Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988) 127-140.
Copyright © 1988 by The
READING JOHN 4:1-45:
DAVID S. DOCKERY
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;
128 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
Chap 3 Chap 4
Nicodemus Samaritan Woman
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 (
versity Press, 1976); and "reader-oriented" approaches, see H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and
Method (tr. G. Borden and J.
Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (ed.
and cr. D. B. Allison;
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
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 (
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
F. Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel (
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.
130 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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 (
Press, 1953) 315.
7 I am deeply indebted to
the work of I. H. Marshall at this point. See
"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.
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 (
Eerdmans, 1983) and L. Morris, The Gospel According to John (
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 (
12 J. Marsh, The Gospel of
13 A. M. Hunter, The Gospel According to John (CBC;
Press, 1965). This echoes many of the approaches found in the early church fathers. See
n 3 above.
132 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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;
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.
21 Duke, Irony, 101.
22 R. C. Culley, Studies in
the Structure of Hebrew Narrative (
Fortress, 1976) 41-43; N. R. Bonneau, "The Woman at the Well: John 4 and Genesis 24"
The Bible Today 67 (1973) 1252-59.
134 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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 (
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.
136 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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,
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 (
Harper and Row, 1967).
30 See R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, translated by
Hastings (3 vols;
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.
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
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
Eerdmans, reprint 1965).
38 Ibid. Edersheim's comments about "this country" refer
to his own
the 1880's. I am sure that many had difficulty
reading the learned and erudite
sheim. In his discussion of John 4 alone there is one sentence 129 words long and
39 See D. R. Pape, In Search of
God's Ideal Woman (
138 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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.
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.
140 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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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