The Gospels are understandably spare in their recounting of the life of Jesus. The expense and trouble involved in producing and promulgating the written word two millennia ago meant every word counted in a way that is almost unfathomable to us now. Mark, the briefest of the Gospels, is shorter than a long-form magazine piece today.
John is the next-shortest of the Gospels, and it’s there that we have the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. In a 42-verse telling of the story from start to finish, all we hear her sharing with her neighbors of that remarkable encounter — besides the fact that he’s the Messiah and she’s here to proclaim it — is “He told me everything I ever did.”
Which sounds beautiful until you contemplate how that might sound if it happened to you. And John doesn’t go there. All we really get from the text is that she had five husbands — an intimation of some tough life experiences for sure, even in a Samaritan culture where two or three marriages wouldn’t be eyebrow-raising but a whole handful would.
Still, it’s a remarkable vignette, and a vivid one to imagine. And as with all the Gospel retellings, John’s recounting of this one leaves big margins for our minds to play in.
Christianity is a historical faith, with a historical figure in Jesus. Even if he were perfect, the folks around him certainly weren’t. They were as human as we are, and there would have been a lot of downtime for subplots to play out.
But how to explore that without wrecking a largely word-based faith where there can be a heavy price to pay for straying from the accepted text?
Jesus Christ, superstar
If you’re the evangelical director Dallas Jenkins, son of one half of the authors of the “Left Behind” series, you do it carefully. And you end up with “The Chosen,” the crowdfunded streaming series about the life of Jesus that’s been a runaway hit, logging hundreds of millions of viewers and getting picked up by a major network.
High production values and a global pandemic that hit right after the first of three seasons didn’t hurt, but the show didn’t exactly fade in popularity once our entertainment options returned to pre-pandemic norms.
Because of that faithful risk-taking, those of us who have gone along for the journey have been rewarded on several levels — not the least of which is the ability to see some of those margins around the best-known Gospel stories get colored in and come to life.
For starters, what kinds of arguments would Peter and his wife have had (starting, say, with that fateful decision to basically stop working for a living)? What if Matthew were neurodiverse? And how did an average day play out for him — being a dutiful tax collector for the Romans and also so deeply despised by his own people that he worked under the watchful eyes of imperial guards?
“The Chosen” tackles all that and more. If you need to see a literal dramatization of how five loaves and two fishes fed 5,000, you get it in the Season Three finale. A fully CGI-enabled depiction of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water? Same episode.
But it’s not the life of Jesus without miracles both large and small. We get the powerful healing scenes — including a whole heart-rending backstory for the bleeding woman — and we get to feel what it must have been like for Jesus to tell you your own life story.
It’s in those small, interpersonal “tell no one” moments that “The Chosen” feels as though it’s taking the equivalent of a bellows to the spark of the Gospel retellings and ever so gently fanning them. The music swells, the credits roll, and you find yourself reaching for the forward button on the remote.
It’s how Season One closes out, with the final episode giving us the story of Jesus launching his ministry by evangelizing a world-weary woman who in that moment wanted anything but the spotlight.
What really happened at that well?
At this point the faithful viewer has spent seven episodes watching Jesus assemble the disciples while genuinely struggling with the decision of when and how to launch his ministry. Once he does, he leads the gang on a surprise detour through Samaria — a land whose inhabitants no righteous Jew would dare associate with.
Jesus then proceeds to hang back at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day, noontime being a low-demand time for water-fetching in that hot climate, and therefore pretty much a guarantee of solitude, both for Jesus and the woman who shows up to draw some water.
We know from the Gospel of John how their conversation starts, with Jesus asking her for a drink, which is startling to her on several levels. She soon expresses her doubts and feelings of unworthiness and says she won’t trust anyone until the Messiah comes.
As in the Gospel telling, Jesus then reveals in a roundabout way what he knows about her marital status.
The script imagines the rest.
JESUS: The first one was named Ramin. You were a woman of purity who was excited to be married, but he wasn’t a good man. He hurt you, and it made you question marriage and even the practice of your faith.
PHOTINA: Stop it.
JESUS: The second was Farzad. On your wedding night his skin smelled like oranges, and to this day, every time you pass by the oranges in the market, you feel guilty for leaving him, because he was the only truly godly man you’ve been with, but you felt unworthy.
PHOTINA: Why are you doing this?
JESUS: I have not revealed Myself to the public as the Messiah. You are the first. It would be good if you believed Me.
PHOTINA: You picked the wrong person.
JESUS: I came to Samaria just to meet you. Do you think it’s an accident that I’m here in the
middle of the day?
PHOTINA: I am rejected by others.
JESUS: I know… but not by the Messiah.
PHOTINA: And you know these things because you are the Christ. I’m going to tell everyone.
JESUS: I was counting on it.
It’s a 100 percent made-up dialogue. And it works, in the way that colorizing old movies works — by being additive without changing the plot. For those who find it enriching, it’s there for the taking.
Imagining even more teachable moments
By adding narrative and dialogue to that which we already know, “The Chosen” provokes an emotional response in a modern audience with — let’s face it — less imagination than our forebears. If the modern ritual of nightly TV viewing is the current descendant of the millennia-long practice of telling stories around a fire, then what we’re long accustomed to now is an infinitely richer kind of storytelling.
And if the role of art (of which entertainment is a form) is to provoke an emotional response, then “The Chosen” does that for our modern eyes and ears by layering in not just narrative and dialogue, but entire scenes and imagined backstories.
So what was the point of the extended dialogue at Jacob’s well? Maybe it’s an extended riff on the theme of supernatural power tempered with humility that characterizes the life of Jesus. In that short dialogue at the well, we see Jesus communicating on two levels: Yes, I am the Messiah who knows your life story. And also, that Messiah needs you (yes, you) for all of this to work.
And when it doesn’t quite work, we get another lesson in what it looks like to reach for humility instead of power — the proverbial turning of the other cheek — thanks again to some narrative infill in the form of a scene where Jesus, John and Big James are walking down a road and encounter some as-yet unreconstructed Samaritans.
John and James are prattling on excitedly about their plans for the ministry (spoiler: they see big roles for themselves), when they cross paths with said Samaritans, who insult them and spit on them. The two disciples bristle and lunge, and as Jesus physically restrains them, it’s not hard to imagine that had he not, the encounter could have escalated to violence.
The Samaritans pass while Jesus holds the two men back.
JESUS: I said, “Quiet!”
JOHN: Let us do something.
JESUS: And what would that achieve?
JAMES: Defending your honor. They reviled and humiliated you.
JOHN: They deserve to have bolts of lightning rain down and incinerate them.
JAMES: Yes, fire from the heavens.
JOHN: You said we could do things like that. Say the word, and it will happen.
JAMES: Why not? We knew we couldn’t trust these people; we shouldn’t have come here
in the first place. They don’t deserve you!
JESUS: Why do you think I had you work Melech’s field? What was I trying to teach you?
JAMES: To help.
JESUS: You think it was just to be more helpful, or to be better farmers? It was to show you
that what we’re doing here will last for generations. What I told Photina at the well, and what she then told so many others… it’s sowing seeds that will have a lasting impact for lifetimes.
Can you not see what’s happening here? These people that you hate so much are believing in me without even seeing miracles. It’s the message, the truth, that we’re giving them. And you’re going to get in the way of that, because a few people, from a region you don’t like, were mean to you? That they’re not worthy? What? You’re so much better? You’re more worthy? Well, let me tell you something, you’re not… that’s the whole point! It’s why I’m here.
It’s a crucial crossroads for the nascent ministry, depicted in a made-up scene that shows just how vulnerable the whole project is to the whims of the same humans who are just as capable of soul-shattering redemption as they are of permanently canceling each other out of expediency.
So, whose show is it?
As Jesus, the actor Jonathan Roumie plays it beautifully. The certainty. The uncertainty. The side glances at the disciples, who more than once bring to mind the old saying about cat-herding. The “I see you” moments where he conducts his one-to-one soul piercing of Mary Magdalene (depicted here as essentially suffering from PTSD), of the lame man at Bethesda, and of the woman at the well.
I mean, it’s one thing to say you’re up to inhabit the role of Jesus — and quite another to agree to do it in a production that’s anything but a paint-by-numbers telling. (Willem Dafoe in “The Last Temptation of Christ” comes to mind.)
But while “The Chosen” avoids even quasi-blasphemy, it’s faithful without being fearful. It’s one thing to imagine the backstories of the disciples, or the bleeding woman — but it’s quite another to imagine some additional red-letter dialogue and go for it.
We’re getting, in the words of director Dallas Jenkins, a narrative telling.
It’s tailor-made for someone like me, who finds the historical nature of Christianity endlessly fascinating. The story of Jesus the carpenter’s son — born in a backwater town in a far-flung province of an oppressive empire, whose impact on the people around him was such that it reverberates to this day — engages me on a secular level that I can’t separate from the spiritual one, nor just conflate with it.
It also surpasses any need I might have for the Bible to contain the whole story, because I just don’t have that need.
Does that put me in a minority among the viewership of “The Chosen”? Or a majority? Or somewhere in between?
It didn’t surprise me that the director, Dallas Jenkins, is an evangelical. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the bulk of the crowdfunding and general excitement over “The Chosen” is coming from the conservative side of Christianity rather than the liberal one.
But understanding that both liberal and conservative Christians are equally capable of Biblical literalism — and that both archetypes are likely to be represented among its audience — I waited for some sort of shoe to drop.
And that shoe was rainbow-colored. There was a kerfuffle. Some folks tweeted lightning bolts. But the waters seem to have calmed, the boat is still upright — and rather than being cancelled, “The Chosen” has been picked up by a network.
In the scene with John and Big James, after Jesus assures them that their early version of cancel culture would end the ministry almost as soon as it began, they apologize.
JAMES: I’m sorry.
JOHN: I’m sorry, Rabbi.
JESUS: As we gather others, I need you to help show the way, to be humble.
JAMES: We will.
JESUS: You wanted to use the power of God to bring down fire to burn these people up?
JOHN: Well, it sounds a lot worse when you say it that way.
[Later, they encounter Simon.]
SIMON: James, John, you look terrible; what happened?
JESUS: What happened is that James and John needed to be reminded we’re here in Samaria
to plant seeds, not to burn bridges.
An adult convert to Christianity who somehow managed to grow up largely unchurched in the South but was always a spiritual seeker, Lance Helms (he/him) was baptized at age 28 and since 2006 has been a member of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta.