The Samaritan Woman
We’re working our way through John’s Gospel at church at the moment.
We start each year with a Gospel, which means I plan to be in each Gospel once every four years, which means not just doing verse by verse expository stuff each time, so, on this run through we’re looking at how John presents Jesus as the new Exodus — the end of exile from God and the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise that God would gather up the lost tribes of Judah and Israel; and perhaps even the nations; reversing the exiles we read about in the Old Testament — Judah to Babylon, Israel to Assyria, and humanity from Eden — bringing us back into the life and presence of God, and recreating us through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
It’s super rich. And it’s everywhere in John. Exodus itself is full of creation themes from Genesis (and we’re going to the book of Exodus in term 2), and the prophets — especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are full of new Exodus and ‘return to Eden’ imagery; full of living water and renewal and God gathering people back to himself. Jesus taps into Exodus themes every time he says “I am…”, but often that’s followed up with an image directly linked to these promises in the prophets. Jesus also keeps saying that the scriptures (the Old Testament) testify to him; so I suspect both he, and John as the author of the Gospel, want us to notice these allusions.
John is rich literature. And, while I’m a fan of what you might call historical-critical exegesis, I’m not sure it’s sufficient for dealing with John (or anything, really), which also requires a degree of sensitivity to literature — and to the editorial vision John keeps pointing us to; to his acknowledgement that he could’ve filled countless books with stories about Jesus but the ones he’s told, and how he’s told them, are so his first audience might believe (and presumably, so we might too).
We can get into the weeds a bit with historical-critical exegesis; and various forms of critical scholarship from a modern perspective, and I fear that’s happening with the incredible story of the Samaritan woman at the well. You can listen to (or watch if you like that sort of thing) my own sermon on this story.
There’s been lots of fantastic work done on the status of women, and of marriage in the first century; especially in both the Roman context and the hellenistic Jewish context of the second temple period (and presumably the Samaritan context intersects with these). There’s a Rabbinic debate about divorce laws from the Old Testament (both Deuteronomy and possibly Exodus 21) that’ve left divorce in the hands of men (mostly); and it’s exactly this debate that Jesus is invited into in Matthew 19. There’s great work by New Testament scholar Dr. Lynn Cohick on the potential historical situations — both systemic and individual — affecting this Samaritan woman; countering the traditional (patriarchal) view that kinda views this woman negatively in the way that the same blokes tend to see Bathsheba as a temptress rather than David as a rapist. Her book is titled Women In The World of The Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. It’s an academic book (published by Baker Academic).
Dr Cohick’s section on the woman at the well digs into various social and historical factors that may have shaped her reality to remind us to be hesitant, as readers, not only to label this woman as some sort of deviant harlot, but also to see what you might call the social powers and principalities that could be at work to put her in a very strange position, historically unprecedented (according to the records we have) of having had five husbands. To put her own argument in her own words, Cohick says:
The Samaritan woman’s story (John 4) has captured my attention for many years, not in small part because I believe her story has been misunderstood by many readers, in particular that she is immoral. John narrates that Jesus meets this woman at noon by a well and asks her for water. Jesus tells her that he is living water, and that she has had five husbands but her current companion is not her husband. From these slim details, most commentators suggest that she is a dissolute woman. Given the social norms of the day, however, I suggest a different reading.
This reading includes elements like:
The point that the Samaritan woman was married five times should not necessarily strike the reader as indicating promiscuity—perhaps she was just very unlucky. Other biblical characters had suffered similar loss, such as Naomi. The data from our period does not yield another example of someone having five spouses, but some people were married three times. While a few elite might divorce even twice to better climb the social ladder, there is no record of someone divorcing five times. There is also no testimony of someone being widowed five times, but unfortunately it was common to lose two spouses during one’s lifetime. If the Samaritan woman fits this pattern, we might expect that she was widowed a few times and perhaps divorced, or was divorced, a few times. Because neither situation necessarily casts a shadow over one’s character, we cannot assume that her marriage history made her a social pariah.
It is unclear whether the Samaritans followed the Roman practice allowing either spouse to initiate divorce. There is no record from this time of any woman filing for divorce more than one time; such behavior was a rare occurrence and happened at the social level of the Roman elite… If it seems highly unlikely that the Samaritan woman was divorced five times, it is entirely credible that she was a widow several times, given the high death rate in that era. According to Josephus, the Herodian princess Berenice had been widowed twice and had borne two children by age twenty-two. We do not know the age of the Samaritan woman, but we cannot rule out that she was a widow at a young age… Her current relationship, with a man Jesus identified as not her husband, might be classified as concubinage, not an unusual situation within the larger Greco-Roman world. Perhaps she was in this relationship because the man was a Roman citizen and could not legally marry beneath his social rank. Or perhaps this arrangement was made precisely to prevent any children she might bear in the relationship from inheriting his wealth…
In sum, we can devise any number of scenarios to explain why the Samaritan woman had five husbands and is currently not married to the man she lives with. As the narrative unfolds in John, Jesus does not explicitly condemn her situation. Moreover, the villagers accept her testimony that a prophet is among them—hardly a reaction one would imagine if she was without any moral scruples… In the final analysis, 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… Thus it seems unlikely that the Samaritan woman was involved in a series of divorces that she initiated. It remains an open question whether her husbands chose to divorce her.
I think she does good historical work; and it’s worth noting that it remains “an open question” whether her husbands chose to divorce her; her point is simply that the narrative doesn’t say about this woman a whole load of things that modern, western, preachers have been keen to say about her in order to individualise both her, and her sin (often in ways that have been dehumanising and objectifying).
There’s another book that’s more geared towards the popular level, bringing this sort of academic work into the public conversation, by Dr. Caryn Reeder, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 after #churchtoo, that is an excellent example of what one can do with historical critical criticism of the traditional, male-centred, interpretation of this story.
Dr. Reeder travels similar historical ground to Dr Cohick. Both these authors do some great work deconstructing problematic historical-critical interpretations typically (but not exclusively) put together by white men (and so centred on a particularly male reading of the text). Reeder highlights particularly egregious readings offered through church history, including by Calvin, but leading all the way up to horrid modern applications (and she has receipts in the form of quotes) by folks like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who in typically bombastic misogynistic style called her “the dirty, leathery faced, town whore.” Her treatment of Calvin reveals both her view of Reformed theology, and the problems with Calvin’s dehumanising treatment of this woman (I do think it’s bad). She says:
Calvin’s Samaritan woman was a representative example of this theological narrative. Like any human, she could do no good, and so Calvin interpreted every word she spoke through the lens of sin. For someone like this, only the sting of divine judgment could incite her to accept the grace of God. This was why, Calvin explained, Jesus brought up her marital history in the first place. Even if a woman was not a prostitute like the Samaritan woman, and even if a man had not committed a “terrible crime,” everyone sinned in some way, and therefore no one deserved God’s grace. For Calvin, Jesus’ actions in John 4:4-42 demonstrated the availability of the gift of salvation for all. Equally, the Samaritan woman’s immediate acceptance of Jesus’ judgment provided a model of repentance, obedience, and acceptance of the teachers God provides. For Calvin, the Samaritan woman symbolized both the weight of sin, and the grace of undeserved salvation.
I think Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity (as it has been called) is misunderstood and misrepresented both by Calvinists, and those who don’t like Calvinism as something more like absolute depravity; it strikes me that Calvin’s view of total depravity is more grounded in the idolatrous heart that is both a factory of false images of God, and in the Augustinian way of describing things ‘turned in on itself’ such that all our actions, even when they are not absolutely depraved (but even reflect the image of God in us) are still tainted by this. I don’t think it’s true that the woman could do ‘no good’ in a paradigm that sees sin working in this way, but I do believe it is true that “everyone sinned in some way” in such a way that I might be less inclined to want to exonerate the Samaritan woman than Reeder is (I’d certainly want to exonerate her from some of the ways Calvin painted her as a sinner through his reading of the text).
Reeder describes the patriarchal reading of the text that paints the woman as a sexual sinner — even a prostitute — as “the majority reading,” she conducted a study of 40 different Christian texts (blog posts, sermons, articles etc) from a 20 year period (2000-2020), and found 26 adopting this ‘majority’ take; while “eight of the forty represented the Samaritan woman as a victim rather than a seductress, with only six moving beyond sexuality as an essential element of John 4:4-42.” One of the ways a western bias plays out here is to emphasise sexual sin as the primary problem, or at least expression, of the woman’s thirst, so that the interaction around the number of husbands is designed to expose this individual sin that needs forgiveness. Reeder pivots from this survey to consider the social changes that have occurred in the last hundred years, and essentially the way the church has turned to purity culture in response to porn culture, where both are different sides of the same coin that reduces women to their sexuality; and this lens is what she sees being brought to this story.
Now. I don’t like purity culture. I don’t like porn culture. I have made very similar points to Reeder in my writing and preaching over the years. But I don’t think rejecting purity culture means rejecting the idea that sin can intersect with our sexuality, or that some things that men and women do sexually — whether products of systemic evils or not — need forgiveness. My concern is that Reeder pushes the corrective against patriarchal reduction of women’s bodies to sex objects slightly too far; not that it is wrong to give women (and the Samaritan woman) both agency, and to recognise the systemic challenges they faced where they had to make the best of male sin against them (kinda like Bathsheba does), but I’m not sure we have to land in a position where we say the Samaritan woman was definitely not adulterous, or definitely sexually pure and in no need of forgiveness and that Jesus’ question is not at all designed to invite her into covenant faithfulness (through forgiveness and restoration). I think it’s very worth asking these historical questions and recognising the complex dynamics we’re simply not told about in the narrative, and these should stop us reducing the story to moral lessons about sexual desire and purity, especially in ways that present women as temptresses and sexual objects.
Dr Reeder writes:
Until very recently in Christian tradition, sexual intercourse was correlated with sin. The only sanctioned option for a sexual relationship was marriage, but even sex with one’s own spouse was (often) morally suspect. Contemporary interpreters are more likely to celebrate marital sex, but nonmarital sex remains apparently the worst sin a person—especially a woman—can commit. By these standards, a woman who had at least six sexual relationships, one of which was not marital, can be condemned as a sinner. Interpreters assume some or all of the woman’s husbands divorced her because she had sex with other men. Since they also claim that divorce was uncommon in the first century, her multiple divorces are seriously problematic.
I’m simply not convinced — even as much as I can recognise my own bias — that the weight of Biblical data means that the correction against a wrong view that sees “sexual intercourse” as “sin”, or even bad purity culture that centres the male gaze, is to declare nonmarital sex ‘non sinful’ and/or to remove sin from the equation altogether when it comes to John 4.
Dr Reeder continues:
According to the majority interpretation of John 4:4-42, then, the Samaritan woman’s marital history is the result of her own choices, decisions, and actions. Very few interpreters pay attention to the men in the woman’s story. Those who do often imply that the woman’s husbands are the victims of her immorality. All women tempt men into sexual sin, whether they intend to or not. But a woman like this, who—interpreters claim—acted out of her own desire to initiate sexual relationships with men, perverts pious, chaste womanhood.
There’ve been a lot of bad sermons preached on John 4. As I said… Dr. Reeder has receipts. And, despite my reservations with some of what I might see as an overcorrection, she offers a much better reading of John 4 than those she critiques.
There’s a series of other resources from the world of blogs (both academic and pop level) that draw on the insights of Cohick and Reeder to have us re-imagining the woman at the well. It’s worth reading Marg Mowczko, Lyn Kidson, Scott McKnight, Ian Paul, and Cameron McAdam for examples of better historical-critical treatment of the narrative than you’ll get in the traditional male-centred view.
In introducing a summary of her academic essay on the woman at the well, Dr Kidson writes:
“It strikes me that those who take it that the Samaritan women is an adulteress are suffering from a Western bias. We must remember that for those who lived in the ancient world the average life expectancy was quite low – 30-40 years – once a person got beyond childhood. Further, the death rate for rural workers was higher than those in the urban centres because they were exposed to greater risks. All this points to the woman at the well as being a tragic figure worthy of our compassion.”
When I preached this passage a few weeks ago I did so unconvinced that the historical-critical method, even a feminist-criticism approach, is the way to engage with this story. I think these scholars and writers do a good job of deconstructing bad western individual patriarchal views of the woman that import various western purity culture visions of individual sex and individual sin into the mix, but I’m not sure they’ve served us well with alternatives to a method of engaging with the text that is also a product of western bias.
I’m theologically wired to think that every human we meet in the Bible — other than Jesus — is going to be a sinner (at an individual level); that there are no real heroes in the Biblical story, and that reductions of any stories to hero and villain are going to be problematic. This is why I have no problem, for example, seeing the narrative portraying David as a rapist; I do not need David to be a perfectly sinless leader lured into sin by a temptress in order to see him as the author of many Psalms and the one whose line produces God’s good shepherd; the Messiah, Jesus Christ the son of David. Bathsheba is not portrayed as guilty in any way in that narrative. She is obeying the requirements of the law when her king sends soldiers to take her (word for word, or verb for verb, following a pattern of ‘see’ and ‘take’ that began in Genesis 3). Bathsheba is innocent in that story, but this does not mean Bathsheba maintains sinlessness her whole life and never has need to repent. This feels odd to write; but some of the treatments of the story of the woman at the well suggest that because Jesus does not explicitly call her to repent of particular sin that there is no need to read sin into the story.
I’d suggest the need to read particular individual sin into a story — particularly sexual sin — is a pretty western assumption whether you are doing it, or you are looking for it and not finding it.
Here’s what I think is missing in the interpretations of the woman at the well I’ve highlighed above; those that want us to use the historical-critical method (bringing data from the historical context) into our interpretation in order to redeem the woman from the dehumanising power of the patriarchy — I don’t think these readings (on the whole) are engaging with John as literature, and I don’t think they’re recognising the relational dynamic of sin in the Old Testament; that the problem the woman needs solved is not just forgiveness for particular sin she has committed as an individual (though that’s certainly part of the story of the Gospel, she needs liberation and restoration to the life of God because of the systems she participates in (even if she is a victim of those systems). Her problem is not primarily framed in the narrative as her being a sinner, but her being an exile as a result of false worship; of drawing water from the wrong well. We might run quickly to the idea that this is a metaphor for sex — when she leaves the bucket behind at the end of her story; but the Bible kinda flips this where actually sexual sin is a picture of spiritual alienation — adultery is a metaphor for idolatry (and idolatry, including the worship of sex, or idolatrous representations of sex and pleasure, often produces sexual sin). There’s a whole other online debate and debacle where our inability to tease out this metaphor is looming pretty large right now.
The reason I don’t think these articles and books are ultimately as helpful as they could be — even if they offer a necessary corrective to bad readings within the paradigm — the paradigm that reduces this story and its meaning to an historical interaction between two individual people — is that I don’t think these readings, on the whole, recognise that John is positioning Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies about the end of exile; including for the Northern Kingdoms of Israel, who by the first century were the Samaritans. And I don’t think they see the woman as an archetypal picture of this exile, and her restoration into the life of God as exactly what Jesus came to do — so I do think the interaction with Jesus around her husbands is meant to position her as, at the very least, a divorcee — if not an adulterer.
John 4 is rich with allusions to the Old Testament — the woman and Jesus meet at Jacob’s Well — now, in Genesis, Jacob doesn’t dig any wells that we’re told about (his father digs a whole stack). But Jacob does meet his future wife Rachel at a well, just as Isaac met Rebekah, and Moses would later meet Zipporah. A man meeting a wife at a well is an Old Testament type scene; one we should maybe have in mind because John the Baptist has just called Jesus the “bridegroom” three times in the preceding verses. Jesus offers the woman living water; which comes up a bunch of times conceptually in the Old Testament — life giving waters are flowing through the Garden and into the world in Genesis 2, the return from exile is pictured as God bringing back life to the world through water that creates a new Eden all through the prophets (and especially in Ezekiel). There seems to me to be a pretty important reference to living water and choosing what well to drink from though in Jeremiah 2.
Jeremiah 2 is a prophecy against the northern kingdom of Israel; as opposed to the kingdom of Judah who become the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The Northern Kingdom, by Jesus’ day, don’t exist as the Northern kingdom of Israel; they have become so intermingled with the Gentiles and their gods that they now go by a different name: Samaritans.
In Jeremiah 2 God says, through Jeremiah:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
the firstfruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
and disaster overtook them.”
Israel was a bride to God. As God led them through the wilderness in the Exodus. But now, Israel has forsaken him; “the living water” for broken cisterns (that’s wells) (Jer 2:13). Jeremiah says the water from these wells — or the rivers of Egypt and Assyria (2:18) — wouldn’t satisfy or bring life (2:36). Which. When you think about it, is what Jesus says to the woman about the well she is drinking from.
The well is a metaphor. Just like the living water he offers. Just as the wells and rivers in Jeremiah were a metaphor for seeking life in the nations where they would be sent into exile; and from their gods. This is a description of idolatry.
The woman is both a person; an individual; and a literary character demonstrating something about the mission of Jesus. John tells us her story for a reason beyond simply overthrowing the patriarchy by demonstrating how a man can treat a woman without shaming or objectifying her — and it does more than simply establish the woman as a model responder to Jesus (though she is).
I’m not sure positioning the woman as unlucky is the point John is trying to make in the narrative. The woman is a Samaritan; one of the lost sheep of the northern tribes of Israel meeting the good shepherd. She is an unmarried woman meeting a bridegroom at a well. She is offered the same living water that her ancestors were said to have rejected in Jeremiah in a way that led to her exile.
Jeremiah starts out talking about the people who became Samaritans as his bride; and he pivots, in chapter 3, to a well attested Old Testament picture of idolatry at this point. Adultery. And to divorce for adultery as a picture of exile. Of the conditions that lead Israel’s northern kingdoms to become Samaritans. He also promises future restoration from that exile…
“I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. “
Now. This isn’t just about the women of Israel and Judah; all the people are metaphorically presented as women. But. God has divorced Israel — and then Judah — for their idolatry; presented as adultery — and they are sent into exile as a result.
The promise Jeremiah offers both Israel and Judah is that God will remarry them.
“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…. In those days the people of Judah will join the people of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.”
The Samaritan people are presented in Jeremiah — like the Jewish people — as unfaithful adulterous people (a bit like Hosea’s wife is in the book of Hosea) who turned to the wrong source of water and so were divorced, but God says he will be their husband again if they return.
In John a Samaritan woman meets the man we’ve been told is God tabernacling in the world, who has just been called the bridegroom. He meets her at a well. Where men meet wives. He invites her back into true worship and offers her living water.
That’s a pretty compelling literary reading where the woman is an archetype (as well as an individual), and this reading relies, a little, on Jesus establishing the idea that she is unmarried and perhaps adulterous; but it presents the real issue not as her promiscuity or particular sin, but her alienation from God because of unfaithfulness expressed in false worship. Returning to true worship will necessarily involve repentance that reshapes how one approaches sex and fidelity; that the narrative doesn’t dig into that specifically doesn’t mean it’s not there; as westerners we’ve tended to see repentance as turning from particular individual sins, rather than about returning to God’s presence, and into restored relationship as image bearers who worship God and represent God’s life in the world. But that’s what’s happening in the story.
Of all the material I’ve surveyed above only two, Reeder and McKnight, refer to Jeremiah as background for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Both Paul and McKnight draw on Reeder and Cohick in their ‘reframing’ the discussion around John 4; Mowczko draws on Cohick (and others).
Here’s what Reeder says:
These associations are deepened by the water imagery that flows through the Bible. Wisdom, righteousness, and the fear of the Lord are represented as living springs in Proverbs (Prov 10:11, 13:14, 14:27, 16:22). In Jeremiah 2:13, God is a spring of living water. Wells of salvation, springs of water, and rivers flooding the land symbolize the salvation of Israel’s restoration from exile in Isaiah (Is 12:3, 41:17-18, 44:3, 49:10, 55:1, 58:11).
She also draws attention to the ‘bride at the well’ type scene. There’s lots of richness in the implications she teases out; I just think we need Jeremiah 3 in the picture as well.
Dr Reeder says:
A focus on the woman’s perceived sin also ignores the evidence of John 4:4-42 itself. In contrast to other narratives in the Gospel, there is no mention of “sin” in this story. There is no reason to import it. Jesus’ reference to the woman’s marital history does not need to be interpreted as an accusation of sin, and her responses to Jesus should not be read through the lens of sin. The Samaritan woman’s story is instead about the work of witnessing to Jesus and the new way of being the people of God that Jesus introduces…
The Samaritan woman’s story offers one of many biblical examples of women’s work as preachers and teachers in Christian communities. This reading of John 4:4-42 disrupts the perspectives that allow for the victimization of women in Christian communities. Instead of a sexualized sinner, the woman becomes an insightful theologian. Instead of a danger to the men around her, she becomes a teacher who helps others understand the truth. This reconsideration of the Samaritan woman’s story encourages and empowers women in the church today.
There’s lots to appreciate in this; and in the material linked above. Lots to give us pause before reinforcing horrid visions of women (or really just of humans) that reduce us and our worth to sex and individual sin; lots to remember about the systems built around idolatry and cursed relationships — like patriarchal systems that reduce women to sexual objects via the male gaze.
I — conscious of my own male gaze — just think there’s a fuller picture to be gleaned where the woman’s marital status — even her sin — is part of her story; and where she is invited to join her life in covenant faithfulness to the bridegroom, leaving her old bucket, and old wells, and idolatrous and adulterous worship behind. And where she’s a model for all of us, not just one who empowers women, though her role as a teacher and evangelist of her people, in response to this radical inclusion in the life of God certainly should do that for us too.