Saturday, February 13, 2016

Reading Into the Character of the Samaritan Woman [spoiler: the answer is d) all of the above]

You never know. 

Sometimes I sit and read and think and feel like studying the NT is just falling down some sort of weird rabbit hole consisting of an endless stream of book reports about book reports about book reports. 

Sometimes I sneak away and read for approximately ten seconds and find what feels like a game-changer: 

"thus the reader is led to believe from the beginning that consideration of the blind man's past should not be an issue in understanding his character, but only what will unfold in the course of the narrative. In some ways, this is a more explicit expression of what is implicit in the conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus regarding her former life, i.e., the reference to her past husbands (4:16-18) has no bearing on her characterization as co-worker of Jesus." 
-Men and Women in the Fourth Gospel, Gender and Johannine Characterization (Colleen M. Conway) 

A year ago, I would have read this and built a platform for a theological approach based on the theory that the Samaritan woman wasn't an outcast. There is plenty of scholarship that supports the idea that she was a citizen in good standing, but the only thing that keeps me from throwing my hat over that wall has to do with how moved I've been by her story. I love the implication that God took the very lowest of the low (woman, Samaritan, whore, outcast) and through her, revealed himself as Messiah to a whole city. When you cast her as a strong, capable, smart, outspoken women to whom the whole city already listens, it turns down the fire a bit. It's not such great drama, honestly. 

This quote speaks to me because it sort of negates the idea of someone's past affecting their relationship with Jesus. What I compose in my head is this: the past, whether it's good or bad, is a non-issue when it comes to being a co-worker of Jesus. But here's the trick: the author doesn't really say that, does she? She says "characterization as a co-worker of Jesus." That's where the platform starts to crumble for me and I feel the tantrum of the three year old who had his sandwich cut wrong coming on. "WHY does it have to be so complicated???" "WHY are there so many approaches to studying the gospels?" "WHY do I have to go back and study about the different approaches to the study of the NT?" "Oh, and GREEK too. HAH." "WHY do I even care?" 

Luckily, that line of questioning has slowed down, and a new, more productive line of questioning is emerging.

"Is this only applicable from a literary reading of John?" 
"There is no footnote for this, so is it even viable?" 
"Can we compare these two stories in any way other than the standpoint of gender studies?" 
"How many more books do I actually have to read before I start to feel like I have a grip on this?" 

That last question is multiple choice. 
Is it: 
A) more books
B) infinity books
C) books that have not yet been written
D) all of the above


Bill Heroman said...

"it sort of negates the idea of someone's past affecting their relationship with Jesus... the past, whether it's good or bad, is a non-issue when it comes to being a co-worker of Jesus"

You're right, the author didn't say that. But I think she is saying that GJohn is saying that. The woman's characterization, and the effect of the narrative around her, does seem to be making that point. Moving on then, to reconstruct an historical WatW, we must decide how (or whether) to overlay aspects of that story onto the actual past. Assuming this event took place in some way, perhaps she *did* step away from her past when she met Jesus. If we could ask him, I suppose the Beloved Disciple might say that lots of people who met Jesus experienced that kind of a turning. But then, how different might she have immediately seemed from her neighbors' point of view? That leads me back to your initial thoughts here, which were very intriguing.

A storyteller is always looking for what makes the best story. An historian has to be constricted by what actually fits. I think GJohn was partly a storyteller and partly an historian, and I look greatly forward to seeing how Sarah Heroman handles the same mix of interests!!!

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