HERspective Part 8 – The Woman at the Well

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(Samaritan Woman at the Well – Painted by He Qi)

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Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39)

(Note: this post is adapted from a much longer, and more boring, paper that I wrote. But if you are weird, and want to read that instead, knock yourself out here)

The Woman at the Well (John 4: 1-42) is the Tamar of the New Testament. If you recall from Part 4, I pointed out the way Tamar’s story is always preached as her being this terrible sinner that God has grace on, which completely misses the point. The same is true with the woman at the well. Of this woman, Kenneth Gangel wrote, “here was a woman who lived outside the boundaries of any religious or cultural standards of her day. A string of five husbands followed by a lover is certainly not unknown in the twenty-first century, but it is hardly common even in our permissive society with its twisted tolerance for evil. In first-century Samaria, such a domestic arrangement was unthinkable.” Likewise, Paul Duke famously described her as “a five-time loser … currently committed to an illicit affair.” But are we missing the significance of this woman? To answer this question, we’ll have to look at why she has so often been read this way, and what a better reading might look like.

The Typical Reading

If you’ve heard the typical ways the woman at the well is preached, you know the drill. We know she is an immoral outcast for two main reasons. The first is that she comes to get water at noon. Apparently, all the women get water at the beginning and end of the day, so she must be trying to avoid the other women. The second reason is because Jesus later tells her that she has had 5 husbands, and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. But do these assumptions make sense?

In regards to the time, there is just not the evidence that women only went to the well at certain times of the day. The assumption that going at noon would help her avoid other women is unfounded. As for her husbands, this again makes no sense when we consider how women functioned in ancient times. If this woman has had five husbands, there are only two possibilities. One is death and the other is divorce. Neither of those things are her fault. Unless we are to assume she is a mass murderer, she can’t take the blame for husbands dying. And divorce? Women in ancient times did not have the power to divorce their husbands. Therefore, if some of her husbands had left her, it would have been their decision, not hers. What about the man she is living with? Well…what else is she supposed to do? As a widow or divorcee, she would need a man to support her. If that man refused to marry her, or took her as a concubine, what could she do about it? People who condemn this woman are reading their modern context into the text. 

It’s also important to consider what the text does not say. In John 8, Jesus interacts with a woman caught in adultery. At the end of the interaction Jesus explicitly says to her, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” However, no similar command is given to this Samaritan woman. Also, after meeting Jesus, the woman goes back to her town and invites the men and women to come and see Jesus. At her invitation, they follow to witness what she spoke of. It is very unlikely that if this woman was a sexually immoral outcast, who could not even fetch water near other women of the town, that the men and women of Samaria would openly follow her to meet Jesus.

A Better Reading

So if the point of this passage is not about Jesus making time for some low life outcast, what is it? To answer this question, we must flip back a page and look at John chapter 3 in comparison with John chapter 4. At the beginning of John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is described as a leader of the Jews. John adds the detail that he came to Jesus at night because he wants to remain hidden. The Samaritan woman is not ashamed of meeting Jesus. She meets him at noon, when the sun is the brightest. 

Nicodemus, an educated Pharisee, is unable to grasp what Jesus is saying. He is a leader of the people of God, yet does not respond to Jesus. Jesus criticizes him saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10). However, the Samaritan woman does begin to understand what Jesus is talking about and, though she is not religious leader, enters into the longest theological discussion recorded in the gospels. 

The Nicodemus narrative continues with Jesus stating “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18). Nicodemus is clearly the one who did not believe, while the Samaritan woman did. 

By the end of John 3, Nicodemus has disappeared from the story. However, the Samaritan woman returns to Jesus, bringing her entire town. Her town comes to know Jesus as the Messiah. The Pharisees demand a sign, yet this woman and her village do not demand one in order to embrace Jesus. This text does not paint the Samaritan woman as shameful, sexually immoral, or as an outcast who requires pity. Instead, the text raises her even above a well respected male religious leader.

Do you see how we’ve missed it? The point of this story is not that Jesus has mercy on a sinner. The point of the story is “Be like this woman!” This story breaks the boundaries of public and private as, not only does Jesus talk with a woman in public space during male time, but then sends her to go speak with the men in her village. The story breaks ritual boundaries as Jesus asks to share a drinking container with a Samaritan woman. The story even provides a role reversal as the male asking for a drink from the female, becomes the one serving water to her.

All of these boundary breaking components are lost when this woman is confined to the boundary of sexual stereotype. She is a model of the ones who truly worship in Spirit and truth, an example to be followed. She becomes a representative disciple of Jesus, a witness through her invitation and her words. 

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).