At the well

Today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is John 4:5-42: the story of the woman at the well. I have to confess, when I saw it listed in the church bulletin, I cringed a little. The Samaritan woman is one of my favorite characters in the Gospel of John. She’s theologically astute, politically aware, clearly respected in her community, and feisty. Traditional Christian interpretation, however, has turned her into a lazy, slutty sinner, an outcast in her community:

The Samaritan woman at the well is no angel. Mixed up with a wrong crowd, this poor woman from Samaria has quite a reputation. She had been married five times and was living in sin with a man who wasn’t her husband. Through her story comes the lesson that people shouldn’t live by carnal pleasure… Jesus has a lengthy but candid dialogue with her. He makes her understand that she needs to confess her sins and change her life before she can obtain this life-giving water — grace. (John Triqilio and Kenneth Brighenti, Women in the Bible for Dummies1)

The priest at St. George’s went another direction with his sermon this morning, barely touching on John 4 at all. But since I have your attention, oh reader, let’s think through the woman’s story.

The story starts with Jesus, tired from a long morning walk, sitting by a well, when a woman approaches to draw water. This scene sets the stage for the classic biblical meet-cute: Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage broker (Genesis 24:10-27), Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 29:1-12), Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 2:15-17)—they all met at wells. It’s a good place for a thirsty man to pick up a woman. The introduction to this story in John’s gospel raises these expectations for the audience.

The expectations are immediately challenged, though, by the woman’s identity: she is a Samaritan! And, as the narrator reminds us, Jews won’t have anything to do with Samaritans. The Jews saw the Samaritans as ritually unclean, and thought that contact with Samaritans would make them unclean too (see Mishnah Niddah 4.1-2). The woman is understandably surprised to find this Jewish man at her village’s well, talking to her and asking her for water. She may have even been afraid to find herself alone with a Jew, considering the very negative view of Samaritans held by the Jews—Josephus, for instance, calls them evil, envious, and enemies (Antiquities 11.84, 114; cf. John 8:48, Luke 9:52-54), and Jewish-Samaritan violence was common.

The second surprise comes in John 4:18: the woman is not single. She has been married five times, and she’s currently living with a man to whom she is not legally married. This summary of the woman’s marital status is the source of the assumption that the woman is a vile sinner. But consider this:

1. Sin is not mentioned in John 4:5-42. Jesus is not exactly shy about addressing sin in John’s gospel (e.g., 5:14, 8:24, 9:41), so if this story is about the forgiveness of a sinful woman, we would expect to have reference to her sin, or at the least a command to go and sin no more. The absence of sin from John 4 suggests the story is not about sin after all.

2. It was not uncommon for women to be married several times. In antiquity, women usually were married when they were fifteen years old or so; their husbands were generally ten to fifteen years older than them. It would be rather common for a woman to be widowed at a young age—and since society operated on the basis of male-centered households, she would need to remarry to gain access to legal, economic, and social connections. The Samaritan woman could have been widowed several times over. She also might have been divorced, though probably not by her own desire. While there is some evidence women could initiate divorce proceedings against their husbands, it was much more common for men to divorce their wives, perhaps to make a more advantageous match, or for more personal reasons. Again, a divorced woman would need to remarry to survive in society.

3. It was also not uncommon for men and women to live together without marriage. Official marriage was accompanied by legal restrictions: slaves could not legally marry, for instance; Roman citizens could not legally marry non-citizens; within Judaism, priests could not marry outside the priestly line. Economic reasons might also limit the possibility of an official marriage. Perhaps the man was wealthy but the woman was poor, or perhaps the man had grown children from an earlier marriage and therefore would not want to dilute the inheritance by adding in children from a second marriage. In these cases, instead of legal marriage, people could simply live together—what we might call a common law marriage today. It was not sinful; it was just another form of marriage without the legal or economic consequences of official marriage.2

The Samaritan woman’s marital status may be unusual; she seems to have been particularly unlucky with respect to her husbands. She is not, however, a sinner. So why does Jesus bring up her marital status in John 4:16-18? The answer is in the very next verse—when Jesus tells the woman her own story, she realizes he is a prophet. As with Nathanael in John 1:47-49, Jesus’ revelation of the woman’s personal history reveals his own identity to her. She later uses his knowledge to encourage her friends and neighbors to meet him (John 4:28-30, 39)—another sign that John does not present her as a sinner or social outcast, since her neighbors listen to her.

So, John 4 is not about sin. It is about salvation, however (see verses 14, 22-24, 35-38, 42). The question of salvation in John 4 centers on the identity of the people of God. Here is where the location of the story in Sychar (ancient Shechem – modern Nablus), at Jacob’s well, becomes important. Apart from the tombs purchased in Genesis 23, this land was the first bit of the promised land owned by Abraham’s family (Genesis 33:18-20). But by Jesus’ day, it was part of Samaria, inhabited by Samaritans. Moreover, the Samaritans had built their temple on Mt. Gerizim, looming over the city. Instead of being the ancient equivalent of a singles’ bar, the well in John 4 symbolizes contested space.

When the woman asks Jesus about worship in John 4:19-20, she is not deflecting attention from her marital status; she’s rather taking her chance to question this prophet on the issue at the heart of the centuries-long divide between the Jews and the Samaritans (cf. Ezra 4:1-5). Should God be worshiped in Jerusalem, like the Jews say? Or on Mt. Gerizim, like the Samaritans say? Which people is truly God’s people, the descendants of Jacob (note John 4:12)?

Jesus tells the woman that the place of worship does not matter; with this simple statement, he dismisses the battle for space, for ownership of the land. He does not dismiss the question of identity completely, however; in fact, he upholds the identity of the Jews as God’s true people (note verse 22: salvation is “from the Jews”). He goes on to say that this identity is changing. “The hour is coming, and now is”: right now, in Roman-occupied Palestine, in the city of Sychar, as Jesus is talking with a Samaritan woman, things are changing. The question of identity is no longer about Jew or Samaritan, but about “spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

In twenty verses, John’s story moves from meet-cute to the specter of racism to a question over national and religious identity, to finally end with the village of Sychar believing that Jesus is “Savior of the world.” And the woman with the unfortunate marital history, the woman who happened to come for water as Jesus was resting by the well, is the center of the story. She recognizes who Jesus is, and she tells her neighbors about him; while Jesus’ disciples are worried about feeding Jesus, she’s doing the work of Jesus’ ministry. Despite the claims of Women in the Bible for Dummies, the Samaritan woman is precisely an angel, ἄγγελος, a messenger to her people.

1Please note, I do not in any way recommend this particular resource for your biblical research!

2If you want to know more about marriage and divorce in the New Testament world, check out Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic, 2009).

11 comments on “At the well

  1. Emily Thomas Eaton says:

    I just finished reading Cohick’s “Women in the World of Earliest Christians” and thought about you! I am so glad that I came across this blog entry. I have often been frustrated with this particular lectionary reading because the focus has always been on how Jesus broke all the rules and “degraded” himself to talk to her. What people fail to mention is that she did the exact same thing! This woman is to be praised and honored, not disgraced. Thank you for your wise words! They are very encouraging. 🙂

  2. Lori says:

    Why would the woman have been going to the well at midday alone? I had learned from someone that women went to the well early in the day to avoid the midday heat. I was also led to believe that women usually went together. Can you shed light on that?

    • carynreeder says:

      Thanks for the question, Lori. I’ve heard that too. This idea (that it was unusual for the woman to go to the well alone, at midday) was first introduced in the 19th or early 20th century, I think. It seems that what happened was an interpreter identified the woman as a sinner, and then interpreted the timing of her visit to the well in light of that ‘fact’ (so she had to go alone at noon to avoid the other women in the village, who may have mistreated her). Actually, there’s no evidence from antiquity to suggest that women only went to wells together in the early morning, and surely people must have visited the well all day long as need arose. It’s also pretty clear from John 4:28-30 and 39-42 that the woman was accepted by her community (otherwise they wouldn’t have listened to her), so her water-drawing habits don’t seem to be unusual or somehow wrong. Here’s what Lynn Cohick says about this question: “While company certainly makes chores seem lighter, and so villagers might choose to work together, a lone person working in the fields, tending animals, or grinding grain should not immediately suggest suspect morality…. From the story’s standpoint, it makes sense that Jesus is thirst at noon, as opposed to, for example, 7:30 in the morning” (Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, p. 123).

      • Lori says:

        Thank you for your answer. Another question I have is how far away from the well might she have traveled. Would she need to be worried about safety traveling the distance alone?

      • carynreeder says:

        Palestine is a water-poor country, but not as water-poor as Saharan Africa, for instance. Villages were built around or next to wells – so the well would be centrally located, and very safe to visit alone.

  3. bethraps says:

    Caryn, you might want to know about this book, Obery Hendricks’ retelling of the woman at the well! It’s titled Living Water, and I just happened to blog about it this morning:

    and I just happened (!) to read Christena Cleveland’s post this morning in which she shares your post above about this same woman!

  4. Jocelyn Graber says:

    Caryn, thank you for this! I also have become quite frustrated about the usual interpretation of this passage of scripture (and others). Simply put, I think that interpreting this woman as such a wretched person, and focusing on her, takes our focus off of Jesus. I’ve often heard Jesus’ part in this story as crossing barriers. Ok. So what? I mean, that is important, but there is so much more to this story. For one thing Jesus knows her…. HE KNOWS HER! By inference, he knows ME. What a wondrous, life-giving thing… LIVING WATER at its best! How can we keep quiet if we have that kind of experience? This woman was filled to overflowing with such good news and brought her entire town to Jesus. We, on the other hand, sit in our pews and hear about her sinful nature and we don’t experience the Living Water that excites us, as it did this woman.
    Here is an interesting article, not about what I just said, but about the Samaritan sect. One note that I’ll make is that his article suggests that the five husbands are the ba’alim of the five nations of 2 Kings 17:24–41. Interesting! (I’ve never seen that in any commentary.) A final comment that I would make is that we tend to impose our own context on the Bible. After all, it is all that we know… unless we take time to learn about other cultures, including ancient ones. We have to be intentional about that. At the same time, I believe that the Bible applies to us today and we CAN find it very useful in our own contexts.

    • carynreeder says:

      Great thoughts! You’re absolutely right – it does take a little extra work to dig into the ancient context and understand the Bible within that context, rather than only within our own. But when the extra work helps us understand the Bible in new ways, and find new insights into the text – like the shift in focus from the woman’s sin to the fact that Jesus knows her, as you point out – it’s so worth it!

  5. Nicole says:

    I’ve never heard this exegesis of the story, only the sinner version. This, though, makes many of the details make much more sense, and is, to borrow from “The Life of Pi,” the better story. Thank you so much!

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