Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Caesarea Philippi. As they walked, Jesus quizzed the Twelve: “Who do people say that I am?” Various answers came back: John the Baptist (now there’s a hard one to explain), Elijah, or some other prophet. Not many people, apparently, were saying that Jesus was the Messiah, whether from ignorance, fear, or both.
But Jesus seems to have had something else on his mind. “What about you? What do you guys say?”
I imagine the men hesitating. It’s easier to say what other people think than it is to commit to your own opinion, and they may have been unwilling to blurt out anything that might risk sounding stupid or pretentious. But Peter, always ready to jump in with both feet, gave a clear and direct answer: “You’re the Messiah!”
As the story is told in the gospel of Mark, Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “Good for you, Peter! You get a gold star for the right answer!” Instead, he warns them to keep it to themselves (Mark 8:27-30).
Biblical scholars have called this the “messianic secret” — the observation that in Mark, Jesus more than once instructs his followers not to tell others his identity. A number of explanations have been offered: everything from errors of translation (he didn’t really say it) to bad timing (it wasn’t time yet for people to know) to reverse psychology (if he tells them to keep it hushed up, then soon everyone will know).
Whatever the explanation, we get something very different in John. As we saw in an earlier post, the Samaritan woman, struggling to understand what Jesus was saying to her about living water and eternal life, indicated that she was waiting for the Messiah to come and make it all clear.
Jesus’ response is stunning. The NRSV has “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). He is declaring openly — to a Samaritan and a woman! — that he’s the one she’s been waiting for. But the CEB pushes the translation further: “I Am — the one who speaks with you.”
Either translation is possible. But the CEB banks on the fact that in John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly uses that phrase “I am” in a way that speaks of his unique identity and divine origin: “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), and so on.
On the lips of Jesus, “I am” means much more than it would if I were to say “I am Chinese” or “I am a blogger.” To a Jewish audience, the phrase echoes the divine name by which God revealed himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod 3:13-14). To devout Jews, the name itself to too holy to be said aloud. Even in our Bibles, rather than try to render the divine name directly into English, translators use the device of substituting the word “LORD” in all capitals each time it appears in the Hebrew text.
And there is at least one incident in John where his Jewish audience clearly understood him to be using the unutterable name. When Jesus said to them, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58), they picked up stones to execute him for blasphemy.
If, therefore, the CEB is correct, then Jesus is bestowing an enormous privilege upon this woman. She is a woman, and he shouldn’t be talking to her. She is a Samaritan, and should be his enemy, someone to be looked down upon. She has a past filled with tragedy, and a present that is yet uncertain.
But he sees before him an earnest woman looking for answers from God. There is no need to keep his identity secret.
“I AM. And I am right here in front of you.”