The Politics of Exposure—John 4:1-42 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The growing power of government to trace everything that we do and to reveal our most compromising secrets has been an increasing source of public concern over the last year or so. In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well we see an example of such omniscience employed to liberate, rather than to enslave. While such godlike power in the hands of our governments is a scary prospect, in God’s hands it need not be a cause of fear.

John 4:1-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’—2 although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4 But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.) 10 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.’ 11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.’ 15 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.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25 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.’ 26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 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?’ 28 Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,can he?’ 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 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. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 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 Saviour of the world.’

One of the most effective means of political and social control is the power to expose the compromising secrets of others. The issue of government’s surveillance of the private communications of their citizens has never been far from the front pages over the last year, as revelations of the extent of the NSA’s spying and data collection have come to the public’s awareness. The increasingly godlike omniscience of governments in the digital age, whereby every one of our actions, exchanges, or communications can be logged, recorded, traced, or surveilled has led to a growing concern among the public that this power be checked or held accountable.

In recent months, we have learnt that the NSA has kept tabs on the porn-habits of certain radical elements, in order to provide ammunition with which to discredit them. Jameel Jaffer, of the American Civil Liberties Union has observed: “Wherever you are, the NSA’s databases store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online.” Although we are repeatedly assured that such information will not be abused, we know that the fact that it exists strengthens the government’s power over us. Knowing that the government has the power to expose us can render us compliant to its wishes.

The use of exposure as a means of power and social control is not a new phenomenon. People have always been vulnerable to those who know and can reveal the truth about them.

In John 4, Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria at a well and enters into conversation with her. As the woman was alone at the well at the hottest time of the day, anyone seeing her might well surmise that she was not accepted by her community. Jesus enquires about her husband. Her answer—that she has no husband—while technically true, is misleading, covering up the compromising reality of her chequered past and the probable cause of her social marginalization. Jesus reveals that he knows the truth of her history and her current situation: she has had five husbands, and the man that she is currently with is not her husband.

That this truth that she had attempted to hide—the devastating fact that rendered her a moral outcast in her community—was known by this strange Jewish rabbi with whom she was conversing might well have struck her with a sense of despair, reminding her that she could never escape the reputation that clung to her. This stranger, though completely unknown to her, had a power over her, knowing her darkest secrets. However, Jesus employed this power in the most startling way, addressing her as a worshipper and proceeding to render her a witness to him. When she shares her message—‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’—with the men of her city, it is clear that Jesus’ knowledge of her has exerted a liberating, rather than an enslaving effect.

Jesus’ knowledge of the secrets of the hearts of others is a recurring theme in the fourth gospel. In 1:47-48, he reveals that he knows Nathanael and where he has been, even before they meet. In 2:24-25, we are told that Jesus knew all men and did not need to be told what was in them. He demonstrates knowledge of people’s undeclared sins in 5:14 and 8:11. At various points in the gospel he shows that he knows what is in the heart of Judas (6:70-72; 13:18-30).

In the previous chapter, in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus spoke of himself as the light that had come into the world, the light in which the deeds of people were ‘exposed’ (3:19-21). However, although the power of exposure wielded by our governments is justifiably a cause of great concern and unease to many of us today, Jesus’ power to expose is not employed in order to condemn, but that the world might be saved through him. As Jesus brings our skeletons out of our closets and thrusts our darkest secrets into his light, rather than exploiting their hold over us as a means of control, he breaks their thrall and sets us free.

Some commentators have seen a subtle allusion to the rite of Numbers 5 in this exchange (allusions that are more pronounced in the account of John 8:1-11). The rite of jealousy described in Numbers 5 was a test by which divine exposure of an adulterous woman was invoked. The woman charged with adultery was given a drink of holy water made bitter with the words of a curse scraped into it. If the woman were guilty, God would expose her sin through the effect that the drink had upon her body.

In John 4, the Samaritan woman requests a drink of ‘living water’ from Jesus, unwittingly initiating the process of the ritual. Jesus immediately exposes the compromising secrets of her past. Yet no curse follows. Rather, the water offered gives eternal life and washes away all of her sins.

It is easy to conceive of God’s knowledge of our secret sins by analogy with our governments’ powers of surveillance and exposure. Yet in the hands of God, the godlike knowledge to which our governments aspire serves less as a means of instilling fear and exerting control than as a means of release from the forces that bind us. Instead of the limited assurance afforded by the conditionality of the claim that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,’ we are granted an unconditional and free offer of comprehensive pardon, the dark and enslaving power of all our secrets dissolving in the liberty of his light.

One thought on “The Politics of Exposure—John 4:1-42 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. “It is easy to conceive of God’s knowledge of our secret sins by analogy with our governments’ powers of surveillance and exposure. Yet in the hands of God, the godlike knowledge to which our governments aspire serves less as a means of instilling fear and exerting control than as a means of release from the forces that bind us.”

    True, but the attempt by man to acquire this kind of “godlike knowledge” is called “curiosity”. If curiosity can kill a cat, it can also kill a Catholic.

    St. Thomas Aquinas says that studiousness is the enthusiastic application of the mind in acquiring the right kind and the right amount of truth; curiosity is the enthusiastic application of the mind in acquiring indiscriminately any kind of truth in any amount. Studiousness is a virtue; curiosity is a vice.

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