The Inquisitive Woman Commissioned by Jesus
The story is commonly told of a woman meeting Jesus at a well at midday. She is there at the hottest part of the day, we are told, because she has a shady past and wants to avoid her neighbours. Her shady past involves liaisons with a number of men, and Jesus reminds her that the one she is currently with is not her husband. Rather than address the issue at hand, the woman begins a theological discussion with Jesus. When his disciples return, they are shocked to find him speaking with a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that. One example of this type of sermon was given by well-known preacher John Piper, who describes the woman in a 2011 sermon as ‘a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot’ (reported in Huffington Post, 21st March 2011). The woman is clearly rendered a sinner in the eyes of those who tell it: a loose woman with whom Jesus deigns to spend time.
There are several problems with this interpretation of the tale. It assumes that the woman always goes to the well at midday, whereas all we know is that ‘she came to draw water’ at that time on this occasion. Many women with domestic responsibilities know how often things go wrong and delay daily chores. It assumes that the woman was free to divorce, and to remarry. Women in first century Palestine could not initiate divorce, unlike men, who could do so for trivial reasons. If then, she had been divorced this was not at her instigation. She has had the misfortune to marry five feckless husbands, rather than the temerity to divorce them. Divorce is not, then, the most likely scenario. Marriage itself is unlikely. According to Roman laws of the time, only the freeborn could marry. Freed slaves, of whom there were millions, were precluded from marriage, and freed women had to become concubines. The word Jesus uses (aner) simply means man, rather than husband as most English translations render it. Society of the time virtually precluded single women. Daughters were the property of fathers, wives the property of husbands. When a husband died, the woman was passed to his next of kin. This woman is unlikely to have been an adulteress then. She may have been barren, and so unwanted (Barker, 2014, 364-5), divorced (Duff, 2016, 99-100), or the victim of levirate marriage like Tamar, with the last man refusing to marry her as described by the Sadducees in Mark 12:18-27 (Schottroff and Wacker, 2007, 531; O’Day 1992, 296). Finally, the common interpretation takes no account of the fact that in much biblical interpretation, men who have more than one wife are seen as great, where a woman who might have had more than one husband is condemned. The common reading of the story does not do justice to it.
Representative of the despised
Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders (1999) interprets this incident as a ‘type story’, similar to the Hebrew Bible stories of Abraham’s servant meeting Rebecca, Jacob meeting Rachel and Moses meeting Zipporah at wells. The theme might also hint at Jesus as the bridegroom (John 3:29) and the launch of his ministry at a wedding (John 2). ‘The pattern or paradigm is the story recounting the meeting of future spouses who then play a central role in salvation history,’ (187) Schneiders says. Jesus, the true bridegroom, ‘comes to claim Samaria as an integral part of the New Israel’ (Schneiders, 1999, 187). In this telling of the story, the five husbands represent infidelity to the Mosaic covenant. The theological discussion that ensues is not a diversionary tactic, but genuine dialogue. Schneiders concludes that we ‘cannot fail to be affected by the fact that the recipient of Jesus’ universal invitation to inclusion is a woman, universal representative of the despised and excluded ‘other’ not only in ancient Israel but throughout history and all over the world. Not only is she included, but she is engaged with respect, even asked for a gift (water) that she might receive a greater gift (living water) (196-7).’
Traditionally, this woman has been multiply despised - because of her gender, her race and her wrongly attributed sexual sin. Yet it is with her that Jesus holds his longest conversation.
Jesus’ theological discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4 contrasts starkly with an earlier debate, in John 3. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, while this woman comes in broad daylight. When Jesus asks her for water, she points out his impropriety. Nicodemus, on the other hand, begins with his own understanding of who Jesus is (John 3:2) and Jesus points out that it is flawed. The woman asks the right question: ‘are you greater …?’ where Nicodemus raises objections. Jesus tells the woman everything she’s ever done (John 4:29, 39) but tells Nicodemus what he does not understand (John 3:10). Both conversations are life-giving - Jesus affirms to Nicodemus that he has come that the world might be saved (John 3:17). Nicodemus, however, remains on the margins throughout the gospel, while this woman becomes an apostle, spreading the gospel in her village. Where Jesus highlights Nicodemus’ weak theology, the Samaritan woman demonstrates knowledge and insight. John thus contrasts a powerful Jewish man with an anonymous Samaritan woman.
Meeting Jesus turned this woman into an effective evangelist. In John 4 we see her grow from questioning Jesus to become a credible witness - because of her story, many from that city believed in Jesus (John 4:39). In ‘seeing’ herself (4:19) and inviting other to ‘come and see’ she repeats a key theme of John’s gospel - seeing. Her name in the Eastern Orthodox tradition reinforces the theme, she is Photini, which means enlightened one. In thus naming her the Eastern Orthodox tradition respects her as equal to the apostles. In this tradition her mission spreads well beyond her Samaritan village, all the way to Rome, to stand before the emperor Nero. One tradition has it that through Photini, Nero’s daughter became a follower of Jesus. Eventually Photini was martyred by being thrown into a dry well - an ironic detail given that she had met the ‘living water’ at a well. This is hagiography, rather than history, but it does at least bear greater resemblance to the woman we meet in John’s gospel than does the Western counterfeit.
Preaching the Woman at the Well
Treating the story of the woman at the well seriously in preaching means dropping popular misapprehensions about her moral status and dealing with her as an intelligent seeker after truth, which is how Jesus treats her. Her story might encourage our listeners to become engaged questioners rather than passive hearers. Her realisation that Jesus is a prophet leads her to ask the pressing theological question of her time, one that has led to the marginalisation of her people. According to 2 Kings 17:24-41 the Samaritans may have been regarded as descendants of pagan tribes. Certainly, the Jews did not accept them as part of the same Covenant with God that they had. This Samaritan woman questions the exclusivity of Jewish interpretation. Jesus reframes her question - we worship in spirit and truth, not on mountains. The woman professes her faith that a Messiah will come, and Jesus reveals his identity to her. Theological engagement leads to new revelation.
The woman doesn’t wait for Jesus’ instruction to go and tell. In the diversion caused by the arrival of Jesus’ puzzled disciples, she seizes the opportunity, leaves her water jar behind - another indication of apostleship, for Peter, James and John leave their nets -- and takes an invitation to her neighbours: ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ (John 4:29). Notice she doesn’t begin with Jesus’ identity, but her own. Might the implication be that Jesus has, somewhere in the unreported conversation, appreciated her story, her pain and loss? This would be consistent with John’s inclusiveness, and with the Jesus portrayed by Matthew, Mark and Luke, who listens as the haemorrhaging woman tells him her whole story (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). Because the townsfolk seem to respect her word, they go off to see for themselves. She is a credible witness to the good news.
Finally, we should point out that in order for this conversation to take place it is Jesus, not the woman, who breaks the rules. A man greeted a foreign woman, and a Jew asked a Samaritan for water (Schottroff and Wacker, 2007, 532). Rightly understood, this is a story that addresses intersectionality and oppression by demonstrating that Jesus overrules social codes.
Barker, M.M. (2014). King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel. London: SPCK.
Duff, N. (2016). ‘The Ordination of Women: Biblical Perspectives’. Theology Today 73 (2): 94–104.
O’Day, G. (1992). ‘John’ in Newsom, C.A.; Ringer, S.H.; Lapsley, J. E. (2014 edition) The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press.
Schneiders, S. (1999) The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press
Schottroff, L. and Wacker, M-T (2007). Kompendium Feministische Bibelauslegung. Gu¨tersloh: Gu¨tersloher translated in Natar, A. N. (2019). ‘Prostitute Or First Apostle? Critical Feminist Interpretation Of John 4:1-42 Over The Figure Of The Samaritan Woman At Jacob’s Well’, Walisongo: Jurnal Penelitian Sosial Keagamaan, Vol 27 No 1 pp 99-124
Welcome to The College of Preachers
To explore the website fully, please sign in or subscribe.
Non-subscribers can read up to three articles a month for free. (You will need to register.)
This is the last of your 1 free articles this month.
Subscribe today for the full range of resources from The College of Preachers, including Lectionary sermons for every Sunday, book reviews and more.