Thursday, March 24, 2011

Detail Oriented

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95 (which is included because of its reference to the Exodus reading, in case you were wondering what it's doing here--and I know you were!), and John 4:5-29 (the appointed reading is the whole chapter but, face it, that's a lot to chew...especially when we'll have full chapters of John the next two Sundays! But more of that below).

Following that exceptionally long preface, you can read the passages in full here.

Each week of Lent, the size of the reading we are invited to enter into in our Gospel readings gets progressively larger. We move from 17 verses of John 3 last week to 25 (or, in the Lectionary's suggestion, 37!) verses of John 4 this week, to 41 verses of John 9 next week and 45 verses of John 11 the week after. This is not to mention the suggestion of the entire Passion reading from Matthew 26-27 on Palm Sunday!

So how do we process texts that are so long and have so much context--especially when they contain sometimes hard to follow dialogues full of rich imagery as these from John do? At the point when this story from John 4 was about to make me hyperventilate in its complexity this week, I was reminded of a great way to study scripture: look at a passage's gaps and details. Often it is the things that are left out or (seemingly) randomly included that can clue us into the author's meaning and intention in the way he tells the story.

So, as you read our Gospel text before Sunday, I would invite you to reflect (as I am doing) on some of the fascinating details of this encounter between Jesus and a nameless Samaritan woman:

1) Lots of geographic detail is given in the first two verses. Why is it significant that this is Jacob's Well (pictured at right)? What has happened there in the past that hearers of this story would be clued into? (for an interesting symbolic use of wells in the Old Testament days of Jacob, just for fun, check out Genesis 24, Genesis 29, and Exodus 2...hmmm...)

2) I love that the text takes time to say Jesus was tired (v.6) and, presumably, thirsty. We rarely get human moments Jesus in John's account... why include this detail here?

3) Remember that this story follows the story of Nicodemus. As we did with Nicodemus, we get a time of day for this woman's encounter with Jesus: it's not night, but high noon. Why mention the time?

4) Look at the detail of the number of different names Jesus is called by the woman: a Jew, Sir, a prophet, the Messiah, and (finally at the end of the chapter by the townspeople) the Savior (the only time the human Jesus is called this in ANY of the Gospels). What's up with this progression?

5) In verse 28, the woman runs off leaving her water jar at the well. Why include this? And why did she leave behind the jug, do you think?

Some of these may be chasing rabbits, but I think it is these details that lead us into the deeper meaning of the story. What other details do you notice as you read this story? What might the details, when incorporated into the whole, tell us? Join us Sunday as we plumb the depths of this remarkably profound conversation together, and prepare yourself to be surprised by what may emerge as we let ourselves get detail-oriented about a familiar story.

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