Rethinking the Samaritan Woman
This is from my forthcoming Everyday Bible Study volume on the Gospel of John. (Link to the one on Acts.) I am indebted to Lynn Cohick and Caryn Reeder and Amy-Jill Levine for how I read this passage.
Photo by mrjn Photography on Unsplash
A Samaritan Woman’s Witness about Jesus
John 4:1-42 (NIV)
4:1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans. )
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.
18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
Because Jesus’ reputation was climbing social scales, mostly due to the baptisms of so many by Jesus’ own followers (4:1-2), he grabbed the attention of the Pharisees of Jerusalem. Which meant pressure on his ministry from the authorities, so he decided to return to Galilee, which meant, for one such trip, traveling through Samaria (4:3). In Samaria about noon one day he was near a well and had a stunning conversation with a woman. In this chapter we have two stories woven together: one about the disciples (4:1-3, 27, 31-38) and one about the woman (4:4-26, 27-29, 30-42). As Rodney Reeves has written, she becomes the witness while the ones sent to witness are dumbfounded (Reeves, Spirituality according John, 82-93).
People gain reputations over time and not all of them are accurate and most of them are exaggerations. For some Martin Luther was a hothead, John Calvin a dry, mean-spirited legalist, and John Wesley an inattentive husband, Jonathan Edwards a fierce, loveless preacher of a fierce, wrathful God, D.L. Moody a huckster of the gospel, and Billy Graham a wannabe politician.
One woman after another in the history of the church has been diminished by exaggerations and distortions, including Phoebe Palmer and Mary Bethune and Anne Graham Lotz and Beth Moore and Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr and Aimee Byrd. Men have written nearly all the stories and men have given prominence to other men and not to women. But some of these women have been trashed.
John 4 tells a story about a woman whom Christians have distorted.
Clearing rubble to see the witness to Jesus
So we have to clean out some nasty rubble that has accumulated around the Samaritan woman (Levine; Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 122-128; Reeder). Her statement trades in a stereotype when she says to Jesus, “You are a Jew [or Judean] and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (4:9). Yes, Jews of Jerusalem and Samaritans were often at odds with one another, but there is nothing that unusual for Jesus to cross boundaries, which is why the disciples didn’t even bother to ask (cf. 4:27). Rubble.
What is unusual is how intense the conversation is between Jesus and this woman, as if there’s nothing one bit unusual about it. What makes it unusual is many live in a stereotype that Jesus and teachers don’t talk with women. Rubble.
There is no evidence that dissolute women went to water wells alone because other women couldn’t associate with them. Rubble.
The rubble has especially collected around one simple statement, and we read it in verse eighteen: “You have had [or you had] five husbands. (The NIV adds “The fact is.”) For most this means she was sexually promiscuous and unfaithfiul. Add to this another simple statement that gathers rubble: “and the man you now have is not your husband” (4:18). Rubble, rubble.
The text does not say any of this.
The rubble is that many … no, scratch that, almost all have seen the woman as sexually promiscuous and read the entire passage through the lens of an immoral woman. To quote a summary reading of this sort, Lynn Cohick writes, “the Samaritan woman has been harshly treated by centuries of commentators who have labeled her a promiscuous vixen bent on seducing unsuspecting men, and who therefore becomes the village pariah” (Cohick, Women in the World of Earliest Christians, 128). Caryn Reeder runs us through the history of Christian readings of this woman and most have interpreted her as an erotic, as sexually promiscuous, and as an adulterer. She mentions Tertullian, Origen, and John Chrysostom, influential theologians of the early church. From other periods in church history, she finds the same degrading reading in John Calvin, Clara Lucas Balfour, D.L. Moody, and in the contemporary church she mentions Liz Curtis Higgs, Barbara J. Essex, and John Piper. Not many are like Mary DeMuth who see her more in terms of victim.
Back to the rubble of assuming she was an erotic and sexually promiscuous woman. Not once is that suggested in this passage. Not once. Christian readers have destroyed this woman’s character on the basis of a presumption without evidence. Why would a woman have five husbands and now a man who is not her husband? Anyone who knows Judaism can think of more than the sexually-promiscuous or immoral-woman view. Her husbands could have died. Not at all impossible. She could have been passed around through the laws of levirate marriage in which if a man died, his brother took under his care his brother’s wife. Not at all impossible. She could have been divorced a time or two, perhaps especially if she was a barren woman. Not at all impossible. She could be said to “have” a man, and the word could mean nothing more than “man” and not “husband,” because she was a concubine of a Roman leader who could not marry a woman of lower class. Committed cohabitation was a known institution in that world, too. Or, more likely, she was under the care of her brother, her former husband’s brother, or an uncle. Such explanations are not only possible but should be our first instincts.
Perhaps more telling against the traditional reading of the woman as immoral are the following: (1) Jesus carries on an extensive back-and-forth with her, (2) she becomes a witness of Jesus (3) without Jesus ever saying she needed to repent from something, (4) her story and Nathanael’s are very much alike (1:43-51), (5) no one in the village seems to distrust her as a promiscuous woman. In fact, (6) she wields powerful influence in the community. What seems most likely is that she’s a leader in the community.
The conversation about Jesus
Jesus engages the Samaritan woman in a conversation, but it’s not a fireside chat about Roman emperors. Jesus’s back-and-forth was shaped for her to see who he was so she could become a witness about Jesus. The conversation moves through four phases, with the woman responding to Jesus’ metaphors with literal misperceptions (as Nicodemus did in chapter three) that climb their way into an overt confession of who Jesus is (way beyond what Nicodemus did). We might ask ourselves why we adore Nicodemus and denigrate this woman.
Phase one (4:7-12). Jesus had asked the woman for a drink of water. She pushed back a bit, wondering why he, a Jew, would ask such from a Samaritan. His answer shifts a few lanes over with considerable speed. If she but knew the “gift of God” and “who it is” that wanted a drink, he could have given her “living water.” (These terms are clarified at 7:37-39 and go back to Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13, if not also other prophets.) The speed shifts here, and even for well-read Bible people the shifts are not immediately clear. But the three expressions just quoted are all pointing her to think about Who Jesus Is. Like Nicodemus, she thinks literally: Jesus has no bucket, the well is deep, and so she asks where he can draw this “living water.” She’s on her way to comprehending Jesus because she overtly wonders aloud if Jesus is greater than Jacob, whose well it was originally. Jacob dug a well; Jesus is the spring that provides running water (Thompson, John, 99-100).
Phase two (4:13-15). Jesus doesn’t back up to clarify what “living water” meant. He moves on to another revelatory saying that challenges her even more. The well water slakes thirst for a moment but those who drink his living water “will never thirst” because it wells up to “eternal life.” The Samaritan woman, clearly not yet perceiving the revelation of who Jesus is, realizes forever-water is the best offer yet: “Give me this water” but her reason is “so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here.” She’s stalled in her perceptions of Jesus.
Phase three (4:16-20). Jesus hops lanes when he responds to her request for forever-water with “Go, call your husband and come back.” Another Nathanael moment. He knows about her without her having said one word about husbands. Her response is that she has no husband, and Jesus’s is that she’s had five of them and the one she’s with now is not a husband – so she’s right, she has no husband. She’s beginning to realize even more Who Jesus Is when she says he’s a “prophet.” But she shifts lanes to the issue between Samaritans and Jews over which mountain is God’s.
Phase four (4:21-26). Jesus transforms the terms of her question from either Mt Gerizim or Mt Zion to “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” even though he sees the Samaritans as unorthodox and the Jews as orthodox. In fact, “salvation is from the Jews.” True worship transcends geographical location because (1) “God is spirit [or Spirit]” and (2) the right worshipers “must worship in Spirit and truth.” The Samaritan woman realizes Jesus is talking eschatology, that is, the time when all truth will be embraced because the Messiah will settle all old scores. He will “explain everything to us.”
Four phases now come to one single conclusion, and it’s from the mouth of Jesus: “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.” This is the first “I am” statement of Jesus in the Gospel. Jesus is that Messiah. The entire conversation, despite lane shifting and speed changes, was led by Jesus so she could see that he, the man asking for water and talking with her, was himself the “living water” and more than a prophet. The question shaping the entire Gospel is “Who is Jesus?” and one of the answers is “Messiah.” Revelations like this lead to confession and witness. The account is not yet complete.
Jesus teaches the disciples
Before we get to anything like a confession or witness, John interrupts the narrative with the return of the disciples, who had gone into the city to acquire food (4:8). They are both surprised Jesus was talking with the woman but unwilling to break the ice by asking about that. So they turn to food: “eat something,” they say to their “Rabbi” (4:31).
One more time Jesus shifts lanes with a loud voice when he utters “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (4:32). Like Nicodemus, like the woman, they go all literal on him when they wonder aloud if someone else brought him food. (We, the readers, know just how shallow their response is, but had we been there, we’d have said the same.)
Jesus explains. “My food … is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4:34). That metaphor explained so directly must have led to perception by the disciples. But he changes lanes again, this time to the metaphor of fields, harvests, sowers and reapers. They are about gospeling, witnessing to Jesus, one person sowing and another person reaping, they are the reapers, and they get to harvest people for eternal life (4:35-38). Instead of eating their food he is casting images for them to see their mission is to be witnesses.
Like the Samaritan woman’s mission.
While they sit there thinking about food and why Jesus was talking to the woman and what he meant by the word “food.”
The witness about Jesus and by Jesus
The interruption of the narrative is over. The Samaritan woman, seemingly so joyous over Jesus’s claim to be Messiah (4:26), forgets her water vessel (4:28), returns to the city and solicits the folks to come out to the well and meet the Messiah (4:29). So they did. Her witness to Jesus led to “many” turning to believing in Jesus (4:39), and it was all because of her experience with Jesus as the one who knew her life (4:39). Revelation, confession, and witness lead to a city wanting Jesus to reside with them, which he does for two days, which led to even more believers (4:40-41).
Their reasons, however, were not just because of her witness but because they had seen Jesus up close and personal. Which is what reading this Gospel does to people: they encounter the Logos, the Life, the Lord, the Lamb of God – the Messiah. For them he was the “Savior of the world” (4:42; a favorite term in Isaiah, note 43:3; 45:15, 21-22; 49:26).
Now we need to back yet again. Some people acquire unjust, demeaning, degrading reputations because Christians sit in judgment on them. In the case of the Samaritan woman we need to repent and we need to restore her to her true character: a Samaritan seeker who met Jesus and became a powerful witness to Jesus as their Messiah. When we clear out the rubble by repentance and restoration, we find yet another admirable woman in the Gospels.
Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 131-138.
Caryn A. Reeder, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022).
I’ve been through three years of seminary and in second year of masters, and never had this perspective presented. Part of that’s on me because (clearly) I need to read wider but we definitely have a problem with the ‘rubble’ and it is robbing so many of the depths of scripture. This is refreshing and encouraging. Thanks Scot.
I cannot but remember how perfectly shamed I felt when reading Levine’s work a few years ago. There were so many other, and more sufficient, suppositions to her having had 5 husbands and living with one who is not, but one need not consider another when sultry slut is on the table. It says far more about me and all of us who accepted that without much consideration than it ever said about her. However, I agree that her name needs redeeming, and we need repenting.
The tie back to Nathanael! It’s right there, but I had never seen it. This has planted some seeds in my brain. Thank you.