Reflection

by Dr. Erica L. Martin, Lecturer, School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University

 

“Give me a drink,” he said, setting a narrative in motion that was far more ancient than the town of Sychar or the well by which he sat. In John 4, neither the location of the meeting or the outline of the conversation is arbitrary or new; both have deep roots in texts found in the Hebrew Bible which would have been immediately recognizable to the text’s earliest audiences.

In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant is sent to the homeland to find a bride for Isaac. As in John 4, Abraham’s servant encounters a woman, Rebecca, by a well. Genesis 24 is a textbook example of a betrothal type-scene. Type-scenes are literary conventions which shape how an author tells a story and how the audience understands it. When watching movies, we are accustomed to encountering different “formulas” or “templates” that the plot of the film will follow. If you’ve seen one romantic comedy, you can predict the outline of the vast majority of other romantic comedies! When reading fairy tales, we understand that things will happen in threes, that stepmothers are evil, and that if you see the prince riding toward a castle to rescue a princess, she can be found in the highest room of the tallest tower.

Biblical texts have a specific plot-template to follow when they want to tell the story of how a particular man happened to marry a particular woman. Robert Alter’s now classic description of the formula by which people get married in the bible includes: [1]

  1. The bridegroom in a foreign land; the unmarried man ventures outside of his home territory.
  2. A woman at a well; the well being a ubiquitous symbol of female fertility in Ancient Near Eastern literature.
  3. Someone draws water.
  4. Someone rushes to tell.
  5. The man and woman become betrothed.
  6. A meal is shared to ‘seal the deal.’

The servant’s interactions with Rebecca in Genesis 24 follow this template almost perfectly. (That the actual bridegroom does not attend is a snub at Isaac, who gets the brunt of quite a few jokes in the Bible.) But aside from that, the betrothal runs according to the traditional script: the servant is in a foreign land, meets Rebecca at a well, she draws water (actually she draws a lot of water, foreshadowing her powerful hand in events yet to come in the story), she rushes to tell her family, agrees to the betrothal, and they eat supper. Biblical betrothal accomplished.

The most fascinating aspect of type-scenes is that as long as the basic formula is followed, individual authors have the freedom to play with aspects of the formula, and make meaning by surprising their audience with unexpected turns of events – like Isaac being absent at his own engagement. Back to movies, you have probably known the surprise and delight the audience feels when the formula is subverted: in Enchanted, the Princess unexpectedly grabs a sword to defend the Prince from the Dragon/Stepmother. In Frozen, the audience gasps with delight when the salvific “act of true love” occurs not between the young man and woman, but between the sisters. Plot twists rely on the fact that there is a plot we are expecting, and challenge our expectations.

“Give me a drink,” Jesus said. Let us reflect: in John 4 we have an unmarried man (Jesus) in a foreign land (Samaria) meeting a woman by a well while the disciples are off buying food (for the betrothal meal, wonders the audience?) But instead of getting down to the betrothal business, they talk and talk and talk about water without drawing any into a bucket. She will eventually rush to tell people about her conversation. This text is making meaning by subverting its audience’s expectations for the betrothal type-scene. What are we supposed to learn?

[1] Alter, Robert (1983). The Art of Biblical Narrative.

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Theme for the Day: DENUNCIATION

Tired of the journey, Jesus sat down facing the well (John 4:6)

Scripture Readings:

From Day One: Genesis 24:10-33 Abraham and Rebekah at the well

Genesis 29:1-14 Jacob and Rachel at the well

Psalms 137 How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Each one of you says, “I am for Paul,” or “I am for Apollos”

John 4:5-6 Jesus was tired out by his journey

Questions:

  1. What are the main reasons for competition among our churches?
  2. Are we able to identify a common “well” upon which we can lean, and rest from our disputes and competitions?

School Cycle of Prayer:

We pray today for the Spiritual Discernment class taught by Pat Howell; Lizzie Young, staff; Cynthia Pickreign, graduate assistant; Katerina Harding and Scott Harris, students.

Prayer:

Gracious God,

often our churches are led to choose the logic of competition.

Forgive our sin of presumption.

We are weary from this need to be first. Allow us to rest at the well.

Refresh us with the water of unity drawn from our common prayer.

May your Spirit who hovered over the waters of chaos, bring unity from our diversity.

Amen.

 

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