The Best Story Not in the Bible
Okay friends. Today is going to be more intense than usual. I've seen this passage coming for a long time and have been waiting for (dreading?) the day that I would have to deal with it.
Today's passage is a great story about Jesus - a favorite of a number of people. Portrayed in several Jesus movies. The problem? Most scholars agree that it shouldn't be in the Bible. The area of study that we'll be talking about today that deals with these kinds of issues is called "Textual Criticism". Here's the beginning of the entry on Textual Criticism from "The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms":
"The scholarly discipline of establishing the text as near to the original as possible or probable. Since we no longer have any original manuscripts, or “autographs,” scholars must sort and evaluate the extant copies with their variant wordings." 
To summarize a HUGE area of study, the goal of textual criticism is to sort through the large number of copies we have of the NT, check for differences between them, and make decisions on what the original text said. This is why, when you read a church or Christian organizational doctrinal/belief statement, you will almost always see statement about the Bible refer to "original manuscripts" or "original autographs". Take LIALC's Statement of Faith for instance, which says: "The 66 canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice." (emphasis mine)
I'm going to take the liberty of summarizing A LOT about this particular passage and it's issues. There are two main considerations when understanding whether or not a text is "original" in a book like John or not: external (Is it in early manuscripts? Is it in many manuscripts?, etc.) and internal (Does it make sense in the book's context? Is the vocabulary consistent with the rest of the book?, etc.). In the case of this passage in John:
External: Earliest manuscripts do not have it, suggesting that it was added later. This is usually acknowledged in a footnote or other note in modern Bibles.
Internal: The passage moves from the Feast of Booths, addressing a crowd, to this scene suddenly, the seemingly back to the crowd. The transition could be okay, but seems unnatural. Try removing this section and see how much easier things seem to flow, then read with it back in again. It seems awkward. Also, there are some "grammatical anomalies" in the passage, meaning that the Greek writing is slightly off from how John usually writes, also suggesting that this was not original.
So now the question is, "Why is this in the Bible?" If most scholars think it shouldn't be, why is it there? The answer is a bit complicated, but has a lot to do with history. Again, summarizing this issue, an early version of the Bible put together by a man named Jerome included this passage. The Catholic Church used this version extensively and even confirmed it as the "official" Bible of the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (following the Reformation). This locked this particular passage (and a couple of other doubtful ones) in for a lot of people. So why do Protestant Bibles still include this passage with a note? The best explanation is that people have grown attached to this passage. Even though we have a lot more knowledge of the Bible than previous generations and I can explain an issue like this (hopefully) without shattering anyone's faith, there are A LOT of people that would be upset about someone "taking something out of the Bible" (even if it shouldn't have been there in the first place). So....that brings us today, with a passage that there that shouldn't be, and a note about it.
The NIVAC John commentator, Gary Burge, feels that the passage isn't original but IS a true story about Jesus, meaning that it is something that actually happened and was told about orally, then added to the passage later. This is interesting, but doesn't really solved any issues.
We believe that the originals are inspired by God and without error. So what does this mean about THIS passage, which was not originally there? Does it have errors? It possibly could. We can't know. What we DO know is that no major doctrine stands or falls on this passage, and it doesn't contradict anything else we know from the Bible. In the end, I would say that this passage is "useful and helpful". Does it tell us anything we don't know about who Jesus was? No. But it is a memorable story that shows us more of what we ALREADY know? Yes. I don't think we need to hate this passage or anything, but I truly believe that it would be much easier for everyone if it were removed from modern Bibles. There would be a lot of upset people for a while, but I simply think that the evidence for it isn't there. There are a few other of these issues, most notably the ending of Mark. I would like to reiterate again that NO major doctrine stands or falls on any of these passages.
This is a complicated issue, both technically and emotionally for a lot of people. I think this is mostly because generally as churches in America we don't educate ourselves about our faith and can sometimes tend more toward superstitious belief rather than Biblical belief, particularly when it comes to our beliefs about the Bible itself. My suggestion if you're worried about this or confused or want to know more is to first of all pray for God to make things clear to you. Second: don't be afraid to ask. I've done a ridiculous amount of summarizing here, so please ask if you're confused or wan to know more. Last of all, read up on it. If you really want to know more about textual criticism or this passage in particular, I have some good places to start. There is a ministry called "Reclaiming the Mind" that has a lot of quality stuff. Here are some articles:
Text Criticism in a Nutshell - This is a great article that goes through the basics of textual criticism, but much deeper than I've gone here. Lot of good information about the Bible and the process of textual criticism. READ THIS ONE!
My Favorite Passage That's Not in the Bible - My title for this post is borrowed from this one. A brief post that has to do with this passage in particular. Some good and random thoughts, mostly in response to the book Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
This last one is a special for all of you. If you'd like to go super in depth on this passage, check out this PDF of the entire NIVAC John Commentary on this section.