To Galilee, Through Samaria, via Jacob's Well.
There was no further "conversation" between Jesus and Nicodemus after the point reached at the end of the last chapter. What followed was in the nature of a discourse by Christ uninterrupted by any questions or remarks by Nicodemus, who was probably silenced by the authoritative manner of his interlocutor, and by the rebuke his ignorance had just suffered. Christ, besides appealing by implication to the prophets for proof of the necessity for spiritbirth, proceeds to allege his own authority and the tangible ground of it. "We speak that we do know and testify that we have seen, and ye receive not our witness" (verse 11). This is a characteristic of Bible revelation. It is a matter of knowing, as men know anything; and of having seen, as men see anything. It is not an affair of what is called "subjective" experience, as when a man dreams. When a man dreams, the sensation is subjective to himself: it is not open and obvious to any one present at the same time. But in the case of revelation, the things revealed were things palpable and open to view. Bible revelation is not a matter of opinion, founded either upon personal speculation or upon arguments presented by others; nor of conviction founded upon evidence. It is an affair of personal knowledge, as when a man sees and hears and has experience, as of his own business or family affairs, for example. Jesus and John (for presumably they were the "we" whose testimony was known to Jerusalem and not believed) -- were personally acquainted with the matters they spoke of: they had not received them from hearsay or persuasion. The Word of the Lord had come as actually to John as the word of a man comes to his neighbour: John had seen the Spirit descend upon Jesus as really as a man sees the lightning on the day of thunder. It had happened in accordance with previous notice as practically and really as an eclipse follows an almanac date. He had heard the words of the divine proclamation as really as any man ever hears words uttered in his hearing. Jesus had himself also seen and heard all these things and much more besides -- behind all which was the actual voice of the Spirit audible to him in the inner temple of his being. It was knowledge and experience that John and Jesus testified to unbelieving Israel.
Jesus now pressed this home upon Nicodemus, and at the same time; emphasised another thought. The testimony in question had related to things and incidents on earth: but there was a day coming when Jesus would tell of a higher class of things -- of things related to the heaven to which he should ascend. If Nicodemus and his class were incredulous of divine things in their first stage, how would they be able to believe in those things testified of in their second stage in the day of "heaven open" spoken of to Nathanael? He anticipates the question how any man on earth could know of things in heaven. He adds, no man had been to heaven to learn. At the same time he foreshadowed his own coming ascent thither. He did so in language a little obscure. It reads in the C. V. thus: "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven" (Jno. iii. 13). The obscurity is increased by the present participle wn (being) having been turned in translation into the present indicative -- is. "The Son of Man being in the heaven" gives us the point of view of the "coming down." He is not in heaven till he ascends: and he cannot descend till he ascends. The idea is more easy to catch when freely paraphrased thus: "It will not be affirmable that any man has ascended up to heaven until the Son of Man having ascended thither, and being there for a while, descends to the earth again." He will then be able to say, "I have been to heaven, and the only man who has ever been there: for though Enoch and Elijah have been away from the earth, they have not been to the presence of the Father, and cannot testify of the things that are there." Jesus, when on earth, said to his disciples, "I go to him that sent me." When he returns, he will be able to say, "I have been to him that sent me." We who now live in the interval of his absence, can see the bearing of this. He is "gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God, angels and principalities and powers being made subject unto him" (I Pet. iii. 22). At his return, he will be able to tells us unutterable things. The wide universe and its movements are a great mystery to created intelligence: still more, the residence and surroundings of the Personal Father-Deity, the fountain and source of all power and being. What may we not expect in the way of enlightenment on these stupendous themes from him who not only has power to bestow such capacity of understanding in the change from the mortal to the immortal, but who has been basking for 18 centuries in the inner sunshine of the Father's glory, and who intimately knows the highest things?
The other matters glanced at in Christ's discourse to Nicodemus belong to first principles, and present no feature of difficulty. Jesus appears to have closed the interview with a mild rebuke of Nicodemus for coming to him by night: "He that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God." The open courageous course expressed by the English word "straightforward," is doubtless the one that most commends itself to God and man. The timid patronage of truth that shrinks from human knowledge is of little value to anyone. It is best that a man's conviction be known. It is demoralising to seek concealment. It is best to confess Christ before men. The only excuse for carefulness would be uncertainty. A man thinking a hated thing to be the truth, but not being sure, would naturally and justifiably avoid an open connection (or what might be construed to be such) until investigation had satisfied him. This was doubtless partly the case with Nicodemus. His brethren in the priesthood held or professed that Jesus was a deceiver. This would make Nicodemus feel, in a degree, uncertain. At the same time, the miracles of Jesus convinced him that God was with him for some purpose or other. He therefore looked closer, and apparently at last with decisive results; for we find him afterwards taking part with the people in favour of Christ (Jno. vii. 50, 51) and at last, no more by night, but openly identifying himself with him at a moment when the death of Christ seemed to confute all his claims (xix. 39).
Retiring from Jerusalem after the interview with Nicodemus, Jesus, accompanied by a few of his disciples, repairs to the neighbourhood of Jordan, and there remains some time. He teaches; and baptizes those who submit to his teaching. He did not personally immerse believers. The act of immersion was performed by his disciples: but done by his direction and authority, it was considered as done by him. (Jno. iii. 22: iv. 2). The non-performance of baptism by Christ's actual hands is an intimation at the very start that its virtue depends in no way upon the administrator. Sacramentalism is outside the scope of the system of Christ. The spirit of his doctrine is this, that we must believe what God says, with the simplicity of little children, and perform what He commands in the same humble spirit. The idea of baptism or any other institution owing its efficacy to the ministration of a particular operator belongs to the system of spiritual sorcery that has since taken such deep root in the world -- as foretold.
When Christ (to whom John gave testimony) appeared in the same capacity as John himself, viz.: -- as a teacher and a baptizer, the people naturally turned in greater numbers to Jesus than to John. This was no distress to John, though his attention was called to it (John iii. 26). It simply led him to re-affirm his testimony to Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease." But the fact was noticed by the Pharisees, who, from that day forth, observed the progress of Jesus with jealous eyes. They feared the influence he was gaining with the people. Had they known, they need not have feared, for Jesus had no disposition to use or encourage the favour of the populace. On several occasions he distinctly declined their advances, knowing that not then, or by them, would his Kingdom be established, but "after a long time" and when suffering had prepared the way. But this they did not understand, and consequently they began to watch him with unfriendly eyes. Jesus, knowing their state of mind, went away from the neighbourhood of their power. "He left Judea," and started on his return to Galilee (John iv. 3). Why should the feelings of enemies affect the movements of one who had the power of God upon him, and who could not be touched till his "hour had come?" It was but a preferring of circumstances favourable for his work. The work he had to do was designed to influence a suitable class who were to become his disciples, and this work was best to be done in peace. He chose peace when he could have it. The time came when he could no longer have it: but then his work was nearly done. At the moment in question, he was but entering upon it, and, therefore, he preferred to get away from the heat and the excitement, and the sense of insecurity caused to the multitude by the opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees.
To get to Galilee, it was necessary to pass through the province of Samaria, which lay between Judea and Galilee. On the way through Samaria, an interesting incident occurred, in the narration of which, by John, we get closer views of Jesus than in some parts of the apostolic narrative. We find him on the road, "wearied with his journey." This in passing tells us interestingly more things than one. It not only tells us of one "touched with the feeling of our infirmity" (Heb. iv. 15), but it shows us that the Spirit of God, though resting on him without measure, was not available for his personal needs during "the days of his flesh." The Pharisees embittered his dying moments by shouting, "He saved others: himself he cannot save." Their cruel taunt carried a certain truth with it concerning his whole career. He gave strength to the weak; he healed the diseased; he raised the dead. But his own personal needs and sorrows he endured in the weakness of mortal flesh, supported by that faith in the Father, which he possessed in a measure transcending that of all his disciples. The power of God placed at his disposal was for the manifestation of the name of God, and not for the supply of his personal needs. So here we have him toiling along the road in a burning Syrian sun, footsore and weary, and sitting down to rest in the neighbourhood of Sychar or Sychem, where Jacob dwelt, "in the land of promise as in a strange country," some 1,700 years before. He sits down by a well -- a well that Jacob had made in those far-off days, and which had retained his name during the long interval. His disciples go away into the city to replenish the exhausted commissariat.
The well exists to this day. It is in a valley, and in full view of Mounts Ebal and Gerrizim, which stand north and south of Shechem. The surrounding scenery is impressive, and has witnessed many events in Israel's history. Chief among them was the muster of the tribes here when Joshua brought them into the land. An imposing array, they stood, six of the tribes on one of these hills and six on the other, while the priests, standing between, recite the principal points in the law, to each of which the people shouted a hearty "Amen" (Deut. xxvii, 11-26; Josh. viii. 30). That was very different from the scene now before us: a solitary man sitting tired at the well in the midst of the quietness and solitude of the picturesque valley, overlooked by two majestic hills. The two scenes were not unconnected, however; they were parts, though widely separate, in the one great work which God, through Israel, is working upon earth for the realisation of His own object in the creation of it. In the one case, He was instructing and developing the nation for the work before it; in the other, He was "last of all" speaking to them by His son, the heir of all things, preparatory to the long reign of desolation about to be established in the land, in punishment of all their sins.
While Jesus "sat thus on the well," a woman from the town approaches to draw water. The woman is "a woman of Samaria" -- a descendant of those Assyrian colonists whom Shalmaneser settled in Samaria when the ten tribes had been taken away nearly nine hundred years before. She is one of those therefore, with whom the Jews would have no dealings, though the Samaritans adopted the traditions of the land and claimed kinship. This fact supplies the key to the conversation that ensued. Jesus, being thirsty, asks the woman for a drink of water. The woman expresses surprise that a Jew should ask a drink from a Samaritan. (We note, by the way, that the woman recognised in Jesus a Jew. He must, therefore, have looked like one, for the woman had no other guide. He was, therefore, unlike the current portraits of him, which nearly all give him an English aspect.) Jesus did not, as most other Jews would have done under the circumstances, proceed to justify the Jewish objection to the claims of the Samaritans. He might justly have done so: but this would have been low ground. It belonged to a state of things which was nearly past and spent. The time had nearly come to give the work of God a wider extension: and Jesus was come expressly as the instrument of that extension. He therefore draws attention to himself. "If thou knewest the gift of God and who it is that saith to thee, give me to drink, thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water." This was probably said in a tone of kindly dignity that would encourage the woman. She naturally did not see through the figure of his speech. She understood him literally. "Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep, Whence then hast thou that living water?" It then occurs to her that the stranger is perhaps claiming some especial gift in the case. She continues, during a momentary pause which Jesus does not offer to occupy: "Art thou greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well?" (Though a Samaritan woman, she claims Jacob as "father," after the manner of the Samaritans). Jesus does not disparage Jacob. He speaks of things as they are. It is the well that is in question: Whoever drinks of this will thirst again, but he that drinks of the water Jesus can give will never thirst. The water so given will be in him a perennial spring. Jesus was speaking in figure of the immortal life he should bestow; but the woman could not understand this. She supposes he is speaking of literal water which by some medication or virtue, would, in one draught, permanently satiate the thirst of the drinker. She would like to get a drink of such water, and so be saved the trouble of coming constantly to the well. She asks him to give her some of this water.
The superhuman dialectical skill of Christ, so often manifested in collision with his foes, is here apparent in a delicate dilemma. The woman had taken him at his word, and in child-like simplicity, asks him for the superior water he had said he could give. To have said to the woman that she did not understand him, would simply have blocked her path. To have explained that he was speaking in figure would have embarrassed her understanding, and assumed an inconvenient onus of exegesis. He therefore adroitly throws the subject into a channel suited to her capacity, and which relieves it of the necessity for explanation which she was not prepared to receive. He says, "Go, call thy husband." The woman says, "I have no husband." Jesus knew that she had no husband. Why, then, did he ask her to call him? To give him the opportunity of displaying a superhuman knowledge which the woman would herself recognise as an indication of his true character. The opportunity he instantly seizes: "Thou hast well said, I have no husband; for thou hast had five husbands, and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband; in that saidst thou truly." The effect is instantly as Jesus anticipated and intended. The woman's attention is arrested as it could not have been by the most lucid explanations of the meaning of his figurative language. "Sir, I perceive thou art a prophet."
And here there must have been a pause -- a brief pause -- during which (the woman's eyes wonderingly and enquiringly fixed on Christ) reflections would occur to her, filling up the apparent gap between the remark that he was a prophet, and the allusion she proceeded to make to the long-standing controversy between the Samaritans and the Jews. She was evidently quick witted and well-informed according to the standard of her day. Discerning the evidence of the power of God with this Jew, her mind opens to the possibility of the Jews being right in their objection to the Samaritan worship. She is, at all events, drawn toward the topic with a disposition to handle it enquiringly. "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye (Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Again Jesus avoids the discussion of the Samaritan issue in its narrow sense. He admits that the Samaritans worshipped ignorantly, and that enlightenment in this matter was with the Jews, to whom salvation appertained. But, knowing as he did, that the moment was at hand when worship of every kind would be suspended in the land by the judgment of God overhanging the nation, and when worship would be transferred by the gospel to individual hearts in all parts of the world, he addressed himself to the personal and practical bearing of the question: "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father ... the hour cometh and now is when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." Here was an enlarging of the subject that must have been new and welcome to a Samaritan; though at the same time conveying a rebuke. Christ's words soared away from the question of locality, which was the vexed question between Samaritan and Jew. They obliterated it altogether -- "neither in this mountain (Gerrizim), nor yet at Jerusalem." Where then? Anywhere and everywhere -- wherever there were true worshippers -- people knowing God as revealed to Moses and the prophets, and to whom in their conscious hearts, God was a reality, and who in their sincere and loving spirits adored Him. "The Father seeketh such to worship Him," rather than the genuflecting formalists with whom the Samaritan woman would be familiar, and with whom worship was a matter of performance, rather than of heart. That the Father should seek the worship of men, and find pleasure in it, is a great revelation, on which we may constantly rest with consolation; but it is not this simple fact that Jesus presses on the woman's attention so much as to point out the sort of worshippers who were acceptable, in contrast to the formalist multitude that then filled the land -- both Judea and Samaria. Men of light and love would henceforward approach the Father acceptably everywhere, without having to come to a certain place to offer their worship.
This must have been a pleasing view to a sincere woman such as she with whom Jesus was conversing. But a rebuke would be contained in the words, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." To the Samaritans, God was -- well, as Jesus said they "knew not what." The ten tribes worshipped Jeroboam's calves at Dan and Bethel, and Baal and other gods of the Canaanites besides. The people who were put in their place "served their own gods" (2 Kings xvii. 29-31) variously named Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, Nibhaz, Tartak, Adrammelech, Annamlech, &c., mere idols of wood and stone. How much of this idol worship was retained by their descendants, the Samaritans, we have no means of knowing exactly; but the probability is that much of it remained, with the result of preventing them from having any idea of the true nature of God, or acceptable worship. Jesus now rebukes the Samaritan idea which led them to insist so strenuously on a particular place. It is as if he had said -- "God is not 'like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art and man's device': God is not a man; He is not even as one of the imagined deities of the Greeks or Romans. He is spirit -- "immortal, invisible, the only wise God." We cannot go from His presence. He is everywhere present. He is an indivisible unit, filling heaven and earth, though having His personal nucleus in heaven. Nothing is hid from His sight. The thoughts of the heart are naked before Him. Consequently, worship can be tendered to Him at any place and at any moment. The essential thing is that it be true worship -- the actual adoration of a man's spirit -- the homage of felt sincerity and truth."
The woman knew enough of Moses and the prophets to associate this enlarged knowledge with what the Messiah would do for them at his coming. "I know that Messias cometh," she said ... "when he is come, he will tell us all things." Now was the time for the topstone of the discourse. "I that speak unto thee am he." After all that had passed, this declaration went home to the woman's conviction. She felt it must be so, and in the intensity of her feeling, the disciples having returned, she left further discourse course, and leaving her water pot, went straight back to the city to divulge the great discovery. While she was away, the disciples brought of the food they had procured, and asked Christ to eat. He was evidently too much absorbed with the incident that had just occurred, and with all the great ideas it would awake in his mind, to do so. The proposal of his disciples was probably made in a callous matter-of-fact way, entirely out of harmony with the spirit he was in. He answered in a way that seemed to rebuff their kindly ministrations. "I have meat to eat that ye know not of." Probably, as in almost all cases among people to-day, the manner of the disciples would seem to unduly magnify the importance of the secular affairs in hand, or to convey a disparagement of "those things that be of God." The disciples, in their unenlightened simplicity, took him up literally. They said among themselves, "Hath any man brought him ought to eat?" They probably supposed the woman whom they found him talking with had brought him something. He meets their surmisings in words that have probably done more than any other to create a right and adequate idea among disciples in every age, of the kind and degree of earnestness with which the things of God should be held and followed: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish His work." It was for the sake of their influence that the words were uttered and recorded. "For your sakes," is the explanation of much -- nearly all that Christ said and did. "I am glad for your sakes I was not there." "For their sakes I sanctify myself." "I have given you an example." These are illustrations of a fact that requires to be kept in view. Men who read the sayings of Christ without this fact in view, will often mistake the assertions of lofty truth for petty self-vindication.
When the woman arrived at Samaria, she said to her townsmen, "Come, see a man which told me all things that ever I did; is not this the Christ?" by which she probably meant that the super-human knowledge of her affairs displayed by Jesus was proof that he was what he had asserted himself to be -- the Christ. They were not slow to respond to her words, and soon Christ had a large audience round the well. What he said to them is not recorded. But the favourable impression made upon the woman was evidently extended to them, and was strengthened by what they heard for themselves; for at the end of their interview, they pressed him to break his journey and stay with them a little. He yielded to their request, and stayed with them two days. Their intercourse with him during that time led them finally to the conviction which they expressed before he left, that "This is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world." It is probable that when a few years afterwards, "Samaria received the Word of God," at the hands of the Apostles, Sychem would be among the places visited by Peter (Acts viii. 14-25). If so, the recollections of the Sychemites, going back to this visit of Jesus himself, would be very striking and useful. Some have had a difficulty in reconciling Christ's action on this occasion with the direction he shortly afterwards gave to his disciples, to "go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any cities of the Samaritans enter ye not." There need be no difficulty. Christ did not visit the Samaritan district on this occasion in what we might call an official capacity. He was passing through it on his way to Galilee. What happened was in the way of a private incident and a personal condescension. It was a little before the time in a dispensational sense. If he forbade his disciples to include Samaria in the scope of their evangelistic labours, this was no reason why he should not, in the exercise of his prerogative as the Master, himself, in passing, accept the hospitality of these privileged Sychemites, and speak to them of the great things of God.
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