Posts Tagged ‘kingdom reversal’

I’m doing something a little different this morning. Earlier we spent several weeks on our series Jesus and Nicodemus. And we have just now finished several weeks on our series Jesus and the Samaritan woman. And what I want to do this morning is to bring these stories together and compare them to see what we can learn.

By looking at the Gospel of John we can see that –

We are meant to compare these stories

This is because of the way John has arranged his gospel, putting them side by side, as it were. They are paralleled to each other. Here is an overview of literary structure of John 2-4:

A. Water to wine in Cana – 2:1-12. Galilee [sign 1]

B. The leaders of Jerusalem in conflict with Jesus – 2:13-22. Jerusalem

C. Conversation with Nicodemus – 2:23-3:21. Jerusalem

D. Jesus baptizes more than John – 3:22-4:3. Judean countryside

C1. Conversation with Samaritan woman – 4:4-27. Samaria

B1. Many in Sychar believe – 4:28-45. Samaria

A1. Healing of child in Cana – 4:46-54. Galilee [sign 2]

[For the detailed outline go here.] You can see that Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are coordinated. And this pairing extends to include the temple scene in Jerusalem – Nicodemus’ community, just before his conversation with Jesus, and the Sychar scene in Samaria – the Samaritan woman’s community, just after her conversation with Jesus.

But not only this there are also similarities in the stories themselves that should lead us to compare them:

We have two extended conversations of Jesus with an individual in close proximity.

In both, Jesus’ knowledge of them is a theme. With regard to Nicodemus, in the setup to the conversation it says, “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them (partial believers like Nicodemus), because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about a person, for he himself knew what was in a person.” (2:24-24). With regard to the woman he knew of her various relationships with men, including her current sinful one, that she tried to hide from him (4:16-18).

–  Both Nicodemus and the woman begin by misunderstanding Jesus in an overly literal way. He took “born from above” as born again; and that as a literal physical rebirth (3:4); she took “living water” as another natural water source better than Jacob’s well (4:12, 15).

–  There is some similar content as well: In both, Jesus talks about the Spirit – being born of the Spirit with Nicodemus, and the living water of the Spirit with the Samaritan woman. And in both he speaks of eternal life.

So there are a lot of indicators that these stories are meant to be compared together.

When we do compare them –

The expectation of what should happen is clear

One is “set up” to anticipate how they will each respond to Jesus based on a series of clear contrasts between them:

To begin with the obvious – 1. He was a man. She was a woman. In that day men were favored and teachers normally didn’t even talk to women.

2. He is namedShe is not named. His name, Nicodemus is given. She is simply “a woman of Samaria” (4:7).

3. He was a Jew. She was a Samaritan. He was a part of the right group,  whereas she was a part of a despised group with wrong beliefs and practices.

4. He was righteousShe was a sinner. He was a Pharisee and they were known for being rigorous and devout. She was living with a man who was not her husband.

5. He was honoredShe was an outcast. He was a ruler and enjoyed a high place in his society. She was by herself at the well most likely because she was rejected by the other women of Sychar.

6. He was educatedShe was uneducated. Jesus calls him a teacher. She would have had little training, as was the case for women in that day.

So he has everything going for him; he is the cream of the crop. She has nothing going for her; she is the bottom of the barrel; an outcast from an outcast people. Clearly the expectation is that Nicodemus is the one who will respond to Jesus as they converse together; he is the one who will get it.

But the reality turns out to be quite different

This is already foreshadowed by the mention of the time of day when these conversations take place, for light and dark are symbolic in John’s gospel. Light stands for God’s truth and darkness for the realm of the evil one and ignorance of God’s truth (1:5). She came to the well “about the sixth hour” or at noon (4:6). He “came to Jesus by night” (3:2)

She makes no claim to know who Jesus is, but ends up knowing quite a lot by the end. He thinks he knows a few things about Jesus, but is admonished. He said to Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher from God” – 3:2. But Jesus said, “are you the teacher of Israel and you don’t understand these things?” – 3:10. He got shot down.

She misunderstands at first, but recovers. Her questions become more focused and Jesus engages with her and answers her. He never recovers from misunderstanding. He asks “How” questions that reveal his astonishment and inability to follow what Jesus is saying.

She remains active in the conversation. She came to almost hold her own with Jesus. He fades out of the conversation. His remarks get shorter and shorter. In Greek he moves from 24 words (3:2) to 18 (3:4) to 4 (3:9) to nothing.

She progresses in her understating of Jesus. She first just saw him as a Jew and called him “sir.” Then she perceived him to be a “prophet.” Then she receives from Jesus  a clear revelation of his identity as the “Christ.” He makes no progress and is frustrated.

She becomes a disciple doing God’s work. He does not believe. As Jesus said, “you do not receive our testimony” (3:11); and “you do not believe” (3:12).

She brings others from her community to faith in Jesus. He does not. His community remains marked by unbelief or inadequate faith.

My point in all of this is that –

These two stories illustrate kingdom reversal

That is, how the coming of the kingdom turns things on their head. Jesus talks about this a lot in the first three (synoptic) gospels.

Speaking to those who expected to be blessed when the kingdom came, he said in Luke 13:28-30, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves cast out. (So they will be out, but others who are not expected to be in will be in) And people will come from east and west, and from north and south (from the whole world, not just Israel), and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

The coming of the kingdom turns things upside down. What is assumed and expected is not always true. And this is certainly the case here.

She is the one who responds correctly to Jesus.

  •  although she was a woman, and not a man
  • although she was unknown, and not named
  • although she was an outsider, and not an insider
  • although she was a notorious sinner, and not devout
  • although she was an outcast, and not honored
  • although she was uneducated, and not a scholar.

Although she is a lowly one from a lowly people, she is the one who gets it!

Now it does appear that Nicodemus came to real faith later. [We find him trying to stand up for Jesus among the authorities (7:50) and he is involved with burying the body of Jesus, a job for a disciple (19:39). But apparently it was a difficult and long process for him.] But here, at this time – she is the one who responded to Jesus and received his blessings.

Let’s end with –

Some lessons for us

that come from Jesus,  and that John wants us to get from how he tells these stories side by side.

In light of how the kingdom can reverse things 1. Don’t judge others! In Luke 6:37 Jesus says, “judge not” and also “condemn not.” He is teaching us that we should never write others off as beyond God’s mercy, as beyond God’s redeeming grace. No matter how they might appear to us with our expectations and assumptions – we can never make that call. It is not our place to say that someone is already judged and set aside.

2. We too should invite all to hear and receive of the gospel, just like Jesus in the story of the Samaritan woman. Just like Jesus said in Matthew 9:13, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

We can’t let our expectations and assumptions about who might respond to Jesus get in the way. God is busy bringing all kinds to himself. It is our job to be merciful and open to all who might come to Jesus to find living water and eternal life. And so we invite all to do this.

3. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t measure up to expectations of who might respond to Jesus. Maybe you’re like the Samaritan woman who didn’t have anything going for her in terms of human assumptions about who God wants.

But don’t be discouraged, be encouraged! You are the very person that God loves deeply. You are the very person that Jesus is seeking after. God wants you to come to him and know him. God wants to touch your life so that you are transformed and blessed.

William Higgins



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