[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Mar 27, 2011]
When she questions why a Jew like Jesus would request a drink from a Samaritan like her, Jesus replies, “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.” Jesus was speaking about a spiritual gift rather than physical water. But she interprets his words literally to mean physical water, and she replies, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
Realizing that she was misinterpreting him, Jesus tries again, “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.” Again she is blinded by her attempts to interpret him literally; she replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:10-15, NRSV)
Because we understand who Jesus is, we have a better shot at understanding that he doesn’t mean to be taken literally when he speaks of “water.” Yet there are those who would insist that they take the Word of God (Scripture) literally. Furthermore they insist that this is the only proper way to interpret Scripture. Yet these words of Jesus were misunderstood by one who tried to take them literally.
In my opinion, no one truly takes every word of the Bible literally because they understand that it is full of analogies, like Jesus’ reference to water. There are many who believe that because Scripture is the word of God, it is without error. Unfortunately some confuse the notion of believing it to be without error and interpreting it literally. Because people want to embrace inerrancy of Scripture, they sometimes feel obligated to take things “literally” that shouldn’t be. They fall into the trap of this poor woman at the well.
One of the prime areas where this tension arises is in the creation story. There is nothing in Scripture that demands that the “days” of creation are periods of 24 hours. Yet those who feel that the inerrancy of Scripture is under attack often feel compelled to defend a literal interpretation of “day” rather than allowing that it might be an analogy. We end up in fruitless debates about the scientific accuracy of passages that were never meant to be read as scientific texts.
We can be like the woman at the well and miss the message because of a slavish devotion to interpreting every word of God literally, or we can dig deeper and try to understand what God’s words are trying to convey. Ironically, an insistence on literal interpretations often introduces errors into the text that we are trying to defend as without error.