This blog entry discusses the conversation between Jesus and Mary at a well in Samaria, specifically in John 4:26. This is a revision of a section of my commentaries to The Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The book is available in hardcover and paperback; you will find ordering information here.
Here for the first time in the gospel Jesus reveals his being Messiah. That he does so to this woman tells us she is significant, and not merely a minor, nameless character who does not appear again. It forms an inclusio with chapter 20, where he reveals himself at his resurrection to the same woman, Mary, not just saying he is Messiah, but being fully realized as Messiah.
This verse is another deliberate double entendre. It is usually, and not incorrectly, translated as Jesus confirming her guess that he is Messiah, rendered in this translation as “I am (he), the one who is speaking to you.” In this sense he is referring to himself, at least as a vehicle for the message, for in this gospel his role as Messiah is as the chosen spokesperson (prophet, נְבִיא in Hebrew, προφητης in Greek) for God.
However, Jesus will use this odd syntactical construction many times in this gospel, which means (given an author for whom every detail is carefully chosen) it is significant. Jesus is instead, or also, saying to her the phrase ΈΓΩ ΈΙΜΙ, “I AM”. This is the Greek rendering of one of the seven most sacred names for God in the Torah, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, which is often translated “I Am What I Am”, but literally means “I Shall Be What I Shall Be”, though the Hebrew implies the past and present tenses too. In this sense, Jesus is referring not to himself but to God, except insofar as God communicates through him. He here speaks like the prophets of centuries past, who often spoke for God, in the first person, to give the sense that God was talking through the prophet. This sense is rendered in the translation as “I AM (is) the one who is speaking to you.” This gospel presents Jesus as Messiah in the Jewish sense, as an emissary from God, who as was traditional in classical cultures, is treated by those who receive him not as an emissary but as, in effect, the presence of the sending potentate – in this case, God. It is not to say Jesus equals God, as Christian dogma was later to claim, since the gospel sees him as wholly human, but rather that the presence and words of Jesus were and are to be taken as the presence and words of God who sent him as an emissary.
As discussed above [see the book], there are a lot of inclusio connections between this passage and 20:1-18. There is another that must be considered.
In chapter 20 in the Peshitta (the very early Aramaic version of the New Testament), Mary refers to Jesus thrice as ܡܳܪܝ (mary; “master”, “lord”, “husband”, “God”), in verses 2, 13, and 15; in these verses she doesn’t recognize Jesus standing before her. In the same passage Jesus refers to her once, at verse 15, as ܐܰܢ݈ܬ݁ܬ݂ܳܐ in Aramaic (“woman” or, especially, “wife”; the word in the Greek text is γυνη), and in verse 16 by her name. After that she almost certainly calls him mary again in verse 16, but that appears changed by the redactor (see the commentary to that verse), and she does speak of him as mary in verse 18.
In chapter 4 in the Peshitta, Mary refers to Jesus thrice as ܡܳܪܝ (mary), in verses 11, 15, and 19; in these verses she doesn’t recognize Jesus standing before her as Messiah. In the same passage Jesus refers to her once, at verse 21, as ܐܰܢ݈ܬ݁ܬ݂ܳܐ in Aramaic (“woman” or, especially, “wife”). But, in the standard text in neither Greek nor Aramaic, Jesus does not address her by her name. In this encounter by the well Jesus certainly knew her name, having learned it after the baptism from either Lazarus or John, and having come here to the well specifically to meet her again, because he wants her for his wife. Yet the close similarities in how the two conversations are structured force us to consider the possibility.
The redactor clearly has gone to some lengths to remove any hint that the marriage at Cana is Jesus’s own marriage to Mary. As discussed elsewhere, this scene at the well is separated from the wedding, and any clues as to the identity of the bridal couple are removed from the latter. Here also, I believe, the name “Mary” is removed, leaving the female character nameless and (apparently) never to reappear in the gospel, something very odd in a gospel where every detail is carefully managed.
If indeed in the original version Jesus did call her by name, it would be – as in chapter 20 – in the culminating moment of the conversation; that is, in this verse 26. In this moment when Jesus reveals himself as Messiah, it would be a finer moment if at the same time he reveals that he knows her name; he has already made it clear he knows she is a Temple priestess.
The Greek for what Jesus says in this verse, Εγω ειμι ο λαλων σοι, is reasonably clear in meaning, as discussed above. The Aramaic, ܐܶܢܳܐ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܠ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܥܰܡܶܟ݂ܝ, is not quite so clear. Literally, it translates as: “I I speak I with.” By adding a few words in parentheses to clarify the meaning implicit in the Aramaic, it is somewhat more readable: “I, I (who) speak with (you); (it is) I.” Still, this is not only confusing in English; even in Aramaic the grammatical structure of this sentence is rather unfocused, mainly because of the repeated personal pronoun at the beginning. However, if Mary’s name is added, it grows much clearer: ܐܶܢܳܐ ܡܳܪܝ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܠ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܥܰܡܶܟ݂ܝ (“I, Mary, I [who] speak with [you], [it is] I.”) That suggests in turn that the Greek might have originally read, Εγω ειμι Μαριαμ ο λαλων σοι (“I AM, Mary, who is speaking to you”).
Neither Aramaic nor Greek in the first century used punctuation; what punctuation you see in all of the translations herein, including the phrase above, was added because it is necessary in modern English. The lack of punctuation in the original can cause some ambiguity in meaning, and that ambiguity may well have been intentional. Adding to the ambiguity, the word ܡܳܪܝ could be understood as her name “Mary”, and also as mary, meaning “lord”, “master”, “teacher”, “husband”, and even “God”. With these factors in mind, Jesus in this sentence could be understood as saying:
a: “I am (your) lord/master (mary) (who) is speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus confirming himself to her as Messiah;
b: “I am (your) husband (mary), I (who) am speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus confirming the aspect of their conversation in which they subtly explore the possibility of marriage and agree to it;
c: “I AM, Mary, is speaking with (you).” This would be God speaking through Jesus to say Jesus is Messiah and that God, I AM, is speaking to Mary through him;
d: “I am (Messiah), Mary, I (who) am speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus answering personally (i.e., not God speaking through Jesus, but Jesus on his own) Mary’s comment about expectation of a Messiah; and even
e: “I AM / I am Mary, I speaking with (you). This would be God and/or Jesus speaking as Mary on Jesus’s lips stating that, since in God all humanity is one (John 17:23), then Jesus and Mary are not only one flesh in marriage but they are also one with each other and all humanity in God. Far from affirming opposition between Jew and Samaritan, this is Jesus affirming a perfect unity of all Creation.
Or, as I believe, not one but all of the above are implicit. Jesus here with one word, “Mary”, expresses his entire theology – just as he will again at 20:16 with the same name.