Observant readers of my reflections on John 4:19-24 will have noticed that I skipped one verse. In the middle of the powerfully inclusive vision Jesus articulated to the Samaritan woman he is reported to have said to her,

22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

This sounds oddly judgmental, exclusive and narrowly ethnic. It sounds like a contradiction to everything else Jesus has said in his encounter with this Samaritan woman. Whole books have been written trying to explain this one verse. At the same time, many commentators just skip over it, befuddled by the apparent contradiction between this verse and the clear intention of the rest of the text.

The “you” in verse 22 is plural. Jesus is not addressing the Samaritan woman individually. He may rather be speaking about the Samaritans in general. If Jesus is referring to the Samaritans, his statement here bears similarity to Paul’s declaration to the Athenians to whom he said,

as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23)

There is “knowing” and there is “knowing”. We say “I know it’s Monday.” And we say, “I know I love you.” We use the same word but do not mean the same thing. “Knowing” happens at varying levels.

I am always called to go deeper in my “knowing”. There may be moments when I touch something inside myself and truly “know”, but then that “knowing” slips away and I find myself again, not “knowing”, or only “knowing” in a superficial way. The Athenians and the Samaritans both knew and did not know. The same can be said of Jesus’ disciples who seem again and again throughout the Gospels to get it and then lose it.

Jesus is coaxing the Samaritan woman to a knowing deeper than, “I know it’s Monday.” He is leading her to a place within herself where she can know that, no matter how seriously she may have been abused in the past, her true identity lies in a place deeper than anything she has ever suffered. The success of Jesus’ strategy will be seen in the boldness of spirit in this woman by the end of the story. She is no longer driven by the fear that caused her to go to the well in the heat of the day to avoid social interaction. After her encounter with Jesus she is able to speak strongly and convincingly to people who in the past seem to have shunned her. She is able to speak with such authority that the people of her village act upon her words and go to see for themselves the person about whom she has spoken.

What the Samaritans will see when they visit Jesus is what Jesus calls “salvation”. Among other connotations, the word means “deliverance”. The context of this story suggests that Jesus has been pointing the Samaritan woman to “deliverance” from her bondage to the ethnicity, rigid religious ritual, and social expectation that has been the source of her suffering. This message of liberation is coming to the Samaritans, and to the world, from a Jew. Thus “salvation” is, as the King James Translation has it, “of the Jews.” It is “of the Jews” not in the sense that it is their possession but that it is being transmitted through the Jewish race by Jesus to the entire world.

Jesus came to break down the barriers of ethnicity, religion, law, and gender bias. He sought to liberate all people to worship “in spirit and in truth”. Here, early in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ mission is announced most dramatically to a person who is from a marginalized sector of Jewish society (a woman) and who is part of a culture that, for many Jews was judged unacceptable (the Samaritans). Jesus could not have chosen a more radical expression of the inclusive and expansive nature of his announcement of a “house” in which “there are many dwelling-places” (John 14:2).