John 4:5-42 – Interpreting the Word of God Literally

Jesus and the Samaritan woman. A miniature fro...

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[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Mar 27, 2011]

There are many fascinating things to notice about Jesus‘ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. This time, I note how she misunderstood Jesus because she took his words too literally.

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.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On March 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    I agree that the Bible is full of analogies, and also parables and inconsistencies. An example of the latter would be, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

    So, if we agree to disagree with fundamentalists about the nature of the Bible, what can we then say about the nature of God? Is He whimsical, capricious, disingenuous? Why did he sacrifice His son for us, only to provide such an inconsistent, varied, and abstruse record, a record written no earlier than 70 years after year 1? Is the Bible meant to be arcane?

    I’m not trying to be difficult or insulting here, I’m simply putting forth the same questions which troubled me throughout my youth as I tried to comprehend Christianity and I’m curious, since you open the subject, JH, whether you have considered them seriously and whether you believe you have answers to them.

  • jwhester  On March 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Jim, I love your comments because your questions and critiques always respect Christianity enough to take it seriously. You insist on examining everything and not just skipping over the challenging parts. I believe this is a rarity. Too many churchgoers do not take either their Scripture or their faith seriously enough.

    To your questions about God. I see God as the prototype of good. I see God as loving of humanity. I do not see her as capricious; I do not see him as disingenuous.

    At the risk of sounding trite, let me say that I believe John 3:16 explains why God sacrificed God’s son for us. God made the sacrifice out of love for us (mere creatures) so that we may have eternal life. It is difficult to understand why such a sacrifice was necessary for us to receive the gift of eternal life. There are many theories; I assume you are aware of most of them. But they remain only theories. There is an answer, but I cannot guarantee to you what it is.

    Why does God reveal truth in such “inconsistent, varied, and abstruse” ways? Is God’s revelation supposed to be arcane? My answer would be that it is meant to be exactly as it is. It is the product of the creator of the universe who has perfect powers to present revelation in whatever manner that creator would like.

    That leaves the question of why it is so difficult for us to understand. I believe the answer lies in faith. We know God is calling us to “believe.” I note the distinction between belief and knowledge. For some reason, God seems to want for us to see as “through a glass darkly” (see Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 13) while we are on earth.

    Okay, here’s my crazy THEORY for you:

    Our life on earth is not our ultimate existence. Our ultimate existence is with God in eternity. God made angels who are with God, but some proved to be unloving and unfaithful. So God made us, but God put us on earth where God is invisible in order to see if we would believe in God WITHOUT seeing God clearly and knowing fully.

    It is easy to believe in a God who is visible, so God is seeing who will believe through the glass darkly. I believe God loves everyone, and I believe that God wants all of us to believe. God knows that love and belief is a choice, so God must allow us to choose not to love or believe in God in order to test who chooses to love God. That is why the all-powerful God does not use God’s power to compel us. Crystal clear revelation would be compelling, so that is why revelation while we are on earth always leaves some room for doubt.

  • Jim Wheeler  On March 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Your reply is what I expected. Where religion is concerned, there is no room for rational thought. The simplistic reasoning of John 3:16 stands alone, take it or leave it. It does not invite analysis.

    I must point out that your “crazy theory” does picture humanity as a kind of experiment done for heavenly amusement. If that is not whimsical and capricious, I don’t know what is.

    Here’s the way I see that model. God creates a race of creatures “in his own image”, complete with self-awareness and free will, and then watches to see how they act. He teases them without being specific that good things will happen after death if they believe without any first-person documentation, but threatens them with eternal torture if they fail to will themselves to believe. He takes credit when good things happen on earth, but retreats behind a veil of mystery when bad things happen to good people. He says that Jesus will return again “soon”, but leaves that promise danging for two thousand years and counting. The Bible, derived from oral sources but divinely inspired, is purposefully made inconsistent and vague. And God did it this way because it wouldn’t have been interesting or amusing otherwise.

    If your crazy theory is correct, I will pay the ultimate price by roasting in hell for eternity for my failure to either will myself to believe or fear enough to believe.

    You obviously have more faith than I, John.


  • jwhester  On March 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Wow. Your reply is not what I expected. How do you see “no room for rational thought” in my answer? Does the fact that I confess that it is difficult to understand = take it or leave it? Is it irrational to accept something that you don’t fully understand?

    You see God as a tease; I see God as loving. That’s probably an area where we will have to agree to disagree.

    Your focus on eternal torture I think is misguided. Jesus said he came to save and not to condemn. If you want to complain about how churches like to focus on Hell rather than on what Jesus talked about, you won’t get an argument from me.

    Jim, tone is always difficult to measure from posts such as ours, but let me assure you that I respect you and your point of view. I suspect we will all be surprised by what (if anything) we find on the other side of life. I believe you will find a very loving God who is not as bad as you fear.

  • Jim Wheeler  On March 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    rational adjective 1. based on or in accordance with reason or logic

    I believe it is more than merely “difficult to understand”. There is no rational basis for it, other than wishful thinking. I admit that my advanced age of 74 I am frightened when I think of dying and the thought of escaping this mortal sphere into some kind of heaven is tremendously appealing. But it is even more than that. The mere fact of self-awareness and a sense of having a free will makes death unthinkable. Who can imagine nothingness?

    Actually, I have experienced nothingness. No, let me re-phrase that. I survived a period of nothingness and then returned to consciousness. There were two times, both under anesthetic. Unlike sleep, being in an induced coma means cessation of brain function. There are no dreams and no sense of . . . anything. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant and no sense of time. It is the complete absence of sensation and thought, the complete absence of BEING.

    To ignore some parts of the bible, such as Old Testament stories of a vengeful, angry or jealous God, and embrace only the parts you like, such as the Golden Rule, might open you up to charges of being a “cafeteria Christian”, but that would be consistent with your theory that God wants us to work things out for ourselves. From my reading, that’s actually the trend, especially in the U.S. (Take contraception for instance.) But doesn’t that open the whole structure of Christianity to negotiation? That is why I say that religion is not open to rational analysis.

    How would one analyze Jesus’ visit to us, for example? God observes his creation, mankind, and decides He isn’t happy with how we act, so he decides to come down and live with us for 30 years. What age does He pick? A time of Roman oppression of the tribes of the Levant, a time in which there is only primitive medical care. (I wonder if Jesus ever had any health problems, such as dental problems?) And, even though He is resolute not to reveal anything about Himself explicitly, He nevertheless puts Himself through death by torture as an example for mankind to follow and to provide an escape clause for sinners. Simply believe, repent, and you are in. But what about all the people before the year 30? And what about all the people who never heard the Good News? And what about the good people who hear but still can not believe. I understand that Mother Theresa, now said to be on the fast-track to sainthood, admitted in her diary to doubts before she died. Does that mean she’s doomed?

    Finally, He fails to have any eyewitness document the events of His sacrifice in writing. See what I mean? Not subject to rational analysis because it simply doesn’t make sense. Not to me anyway. I see your view as wishful thinking, supported by strong Church leadership determined to protect a societal meme.

    Sorry to be so pessimistic, John. I spent many years trying to embrace all this and to me it just doesn’t jibe with the real world. If it turns out like you think and somehow God forgives me for my non belief, I promise to seek you out and apologize personally.


    • jwhester  On March 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm


      Your detailed response and challenges deserve some thought. I will be taking some time off starting tomorrow, so I won’t be able to respond for a couple of weeks. I appreciate this dialog!

  • michael  On April 30, 2011 at 11:44 am

    “True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God].” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4,33:8 (inter A.D. 180-199).


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