The Harvest of the Wounded (A Sermon): John 4:31-38

(This is the prepared manuscript of a sermon that I delivered in an abbreviated form at the Manhattan Church of Christ. This is also my attempt to offer a kind of "trauma-informed" reading of this biblical text. For more of what a "trauma-informed" reading of biblical texts looks like consult a future post I am writing that details my theological and methodological commitments about this practice.) 

THE HARVEST OF THE WOUNDED: JOHN 4:31-38

A Small Text to Radically Reorient Our Worlds

The text for this evening falls in an awkward place in the middle of one of the most famous narratives from the Gospel of John. We have before us a side conversation, and a cryptic one at that, as John is often wont to do. Here Jesus offers John’s version of a most elemental metaphor for Christian faith and witness: harvest. But as is often the case in the fourth Gospel, Jesus is here not just to communicate, but to disrupt our assumptions, to jar our categories, and to enable us to reconsider God’s work in the world and our place in it. In other words, Jesus is concerned with nothing more than the revelation of the very nature of God, in himself and his encounters with people, particularly those who are seeking some answers, some hope, and something that cannot perish, spoil, or fade.

First, let us hear again the text before us…

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:31-38, NRSV)

Jesus in this engagement with his disciples is concerned that they have a change of vision, a change of priorities, and a transformation of the way in which they engage with and perceive the needs of the people around them.

But when you and I approach this text we do not come to it blindly, as if we are hearing for the first time. Neither do we come to it in a vacuum, as if what is really going on here has no bearing on this response that Jesus has to those closest to him. And what I want to explore tonight are a number of ways that we have been misshaped to read this text and the larger story that it is a part of, and more importantly how we have thought about our place in the world as the redemptive presence of God in a deeply wounded world.

The (Tortured) History of This Text

Before I try to unpack the ways in which we have been shaped to misread this text by centuries of presumption and problematic theological commitments, I want to just explore briefly the way that Christian thinkers through history have thought about this woman and her story in which we find this enigmatic teaching of Jesus about the harvest.

First I wish for us to hear the text, with the side conversation with Jesus amongst his disciples temporarily removed from view. I want us to listen particularly closely to the places where we have been formed to “fill in the gaps” or to articulate a supposed backstory of what is occurring here. What we will find is that this actually reveals much more about us and the communities under whose influence we have been taught this story than it does about this Samaritan woman.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

...

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:1-30, 39-42, NRSV)

The early church read this text as a model for the transformation of those who encounter Christian faith, but with one minor shift from how most contemporary readers hear this text...they presumed that this was indeed a woman of faith, of reputation, and of longing who sought the truth wherever it took her and wherever it found her. And on this day, it found her at the place where she was. It was an ordinary place with an extraordinary history of connection and even marriage going all the way back to Jacob himself. But for this woman, and those who would soon believe her message, this place took on new meaning as it was the location of an encounter with the unexpected. Remember, she proclaims through the town proclaiming, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29, NRSV)

In fact, an entire tradition arose about what happened to this woman. The historians of the middle ages named her Photina and told of the boldness with which she proclaimed the Good News through the entirety of her life, leading to her eventual martyrdom. One story suggests that she converted the daughter of Nero and was martyred in Rome. Another recounts that she preached the Gospel in Carthage and died as a religious and political prisoner there. Although clearly beyond the scope of what we learn from the biblical text of this unnamed woman, in general, nearly all commentators from both the ancient and medieval periods of Christian faith view the Samaritan woman as a capable, compelling recipient of salvation and witness to the faith. Craig Farmer in his review of the major interpreters of this story summarizes it this way:

Although ancient and medieval commentaries on the fourth Gospel do not commemorate these extracanonical accomplishments, they portray the Samaritan woman’s personality and discipleship in equally flattering ways. Not only does she beautifully model the sinner’s conversion to Christ, but she also demonstrates admirable zeal in bearing witness to Christ among her fellow Samaritans. On the basis of her testimony, a host of the citizens of Sychar come to faith in Christ, a feat matched by none of Jesus’ disciples in the pages of the Gospels. (Farmer 365)

Is this the way that you have heard this text explored? For me, it most certainly is not!

The way that I have always encountered this text goes something like this…

A Samaritan woman, with a deeply problematic life of immorality and social exclusion, has come for water in the middle of the day because she is such a pariah that she must come alone. It is this serial adulterer who has had five husbands and now is simply living with a man, who happens upon Jesus. And it is there, confronted by the revelation of her sinful life, the full weight of her guilt and shame, feeling completely exposed by this stranger that knows all her deepest secrets, that she comes to believe that this is who Jesus is.

The single problem with this interpretive backfilling of this story is this: There is no evidence whatsoever that it is true, and in fact, the very text that is interpreted this way mitigates against such a profoundly slanderous reading! [For more about this consult this article by Maccini.]

There is no mention of why she came in the middle of the day, there is no suggestion that she is alone, and there is no suggestion that she interprets Jesus’ insights into her story as provoking guilt, shame, or even repentance!

But instead of trying to describe the ways in which this history of interpretation takes such a downward spiral beginning in the writings of the early Reformers, from which we take our own theological and interpretive heritage, I want to try to get at the underlying issue that directs us to these kinds of readings.

The Categorical Insufficiency of Salvation = Forgiveness of Guilt/Sin

And the core of these issues is this: Particularly in the traditions that are in the lineage of the Protestant Reformation (of which theologically Churches of Christ most certainly are), the primary focus and primary problem in need of resolution in theological constructions of salvation is as follows: forgiveness for guilt incurred by sin committed by the person.

In other words, for people in the Protestant line of interpretation around this text, we must first find the guilty agent in order that the work of salvation can properly begin.

The real problem however is this: Salvation as merely the forgiveness of guilt is insufficient. There are so many elements of our lives in need of salvation that have absolutely nothing to do with forgiveness.

It is for this reason that I would like to propose that we think about the Samaritan woman in this story, as well as ourselves and those around us, not as wicked, but as wounded.

This is not a suggestion that we should replace wicked with wounded, for there are undoubtedly persons and powers and communities that perpetrate unspeakable evils in the world and against people everyday. Instead I want to suggest that we must expand our language and our categories to think about the way in which all persons are wounded persons.    

Think back to the Samaritan woman of our text. The early Reformers painted her as a sarcastic, belittling, sexually promiscuous, flagrant sinner who responds to Jesus with thinly veiled contempt...until Jesus shakes her with the revelation of her utter wickedness. They want us to understand that only after demonstrating to this woman how awful she was could she begin to be prepared to receive how good and how redemptive the person talking to her could be.

And this kind of pattern, of exposing our depravity as a mechanism of bringing about conversion, is so deeply engrained in our faith and even in the very systems that govern our society. It could be argued that the entire American project is rooted in this malformative vision initiated by Augustine and transmitted to us through the pens and pulpits of people like John Calvin and Martin Luther. America is after all, the only nation in the world in which the fundamental commitments and categories of the Protestant Reformation are connected, sometimes inseparably, to the powers of the State.

But I want to propose that Jesus does not see in the Samaritan woman, or us for that matter, someone who is fundamentally wicked and in need of forgiveness to stave off an almost certain eternal damnation, but instead as someone who is deeply and profoundly wounded and misshaped by the Powers of Sin and Death. We are not therefore considered to be objects of God’s wrath, but recipients of the responsive, redemptive compassion of the Great Physician.

This is not to in any way minimize the realities and destructive force of the sin in our own lives. It is true that sometimes the most harmful wounds a person experiences are in fact self-inflicted. But it is to recognize that at the end of the day, when we really reflect on our lives in all of their complexity, all of their pain, and all of the potentiality, that the majority of the wounds that most deeply shape who we are, for good or for bad, are not wounds that were self-inflicted but were wounds that were done to us.

And I think that it is this, the wounds that have happened to this woman, that Jesus is revealing in this narrative. Lynn Cohick, a brilliant New Testament scholar who concentrates her work on the lives of women in the ancient world and particularly the early church says this about the Samaritan woman:

It’s unlikely that she was divorced five times, each for committing adultery. No man would dare marry a convicted adulteress with neither fortune nor fame. That she was a serial divorcée is also unlikely. She would’ve needed the repeated help of a male advocate to do so. Further, we have no evidence that anyone in the ancient world, man or woman, divorced five times. … It is more likely that her five marriages and current arrangement were the result of unfortunate events that took the lives of several of her husbands. Perhaps one or two of them divorced her, or maybe she initiated divorce in one case. As for her current situation, maybe she had no dowry and thus no formal marriage, meaning her status was similar to a concubine’s. Perhaps the man she was currently with was old and needed care, but his children didn’t want to share their inheritance with her, so he gave her no dowry document. Perhaps he was already married, making her his second wife. While the ancient Jewish culture allowed it, such an arrangement went against Jesus’ definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). It makes sense, then, that Jesus would say that she wasn’t married. Scripture doesn’t tell us why she had five husbands, but exploring first-century realities helps us imagine how her life might have unfolded (Cohick 68, 69).

In other words, when Jesus “calls her out” what is in fact happening here is that Jesus is extending an offer of welcome and embrace, of satisfaction and security, and of stability and permanence -- for “those who drink of the water that [he] give[s] to them will never be thirsty. The water that [he] will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” -- to someone whose wounds are deep, long, and irreparable. He is not offering her mere forgiveness despite her wickedness, Jesus is extending to her an opportunity to receive from the Great Physician himself, the healing she so desperately wants and needs.

The Harvest, Not of the Wicked, but of the Wounded

It is now that we can begin to see people not as wicked but as wounded that we can circle back to the text that brought us here in the first place:

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:31-38, NRSV)

This cryptic teaching can now be seen perhaps in a clearer light. We are not sent out into the world to reveal to it its inherent wickedness and depravity in order that it might panic or be so moved by the overwhelming nature of guilt and shame. Instead, we are sent out into the world as representatives of the Great Physician whose power is that he enables us to properly diagnose the ways in which we have been wounded and offer us life, God’s life, in the here and now, leading towards our healing and redemption.

Jesus is teaching us here that the thing that sustains him -- and by extension the same thing that can sustain our own lives -- is to be about the healing and redemptive work of God in the world. Jesus is calling us to recognize that when we locate our shared woundedness with our sisters and brothers in the world, and when we commit to lives that bring healing and redemption, we too find healing. This is the experience of the Samaritan woman! She found in her woundedness a place where the work of God offered her healing and she couldn’t keep this to herself. She began to reap a harvest among her own people that God had been sowing for a long time. And in the same way we are sent into the fields, the places where we find the universal wounded community called humanity, to bring in a harvest of healing and wholeness and redemption that we did not plant but that we will have opportunity to both receive and participate.

And when those people, who through the love and redemption made possible by this community, come also to faith they will take up the words of the Samaritans: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42, NRSV)


Bibliography

Cohick, Lynn H. “The Real Woman at the Well: We Know Her as an Adulterer and Divorcée: Her Community Would Have Known Otherwise.Christianity Today 59, no. 8 (October 2015): 66–69.

Farmer, Craig S. “Changing Images of the Samaritan Woman in Early Reformed Commentaries on John.Church History 65, no. 3 (September 1996): 365–375.

Maccini, Robert Gordon. “A Reassessment of the Woman at the Well in John 4 in Light of the Samaritan Context.Journal for the Study of the New Testament 53 (March 1994): 35–46.