8. The Father's Many Children
We live in a world of many religions. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and thousands of smaller groups have each their own idea of God. Many of these people have genuine and profound religious experiences, even though they are not Christians. What are we to make of their claims? We have special reason to be concerned about this, because Jesus stated: "No one can come to the Father except through me" (Jn14,6). In the past this made some over-zealous Christians look down with great suspicion, if not contempt, on non-Christian approaches to God. What does John's Gospel have to say about this? How to interpret the enigmatic words of Jesus quoted above?
John recounts that at the end of Jesus' public ministry there were some Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus. John mentions that they had travelled to Jerusalem in order to take part in the Paschal celebrations (Jn12,20). We can deduce from this that they may have been proselytes, Greek converts who had accepted the Jewish religion. They approached Philip first, possibly because Philip, as his Greek name seems to imply, mastered Greek. Philip then brought in Andrew as well. With these two as interpreters a meeting took place between Jesus and the group of Greek pilgrims.
Jesus' words that follow have their meaning within this context (Jn12,23-32). John presumes that this meaning is obvious his own readers were from the Greek speaking world and so they would realise the implications; but we can easily miss it. What then does Jesus say? First of all, his kingdom is open to anyone. Every person, whether Jew or Hellenist is welcome to follow him. And every follower of Jesus will be accepted by his Father (Jn12,26). Jesus also says that his mission to the non-Jewish people would only properly begin with his death and resurrection. Only by falling to the earth and dying would the grain of wheat bear such fruit (Jn12,24). Only on the cross, when Jesus would be lifted up from the earth, would he be able to draw all people to himself (Jn12,32). The decisive hour of Jesus' glorification which is now imminent (Jn12,23) will be the hour of salvation for all people (Jn12,31-32). Indeed, if we read the passage well, it is as if the coming of these Greek-speaking people marks a turning point in the Gospel. Their eagerness confirms Jesus in his determination to let the hour come.
John thus underlines the missionary dimension of Jesus death and glorification. We know that the early Church had to struggle to come from an exclusively Jewish discipleship to a truly universal community. It is the main theme of the Acts. John strongly supports this universality of view. And even though the decision to accept non-Jews as full members into the Church was only explicitly taken after the resurrection John finds it important to relate it to Jesus himself. That is why he presents Jesus himself as a missionary, proclaiming his message to non-Jews. We are not surprised at this. After all, it was for the pagans of the Hellenistic world that John wrote his Gospel.
Since John addressed himself to a world brimming over with all kinds of religious beliefs - not unlike our own, how did he judge them? Does he present Jesus as open or closed to them? Did Jesus, in his view, see any value in approaches to God outside the revelation he himself was bringing? Or did he radically reject any other religious claims? Is there room for dialogue and genuine sharing? Or only for one-sided evangelisation? The key to answering these questions lies in Jesus' attitude to Samaritans, who were the most prominent Gentile group in Jesus' ministry.(1)
Pagans in Palestine
When the Assyrians took Samaria in 722 BC, they subjected it to their policy of total transformation. The bulk of the local population was carried off in exile. Other people belonging to different nationalities were imported from distant parts of the Assyrian Empire and settled in Samaria. The result was a mixed population of Israelite and Gentile composition. Religiously, syncretism and pluriformity sprang up in belief and practice, even though the Israelites' worship of Yahweh seems to have remained the principal component (2 Kgs 17,24-41).
Seven centuries later, during the period of Jesus' ministry, the Samaritans had developed their own religious traditions. They accepted an adapted version of the Pentateuch as their holy scriptures, but rejected all other books. They worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, following their own liturgical customs. They were looking forward to the Messiah, whom they called "Ta'eb", who was to be the prophet foretold as a second Moses (Dt 18,16-19) and his main function was to restore the new liturgy. For reasons not entirely clear to us, the Rabbis accused the Samaritans of practicing idolatry. The Samaritans were barred from taking part in the sacrifices at Jerusalem and from marriage with Jews. Jews were instructed not to eat meat that was slaughtered for a Samaritan not to touch the unleavened bread of the Samaritan Pasch, not to use any vessels handled by Samaritans. Whereas the Samaritans would pride themselves on having descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Rabbis contemptuously referred to them as "the people from Cuth", alluding to one of their ancestor nations (2 Kgs 17,24.30). For all practical purpose the Samaritans were considered pagans by the Jews.(2)
For Jesus, too, the Samaritans were Gentiles, non-Jews. He refers to a Samaritan as "this alien" (Lk 17,18) and preaching to Samaritans and pagans is forbidden in one breath (Mt 10,5). It is all the more significant then that Jesus showed great openness to them in a number of instances. We are not surprised to find that Luke, the evangelist of the non-Jewish world, gratefully records them. Jesus praises the Samaritan leper for being the only one to return and give honour to God (Lk 17,11-19). He rebukes his disciples for wanting to bring God's punishment on an unfriendly Samaritan village (Lk 9,52-56). When looking for an example of true fraternal charity, he creates the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10,30-35). Though isolated occurrences in Jesus' life, this interest of Jesus in Samaritans helped the early Church reflect on her mission to the Gentiles.
Of course, in this context other encounters of Jesus were remembered: how he praised the faith of the Roman officer (Lk 7,1-19) and of the Canaanite woman (Mk 7,24-30). Yet, Jesus' dealings with Samaritans may have had the greatest emotional appeal. It was the early Church's mission to the Samaritans that really began the revolution to universalism. Acts presents Philip's preaching in Samaria as the first Gentile mission (Acts 8,4-25). Acts even announces it separately in Jesus' programmatic statement: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1,8).
It was the success of the evangelisation in Samaria that opened the eyes of the disciples to the potential of faith in the Gentile world. (3)
The quest for God
It is against this background that we can interpret Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman in John (Jn4,4-42). John seems familiar with the locality he describes: Jacob's well on the side of the road, the village of Sychar lying at some distance, the cornfields crowding in on every side. What is more, towards the end of his account he makes Jesus make an almost explicit reference to the mission in Samaria. In the comparison of the crop being ripe for harvest, Jesus distinguishes three agents who contributed each in their own way. There is the one who has sown the seed; there are those who worked in the fields; and again others who came in to reap the fruit of their work (Jn4,35-38). In the light of what we know from Acts 8,4-25 we know what is meant: Jesus himself is the one who sowed the first seed. Philip and his companions worked hard to bring about the first conversions (Acts 8,4-13). Then the Apostles in Jerusalem stepped in, sending John and Peter to complete the mission (Acts 8,14-25). John therefore is familiar with the mission to Samaria and has an axe to grind. He finds that Philip and the other pioneers who took the initiative in the Samaritan mission should receive full credit for it and, like Luke, he affirms that the first beginnings of the mission should be seen in Jesus' own ministry.(4)
Jesus' discussion with a Samaritan woman and his stay in Sychar are probably historical facts. It was a tradition John knew and treasured. But we would be wrong in thinking that when he presented it anew, he restricted himself to a literal and factual report. No. For John this meeting assumed wide theological dimensions. While sticking to the Samaritan context as well as he could, John endeavoured to show in this meeting Jesus' welcoming openness to Gentile seekers. Every line in the carefully constructed conversation reveals Jesus' attitude, every action in this miniature drama signifies the coming closer of Jesus and the non-Jewish world. And, as we shall see, the main issue at stake is knowledge and worship of the true God.
It is often overlooked that the Samaritans had a great hankering for mysticism. Perhaps, their interpretation of the Pentateuch led to this. The inspired Torah was both infallible in every word and efficacious in the hidden powers it contained. If one only knew how to draw on these secret resources, all mysteries in the world could be solved. Small wonder that in such an atmosphere of search for hidden meanings, Gnosticism found a fertile soil, giving rise to a number of esoteric religious groups. The Gnostic circle of Simon the Magician which had already begun in Jesus' time (Acts 8,9-11), would later spread throughout the Middle East.(5)
The woman approaching the well in order to draw water clearly symbolises the search for God among the non-Jews. God is the spring of living water, not only in the Old Testament (Jer 2,13; 17,13), but also in Hellenistic literature. The Odes of Solomon compare the knowledge of God to a stream of fresh water covering the earth. "All those who were thirsty upon earth were given to drink of it. All their thirst was done away with and quenched, for the Most High gave them to drink". The disciples drink copiously from the fountain of the Lord and are inebriated with its living water. They are invited to draw water for themselves from the living spring of the Lord.(6)
Coming to know God
On the symbolical level Jesus says to her: "Tell me, what do you believe about God?" ("Give me a drink"; Jn4,7). The seeker is happily surprised to find Jesus interested in her belief. "You are a Jew - how can you ask me for a drink?" Jesus replies that he is genuinely interested, but explains that he asked the question mainly to prepare her for a new gift: more intimate knowledge about God (Jn4,10). The seeker pulls back, her doubt unmistaken. How can he make such a claim?! She rather trusts her own religious sources. "You don't have a bucket and the well is deep. Are you greater than our father Jacob?" (Jn4,11-12).(7) Jesus answers: "Your knowledge of God is limited. It will not quench your religious search. The revelation I bring will put you in touch with God for ever" (Jn4,13-1 True to her nature as seeker, she now realises the scope of what Jesus promises. "Give me this water, sir, so that I will never get thirsty and need not keep coming here to draw water" (Jn4,15). (8)
John's Hellenistic readers would immediately understand what Jesus is saying to them in practical terms. "Yes, I know you are seeking God. I value your religious belief and respect it. But if you knew what I am offering you, you would realise that you can find in my message the answer to your search. I can really bring you into living contact with God himself. Is that not what you were looking for all along?"
The conversation now turns to the seeker's husbands. Ever since Hosea introduced the image, Yahweh was recognised to be Israel's lawful husband (Hos 2,2-17). When Jesus says, "Call your husband", he is really saying: "Tell me, what God do you really believe in?"(9) The seeker admits her confusion. "I have no husband" (Jn4,17). "Yes" Jesus answers, "What you say is right. In the course of time you have believed in various kinds of divinities, changing the one for the other. Even the notion you have now is imperfect". "You have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband" (Jn4,18). The mention of the five husbands may well be an allusion to the five pagan nations from which the Samaritans derive (2 Kgs 17,24) and which were reputed to have brought with them idolatrous worship to five false gods.(10)' The religious seeker realises that her own history has been a succession of temporary and imperfect marriages. Will Jesus be able to make her find her true and lasting husband?
The seeker now moves the conversation to the most crucial question: Who is God? What is he like? She puts the question in veiled form, as if she is concerned about the age- old controversy about the place of worship: "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, (11) but you claim that God should be worshiped in Jerusalem" (Jn4,20). She is testing Jesus; the real matter at stake is God's nature. We may deduce this not only from Jesus' answer, but also from our realisation that the Samaritans, like mystics elsewhere, had a rather pure and exalted view of God. They worshiped him as a spiritual being who could not be expressed in either sense language or symbolic imagery. Will Jesus' revelation measure up to such a high concept? Jesus' reply goes straight to the heart of the matter. "You worship whom you do not know" (Jn4,22). Is Jesus here pointing to the fact that Hellenistic mysticism always seemed to end up with describing God as the biggest mystery of all, the great unknowable?(12) Jesus then goes on to say that he can give more information about this "unknown God. God is, indeed, a Spirit who is not tied down to specific times and places as mystics have rightly understood (Jn4,24). But he is also a Father whose authority and love should be recognised in spiritualworship (Jn4,23-24).
Some authors may find that I have read too much symbolism in the story, too many references to contemporary Hellenism.(13) Certainly, the details of the interpretation are somewhat tentative and not always sure. But to my mind there can be no doubt about the overall intention of John's account to portray a confrontation between Jesus and non-Jewish mysticism. Also, that the central issue is knowledge of God. Jesus accepts the search as valid, but promises to give more than a here human search can offer.
The Father's teaching
A striking feature of the story of the Samaritan woman is her openness and receptivity. This can be seen best when we compare her reaction to that of the Jews whom Jesus meets in Jerusalem. She raises the question, "Are you greater than our father Jacob?", and on Jesus testimony that he is, she responds by asking for life-giving water (Jn4,11-15). The Jews asked Jesus the same question, "Do you claim to be greater than our father Abraham?". But when he testifies to them, they end up by wanting to stone him (Jn8,52-59). The Samaritan woman receives Jesus with enthusiasm, bringing in her townspeople too so that eventually all accept Jesus as "the Saviour of the world" (Jn4,42). But about the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem Jesus will say: "He who is of God, listens to God's words; you do not listen to them, because you are not of God" (Jn8,47).
Is Jesus not implicitly saying here that people like the Samaritan woman are "of God"? Is he not implying that such people can accept his message as a truly divine revelation, because they are seekers, because they have accustomed themselves to listen to God as they searched? Jesus seems to say the same thing in another dispute with the Jews, when they fail to grasp what he is saying about his having come as the bread from heaven. Jesus explains their unbelief in these words:
"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I shall raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophetic writings: 'They shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 6,44-45
Commentators often the miss the real point of this statement. They say nobody can believe in Jesus without inner grace - which is the drawing by the Father. But this is not what Jesus is asserting here. He speaks of a preparatory drawing by the Father. He tells the unbelieving Jews their lack of faith is due to their not being truly spiritual people. "You have never understood what it means to listen to God in silence and true spiritual humility. You have never heard the voice of the Father in the depths of your heart. You have not learned to be open to him, wanting to be taught by him in deep spiritual longing. That is why you are not able now to accept the new revelation I am bringing".
In other words, not only does Jesus accept the validity of the religious search preceding his own revelation; he teaches that such a search is a necessary condition for accepting him in faith. He relates the search directly to his Father. Isaiah had foretold that in the New Jerusalem all would be taught by God, that is that all would become his disciples (Is 54,13). The image is clear. Not only prophets would be sitting at God's feet, listening day by day to hear what he was going to teach them (Is 50,4). No, all members of God's people would have this inner experience of hearing God speak to them in the depth of their heart. Such people, Jesus asserts, who have learned to listen to the Father in prayer and who are willing to learn from him, are the ones prepared for the further revelation he offers. The Samaritan woman and the people of Sychar, in other words: seekers from the Gentile world are such people.(14)
Seek and you shall find
We can now return to the question we put at the beginning of this chapter. What does Jesus mean when he states that no one can come to the Father except through himself? (Jn14,6). It does not mean that he rejects all other religious approaches as useless and false. Certainly, no religious search of man can lead to the Father the way Jesus can. He completes all religions, he fulfills them by achieving what they are seeking for. But that does not make the effort useless.
On the contrary, it is only people who have learned to discover higher values, who have become sensitive to the wider and deeper dimensions of reality that are properly prepared for his own revelation. His Gospel is meant for those who have a spiritual hunger, who are drawn by the Father in whatever religious tradition they stand.
The implications of this teaching for evangelisation are enormous. When we present Jesus' message, we should not look scornfully at people's previous beliefs. Rather, discovering the religious values in those beliefs and building on the spiritual search expressed by them, we should present the Gospel as their completion. This does not only apply to traditional mission countries, but equally to the humanistic belief systems of the West. Many people who admit they don't know anything about God, value honesty, justice and charity as norms to give meaning to their lives. Often there is in them a willingness to learn that is the beginning of their "being drawn by the Father".
The implications are also weighty for those who are already Christians. It is my conviction that many people's faith is so shallow because it does not rest on a firm foundation of spirituality. It happens only too frequently that Christians learn to fit into the structures and external practices of their Christian faith without being taught the sensitivity and awareness that makes a person truly spiritual. No one can be a firm believer who is not at the same time a diligent seeker. It is as if in our own spiritual life we have to repeat the search of all mankind; much as each foetus has in some degree to undergo the whole process of evolution.
It is interesting to note how John presents the faith of the Samaritan woman as a growth. When she meets Jesus he is just a Jew (4,9). Then she addresses him as Lord (Jn4,11). She asks if he could be greater than her ancestor Jacob (Jn4,12). Impressed by his teaching, she calls him a prophet (Jn4,19). She then suspects he may be the Messiah (Jn4,26.29) until she finally accepts him as the Saviour of the World (Jn4,42) Because she was a true seeker, her eyes were gradually opened.(15) Thus she represented those "other sheep" not belonging to the Jewish fold who would be led by Jesus and who would listen to his voice (Jn10,16). Those other sheep were the non-Jews, the Gentiles, religious seekers from all over the world, including ourselves.(16)
For reflection. Hearing the Father speak.
Jesus' words to be unbelieving Jews (Jn6,44-45) are also addressed to me. They contain a warning and a promise. Let me read the verses prayerfully and consider how they apply to me.
Am I a religious seeker? Can I rank myself honestly with all those people of goodwill who sincerely search for the truth? Am I anxious to be drawn by the Father as I discover his presence more and more everyday?
Do my concentration and detachment match the endeavours of non-Christian mystics? Can I listen to God with full attention? Can I hear the Father speak to me in silence?
When I meet people belonging to another religious tradition, do I allow them to tell me about their experience of God? What have I learned about God from them in previous encounters of this kind?
When Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists or others pray, do I join them in my heart, conscious as I am that we all pray to the same Father? Do I respect their places of worship and their religious practices? Do I share in common prayer if the circumstances allow this?
1. Since Bethesda was the centre of a cult devoted to a pagan healer god, Jesus' visit there (5,1-18) provides another instance of Jesus' reaching out beyond the confines of the Jewish religion. J. KLINGER, "Bethesda and the Universality of the Logos", St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 27 (1983) 169-185.
2. P. BILLERBECK, Kommentar zum Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, vol. I, Munich 1922, pp.538, 549, 553.
3. O. CULLMANN, "Samaria and the origins of the Christian Mission", in The Early Church, ed. A. J. B. HIGGINS, SCM London 1956, pp.183-192. J. BLIGH, "Jesus in Samaria", Heythrop Journal 3 (1962) 329-346.
4. Some authors even maintain John wrote his Gospel for Samaritans. Cf. G. W. BUCHANAN, "The Samaritan Origin of the Gospel of John", Religions in Antiquity, Festschrift for E. R. Goodenough, 1968, 263 pp.149 ff. J. BOWMAN, "Samaritan Studies I. The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans", Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 40 (1958) 298-329.
5. M. GASTER, The Samaritans, their history, doctrines and literature, Schweich Lectures, London 1925, pp.79ff; O. ODEBERG, The Fourth Gospel, Gruner, Amsterdam 1974, p.180.
6. Odes of Solomon 6,10-12; 11,6-7; 30,1-2. Cf.W. BAUER Die Oden Salomos, Kleine Texte 64, Berlin 1933; J. H. CHARLESWORTH and R. A. CULPEPPER, "The Odes of Solomon and the Gospel of John", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1973) 298-322.
7. Underlying the question we may find a dialectic of the Johannine community with alternative Jewish rites. Cf. J. H. NEYREY, "Jacob traditions and the Interpretation of John 4:10-26", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979) 419-437.
8. M. VELLANICKAL, "Drink from the source of the Living Water", Biblebhashyc 5 (1979) 309-318; L. CANTWELL,"Immortal Longings in Sermone Humili: A Study of John 4.5-26", Scottish Journal of Theology 36 (1983) 73-86.
9. About the marriage theme, see C. M. CARMICHAEL, "Marriage and the Samaritan Woman"? New Testament Studies 26 (1980) 332-346.
10. Five false gods according to Flavius Josephus, Antiquities IX 288, even though 2 Kgs 17,30 mentions seven!
11. From where Jesus and the Samaritan woman were speaking the ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim were visible. R. J. BULL, "An Archaeological Context for Understanding John 4:20", Biblical Archaeologist 38 (1975) 54-59; "An Archaeological Footnote to 'Our Fathers worshipped on this Mountain', John IV.20", New Testament Studies 23 (1977) 460-462.
12. The Valentinian Gnostics worshipped the Unknowable Deep (buthos), the Basilidans the Non-Existent. Cf. C. H. DODD, Interpretation
13. I draw my inspiration from J. KREYENBUHL, Das Evangelium der Wahrheit. Neue Losung der Johanneischen Frage, vol II, Berlin 1905, pp.392-433. See also H. ODEBERG, The Fourth Gospel, pp.174-179.
14. I have worked out this interpretation of 6,44-45 more fully in J. WIJNGAARDS Come and See, Theological Publications in India, Bangalore 1980, pp.47-63. See also "Being Taught by God the Father" The Clergy Review 47 (1982) 350-355.
15. R. SCHNACKENBURG, (note 35) I 456.
16. It may be that the immediate reference of 10,16 is again to the Samaritans. Ez 37,15-22 had announced that the two shepherds' staffs, Israel (Samaria?) and Judah, would be united under one ruler (see also Ez 34,1-31). "They will become one flock with one shepherd" (10,16). Cf. J. BOWMAN, The Samaritans, o.c.p. 298ff.
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