The story of the Samaritan woman, or the woman at the well in the gospel of John, chapter 4, is a good example of two items related to our topic: what Jesus thought of women and what later interpreters have done with this (you will need to know the story to understand this article, and it can be read here). Many commentaries you can read today, or pastors whom you can hear, unfoundedly portray the woman at the well in a very negative and biased light, which both degrades and takes away from the full meaning of the event.
For people who focus on belittling others and judging, the woman is seen as a (very big) sinner – apparently one that is worse than they are. They claim that Jesus was making the woman realize her sin to feel guilty about it, in order to come to salvation – but this goes against at least some theological views about repentance and salvation. “If repentance is cited as a condition of salvation in terms of feeling sorry for one’s sins, then it is wrong usage of the term” (Enns 342).
There is nothing in the story to actually confirm the view that the woman was “loose,” which could be an explanation for her having had many (five) husbands and current “common law” spouse. It would seem easier to think this of a woman with such a background today, but how in biblical times? Women could not divorce. A man could divorce his wife easily, however. This woman could have been married to some that died, and some that divorced her. She could have been divorced for fairly simple things, or for not producing children.
Did this woman come to the well with any of her children? No. If she had older children, it would seem that at least one would help her. If she had no children, she would feel shame for this (one could only imagine how she’d feel if they were taken from her, which was common in divorce, or had died in some way). Being barren would be shameful for a woman at this time, as much of a woman’s worth was based on her producing children. If she were barren and divorced, then she would have a very hard time of it in life. It seems possible that she lived with a man because she simply needed to survive, and for whatever reason (legal or social), the man did not marry her. All of this could be shameful to the woman, and it could simply be her “lot in life” without her being intentionally immoral. We don’t know, but all these things are possibilities, and maybe more probable than the hussy theory.
And, it is biased for commentators or pastors not to mention that it would not exactly be righteous for a man to divorce a woman for being barren. Men could have caused her, through no fault of her own, to be in the predicament she was in. Remember Abraham and Sarah? Abraham did not divorce her for not producing a child (Sarah was quite old when she gave her handmaid to Abraham so that “she” might have a child); is was not until she was considered beyond the age of conceiving that Sarah became pregnant as God said she would, with Isaac. Remember John the Baptist’s parents? Zechariah was a priest, and his wife Elizabeth had been barren. Zechariah did not divorce Elizabeth because she was barren; she was quite old when she gave birth to John. Abraham and Zechariah (and Elizabeth, too!) are called “righteous” in the bible (Genesis 15:6; Luke 1:6).
So this woman, who came to the well outside of town, alone, is feeling what? We can’t know for sure. The fact that she came to this more distant water source (Bruce 106), in the middle of a hot day, seems to indicate that she was in shame and perhaps something of an outcast. She must not have had a great outlook on life. Probably childless, older now, living in shame . . . And what happens? The creator of the universe meets her there. Did he need to do that to make her feel guilty? No. He came for something much better. He came to lift her up. If indeed her husbands had died and/or divorced her, Jesus came to bring her new life, removing the sadness and disgrace. Did she repent of her sins there? No (not outwardly, anyway) — she got happy.
If you read the story, you will see that Jesus said some things that could have made any Samaritan quite angry. But she was starting to guess that he was the Messiah, not just a prophet, since Samaritans did not believe in any prophets accept the One to come after Moses. She called him a prophet, but the only prophet possible was the Messiah. So then, what truly remarkable thing did Jesus do? He told HER that he indeed was the Messiah! An “unclean” Samaritan woman; at this time, many Jewish men held both women and Samaritans in contempt. Search the New Testament and you will find that Jesus told very few people who He really was. What happens next? She believes him, loses all her shame and goes and tells the whole town about Jesus! No doubt it was her transformation, and her seeming sheer nerve, that so impressed the townspeople who they believed her.
Jesus is delightful. He did not trudge all the way to Jacob’s well in order to condemn the woman for her sins, whatever they might have been, but to transform her. Transformed she was, running to town and preaching to and teaching men. Both Origen (died 254) and Theophylactus (died after 1071) considered her an apostle. That other church leaders have not thought this, or acted upon their knowledge, has nothing to do with God’s view of women, but everything to do with men’s view of women.
Sources: The Gospel & Epistles of John (FF Bruce); The Moody Handbook of Theology (Paul Enns); Believer’s Bible Commentary (W MacDonald); How Christianity Changed the World and Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology (Alvin J Schmidt).
Vicki Priest (c) 2012.
One thought on “The Samaritan Woman”
It was really interesting and encouraging to read this. In a time when I feel like a lot of churches still treat women as baby makers or at the best “help meet” for her husband it is, I feel, rare to see a view point that supports women. I, as a woman, am struggling to figure out what my Biblical place is in the world and I really felt an impact from that last paragraph. Thank you.
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