Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988) 127-140.

              Copyright © 1988 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.    




                    READING JOHN 4:1-45:

                          SOME DIVERSE




                                     DAVID S. DOCKERY

                             Criswell College, Dallas, TX 75201



                                                I. Introduction


The present state of NT studies is seemingly headed toward a

hermeneutical impasse. The problem of interpreting the NT is one to

which we all would like to find a simple unlocking key, an easy

formula that would enable us to approach a text and quickly and

certainly establish its meaning. Unfortunately, there is no simple

answer nor consensus of approaches. It is, however, possible to indi-

cate some diverse perspectives that will enable us to wrestle with the

text as we seek to understand it. The problem is not unique to the NT;

in fact it is a challenge that faces anyone who would seek to under-

stand anything that somebody else has said or written, especially if

communicated in a different language, culture and time period. The

NT in general, and the Gospel in John in particular, poses distinct

problems because of its own unique and various literary characteris-

tics. In our recognition of these challenges that face us, we must never

lose sight of the fact that we are seeking to understand the written

Word of God.

            Our purpose in this article is to examine some of the problems

encountered by interpreters of John's Gospel by focusing our atten-

tion on John 4:1-45, the familiar story of the "woman at the well."

Following these general observations, we shall attempt to show how

diverse hermeneutical perspectives would view key aspects of this

passage. We shall examine the passage from three levels or perspec-

tives: 1) an "author-oriented" approach; 2) a "text-oriented" approach;




and 3) a "reader-oriented" approach.l In a brief paper of this type, it

should be recognized that it is beyond the scope and purpose to do

detailed exegesis of the John 4 passage or to discuss the three theo-

retical bases of the different approaches, though we shall attempt

some analysis and evaluation.


            II. "The Woman at the Well:" Some General Observations


            Following the statement in John 2:25, "He (Jesus) did not need

man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in man," The

Gospel proceeds to give examples of two very different people that

Jesus knew. The accounts in chaps 3 and 4 indicate the different needs

and world-views of the people who encountered Jesus. These stories

are among the most familiar found in the Gospels. The first concerns

Nicodemus, a ruler and teacher of the Jews and the second concerns a

Samaritan Woman. Both accounts, in different ways, show the need of

all people to come to realize that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the

Living God" (John 20:30-31). Yet, the differences in these accounts

are tremendous. These enormous contrasts can be illustrated by the

following observations:


                                      Chap 3                                  Chap 4

                                    Nicodemus                           Samaritan Woman

            Place                 Jerusalem                             Samaria

            Time                 By night                                About 6 p.m.

            Occasion          Planned                                 Visit By Chance

            Content             Theological                          Practical

            Initiator            Nicodemus                           Jesus

            Ethnic Group   Jew                                        Samaritan

            Social Status    Highly respected                 Despised Woman


            Sex                    Male                                     Female


            1 For "author-oriented" approaches, see the discussion in E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity

in Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); for "text-oriented"

approaches, see P. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth: Texas Christian Uni-

versity Press, 1976); and "reader-oriented" approaches, see H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and

Method (tr. G. Borden and J. Cumming; New York: Crossroad, reprint 1985) and

J. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (ed. and cr. D. B. Allison; Evanston: Northwestern

University Press, 1973). From the standpoint of biblical studies, a broad survey can be

found in the reader by K. McKim, editor, A Guide to Contemporary Hermeneutics

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

                        Dockery: READING JOHN 4:1-45            129


                                                  Chap 3                      Chap 4

                                                Nicodemus                 Samaritan Woman

            Attitude                      Serious, polite,          Flippant, initially hostile,

                                                calls Jesus Rabbi                   then respect

            Form                           Dialogue to                Dialogue throughout


            Religious                    Moral, religiously     Immoral, heterodox,

            Conviction                 orthodox                     irreligious

            Education                   Learned                      No formal training


            Result                         Not mentioned           Woman converted, she

                                                                                                proclaimed gospel and

                                                                                                others came to believe


            John 4 opens with an allusion to the threat posed by the Pharisees

(4:1,3); There is a proleptic reference to Jesus' rejection (4:44; cf.

1:11), but the rest of the chapter is positive. Jesus is making more

disciples than John (4:1). He encounters the Samaritan woman in

what is John's fourth account of Jesus' ministry in Cana. The woman,

who by Jewish standards had made a mess of her life, was an outcast

in society. Into her life enters Jesus with a unique and gentle sensi-

tivity that led the woman beyond any relationship she probably

thought was ever possible.2

            The passage has a clear structure dominated by two major dia-

logues of Jesus. After the introduction in 1-6, we find the dialogue of

Jesus with the Samaritan woman. This contains two distinct themes;

in 6-18 the living water from Christ,3 in 19-26 the worship that the

Father seeks.4 The dialogue of Jesus with the disciples in 31-38 is set

between two paragraphs, 27-30 describing the witness of the Samari-

tan woman to the people of Sychar and 39-45 recounting their

conversion.5 The dramatic nature of the second episode has been


            2 Cf. R. A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress,

198;3) 91, 136-37.

            3 The emphasis in the interpretation of the early church fathers is focused upon

the "living water," although the "water" is interpreted in numerous symbolic ways (so

Ireneaus, Origen, Cyprian, Cyril, Theodore and Chrysostom). See the discussion in

M. F. Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel (Cambridge: University Press, 1009) 45-49.

            4 C. K. Barrett, Essays on John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982) 14-16, focuses

on the concept of worship in 19-26 as central to this story. Not only does he find it

important for understanding this story, but central to the entire Gospel. On page 14, he

says, "I suggest, however, that it may be profitable to consider John 4:19-26 as a further

summary of what John intended to achieve in writing his book."

            5 G. R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC; Waco: Word, 1987) 56-59.



frequently noted. C. H. Dodd likened it to a drama with action taking

place on two stages. On the one stage Jesus is conversing with his

disciples (31-38), while on another stage the woman speaks to the

townspeople of Sychar, and persuades them to come and see Jesus

(28-39). The two groups then come together and move to the town;

the scene concludes with a declaration of the people of Sychar, like

the final chorus of a play, summing up the movement of the whole.6


                        III. Challenges Facing Interpreters of John 4


            An initial, and important, stage in understanding the text is a

study of the background of the passage.7 After the interpreter trans-

lates the passage, the geography of the text's setting, the historical

state of Jewish-Samaritan relationships and other cultural matters

must be considered. This step is more important for those who seek

to interpret the passage from the standpoint of the biblical author

than for those who choose to emphasize the reader's perspective. Also

beneficial will be a knowledge of the book's author/editor and his

community, as well as the intended audience. Similarly it is important

to have an idea of the author's possible sources. With regard to this

matter in our present story we must ask where did our author obtain

this particular account? Some parts of the story contain a private

conversation between Jesus and the woman. The interpreter must

seek to determine which of these two passed the story on to the

author? If it was both, did the story take different shapes and

emphases? Has John created the story or shaped it in a manner he

thought appropriate? These are different questions and are relevant to

the historical nature of the account. Do we have a historical report

about an actual conversation or a narrative developed by the evange-

list to bring out points which he thought important for his readers or a

mixture of these two?8


            6 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University

Press, 1953) 315.

            7 I am deeply indebted to the work of I. H. Marshall at this point. See Marshall,

"The Problem of New Testament Exegesis" JETS 17 (1974) 67-73; also see Gordon

Fee, New Testament Exegesis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985).

            8 Johannine scholars differ over these questions. Note R. Bultmann, The Gospel of

John, (tr. G. R. Beasley-Murray; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), who tries to distin-

guish between tradition and Johannine additions. He finds little historical material in

the fourth gospel, On the other hand, R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (AB;

2 vols; Garden City: Doubleday, 1966) affirms that, the narrative rests upon tradition

and the tradition has a historical basis. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1983) and L. Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1971) in general affirm the historical nature of the Johannine accounts. "Text" and

                        Dockery: READING JOHN 4:1-45            131


            The next question for the interpreter is an identification of the

genre of our text.9 Having recognized John 4 as narrative discourse,

we must ask what is the form and function of the narrative? This

leads to questions regarding the purpose of the story in the overall

Gospel, its place in the Gospel and its literary context.10 Many under-

stand the final verses in chap 20 as representative of the Gospel's

overall purpose, "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the pres-

ence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these

are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of

God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John

20:30-31). Understanding this purpose, our account in John 4 is not

just a moving story, but it must be seen to function within the

Gospel's overall purpose. This, however, still leaves many questions


            Is the story of the Samaritan woman to be read in light of chap 3

indicating that all kinds of people need to know and respond to the

Gospel message?11 Perhaps a similar function is to show that non-Jews

(Samaritans) can also participate in the blessings of the Gospel.12

A. M. Hunter has suggested the point of the story is the contrast

between the old ways of the Jews and the Samaritans--symbolized

by water in wells--and the new life offered by Jesus and symbolized

by the living water.13 Perhaps all of these insights are valid and add

fullness to our understanding of the story.

            Once we understand the function of the passage, we can press

further questions about the form and meaning of the story. If the text

is a historical narrative, does this mean it has to be understood

literally? If we attempt to understand the text from the author's

standpoint, does this mean we cannot read the text symbolically,

typologically, allegorically, or existentially? Are multiple meanings


"reader" approaches tend to be less concerned with historical questions though Cul-

pepper, Anatomy, 236, asks whether "his story" can be true if it is not "history."

            9 Cf. C. H. Talbert, What is a Gospel?: The Genre of the Canonical Gospels

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

            10 The best understanding of the form and function of the narrative in John's

Gospel is found in Culpepper, Anatomy. An insightful perspective on the purpose of

the fourth gospel can be found in D. A. Carson, "The Purpose of the Fourth Gospel:

John 20:31 Reconsidered" JBL 106 (1987) 639-51.

            11 Many interpreters take this approach following the great Anglican commen-

tator, B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (London: John Murray,

1892) 67ff.

            12 J. Marsh, The Gospel of St. John (PNTC; Marmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

            13 A. M. Hunter, The Gospel According to John (CBC; Cambridge: University

Press, 1965). This echoes many of the approaches found in the early church fathers. See

n 3 above.



possible? Are multiple meanings intended by the author?14 We shall

look at some of these ,issues in the next section.


                        IV. Various Hermeneutical Perspectives


A. Author-Oriented/Historical Perspective

            This hermeneutical approach seeks to discover what the text

meant in the mind of the original author for the intended audience.

Such interpretation attempts to discover the meaning of the passage

in its literary and historical context. This produces a dialogue relation-

ship between chap 4 and the entire Gospel in its literary settings as

well as the event and its historical background.

            The Johannine intention appears to be threefold: 1) to proclaim

the gift of the "living water," 2) to prioritize the worship of the Father

"in Spirit and in truth," and 3) to explain the mission to non-Jews.

These are all bound together by the ministry of Jesus Christ, which

includes tasks of revealing God, redeeming humankind and mediating

between God and his people.15  The point of the pericope is that the

woman had no understanding of what it meant to drink the living

water till it dawned on her, however inadequately and crudely, that

she stood face to face with the one who "will make known everything

to us"--the Messiah. John intended his readers to understand that she

drank the "living water" and thus entered into a new relationship with

Jesus and that her fellow townsfolk did so as well (vv 39-42).16

            Jesus revealed himself to her, "I am the Messiah" (v 26), in a most

unusual way. It was his clearest self-declaration of his person and

mission found in the Gospel. Normally in Jesus' ministry, he veiled his

identity and his office by use of other sayings like "Son of Man." In

Galilee and Judea (cf. John 6:15), his messianic claims would have

been misunderstood in political terms. But with the Samaritans, the

dangers of revolt by national zealots were not problematic.17 John has

presented the woman persistently attempting to avoid the issues that


            14 R. Shedd, "Multiple Meanings in the Gospel of John" Current Issues in Biblical

and Patristic Interpretation, (ed. G. F. Hawthorne; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975)

249-58. For instance, the word "living" used to describe the water that Jesus offers to

the woman can mean "running" as opposed to stagnant or still water. Perhaps this

misunderstanding is a key to proper understanding in the story. How can this be com-

municated in the translation? Is double meaning the key to understanding Johannine

misunderstandings? See D. A. Carson, "Understanding Misunderstanding in the Fourth

Gospel" Tyn Bul 33 (1982) 59-91; and Barrett, "Paradox and Dualism" Essays on John


            15 Beasley-Murray, John, 65.

            16 Ibid., 65-66.

            17 Morris, Gospel According to John, 273.

                        Dockery: READING JOHN 4:1-45            133


Jesus raised. But equally persistent, Jesus re-raised the issues for her

until the desired results were secured. At first glance, she caught sight

of a thirsty man, she was startled when a Jew spoke to her and she

indicated her dislike of the Jew and her flippancy toward religious

matters. Finally, however, she was swept off her feet by the prophet

and she came to adore, worship and proclaim Jesus as Messiah and



B. Text-Oriented Approach

            Johannine scholars such as C. H. Dodd, Alan Culpepper and Paul

Duke have detected a kind of dramatic form in the way the story is

told.18 The story is presented like a play on two stages with the center

of interest shifting to and fro from the well to the town, from the

woman to the townspeople to the disciples.19

            It might also be observed that John 4 finds many parallels with

chap 19. R. H. Lightfoot has noted that the same time (the sixth

hour--4:7; 19:14) indicates a close theological relationship.20 In both

chapters we read of Jesus' physical distress (4:16; 19:1) and of his

thirst (4:17; 19:28). Both chapters make reference to the completion of

his work (4:34; 19:30 where we find related Greek verbs for "com-

plete"). In 4:42, Jesus is called "the savior of the world" and John may

accordingly be recalling particular incidents which point to the passion

where salvation for humankind was provided.

            Duke finds intertextual keys to understanding the drama.21 He

observed the situation is precisely that of some OT stories in which a

man meets a woman at a well (Gen 24:10-61; 29:1-20; Exod 2:15-

21).22 The common themes and structure can be identified: 1) a man is

traveling in a foreign land; 2) he goes to a well; 3) he meets there a

maiden; 4) water is given; 5) the woman hurriedly runs home to tell;

6) the man is invited to stay; and 7) a betrothal is concluded. When

Jesus ventures into a foreign country and meets a woman at a well,

the properly conditioned reader of the text will immediately assume

some overtone of courtship, especially since this narrative follows a

story attributed to the bridegroom (2:11), a title given to Jesus in 3:29.

While the woman is ignorant of Jesus identity, the reader knows that


            18 Dodd, Interpretation, 315; Culpepper, Anatomy, 136-37; P. Duke, Irony in the

Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) 100-103.

            19 See Culpepper's approach (Anatomy, 72-73) where he finds a similar type

drama in John 9.

            20 R. H. Lightfoot, St. John's Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956) 122.

            21 Duke, Irony, 101.

            22 R. C. Culley, Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Narrative (Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1976) 41-43; N. R. Bonneau, "The Woman at the Well: John 4 and Genesis 24"

The Bible Today 67 (1973) 1252-59.



Jesus is the Christ, the Logos, the Bridegroom who will win this

woman to himself.

            The text is irony-filled as exemplified by the initial scene in the

drama. Jesus greets the woman with, a request for water (cf. Gen

24:12), which is most ironic in view of who will eventually give water

to whom. Jesus is a Jewish male conversing with a Samaritan female.

He has burst the bonds of his people's circle so that the woman

herself is taken-back. Jesus does not answer her objections, instead he

suggests that she does not know the one talking with her (v 10). The

emphasis on her ignorance serves dramatically to increase the sense of

difference between them. The woman misunderstands u!dwr to> zw?n

(spring water, running water, living water) reminding him she lacks

the necessary vessel to carry it. Jesus notes that his gift of water

relieves thirst forever, the woman, impressed, but confused, replies

"ku<rie (sir, lord) give me this water that I may not thirst anymore, nor

come here to draw" (v 15).23 The element of the gift of water in the

betrothal scene has been elaborated in an eight-verse interchange by

means of irony, double meaning and misunderstanding. As Duke has


            Such expansion functions not only to underline the symbolic significance

            of water, but also to mark the gradual and inexorable movement of the

            two characters toward each other. In the betrothal type-scenes the

            drawing of water is the act that emblematically establishes a bond-

            male-female, host-guest, benefactor-benefited. In elaborating Jesus

            offering of water and the woman's dawning (though misdirected) desire

            for it, the author (the text dramatizes how Jesus draws her to himself.24


            The next scene creates new interest. Jesus asks her to get her

husband and she replies that she has none. This is what is to be

expected in this type of scene, but there is a unique turn in the

conversation by Jesus' new revelation that startles the woman and

readers alike. She is unmarried but not because she is a maiden, but

because she has been divorced five times and is currently involved

with another man, who is not her husband. The scene thus ironically

differs from the Old Testament parallels. The OT scenes feature a

na’ara (a young woman whose virginity is assumed, Gen 24:16). Yet,

when the heavenly Bridegroom plays this scene, his opposite turns out


            23 Significantly, she addresses him as kurie-meaning for now, "sir," but for

Christian readers and progressively for herself, "Lord." Kurie, may also, interestingly

enough, mean "husband" (Gen 18:12 LXX; I Pet 3:6). See Brown (John I, 170) who

observes the likely progression in the woman's use of kurie in II, 15, 19; also see

W. Foerster, "kurios" TDNT (1965) 3.1043. See Duke, Irony, 101-2.

            24 Duke, Irony, 102.

                        Dockery: READING JOHN 4:1-45            135


to be less than a virtuous young maiden. He identifies himself in this

action, not with innocence, but with a guilty, wounded, downhearted

and estranged person, typical of fallen humanity.

            The next scene focuses upon Jesus' identity. She seeks, unsuccess-

fully, to change the subject and speaks of the Messiah in the third

person. She does not realize Jesus is the Messiah himself. The scene

closes with Jesus' revelation that he is the Messiah. As she exits, the

disciples return from their meal and the woman goes to tell the village

people about her encounter with Jesus.

            This approach is related to and focuses upon the text, its context

and broader biblical texts. Reading the text in this fashion is not

symbolism or allegory, but it may exceed the intention of the author

as well as possibly, though not necessarily, imply that such an encoun-

ter did not really transpire. It also raises the question about the proper

use of modern literary theories to understand ancient texts.


C. Reader-Oriented Approaches

            1. Allegorical/Symbolical. Early Church fathers, especially the

Alexandrians, read this story and most other biblical accounts from an

allegorical perspective.25 An example of this interpretation can be

found in the mention of the woman's five husbands. It has been

suggested that the husbands represent the five false gods of the

Samaritans (cf. 2 Kgs 17:30) and this relates to the condemnation of

Samaritan piety in John 4:22.26

            A favorite task among the allegorical readers is the identity of the

"water." Water is understood not as real water, but as a variety of

religious symbols.27 Interpreters of different time periods find rele-

vant and understandable symbols that communicate to their various


            2. Existential. Another school of thought interprets the story

existentially through the framework of Heidegger. The story is read

as an expression of the way a person comes to self-awareness regard-

ing his or her being and enters into authentic existence. R. Bultmann


            25 See the excellent analysis of this approach in J. W. Trigg, Origen: The Bible and

Philosophy in the Third Century (Atlanta: John Knox, 1983) 87-129.

            26 E. C. Hoskyns and F. N. Davey, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber and

Faber, 1947) 242-44.

            27 See Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel, 46-49; Brown, John, 1, 178-80; and G. E.

Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 257-58, for

helpful comments on the symbolism of "water" and its relationship to the Holy Spirit

and to the eschatological eternal life.



describes vv 16-19 as "revelation as the disclosure of man's being."28

The ideas of a gift of salvation and of faith in the traditional sense

disappear, and are replaced by categories drawn from existentialist

philosophy.29 I, along with many, would conclude that this is a reading

into the text, not an appropriate reading of the text.30

            3. Pastoral. A very popular reading of this story is to see it as an

example of how Jesus dealt pastorally with the woman in leading her

to conversion.31 It is seen as an example of sensitive, gentle, pastoral

ministry. It is pointed out that Jesus did not violate her selfhood in

leading her to understanding.32 The story, then is seen as a model for

Jesus' followers in succeeding generations of how to employ their

oWn activity of personal evangelism.33

            4. Feminist. In the contemporary world of NT scholarship, per-

haps the ultimate example of a reader-oriented approach is that

offered by some feminist biblical scholars such as L. Russell, E. Fio-

renza and others. This should be distinguished from evangelical femi-

nism which seeks a more objective understanding of the text. The

hermeneutical concerns of these contemporary feminists are beyond

attempts to see women as equal to men. They are also concerned

about matters beyond finding balance in translation to avoid sexist

language and questions regarding patriarchal readings in the biblical

text. Rather, these scholars proceed from the vantage point that

oppressive, male-dominated, biblical texts cannot claim to be the

Word of God and so must be the words of men. This hermeneutic of

liberation either reads biblical texts from a feminist perspective or

rejects the accounts if the feminist reading cannot be attained.34 For

these readers, the significance of the John 4 story is that it shows that

Jesus' mission was extended by women, especially to non-Israelites.

Women were the first non-Jews to become members of the Jesus

movement. The Samaritan woman's attempts to turn the conversation

away from Jesus' directions indicate her stand "against limiting the


            28 Bultmann, John, 187.

            29 See J. M. Robinson and J. B. Cobb, Jr., The Later Heidegger (New York:

Harper and Row, 1967).

            30 See R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, translated by

C. Hastings (3 vols; New York: Seabury, 1982) 1, 420.

            31 G. L. Borshert, The Dynamics of Evangelism (Waco: Word, 1976) 61-62.

            32 G. L. Borchert, Assurance and Warning (Nashville: Broadman, 1987) 106-107.

            33 W. Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel (2 vols; London: Macmillan, 1940)


            34 Ct. E. S. Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone (New York: Crossroad, 1984).

                        Dockery: READING JOHN 4:1-45            137


inclusive messianic table community of Jesus to Israel alone."35 This

theological argument from the mouth of the woman signifies the

historical leadership women had opening up Jesus' movement and

community to non-Israelites. The woman is thus representative of an

exemplary disciple: an apostolic witness.36

            Feminist interpreters, in general, are reacting to the type of

interpretation employed by the likes of A. Edersheim in his classic

volume, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.37 Edersheim grounds,

the Samaritan woman into the dust with little justification, referring to

her in pejorative terms of indignant poverty and ignorance. He then

adds in condescending fashion that those who know how difficult it is

to "lodge any idea in the mind of the uneducated rustics in this

country will understand how utterly at a loss this Samaritan country

woman must have been to grasp the meaning of Jesus."38 Evangelical

feminists are quick to point out how little evidence is in the biblical

text regarding her supposed stupidity. She may not have had the

education of Nicodemus (John 3), but she at once recognized Jesus as

a Jew and showed no ignorance of her own country's history or

religion. She grasped the physical level of Jesus' words easily. Her

misunderstanding was a spiritual problem, not one of ignorance. And,

in fact, she grasped spiritual truths more quickly than did the learned


            All feminists are equally affirming of Jesus' treatment of women

by finding specific points in the text that can be emphasized. Without

question, Jesus violated common cultural codes to relate to the woman

as evidenced by her own response as well as the disciples (his disciples

returned and were shocked to find him "speaking to a woman").

These readers note, without hesitation, that it is to a woman that Jesus

revealed himself as Messiah in a straightforward way for the first time

in the fourth Gospel.

            She immediately bore witness of Jesus' messiahship to her villa-

gers. Her testimony carried great weight among the villagers because


            35 E. S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of

Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983) 138.

            36 Ibid., 327.

            37 A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1886; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, reprint 1965).

            38 Ibid. Edersheim's comments about "this country" refer to his own England in

the 1880's. I am sure that many had difficulty reading the learned and erudite Eder-

sheim. In his discussion of John 4 alone there is one sentence 129 words long and

another 118.

            39 See D. R. Pape, In Search of God's Ideal Woman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,

1976) 58-00.



they came out to see Jesus and believed on account of her testimony.

It cannot be denied that the biblical text affirms the witnessing role of

the Samaritan woman which is underscored by the Johannine lan-

guage.40 The villagers "believed because of her word" (e]pi<steusan

dia> to>n lo<gon) are nearly identical words to those of Jesus' "priestly"

prayer when he prays not only for the disciples, "but also for those

who believe in me through their word (pisteu<onton dia> tou? lo<gou,

John 17:20). Certainly, it can be said that the Samaritan woman

preached the "good news" of Jesus (eu]agge<lion); thus she was an

evangelist. Most likely, these observations have become more obvious

because of the concerns of feminist readers. Yet, these final observa-

tions are not read into the text, but are read out of the text. They may

not have been seen because of the biases of traditional (male?) read-

ings of the Gospel. The ministry of the Samaritan woman is high-

lighted through the concerns of the feminist scholars, but these final

observations, in contrast to Fiorenza's readings mentioned above, are

grounded in the text itself and may very well have been a part of the

author's purpose in telling this story.


                                                V. Conclusions


            In this essay, we have examined certain hermeneutical issues

involved in seeking to understand John 4:1-45. The task and the

various possibilities presented can seem overwhelming and bewil-

dering. Following such a survey of hermeneutical perspectives, we

may ask if it is possible to affirm in any sense the; doctrine of the

perspicuity of Holy Scripture? Hopefully, the result of our outline will

not be despair and discouragement. It does, however, affirm and

underscore the complexity of the task.

            We have noted that following textual, background, linguistic and

grammatical concerns, we are still faced with three levels of under-

standing: 1) the authorial level,41 2) the textual level, and 3) the reader

level. We are forced to ask if there are valid interpretations at any or


            40 L. Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979)

189-91; also R. E. Brown, "Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel" Theological Studies

36 (1975) 691.

            41 R. T. Fortna, The Gospel of Signs (Cambridge: University Press, 1970) has

noted that at the authorial level, there may be a number of mezzanine levels at which

the significance of traditions, sources, and redactors, in addition to the Johannine

community must be considered. The narrative material may have had one meaning in

its historical setting, another in its traditional development and another for the Johan-

nine community and the author of the canonical text.

                        Dockery:  Reading John 4:1-45                   139


all of the levels. Is it possible that levels two or three consciously are

not a part of the Johannine purpose, yet still provide valid insights

consistent with his overall message?

            It seems that an important distinction must be made between

exegesis and hermeneutics, terms often confused or used synony-

mously. Exegesis must be limited to the authorial level as it seeks to

discover what the text meant in the mind of its original author/editor

for the intended audience. Exegesis seeks to account sufficiently and

adequately for the historical and literary features of the text in its

context. Hermeneutics on the other hand is an attempt to understand

the meaning of the text for the contemporary readers, thus granting

the viability of the second and third levels we have considered.

The key, however, seems to be in the words mentioned above: are the

meanings in levels two and three consistent developments of the

author's purpose in the text the overall context of the author's entire

message? Thus, we certainly can affirm the appropriateness of a

textual-level approach. The reader-oriented approach, on the other

hand, seemingly opens up endless meanings to texts, limited only by

the reader's context, situation and imagination. For instance, we would

gladly recognize the "pastoral" reading of the text as an appropriate

view of John 4, though perhaps beyond the original intention of John.

In light of John's purpose statement in chap 20, the story should be

seen from the standpoint of the woman as an unbeliever other than

Jesus as an evangelist. Readers are to identify with the woman and

acknowledge their own need of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Yet, for

believers to identify with Jesus as a model for discipleship is certainly

consistent with the overall biblical picture and the Church's historic

mission. The feminist readings that shed light on biases and short-

comings of traditional interpretations are welcomed, though the radi-

cal feminist approaches, as well as the existentialist perspectives,

should be questioned regarding their consistent developments of the

Johannine purpose and message.

            Does this not leave us with what the Church has historically

called the sensus plenior in Scripture.42 Recognizing the Bible as a

divine-human book, it is possible, even likely, that inspiration may

give a passage a deeper meaning unknown (or at least not fully

known) by the human author/editor. For instance, to what degree

was Isaiah aware of the glory of Jesus as alluded to by John in 12:41?

Would we, in a pre-Christian context, have found the "glory of Jesus"


            42 See s. N. Schneiders, "Faith, Hermeneutics and the Literal Sense of Scripture"

Theological Studies 39 (1987) 719-36.



in Isaiah's writings in the same way? It certainly appears that divine

inspiration adds a fullness to the biblical texts' meaning beyond the

human author's own perspective.

            What does this say then about an objective reading of Holy

Scripture? We want to affirm with Hirsch that the biblical author's

meaning is the initial goal of exegesis and hermeneutics. Furthermore,

we want to maintain, contrary to Gadamer, that this meaning is

discoverable through dedicated effort by the interpreter to reach back

and read the biblical text in its original context and settings. Yet, with

Gadamer we likewise affirm that our understanding is in some sense

limited. We also agree with Gadamer that the text must be expounded

for contemporary readers so that they are placed in a position to

experience the original impact of the story. What results is a recogni-

tion of two important, yet different horizons,43 or a two-way conver-

sation between ancient text and contemporary reader. The initial

concerns must be with the external features of the text and the context

in which it was placed. Beyond these are the concerns with the

internal life of the text, how the text impacts the present-day audience.

We cannot afford to ignore either horizon, nor can we let the contem-

porary horizon drown the objective meaning found in Scripture. Thus

norms and principles essential to historical and literary methodologies

are incorporated into the theological interpretation, serving to guide

and oversee contemporary significance, exposition and application.


            43 Cf. Thiselton, Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).




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