Tension Between Tradition and Innovation in John 4

I have used John 4 in many ways, especially in discussing various methods of teaching. But something struck me more forcefully this morning than it has before–the tension between tradition and innovation. It is not that Jesus denies all tradition and favors innovation, which one could conclude based on the living water vs. well water contrast (4:10-14). It’s clear that is not the case when he says that salvation is “of the Jews” (v. 22).

I think the author of John could hardly have built up the tension any better than setting this story beside Jacob’s well, yet the wall is in Samaritan territory. Both Samaritans and Jews claimed to be coming from the same traditional “well.” Notice also that while Jesus affirms the Jewish position as the source, he doesn’t support their continued position as sole possessors of current truth. He points to himself for that.

In fact, in the Johannine community, I would say it is the Samaritans of this story who are playing the Jews who are opposed to the community. Since the Johannine community was probably Jewish, but Jews who had been recently forced out of the synagogue, you can see the interesting interplay. Salvation is from the Jews, but through Jesus comes the innovation–the living water that doesn’t fail. This parallels the “spiritual worship” in which the location (synagogue, temple, or other location) no longer matters. The Samaritans, who think they are the heirs, are really not, but have to come to Jesus (represented in the Johannine community) in order to get the living water and truly quench their thirst.

On the other hand, there is encouragement for the community, who are to look back at those who have thrust them out, and consider them ready for harvest.

I just have to add that I find John endlessly fascinating with its layers of meaning.

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One Comment

  1. Philo says:

    Matthew 10:34 (Today’s New International Version)

    “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

    This is not written to promote war, but to separate tradition and innovation.

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