The disciples live by one set of metaphors. Jesus sees the world very differently…
By Justin Rossow
Jesus sits on the edge of a literal well, and is literally tired and thirsty. The disciples have gone off to find food; for them, Samaria is a land of unclean enemies where you can’t even get lunch without the fear of contamination. But Jesus stays behind.
You know the story. Jesus asks for literal water from one of these contaminated enemies, and the talk quickly turns metaphorical: “If you would have known, you would have asked me, and I would have given you Living Water, and you would never thirst again.”
What follows is some verbal sparring where this Samaritan woman seems to give as well as she takes, but is perhaps confusing enough for her final comment to count as raising the white flag: “When Messiah comes, He will clear up all of this debate about God and worship, and who’s in and who’s out.” Then Jesus drops a final bombshell: “I who speak to you am He.”
The disciples make it back just in time to see the woman going off in amazement to fetch her friends. They offer Jesus some of their Kosher Take Out, but Jesus says he has “food” they know nothing about, which causes some concern, since they are deep in enemy territory, and one does not just eat from a street vendor when lunch can make you spiritually unclean. But Jesus wasn’t talking about food food: “My food is to do the delight of the one who sent me.”
While the disciples are still chewing on that statement, the unclean enemy outsider woman shows back up, with a crowd of her closest friends. (OK; wait. She didn’t have any friends, remember? She somehow went to people who looked down on her and shamed her and threatened her, and told them about Jesus.) Seeing the crowd, Jesus gives his disciples a new lens, a new frame, a new way of seeing and evaluating and experiencing the situation in front of them.
“Look!” Jesus says, “Lift up your eyes, and see! The Fields are ripe for Harvest!”
Where the disciples saw unclean enemy outsiders who threaten to contaminate them, Jesus sees sheaves ready and waiting to be brought in.
And that’s how metaphor works. A metaphor gives you a structured understanding of a situation that allows you to make decisions, reason out options, know what you can expect and what is expected of you. Metaphors can be overt or hidden; poetic or rather plain. The disciples were living out one metaphor when they feared Jesus might have broken food laws by receiving something to eat from the hand of an unclean Samaritan. That metaphor of clean and unclean, in and out, friend and foe breaks the world down into Us vs Them, and keeps Us and Them as far apart as possible.
An In/Out metaphor is a powerful way of organizing your reality. But Jesus lives by a different metaphor. Jesus inhabits a world where you give a thirsty stranger a drink, no matter what. And if the thirst is more than physical, how much more important is it to pour out the Living Water you have welling up inside you!
Jesus later says that thirsty people should come to him to drink, and the water he provides will turn into wells of living water that gush eternal life. That water is the Spirit (see John 7:3-39), and the Samaritan woman at the well becomes that kind of Spirit-well to the people in her own village as she, filled and led by the Spirit, brings the very people who ostracized her to meet Jesus.
It’s not the last time Jesus talks about food, either. Here, Jesus says his food (or bread—food/bread is the same word)—his bread is doing the work the Father sent him to do. In John 6, Jesus will call himself the food/bread from heaven that comes down, like Manna in the wilderness, to miraculously feed a pilgrim people on their way.
Jesus isn’t just waxing poetic; he wants you to reframe, restructure, reimagine your relationship with him so that the daily, desperate dependence wandering Israel had in on this miraculous food from heaven that tasted like honey and looked like coriander would become your daily, desperate dependence on Jesus as you wander in your own wilderness and slowly make your way Home.
Jesus very clearly knows the metaphors you live by will shape how you see God, how you see yourself, and how you see others. I think that’s why Jesus emphasizes the new kind of eyes the Kingdom requires: “Look; lift up your eyes; and see.” See with new eyes. Trade out your old paradigm for a new one. Pick up this metaphor and see your world through a new lens: “The fields are ripe for harvest.”
We sometimes get the idea that metaphors are for lovers and poets. And they are. But more than that, metaphors shape your understanding of your experience and tell you how you are expected to think, and feel, and act in any situation. Are you surrounded by unclean outsider enemies? One kind of response is appropriate. Are you standing in front of a field ripe for harvest? Are you a well of living water, and the people around you are dying of thirst? Then a different kind of response is required.
The Bible’s metaphors can sometimes be confusing. They might make you want to throw up your hands, like the Samaritan woman, and say, “When Messiah comes, He will explain all this!” And she was right. When Messiah came, He did explain all this. And when Messiah chose to explain all this, He said things like:
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.”
“I am the true bread who has come down from heaven.”
“Come to me, you who thirst, and I will give you water and make you a well.”
“I am the Good Shepherd.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
“Look; lift up your eyes, and see!”
For more on John 4 and the metaphors that shape our life and mission, see the article “Look, Lift Up Your Eyes, And See: Warfare, Containers, Harvest, Living Water, and the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws.”
You can find a more thorough discussion of how metaphor shapes your life and experience, and how to tap into the power of metaphor for ministry, check out the book Preaching Metaphor: How to Shape Sermons that Shape People by Justin Rossow.