need for God’s gift by means of an example from the woman’s own life, and reveals the transcendent, non-exclusive nature of the true worship that the Father seeks. The section closes with a preliminary goal of evangelization being reached in the woman’s identification of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah who will reveal all things.

In Jesus’ dialogs with a group from Jerusalem in 2:13-23, with Nicodemus in 3:1-21, and with the Samaritan woman in 4:7-15, the response in all three cases is misunderstanding and lack of faith. While Jesus simply moves on when those of his own culture and religion fail to understand and believe, the situation of this woman is different. Since “salvation is from the Ioudaioi” (v 22), Jesus’ dialog partners in chapters 2 and 3 possess the resources to recognize God’s gift and who it is that is speaking to them (v 10). For someone from a different ethno-religious background, however, a longer process is necessary, one which includes a preliminary phase of outreach and invitation (vv 7-15) and is willing to adapt itself to the pace of the individual’s journey of faith.

To place the woman herself at the center of the evangelization process, Jesus, according to the text, steers the dialog to a deeper, more personal level in verses 16-18. While the dialog in verses 7-15 centers around the unthreatening topic of water, this next exchange beginning with verse 16 takes the woman’s personal life experience as the starting point. The all-knowing Johannine Jesus asks her to call her husband in verse 16, indirectly inviting her to dialog about a particular dimension of her past and present situation. Not unexpectedly, she responds truthfully but incompletely, only telling the absolute minimum. Jesus then seizes the opportunity and counters in verses 17 and 18 with an astounding superhuman knowledge of her past, just as he did with Nathanael in 1:48.

Much paper and ink has been dedicated to the discussion about how to interpret the five past husbands and the present man who is not a husband. While the weight of evidence favors taking the reference at face value, some commentators make compelling cases for an allegorical interpretation. Craig Koester, for example, suggests that the woman’s marital history “parallels the colonial history of Samaria,” in which five nations settled in the region and intermarried, but the foreigners relocated there by Herod the Great remained separate (Koester: 49). The literal interpretation is fundamental to the cross-cultural ministry motif, but not to the exclusion of Koester’s suggestion. The suffering brought on by a series of unhappy past experiences is a delicate subject that the woman is not willing to discuss at first. Jesus, however, has patiently prepared her for the opportune moment to gently confront her with her real, existential needs that go beyond mere human thirst. She needs the “living water” that Jesus gives.

As a parenthesis, it is worth mentioning that both the literal and the allegorical interpretations of the husbands have led to unfortunate misreadings of this passage. Sandra Schneiders has pointed out that over the centuries, various distortions of the literal interpretation have made the history of this passage’s exegesis “a textbook case of the trivialization, marginalization, and even sexual demonization of biblical women” (Schneiders: 188). Schneiders herself, however, falls into another trap along with other authors who allegorically identify the husbands with the pagan gods brought to Samaria by Assyrian conquerors from five cities in 2 Kings 17:27-31. In this scenario, Jesus invites the Samaritans (represented by the woman) to abandon the supposed syncretism of their past, despite credible evidence that this syncretism was in fact a lie perpetuated by contemporary prejudice. It suffices to say that any exegesis of this passage which interprets women or Samaritans according to the negative stereotypes imposed upon them by others–what Robert Schreiter calls “the narrative of the lie” (Schreiter: 34-36)–does real violence to a text so sensitive to differences of gender and ethnicity.

In verses 19-20, the woman shows signs of the beginning of faith. In the three times that she has called Jesus/kyrie (vv 11, 15, and 19), there is most likely a progression from the purely secular meaning, “sir,” toward the theological meaning of “Lord” (Brown 1966: 170). Rather than as just a “Ioudaios” (v 9), she now perceives Jesus to be “a prophet” (v 19). She is not yet thinking in terms of the Messianic prophet, but it is nevertheless a significant step (Schnackenburg: 434). In terms of Johannine theological vocabulary, the fact that the text depicts her as “perceiving” (theorein) this about Jesus rather than seeing (horan) or believing (pisteuein) corresponds to the as yet incomplete nature of her act of faith (Michaelis: 361-64).

This nascent faith, however, seeks understanding. Jesus has established an atmosphere in which the woman feels comfortable enough to raise “the right issues for Jesus to respond to, the fundamental need which calls for a resolution, i.e., the religious and social issues which separate [Ioudaioi] and Samaritans” (Boers: 182). Her use of “our” versus “you” in verse 20 marks the distinction between the two religious traditions; the plural “you” (hymeis) refers to Ioudaioi and not to Jesus personally. For her, the practice of the Samaritans’ “fathers” provides more than enough basis for refuting the Jerusalem cult and upholding her own, but ironically, the phrase “our fathers” actually transcends their differences and includes those of both traditions, since the cult on Mt. Gerizim far predates the split between the two groups (Brown 1966:171-72).

Jesus’ response to the woman in verses 21-24 constitutes the actual content of the evangelization he has undertaken and is a key element for the interpretation of the entire pericope as a model for cross-cultural ministry. He witnesses about true worship by answering the woman’s query, again letting her particular reality be what determines the shape of their dialog. Without trivializing genuine distinctions or defending his own turf as a Ioudaios, he deftly shifts the focus away from ancient tradition and back to the present situation. Addressing her politely as gynai, or “woman,” as he does his own mother in 2:4 and 19:26, he proclaims in verse 21 that an “hour” (an important concept in John) is coming when the Father will be worshiped “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Thus, true worship is not to be found in the cult observed by Samaritans and/or Ioudaioi; it transcends those categories altogether. It in fact transcends all divisions brought about by ethnicity, geography, gender, religious tradition, past history, or any other human condition. Even Jesus’ use of the term “Father” emphasizes the new relationship of true adorers to God and consequently to one another.

Rudolf Bultmann and others judge verse 22 to be “completely or partially an editorial gloss” (Bultmann: 189-90). Taking the text as we now have it, however, the verse presents ambiguities which may well be intentional. Regarding those who do and do not know what they worship, does “you” refer to Samaritans and “we” to Ioudaioi? If so, then the reference to salvation being from the Ioudaioi is most likely an allusion to their spiritual heritage as a people (Brown 1966:172). On the other hand, it has also been suggested that “you” might refer to both Ioudaioi and Samaritans and “we” to Jesus and his followers (Moloney 1998: 132); in this case salvation would be from the Ioudaioi because Jesus’ humanity is Iouduios. In either case, what is being underscored here is that human divisions cannot be ignored, but neither can they be allowed to persist as obstacles. “Salvation is from the Ioudaioi” had to be a very difficult phrase for a Samaritan to hear, but the problematic relationship between those two groups had to be transcended in order to find true worship as revealed by Jesus.

When the text has Jesus speak of an hour which “is coming, and now is” (v 23), transcendent, true worship is placed in the context of Johannine eschatology. “One need not wait till the end of time for its availability: it is present because Jesus is present” (Moloney 1998:133). Thus, Jesus’ presence renders the former cultic dispositions obsolete and gives eschatological significance to the destruction of the temples on Mounts Gerizim and Zion.

Jesus asserts that the Father actively seeks worshipers (v 23) to worship him “in spirit and truth” (vv 23, 24). Worship “in spirit” is linked not to a particular place, but to a person’s inner disposition of faith, from which it wells up like the living water in verse 14. Worship “in truth” is in and through “the divine reality revealed by Jesus, which believers are called to share in” (Schnackenburg: 437). It is Jesus’ revelation and the believer’s response of faith that shift worship into the realm of the transcendent, in which “the religious discord between [Ioudaioi] and Samaritans” or any other human barrier “is overcome in a new community of believers who worship in spirit and in truth” (Boers: 180).

The tension inherent in this dialog since its beginning, which leaves the reader anxiously waiting for the woman to recognize the gift of God and who it is that is speaking to her (v 10), reaches its climax in verses 25 and 26. The woman’s vocabulary in verse 25 shows her growing faith: the verb she uses is “I know” (oida), and Jesus has gone in her eyes from “Ioudaios” (v 9) to “prophet” (v 19) to perhaps even “Messiah, the one called Christ.” Jesus judges this to be the opportune moment for an explicit revelation of who he is in verse 26. His response is literally, “I AM, the one speaking to you” (Ego eimi, ho lalon soi). Much commentary has arisen over the exact sense of this use of the classic euphemism for the divine name and its impact on the meaning of Jesus’ words (see Moloney 1998: 134). In any case, the full implications of what Jesus has said may not be immediately understood by the woman, but for the reader who has already read the first three chapters of John, the two planes on which this dialog has proceeded since verse 7 finally reach a point of convergence.

It is of no small significance for the interpretation of John 4:4-42 as a model for cross-cultural ministry that Jesus’ statement in verse 26, an “astonishing self-revelation unparalleled in the Gospel for its explicitness” (Okure: 121), occurs only after a methodical, painstaking, dialogical process of breaking down barriers and witnessing to the truth in implicit ways which would only later be understood. Rather than setting the pace and determining the shape of this encounter himself, Jesus accomplishes his Father’s work according to the process dictated by the existential reality of the woman’s journey of faith.

The result of Jesus’ evangelization in verses 16-26 is that the woman progresses from no faith at all to a partial faith. She “is not depicted as having a full-fledged faith in Christ, but rather as being on the right road to such a faith” (Witherington: 123). This incomplete faith, however, will prove to be sufficient for her “to become the essential mediatress between Jesus and the villagers” (Boers: 182), providing a mediation upon which the entire Samaritan mission depends.

Simultaneous Concerns (vv 27-30)

The puzzling inclusion of these lines at this particular point of the narrative blurs the conclusion of the dialog between Jesus and the woman with the introduction of the following sequence with the disciples. Looking at the passage in terms of dimensions of ministry, however, we see that the juxtaposition of evangelization with ministerial formation could in fact be a testimony to ministry’s multidimensional nature. Just as dramatic scenes sometimes overlap, with action on both sides of the stage serving to emphasize continuity or portray simultaneous occurrences, this transitional element may be attesting to the inherent link between true worship and true ministry by portraying Jesus’ attention to simultaneous pastoral concerns. The faith processes of the woman, the disciples, and even the Samaritan townspeople (v 30) overlap, and the reader is invited to view them in their organic unity.

In verse 27, the disciples enter the scene. Jesus’ first action upon meeting the woman in verse 7 was to break through the cultural divisions that separated them, but when the disciples arrive, they begin to throw up new barriers. It is not because Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan that they are shocked (ethaumazon), but rather because he is speaking to a woman and apparently has been doing so for some time. They manage to keep their misgivings to themselves, but their reaction is significant. According to their cultural and religious traditions, men and women who are not spouses ought not to be speaking to one another at all, let alone carrying on an extended private conversation in a public place (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 100, 104-05; Neyrey: 82-83). In order to worship “in spirit and truth” (vv 23, 24), however, human divisions (including gender norms linked to culture or religion) must be transcended despite the discomfort and awkwardness that this may cause at first. This is especially true when the norms in question are observed only by those on one side of the encounter. In this case, for instance, Samaritan customs regarding male-female interaction were different and “her actions and words in public, with men, are not extraordinary” (Maccini: 46). Thus, in addition to challenging first-century norms observed by Ioudaioi and the applicability of these norms in the new community of true worshipers, Jesus is also simply following local customs rather than imposing his own.

The abandoned water jar in verse 28 presents the reader with a symbol that is typically Johannine in its openness to different nuances of interpretation. On the most basic level, the original reason for the woman’s trip to the well and the “symbol of her advantage over the [Ioudaios] beggar” who asked her for a drink has now been cast aside (Okure: 126). Beyond that, the fact that she is no longer seeking Jacob’s water as opposed to Jesus’ living water suggests that she is now prepared to go beyond the human considerations that limited her understanding in verses 7-15. Hendrikus Boers proposes that the left-behind water jar signifies a dramatic abandonment of the negative values in which the woman has sought refuge throughout the dialog: factional security (v 9), merely human sustenance (vv 11-12), and partisan salvation (v 20) (Boers: 191). Schneiders likens it to the “abandonment of ordinary life to follow Jesus and become apostles” symbolized by the “leaving of nets, boats, parents, or tax stall” in the Synoptics (Schneiders: 192). Transcending differences necessitates a willingness to surrender perceptions, assumptions, and values which no longer have a place, much as the disciples were being challenged to do in verse 27.

Like Andrew in 1:40-42 with his brother Simon Peter, or Philip in 1:43-51 with Nathanael, the woman sets off to tell her fellow townspeople about her personal encounter with Jesus (vv 28-29). Jesus has created a situation that impels the woman to give testimony and become for her community a genuine witness, inasmuch as “the content of her report is what she first heard and experienced from Jesus himself” (Okure: 170). In spite of the fact that her faith is still imperfect and expressed in the form of a question (v 29), she plays a role that is crucial. Authentic faith comes, in the Fourth Gospel, only from a personal experience of Jesus, and neither the disciples nor Jesus himself were in a position, as Ioudaioi, to effectively invite the Samaritans to that encounter. Jesus’ mission to the Samaritans is therefore “inculturated,” not only because it takes place in their territory (vv 4-6), employs motifs drawn from their history and consciousness (vv 7-15), and looks to an “hour” when divisions will be transcended (vv 16-26), but also because it is actually initiated among the general populace by one of their own. It is therefore no wonder that by verse 30 the woman’s testimony (and thereby her personal process in verses 7-26) is already bearing fruit, as the people go out of the town and come to Jesus.

Formation for Ministry: The Harvest (vv 31-38)

This section deals with a different concern which forms part of a comprehensive view of cross-cultural ministry: the formation of the ministers themselves. As an integral part of the Samaritan mission, Jesus witnesses to the disciples about true ministry and its inclusive nature, demonstrating that many of the same issues needed to be confronted with them as with the woman. The section concludes with the metaphor of the harvest providing a concrete image.

Jesus’ conversation with the disciples parallels his dialog with the woman in several ways. The disciples struggle like her to get beyond the human-level exigencies of the moment, with food (vv 31,33) now taking the place of water. By using “food” as a double-entendre in verses 32 and 34 as he did “living water” earlier, Jesus again frames his response according to the reality of his dialog partners. The disciples’ jealousy in verse 33 that someone else (namely, the woman or other Samaritans) might have given Jesus food parallels the woman’s misunderstanding about living water as well as her initial preference for security in factions. Jesus’ refusal of the offer of food (vv 32, 34) is consistent with his earlier refusal to enter into a debate with the woman over relations between their peoples. Finally, although it comes at the end of a much shorter process, Jesus’ witness about the harvest by which the Father’s work will be accomplished (vv 35-38) corresponds to his words on true worship in verses 21-26.

When 4:4-42 is interpreted in light of its implications for cross-cultural ministry, Jesus can be seen as modeling in verses 31-38 how the believing community ought to challenge its own ministers, just as he modeled how to approach those to whom the mission is directed in verses 7-26. “Because [the Samaritan woman] epitomizes the socio-religious traits that the disciples could hold in aversion, Jesus’ encounter with her provides a most fitting context for bringing to the surface this attitude of the disciples and instructing them” (Okure: 139). This instruction is not only for the disciples in the narrative: “Once the dialogue with the disciples comes to its conclusion (vv 31-33), the author is primarily interested in addressing the reader, via Jesus’ words to the disciples” (Moloney 1993: 159).

True ministry (vv 35-38) is revealed to be just as transcendent as true worship (vv 21-26). No matter who carries it out, it remains the Father’s work (v 34), and not the disciples’ or even Jesus’ (see also 17:4). Just as it is the Father who determines what constitutes true worship and not human dispositions (vv 21, 23-24), so it is with who determines the course and nature of Jesus’ mission (Okure: 139-41). Human divisions do not belong in ministry, since ministry’s frame of reference transcends humanity.

Jesus’ use of “harvest” in verses 35-38 continues the “food” imagery of the previous verses and functions as a symbol pointing to eschatology as much as it does to ministry. Just as true worship has eschatological connotations (“the hour is coming, and now is,” v 23), so does ministry. There is much scholarly debate over whether verse 35 is to be taken as a proverb or as a chronological reference (see Barrett: 241). In either case, the message is clear: the time for transcendent, true ministry is the present, and it carries a divine urgency foreshadowed even from the very first word of the passage: edei. In this vein, “lift up your eyes” (v 35) may in fact be a double-entendre, referring not just to the surrounding fields but also to the approaching Samaritans (Moloney ! 998: 144).

The “saying” in v 37 may have originally been a pessimistic reflection on the relationship between owners and laborers. In this context, however, the distinction between “sower” and “reaper” in verses 36-38 indicates the collaborative nature of true ministry. By its very nature it involves the Father, Jesus, various human agents, and the values already present in a culture, regardless of what specific ministerial roles are to be identified with sowing and reaping. (The identity of the “others” who “have labored” in v 38 remains one of the most hotly debated issues in the entire passage; see the discussion in Okure: 160-64.) The relationship between sower and reaper is characterized as “rejoicing together” (v 36) in a new fellowship and unity which is part of ministry’s ultimate goal (see 6:44; 10:16; 11:52; 12:32; 17:10, 21-22; 21:5-11). Teresa Okure proposes “the fundamental conception of mission in the Gospel as a ‘gathering in,'” a dynamic at direct odds with “the background of socio-religious separatism in which both the woman and the disciples are caught up” in verses 9, 20, 27, and 33 (Okure: 155).

In light of the woman’s role (vv 28-29), even a categorical distinction between the minister and the recipient of ministry is no longer valid, as yet another boundary is removed. True ministry, like true worship, transcends the limitations of human divisions, categories, and history. Discord in ministry is to be rejected like the food from the disciples that Jesus refused. The “wages” that ministers work for are “fruit for eternal life” (v 36), not credit or recognition. Ministry is God’s, and ministry is shared.

Conversion and Discipleship: The Savior of the World (vv 39-42)

This final section portrays cross-cultural ministry’s ultimate goal: conversion and discipleship. The woman’s and Jesus’ efforts lead the town’s inhabitants to come to Jesus, modeling true conversion; the people in turn believe because of his word and ask that he remain with them, modeling true discipleship. Thus, the process begun at the sixth hour with one wary woman is brought to completion in a public display of full-fledged faith by the Samaritan crowd.

In verse 39, the woman’s testimony among her own people serves as the “catalyst for them to go and find out things for themselves and to believe on the basis of Jesus’ own testimony, his word” (Witherington: 122). They in turn ask Jesus to “stay [menein] with them” (v 40), a “quasi-technical term for union with Jesus” in the Gospel of John (Schneiders: 193). He does so for two days, proving his non-discrimination against the Samaritans and observing the “traditional length of stay in any one place expected of the genuine missionary/prophet” (Okure: 179; see Didache 11:5). Verses 41 and 42 are consistent with the Johannine insistence that “full faith can only be attained in the encounter with Jesus and by hearing his words” (Schnackenburg: 454). Here, too, there has been a process: in verse 39 the townspeople “join the woman in a partial faith” because of her word, but now their faith is complete “because of his word” (v 41) (Moloney 1998: 146). The use of pisteuein (“to believe”) in verses 39, 41 and 42 as opposed to theorein (“to perceive”) in verse 19 indicates the type of full and active acceptance that constitutes an adequate human response to the revelation of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (O’Grady: 39-40).

All this is despite the host of barriers between the woman and Jesus that one by one have been overcome: ethnicity, religion, gender, the woman’s apparent preference for drawing water alone, her negative past experiences with men, her initial inability to see beyond material needs, and her strong sense of security in factions. Jerome Neyrey’s study of this passage in light of gender stereotypes in the ancient world highlights the woman as an amalgam of potential obstacles in human relations, a representative figure for otherness. Thus, not even this “ultimate outsider” proves impossible for true, transcendent ministry (as modeled in the text by Jesus) to bring to true, transcendent worship and active participation in the evangelization process of the very people she previously sought to avoid. She becomes an extraordinary example “of God’s inclusivity and Jesus’ reform of social conventions” (Neyrey: 88-89).

The response that “grows out of the joint witness of Jesus and the woman” (Okure: 177) in verse 42 is the Samaritans’ public confession of faith in Jesus as “the savior of the world.” This title, used nowhere else in this Gospel and only once more in the entire Second Testament (in 1 John 4:14), focuses on the universality of Jesus, of the divine gift he offers, and of the truth he reveals. “Savior” (soter) was a term far more common in secular Hellenistic usage than in the biblical tradition, and more importantly, it has no association with messianic expectations among either Samaritans or Ioudaioi (Danker: 985; Koester: 50). “The world” is meant to be taken here in the literal sense, meaning that Jesus’ activity is directed toward all without exception.

In this way, the entire passage comes together in verses 39-42. In the Samaritans’ response of faith, the woman and her fellow townspeople receive the living water Jesus promised; the disciples gather fruit for eternal life in the harvest; and Jesus receives his true food from the Father who sent him. It is of particular importance for the overall passage’s interpretation as a model for cross-cultural ministry that the woman’s and the townspeople’s journey of faith, the disciples’ lesson in ministry, and the Father’s work in and through Jesus are all brought to completion in an organic unity. This models the community of true worshipers of which Jesus spoke, and points to the communion and fellowship that is the goal of all ministry. It also constitutes “the realization of what Jesus had proclaimed as the form of worship that overcomes the alternatives, ‘either this mountain or Jerusalem'” (Boers: 182). The passage concludes with human divisions truly being transcended as all the characters in the narrative–including Jesus himself–worship in spirit and in truth, just as he had promised.


This study employs today’s vocabulary of theology and ministry, but one can hardly pretend that the first-century evangelist was conversant in modern missiology, cultural anthropology, or local/contextual theology. What more likely underlies John 4:4-42 is a keen understanding of human nature and the ability to place that nature in dialog with the theology which permeates the Fourth Gospel. Tension between groups of people who are different from one another is as old as humanity, and from the outset, the church has ministered in the context of that tension. The narrative of Jesus in Samaria suggests that the Johannine community understood their missionary challenges and looked to the Jesus tradition they had received for illumination. The result is a gospel passage which models how to acknowledge, respect, and systematically transcend the otherness of the diverse groups and individuals whom the church “has to” (v 4) invite into a personal encounter with Jesus and into a new community of believers.

This model has a universal, paradigmatic quality. In hermeneutical dialog with cross-cultural ministry today, it can shed light on attitudes, theology, and pastoral praxis. Ministry across cultural barriers still carries a divine urgency. Pastoral situations may call for ministers to humbly make the first move, step outside their comfort zones, make personal contact, and work in non-traditional settings. A genuine dialog can be created, in which different cultures simultaneously encounter one another and the gospel. People’s real material and spiritual needs must be the starting point for an initial outreach and invitation into communion, with the pace marked by their journey of faith. A familiarity with people’s history and culture can help break down barriers and provide natural motifs for evangelization. The explicit content of that evangelization is what can rise above human divisions, drawing believers into a new relationship with the Father not exclusive to any group, tradition, or place. It can also bring believers into a new relationship with one another, challenging all those concerned (ministers included) to abandon inappropriate attitudes. Ministry itself ought to be inclusive and collaborative, with the participation of a given group’s own members essential. All this must lead to a genuine personal encounter with the risen Jesus, the only way to discipleship, conversion, and true communion in faith.

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Eric John Wyckoff, D.Min. (Barry University) is Chairman of the Religion Department and Chaplain at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, St. Petersburg, FL (e-mail: ejwsdb@yahoo.com). A Salesian of Don Bosco (SDB) and a priest, he also teaches in the diocesan Deacon Formation Program.

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