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The Key to the Gospel of John: Final Installment

February 6th, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In my previous post on the Gospel of John, I suggested that John speaks to us through his Gospel as Jesus does to the people in the Gospel. "Greater works than these," Jesus says. John's Gospel is surely one of those greater works, done in the name of Jesus and hence bearing the power and authority that Jesus has as a Son of the Father.

This notion has, of course, profound ramifications for our reading of John's gospel. It is not just historical document, but the meeting ground between us and the Risen Lord. It is, through the Spirit of God, the very works and Word of God to us, that which bears witness of Jesus' authority to the Father. As people respond to Jesus in the Gospel of John, so we respond to the text of the Gospel of John. For some, that means embracing it and being fashioned and changed by it. For others, that means rejecting it.

Consider as a test case Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4. An exchange found only in John, the story is far too layered to adequately analyze here. Consider the setting: it is noon, and the woman is just now coming to the well. In a culture where water was drawn in the early morning, we are immediately informed that she is a social outcast. She is not so different from Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under the cover of night to avoid being seen meeting with him by his peers. Though Nicodemus sought Jesus out, Jesus here initiates the conversation with the Samaritan woman.

Their conversation is fascinating, and a bit like a chess match. After Jesus asks her for water, he tells her that if she knew his identity, she should have asked him for living water. The woman, obviously misunderstanding him and probably a bit uncomfortable with the strange conversation, throws in her bit of historical knowledge about the well—perhaps to deflect, or perhaps to impress. Either is possible. Jesus continues with his metaphor: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” As the woman understands it, this is exactly what she thinks she needs. That sort of water will erase her need to make the embarrassing trip to the well. She would be saved from her labor aqnd her shame.

Jesus, though, has no interest in meeting this felt need. Instead, he moves in for the checkmate by asking her to get her husband. The move puts the woman in an extremely difficult position. If she acknowledges her adultery, then she loses the privilege of conversation and relationship with the man she has been chatting with, not to mention his curious water. Or she can lie. Undoubtedly surprised and honored that this stranger (and a man, no less!) would deign to converse with her, she chooses the latter, only to have her lie immediately exposed by Jesus.

Her world unraveled, the woman attempts again to deflect Jesus' rather personal line of inquiry, drawing on her theological knowledge to change the subject: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus, not phased for a second, strips off this fig leave as well, pointing out that a new era has come where worship is done in Spirit and truth, and not necessarily only in Jerusalem. Though salvation is from the Jews, it is for all people.

The woman, however, defiantly attempts to maintain appearances: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Her desperate try to delay the inevitable fails, as Jesus, for the first time in their conversation, reveals his identity as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament: “I who speak to you am He.”

Here we have the statement of the Gospel: "I who speak to you am He." The identity of Jesus is wrapped up in God's covenant with Abraham, and with the giving of the law to Moses. "I who speak to you am He." But that identity is communicated to us in and through the pages of John's gospel. And like Jesus at the woman at the well, the Word of God exposes our insecurities, strips away our misunderstandings, leaves us naked and vulnerable so that we can see the reality of God in Jesus Christ. "I who speak to you am He." The self-revelation of God comes to the woman only after Jesus had put aside her misunderstandings and her desperate attempts to admit and confess her own sinful life.

And of course, the self-revelation of Jesus leaves her profoundly changed. She forgets her position as social outcast because of her adultery and runs to town, proclaiming the identity of Jesus to the very people she had previously avoided. Her acceptance of Jesus' love allows her to bear witness to the reality of Jesus' divinity. "Come, see a man that told me all I ever did." The self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ prompts even a sinful woman such as she to run to the very people from which she had been outcast and proclaim the good news.

If the parallel between the text of the Gospel of John and Jesus holds, then just as Jesus confronts the woman's insecurities, exposes her sins, and strips away her misunderstandings, so the text does to us. It leaves us exposed and vulnerable--it leaves open, so that we can hear Jesus in the text saying, "I who speak to you am He," the Messiah sent to save the world, but not judge the world. The condemnation that the woman no doubt fears never comes: she is only accepted, only loved as Jesus maintains relationship with her despite her sin by revealing himself to her. So Jesus will not judge us in the text, and yet we are judged by how we respond to the text: "If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day" (John 12:47-48). If we will not open ourselves to the text, to the very words of God in the Gospel of John, then we will be judged on the last day for our rejection of Jesus Himself, for John has communicated to us the words and Word of God.

But conversly, if we do open ourselves to the text, then we can receive the very love of God and so bear witness along with John to the authority and testimony of Jesus Christ. That is, if we open ourselves to the words of God in Scripture, we will inevitably respond like the woman, setting aside all fear of rejection by those who despise us and bringing them the good news. We can risk being vulnerable because we have been confronted by the love of God: "I who speak to you am He," a divine affirmation of relationship with sinful man. "I am He," the faithful one, the one who does not forget His covenant with his people, a covenant that is for all people. If we abide in this love, if we abide in the words of the Gospel, then we too will proclaim and bear witness to this love with the authority of Jesus, as John (the "disciple whom Jesus loved") has in his gospel.

Fundamentally, the drama of whether Jesus will be accepted or rejected exists every time we open John's Gospel. Will we hear Jesus' speaking to us, will we allow the text to clear away our confusion, our sin, our shame? Will we accept his love, his self-revelation in the text, or will we reject it, delay it, or avoid it? It is a perplexing document, full of apparent contradictions that invite either rejection or acceptance. Such an acceptance is nothing other than the faith that leads to understanding, and along the way transforms us by removing those hindrances to hearing the voice of Jesus: "I who speak to you am He." Will we hear Jesus speak through John, or will we only hear our own voice, our own confusions? It is the fundamental question on which our existence hangs, for it is the Gospel which judges us on the final day.

See also:

The Key to the Gospel of John
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Two
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Three
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Four
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Five

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.