John 4 – Jesus and the Woman at the Well

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is a favorite story for preachers.  Here Jesus meets with a woman of ill-repute and crosses cultural and social boundaries to share the gospel with her.  As a result she returns to her village and many place their faith in Jesus. There are some obvious preachable points in the story which make for a rousing missionary conference sermon, encouraging evangelism and reaching out beyond one’s normal social circle.

That is all very good, but that is not why John has placed this story in his gospel.  John tells us that his purpose in writing his Gospel is so that the reader might know Jesus is the Messiah and have life in his name.  This story contributes to that purpose.  Jesus has revealed who he is with a private sign at the wedding at Cana and again publicly when he cleared the Temple (John 2).  After these two signs, he encounters three people who illustrate three ways in which people reacted to Jesus. Nicodemus is a representative of the Jews, the woman at the well represents the Samaritans, and the Official at the end of chapter four is perhaps a Gentile, albeit a God-fearer. These three responses are in some ways related to the initial question of the book from Jesus – what do you want with me?  Nicodemus wanted a scholar, the woman looked for “living water” and the Official needed healing.

These three categories of people appear elsewhere. Luke describes the commission of Jesus ion Acts 1:8 as preaching the gospel “in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  In John 3-4, Jesus has presented himself as the Messiah in Judea to Nicodemus, in Samaria to the Woman at the Well, and to the “ends of the earth” by healing the official’s son (4:43-54). Each of these people misunderstand who Jesus is, to Nicodemus he is a teacher, to the Woman he is a prophet, and to the Official he is a healer.  Each becomes a witness in the Gospel of John, and each “believes” and influences others to believe as well.

While Nicodemus fades from the story, the Woman at the Well slowly begins to understand Jesus, first questioning his motives, then accepting his offer of water, then believing he is a prophet, and finally that he is the messiah. Like Nicodemus, we are left wondering if she becomes a believer (she is never called  a believer in the text). Yet a village does in fact come to faith in Jesus as a result of here imperfect testimony.

Jesus makes a number of statements to the woman at the well, she responds with questions (John 4:7-25). First, Jesus asks for water, and offers the woman living water which brings eternal life (4:7-18). This question seems quite literal, Jesus is thirsty and he simply asks the woman to give him some water. He does not have anything with which to draw water, so the request makes perfect sense.

But Jesus quickly turns the conversation to “living water” which will result in true spiritual life (vs. 10). As with Nicodemus and being “born again,” this “living water” is likely an allusion to the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Jesus may have in mind God’s provision of water in Numbers 20:8-11. In that case, God saved the lives of the people of Israel in the wilderness by providing them with drinkable water “gushing out of the rock.”

The image of water in the wilderness is used by the prophets to describe the coming age of peace and prosperity. Jeremiah 2:13 and Isaiah 12:3, for example, use the image of provided water in quite different ways. In Jeremiah, God provided water, but the people of Israel preferred their substitute water (false gods). But Isaiah sees a time coming in the future when Israel will be in her land again drinking the water provided by God. Jesus is therefore telling this woman that he can provide her with the same sort of life-giving water that will mark the eschatological age. The woman misunderstands, thinking that “living water” means that Jesus has a source of fresh water that could help her to avoid coming to the well (vss. 11-15).

Second, Jesus offers some extraordinary knowledge indicating he is a prophet. It is possible that the woman’s response “I see you are a prophet” is a bit sarcastic, since obviously a woman getting water alone at noon has some sort of social problem which separates her from other women. The woman’s response is accurate, although deceptive. She has no husband, and may never have had an actual, legal husband. The noun (ἀνήρ) can refer to a husband or more generally a man.

Third, Jesus clearly states that he is in fact the Messiah (4:26). This is the main theme of the gospel of John. The writer tells us that he wrote so that the reader could know that Jesus is the Messiah, he is the one to whom the prophecies looked forward.

This is a confrontation: Jesus tells her he is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Deuteronomy, therefore she has to decide whether she believes that he is the Messiah or not.

What is Third Corinthians?

Can we know anything about the situation of the Corinthian church after the time of Paul?   There is an apocryphal letter of Third Corinthians which is know from Armenian manuscripts of the New Testament, some Latin fragments, and a 3rd century Greek copy in the Bodmer Papyri.  Both the Syriac and Armenian churches accepted the letter as authentic, but with the discovery of a Coptic version in 1894, it has been shown that the letter is actually part of the apocryphal Acts of Paul.  It is absolutely certain that the letter is a forgery.  About A. D. 200 Tertullian reported author of the Acts of Paul was a presbyter in Asia Minor who confessed that he forged the book “out of love for Paul” (de Baptismo 17).

In the letter of Third Corinthians Paul writes to two men, Simon and Cleobius.  They have recently arrived in Corinth and “pervert the faith of many with pernicious words.”  The letter then lists these pernicious doctrines:  God is not all powerful, he did not create humans or even this world.  Jesus did not come in the flesh nor was he born from Mary.  All this strikes me as Gnostic theology, indicating a much later date than the mid-first century.

The only element of this apocryphal letter which seems related to the problems of the authentic Corinthian letters is a denial of the resurrection.  The writer alludes to Jonah and the men raised by the bones of Elisha as examples of resurrection from the scripture.  If God can raise people just as Jonah, so too could he raise Jesus from the dead.  The forger of the letter did not bother  include any ethical issues drawn from the book, there is no allusion to any of the social problems found in the canonical books.

To me, this makes it a fairly poor forgery and probably why the man was found out so quickly!

It would be interesting to take this letter apart line by line in order to show what texts the author used to create this apocryphal letter.  There are lines which are clearly drawn from Paul, but in several cases there are allusions to the words of Jesus (“O ye of little faith” and calling the false teachers a “generation of vipers,” for example.)

Since the letter has little to do with the actual church at Corinth, there is little here which informs us of the situation in Corinth.


Dana Andrew Thomason, “Corinthians, Third Epistle To The,” in ABD 1:1153.
W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:213-237 for the introduction to the “Acts of Paul,” 2:254-257 for the text of 3 Corinthians.

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2 Corinthians 2 – Paul’s Opposition in Corinth

The issue in Second Corinthians was not a doctrinal problem or a theological dispute, it appears rather than an individual in the church has attacked Paul personally. The double reference in 7:12  an injustice shows that the issue was a disaffection between fellow Christians.  Paul appears to have been so angry over this dispute that he could not even travel to Corinth to discuss it face to face.

The problems stem from a single individual as the primary reason for the disagreement (2:5, 6, 7, 8, 10; 7:12 all speak of a specific person, most clearly in the last 7:12). The problem was serious enough that Paul changed his travel plans and instead wrote the “tearful letter” (1:23; 2:1, 3, 4; 7:8).   In fact, the attitude of  one individual was so serious that it poisoned the life of the entire church (2:5). It is remarkable how even a single individual can destroy what should be a unified body of believers!

Who is this person that opposed Paul so strongly and was put out of the church? The key term here is ἀδικέω in 2 Cor 7:12.  Someone has harmed Paul in a very real way, but the damages may very well be to reputation and honor rather than physical harm.  The verb is used in Philemon 18 to refer to the damages which Onesimus might have caused when he left Philemon’s service.

Most commonly, the man is identified as the incestuous man from 1 Corinthians 5.  In 2:9 and 7:12 Paul refers to the fact that he has already written to the church about the man, and we know from 1 Cor that Paul did in fact recommend that the man be expelled from the congregation.  There is a connection between 1 Cor 5 (hand him over to Satan) and this passage, and it is very appealing to read this as saying that the incestuous man repented and returned to the church a changed man.

A second set of suggestions focus on the situation in 1 Corinthians 6.  People were suing one another in the courts over internal “family” matters which ought to have been handled by the church.  It may be that an individual in the church disagreed with Paul so strongly that he entered the courts and tried to overturn Paul’s “rulings” that we find in 1 Corinthians.  It is shocking that a church dispute could have spilled over into the courts, but in the Roman world a perceived insult often did result in a lawsuit.

Perhaps there is a public attack on Paul’s ministry and authority in the background here, so severe that Paul must break off travel plans to the church.  There is some speculation that the attack took place in front of Timothy or Titus, or even that Titus was the object of the attack. Whatever the attack was, it is interpreted by Paul as “an act of flagrant disobedience and revolt” (Suggested by C. K. Barrett, cited in Martin, 2 Corinthians, 34). This could include the party within the church that supported the incestuous man, or simply an attack on Paul’s authority as an apostle.  Because the church has dealt with the problem, Paul feels that at least one hindrance to reconciliation is out of the way, he can return to Corinth now that the insult to him has been removed from the congregation.

It is quite remarkable to me that the church of the first century was so fragmented that someone might bring a lawsuit over a doctrinal issue or a leader’s decision, even if that leader is the Apostle Paul!  This is yet another example of the culture of Corinth warping the church which God established.  The members of the church are still thinking like Romans not Christians.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – Gluttony, Drunkenness and Immorality

Paul must correct the church because of gluttony, drunkenness and going to prostitutes at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is attendance at banquets given by the rich elite of the city.  There is plenty of evidence concerning the types of things that went on in a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them.   There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.”  Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth.  The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games.  Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians.  Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today.  They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple.  The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility.  If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets?   Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that the Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this activity as sin. As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation is slow to de-paganize.  The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy and “wanna-be” elite.  Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

While it is easy to point at the Corinthians and judge them as “immature,” it seems to me that the church in general as well as individual believers are quick to compromise with “the world” when money is involved.  Sin is condemned with the poor people are doing it, but if a wealthy member of the congregation is involved, the condemnation is quite a bit less severe.  A church might borrow a practice from the corporate business world  because it “works” without really thinking about the origins or ramifications of the practice.  I can think of a hundred great excuses for behaving any way I please as a Christian, most of them are well-intentioned.  I suspect Paul would have an equally strong condemnation for the modern church as he did Corinth!

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – Lawsuits Among Brothers

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8).  We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church.  Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender.  Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.  really, imagine that.

As strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world.  Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.)  These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers.  Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics.  Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.)  If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”:  they are suing family members.  Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club.  A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers.  The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens.  He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration.  Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

In fact, of one were really living out the teaching of Jesus there would be no need to sue over a perceived insult.  The brother forgives his brother.  Given the cultural background above, this is counter-cultural and radical!

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context?  At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger.  This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.

1 Corinthians 1-4 – The Problem of Division

It is well known that the church at Corinth had “divisions” over leadership.  Some considering Paul their authority, other Apollos, others Peter, and still others accepted only Jesus as their authority.  It is possible that these divisions represent competing house churches, some founded by Paul, some by Apollos.  But even if there are multiple house churches founded by different leaders, Paul passionately argues that the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way.  In fact, these divisions are a sign of worldliness.  How can the presence of “divisions” be described as “worldly?”

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Bruce Winter details the Greco-Roman practice of discipleship in the second chapter of After Paul Left Corinth. He finds that there is a great deal of parallels between the disciple-teacher relationship in the culture of Corinth and the problem of divisions in the church over the authority of teachers. Dio Chrysostom visited Corinth about A.D. 89-96.  He described the activities of the disciples of the Sophists – the professional orators who were able to command large audiences, high fees for educating youth, and often a great deal of power within the city.   There was extreme competition among the orators for honor and power.  The better the orator, the higher the fee, and the more disciples he will attract.  Dio Chrysostom complained that Corinth was filled with “wretched” sophists, many of whom were debating one another with “shouting and abuse” near the temple to Poseidon.  (I suppose that if Dio were commenting on the modern world, he would describe the “wretched bloggers” shouting abuse at the temple of WordPress…!)

Paul enters this world of “wretched Sophists” and preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He gathers disciples and establishes a church, a meeting place for educating his disciples.  He begins the process of developing them into leaders who will also preach the gospel and found more churches. The Gentiles coming into this new Church do not seem to be able to see the differences between it and a Greco-Roman philosopher gathering disciples and educating them in a particular philosophy.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul consciously avoids disciple-teacher language.  Paul did not want to present the Gospel as an orator, competing for students as they did.  In fact, Paul never claims disciples.  This is really what is behind his disclaimer on baptism in 1 Cor 1:14-16.  He come to Corinth to create a community of disciples from which he might receive patronage and prestige.

Paul does not want to be considered a philosopher who is gathering disciples, nor does he want that for Apollos or Peter or any man.  So rather that detailing their accomplishments as orators, Paul describes their functions (Paul planted, Apollos watered, etc.)   Christians are all disciples, or better, stewards and servants of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1).

The real problem behind the “divisions” is that the church continues to act like Christianity is just another philosophy, and teachers are in competition with each other just as the Greek orators competed.  They are still acting “just like the world.”  This is the challenge of the “divisions” in 1 Corinthians –  how does the modern church act “just like the world”? In what ways have we failed to “de-paganize”? I do not think things have improved much since the first century.

Corinth as “Sin City”

Since I am spending time in Corinth this week (in class, not it real life, sadly enough), I thought I would dispense right away with the classic Pastor’s preaching point that Corinth was a “San Francisco of the ancient world.”  I think Chuck Swindoll said that, so most pastors have picked it up and try to illustrate how bad Paul’s church was by comparing it to Haight-Ashbury circa 1969.  This is one of those points that gets picked up in a commentary and repeated with little additional research, sadly it is not exactly accurate.

Usually the evidence for this sexual freedom is that the city was built around two ports and attracted sailors.  In addition, there is usually some reference to the temple of Aphrodite with 2000 prostitutes.  While the reputation is deserved, it has little to do with the city that Paul visited – all of these sorts of things were true of Greek Corinth, almost 400 years prior to the time of Paul!  I cite Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

Such success inevitably provoked the envy of those less fortunate in their location and less industrious in their habits, and so in the 5th–4th centuries b.c., Athenian writers made Corinth the symbol of commercialized love. Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazesthai, “to fornicate” (Fr. 354).  Philetaerus and Poliochus wrote plays entitled Korinthiastes, “The Whoremonger” (Athenaeus 313c, 559a). Plato used korinthia kore, “a Corinthian girl,” to mean a prostitute (Rest. 404d). These neologisms, however, left no permanent mark on the language, because in reality Corinth was neither better nor worse than its contemporaries. (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1135).

In fact, the whole Roman empire at the time Paul visited the Corinth had sexual morals that were significantly different than those of the Jews and the early Christians. Corinth was no less moral that Ephesus or Thessalonica.  This is not to say that the city of Corinth was virtuous, no one was singing “I Wish They Could All Be Corinthian Girls.”  Perhaps it is better to think of the Greco-Roman world as having a radically different sexual ethic as Christianity.  The type of sexual morality Paul’s gospel demands simply cut across the grain of the culture of the Greco-Roman world, as it should in the modern world.