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Jesus and John and Harold Bloom: Mary (Part 3 of 3)

Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy and birth. Mark’s does not; in Mark’s gospel the stage is briefly set with some background about John the Baptist, then the curtain rises dramatically on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the Spirit of the Lord descending on him.  Mark’s gospel concerns itself exclusively with the living ministry of Jesus.  Of all the gospel writers, John was the one sharing a house with Jesus’ mother.  Yet it is Luke, not John, who provides an extended portrait, replete with emotional details, of Mary’s life before Jesus, up to and including his birth.  In John’s gospel Mary’s maternal role is confined to one short familiar sentence:

The word became flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

Why?  When John of all people has access to Mary’s most inward and private thoughts, why does he fail to include her at the beginning of his story?

John illustrates Mary’s influence

An uncharitable suggestion might be made that John downplays Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth in favor of a sanitized Hellenism in which, in effect, the word made flesh springs fullgrown like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But the gently funny vignette of the miracle at the wedding in Cana contradicts this view.  Both the nature and the occasion of the miracle are distinctly earthy.  As with the story of the woman caught in adultery and the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, this story is found only in John’s gospel.  It is not hard to imagine Mary relating it personally to John:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied, “My time has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1-5)

Jesus does then instruct the servants to fill six stone water jars, and later to draw the water to bring to the master of the banquet, whereupon it is discovered to have turned into wine (and good wine too).

Of this event, John says: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (John 1:11)  In effect, John credits Mary with sensing the moment and the manner in which Jesus should reveal himself in public ministry– and also with encouraging him to seize it despite his own doubts.  If John did not hear this account from Mary, then at least it evidences his high regard for her.  Indeed he elevates her centrality to Jesus’ work and ministry by illustrating her influence at this stage in Jesus’ life rather than during his babyhood.

John dramatizes the revelation of Jesus’ divine parentage

Still the ellipsis of Mary from the account of Jesus’ entrance into the world bears mention, and points to a deeper thread that flavors the whole gospel.  In part John may omit mention of her out of delicacy.  Simultaneously more intimate and more reverent on the subject than the learned doctor, he may hesitate to paint the mysteries Luke’s cooler pen straightforwardly records.  But a larger part of Mary’s absence must be due to the fact that the preaching and proclamation of Jesus’ divine paternity forms a dramatic core for the events of John’s gospel, and so requires special emphasis at the beginning.   Indeed that drama of revelation has special personal weight for Mary.

In an age when reputation is everything, Luke’s gospel gives us some sense of the desperate situation Mary is in as soon as she finds herself to be unwed and pregnant.  Joseph’s decision to divorce her secretly is accounted to him for righteousness–his kindness in refraining from exposing her to public calumny and scorn reflects well upon him.  Clearly there is not even a dim expectation of him that he would forgive her and marry her anyway, not until the angel speaks to him.  The story in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery paints a vivid portrait of what Mary might have faced if she were exposed to public shame.  Indeed she may have feared such an outcome.

Yet after the speedy marriage and confusion of the early years in Egypt the mistiming of Jesus’ birth may have gone unremarked in the small town of Nazareth.  The family may have successfully avoided slander during Jesus’ childhood.  There is no suggestion that Joseph and Mary were looked down upon in Nazareth.  That all must have changed, however, when Jesus began to preach.

In John’s gospel, Jesus goes to Jerusalem immediately after the wedding at Cana, and makes an immediate ruckus by flogging the money changers in the temple courts.  Next he preaches to a Pharisee named Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, in order that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In other words, he almost immediately announces to those living in Jerusalem that he is not Joseph’s son, but the son of God.

Mary’s courage in encouraging Jesus to begin his public ministry is more remarkable in retrospect.  As soon as he does begin she is exposed anew to possible rumors and slander.  In John 4, we find that John is aware that what Jesus does in Jerusalem will make its way back to Galilee sooner or later: “When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.” (John 4:45). J

Jesus goes back and forth several more times between Galilee and Jerusalem before finally confronting a crowd at the Feast of the Tabernacles and accusing them of being children of Satan.  Each time he goes to Jerusalem he preaches about his divine parentage with increasing vehemency.

What effect must this have been having on Mary, as rumors filtered back to Galilee? Her life would no longer have been in danger but her reputation must have been.

John focusses on aspersions of illegitimacy

That rumors were flying (at least in Jerusalem) is clear from the text.  As the argument earlier cited in the 8th chapter of John escalates and Jesus accuses his listeners of being children of Satan, they finally fling back at him a revealing insult: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”  Speculations about Jesus’ true parentage have apparently been circulating in the intervals between his lightning visits and shocking pronouncements.  Apparently the favored theory is that he is Samaritan, or in other words that Mary as a young woman had sexual relations with a Samaritan man.

This is the background of the argument, and the context for Jesus’ strong words.  He is intentionally provoking an escalation of rhetoric until the heart of his hearers is revealed.  John allows us to feel the full force of this insult and the pitch the conversation has reached at this juncture.  One imagines he feels the insult as keenly in retrospect as Jesus might have at the time:

“I am not possessed by a demon”, said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me” (John 8:49)

An earlier hint that this underlying speculation about Jesus’ parentage drives the argument throughout John 8 comes with Jesus’ first suggestion that his listeners are not true children of Abraham:

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”

We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” (John 8:49-42, emphasis added)

Is it impossible to find a hint of aspersion here? At this point the crowd is getting annoyed, but they are not hotly angry.  They think Jesus is a trickster with bad intent.  This is clear from the way the exchange begins earlier in the text:

Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.

Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”  Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own.(…)..Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”

“You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?” (John 7:14-20)

They will end by trying to stone him, but at this point the question is genuine.  They are not yet trying to kill him, but they have prejudged him as a deceiver or a madman.  This dismissal Jesus considers a hardened and deadly (though unconscious) form of anger, as he describes elsewhere:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…(…)…anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

The crowd does not yet know that their prejudgement of Jesus (as of any man) covers a much hotter wrath, and continues to banter in a rather snide vein, as Jesus tells them “you will look for me, and you will die in your sin.  Where I go, you cannot follow”.  John then says:  “This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself?  Is that why he says, “Where I go, you cannot follow?”  (John 8: 21- 22)  This question has a definite tinge of malice but one assumes it was nevertheless spoken in a light tone.

At the point at which the crowd protests that the only Father they have is God himself, they are still just rousing out of this dismissive mode. It is not until Jesus tells them directly “you do not belong to God” that his interlocutors finally accuse him directly of what they have been holding in their hearts all along: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” At this moment the hardened anger of automatic dismissal melts and becomes the hot anger of direct confrontation.

Jesus appears to be goading the gathered Jerusalemites throughout the exchange for no reason whatsoever, calling them spiritually illegitimate, and children of Satan, which seems completely outrageous…until it finally becomes clear, towards the end of the discussion, that they also believe him to be legally illegitimate, and a liar, and have believed it all along.  Jesus pushes them to accuse him of this openly, then defends himself and continues to claim divine authority for his revelations in the strongest possible terms.  At that point the conversation quickly escalates until Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham and at that point the crowd loses patience and tries to stone him.

John zealously defends Jesus and Mary from dishonor

Seen from this view, Jesus’ apparently insane provocation of the Jews takes on a logic that is particular to John. The central issue of evangelism, in John, is confidence in Jesus’ rightful authority: this is why he stresses Jesus’ prerogative to make decisions only he himself fully understands.  In so doing John does not ask the prospective follower of Christ to check his brain at the door; rather he asks him to imitate his own mien as a trusty servant and one who loves his master first and best.  John’s is a calling that begins in loyalty.  He defends Jesus as the true king at every possible opportunity so as to inspire the devotion that a true king deserves and desires.

Doubt of Jesus’ parentage, which is also and perhaps above all a doubt of Mary’s probity, is in John’s view a poisonous doubt that must be flushed into the open and dispatched.  No true devotion can flower where such a doubt grows.  The particular zeal he brings to this project does not emanate from cool theological calculation, nor does it arise from anxiety and doubt over Jesus’ return.  It is a natural consequence of his genuine devotion; his honor can allow such a stain neither upon his king nor upon his mother.  He is moved helplessly to spend himself to erase it.


Jesus and John and Harold Bloom: John (Part 2 of 3)

During the last supper, Jesus predicts that one of his own will betray him and general consternation follows.  A particularly intimate relationship between Jesus and one of his disciples emerges as the rest seek his help in approaching Jesus at this awkward moment:

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.  One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”  Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:22-25)

The posture of this disciple–leaning back confidently at a moment where most are confused and stunned–indicates not only intimacy, but also a high degree of mutual trust.  Whoever Jesus is talking about, the beloved disciple knows it isn’t him.  His loyalty is not, and never could be in question.

John is the trusty servant

The disciple so favored with easy familiarity and closeness with Jesus is often found close to Simon Peter, who is ever zealous in service to Jesus (but perhaps less aware of what pleases him).  During Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance by the Lake of Galilee, the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus first, and yet it is Simon Peter who leaps into the water and swims out to him:

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”…  …Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. (John 21: 4-7)

It is Peter whom Jesus queries, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21: 15) and it is Peter he directs to “Feed my sheep” and upon whom he founds the church.  He predicts Peter’s death, and then directs him once more to “Follow me!”   Peter clearly has a lifetime ahead in which to learn what this means.  The beloved disciple has perhaps a clearer idea of what it means already.

The traditional interpretation that John is in fact both the one whom Jesus especially loved and the author of the gospel is due to the following passage, in which Peter asks Jesus about him:

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”  This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

Bloom sees the hostility that John evidences towards the Jews as a consequence of his anxiety over Jesus’ delayed return, and the postponement of his messianic hopes.  He sees defensiveness in the author’s attempt to explain away the  “rumor” of John’s deathlessness that spread among the brethren.  This defensiveness however is not directed at misprision of John himself, but at misprision of Jesus.  It is Jesus’ reputation he leaps to defend.  Bloom suspects that John is too zealous to defend Jesus’ reputation, in order to protect himself from his own growing doubts.

But Jesus also swiftly defends his right to preserve John from harm, and even from death, if he wishes.  It’s as if Jesus admits an unusual closeness and rapport with John, and ability and license to deploy him as needed, just as simultaneously John affirms Jesus’ absolute right to command his destiny in whatever way he finds useful. For the purposes of argument we may imagine Jesus as a king of the ordinary earthly sort.  Jesus has this exchange with Peter after being plunged by the betrayal of one of his own and abandonment of all his friends into loneliness and torment.  Against all odds he has returned in triumph, having vanquished all his foes.  Now he reminds Peter of his right to direct his servants as he chooses, without having to explain those choices.

Whether John’s fierce loyalty is a consequence or cause of Jesus’ special tenderness for him is less an issue than the special relationship which results, a mingling of warm fealty on John’s part and kingly love on Jesus’s. Jesus argues for such a natural mix on the point of his own authority: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”   A king naturally has the right to choose which servants remain at home to serve him on his return and which must accompany him to battle. But whether he does so in order to protect his trusty servant from harm or because he desires to have his affairs managed well in his absence is unclear and need not be explained; this is the sense of John’s defense.  What cannot be doubted is that John is structurally in the position of the trusty servant.  Even if John is disappointed himself not to see Jesus returning, he stoutly affirms Jesus’ right to order his own purposes.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus addresses the two living people whom he apparently loves most at the hour of his death and directs them from henceforth to take care of one another:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is the son of Mary before he ever writes the gospel

John is a grown man, and so is Jesus.  Naturally he is not so much asking Mary to mother John as he is asking John to take care of Mary.   Still we must imagine what respect and veneration such a trusty and trusted follower must have had for the mother of his lord.  She comes into John’s home and presumably he immediately provides for her material needs.  What is left to our imagination is how much they must have talked with one another about Jesus, and how deeply John must have adopted Mary’s causes as his own, both by direct influence and by the action of warm loyalty upon the heart.

My contention is that John’s special relationship with, and special chivalry toward Mary, provide the emotional bedrock for an understanding of many particulars of his gospel.

to be continued

Jesus and John and Harold Bloom: Bloom (Part 1 of 3)

In 2004, noted literary critic Harold Bloom published a book called “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine”.  Bloom avers that his favorite literary characters are first, Yahweh and second, Jesus.  (Hamlet is third.)  In an earlier book called the “Book of J” he describes the character of Yahweh–fierce, personal, creative, passionate–  as primarily and most grippingly the creation of an immensely talented scribe attached to the Solomonic court, a scribe he likes to identify as ‘probably a woman’.

In this book he is most interested in Jesus, whom he sees as perhaps the most ardent and sincere lover of Yahweh around, and a person greatly to be admired for the extent of his devotion…yet at the same time someone who differs profoundly from the figure he is made out to be by most Christians.  He likes to note that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it.  He prefers Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.  He loathes John’s.

John is hard on Jews

It is difficult to read John’s gospel as a Jew.  I’m more Jewish than anything else, ethnically speaking, and I ‘get’ this at a gut level; my ear is if nothing else at least aware of a Jewish audience.  In John’s gospel Jesus says things that seem rabidly anti-Semitic. Just the initial emphasis on the Jews as an ethnic group seems strange:

When it was time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”  His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:13-18)

The disciples are Jewish after all, as are all the men selling animals in the temple. The oddness is usually explained by modern scholars as an effect of the fact that John’s gospel was written later than the Synoptics, around 80-90 AD, and by an author who was not the “Beloved Disciple” John.  The lateness of the account then explains both the distinction between the Jews and the disciples (at that time there was growing hostility to the new sect within the mainstream Jewish community) and the revealed eschatology and Christological emphasis of the gospel.

Bloom does not play the game of getting technical about when and by whom the gospel was written.  What he wishes to point out is the anxiety that underlies what he reads as its hostility.  This anxiety he attributes to the gradual death of Messianic hopes for an immanent apocalypse.  The hostility he reacts to is not limited to a mere repetition of distinction, the word “Jews” or “Jewish” as in the passage above.  It could be argued that the fact of such a distinction must necessarily strike a post-Holocaust ear– or indeed any ear attuned to the text’s shameful use in any number of pogroms in ages past– differently than it did when it was written in the first century.

What shocks Bloom, and might naturally shock anyone, are passages like this one, in which, at the end of a long hard-fought argument about the origin of his authority, Jesus ends up accusing the Jews of being children of Satan:

The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”

Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:13-19)

It should be mentioned, too, that the emphasis John’s gospel lays upon the divinity of Christ is in itself difficult for the Jewish ear.  This group appears genuinely confused at his insistance that he is not witnessing on his own behalf, but rather on authority from above.  Now he goes further and tells them they are slaves, not sons, though they did not know it:

he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”

“Who are you?” they asked.

“Just what I have been claiming all along,” Jesus replied. “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.”


To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (John 8:23-33)

They protest again that they are Abraham’s children, and that they follow God truly:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

“Abraham is our father,” they answered.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” (John 8:34-41)

But Jesus tells them they are wrong; God is not their father. In fact they are children of Satan:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (John 8:12-42)
The Jews’ questioning of Jesus’ authority–a questioning which appears natural from a Jewish point of view– leads quickly to language on Jesus’ part that seems genuinely extreme.  It’s this passage which most upsets Bloom, and makes him really unhappy with John. Even the Pharisees only accuse Jesus of demon possession, yet Jesus claims their genuine parentage is infernal.  He goes on from there to provoke them to stone him:

“If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (John 8:54-58)

Why does he behave this way?

I’m not aware of a traditional interpretation–one that holds to the canonical view that John’s gospel really was written by John the Beloved Disciple, the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother– that explains the depth of passionate rancor in this passage (and others like it). I think there may be an explanation, however.  It is slightly shocking (as perhaps a response ought to be for such a gifted provocateur as Bloom), though not by design.  Until I am corrected I believe it to be wholly orthodox.

Each of the gospel writers presents a slightly different portrait of Jesus–an account colored by the lens of each one’s experience and personality.   So–who is John, and what flavor does he bring?  Is he anxious?  Is he an anti-Semite?  Why does John’s Jesus insist on provoking the Jews theologically in the most extreme fashion and then insulting them thoroughly to boot?

John is soft on fallen women

Not everyone dislikes the Gospel of John.  Many love it, and many Christians find it to be it their favorite book in the Bible.  In part of course this is because it does articulate the plan of salvation in clearer language than any other gospel, and in ringing tones that reverberate to the beginnings and ends of the world.  But there are humbler reasons to adore the Evangelist, ones that would move even a literary critic left cold by Hellenized philosophy or beautiful sermons on love.  There are two parables that appear in John and nowhere else: the parable of the woman taken in adultery, and the parable of the Samaritan woman at the well.    The parable of the woman caught in adultery immediately precedes the very passage quoted above for its condemnatory tone, in which Jesus is questioned in his claim to be the light of the world.  He makes that claim just after these events:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

The poet Seamus Heaney wonderfully grounds the ethical ambition of all poetry in this quiet symbolic act of lacuna, when Jesus, apparently unmindful of the crowd’s tense expectation, bends down and begins composing in the dust.  If a poet does this with enough confidence, Heaney suggests, with proper timing and with ineffable grace, he may hope to distract the savage crowd and create space for reflection.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:1-11)

The universal appeal of this proverb requires no explanation.  A bloodthirsty Jew-hater?  A willing instigator of all the racial nastiness perpetrated with reference to his book?  We can only hope not.

Nor is this story an isolated incident. The parable of the Samaritan woman at the well is equally remarkable.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Not only is this a lovely story in its own right, it’s one in which John clearly acknowledges the primacy of the Jews.  The woman engages Jesus in theological debate:

Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus answers her with a blunt affirmation of the prejudice she is challenging.

“Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

Although it is true hethen  goes beyond it and reaches for the universal:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:4-18)

Still, this language is not uncomfortable in anything like the sense of the other passage.  Jesus’ whole demeanor here is remarkably soft.  In almost the same sense that the Jews asked Jesus if he was greater than Abraham, the Samaritan woman asks him if he is greater than Jacob.  He gives almost the same answer (I have water that wells up to life; if you come to me you will never see death).  Yet the tone of the exchange is completely different.  We understand both why the Pharisees stone him and why the Samaritan woman believes.

– to be continued