Telling the right story

storyWho was the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well? What kind of a person was she? What was her background?

Simply put: we don’t know. But that doesn’t prevent us from filling in the details of the story on the basis of few scraps of information we have.

Here’s what we know from John 4:

  • She’s a Samaritan woman who comes to well regularly to draw water;
  • She’s had five husbands and is currently living with a man to whom she’s not married;
  • She knows something about the differences between what Jews and Samaritans believe;
  • Because Jesus knows the some of the details of her private life, she believes him to be a prophet.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • Why she’s had so many relationships;
  • Whether she’s come to the well by herself;
  • Why she’s come in the middle of the day.

The typical way of reading the story is that she’s a woman of questionable reputation with a string of failed relationships. She comes to the well alone, instead of with other women. Indeed, being something of a social outcast, she comes at the hottest part of the day to avoid human contact, and there encounters Jesus.

Following the same reasoning, her response to Jesus’ prophetic insight is taken as an evasion (vss. 19-20). Jesus has embarrassed her, and she changes the subject to a theological controversy that should throw most rabbis off the scent.

But is that the right way to fill in the blanks? In a recent article in Christianity Today, Lynn Cohick of Wheaton says I don’t think so.

I won’t rehearse her entire argument. As one who teaches family studies, though, I appreciate her line of thought. The woman-of-ill-repute storyline is triggered by our modern moral assumptions and expectations. To us, any woman who’s been married five times and is currently cohabiting is not someone you’d bring home to mother.

What that misses, however, is the fact that unlike today, marriage in biblical times was as much a social and economic arrangement as it was a matter of personal intimacy — perhaps more so. Simply put, it was dangerous for a woman not be under the financial protection of a man.

Moreover, there have been times even in American history when it was common for men and women to live together as married without the prior formal blessing of the church. What mattered was that the community recognized them as forming a household together.

Who knows, then, why the Samaritan woman had had so many relationships. It doesn’t make much sense to suppose that she had been divorced five times, because each divorce made it less likely that another man would marry her. Once, maybe — but five times? More likely, most or all of her former husbands had died. Why or how? Maybe there was something in the well water. But it would be in her best interest to remarry as soon as possible.

So here’s another way to read the story. This is a woman with an unfortunate and tragic history. She has questions and wants answers from God. There are any number of reasons as to why she would go to the well at midday; if she wants to avoid company, it’s not necessarily because she’s an outcast.

And there she meets Jesus. When she realizes that the man speaking to her is much more than your run-of-the-mill rabbi, she changes the subject — but not because she’s embarrassed. She wants to talk theology. She wants to know if her Samaritan beliefs are leading her in the right direction. She knows that she is thirsty, even if she doesn’t yet know why. And she is waiting for the Messiah to come and give her the answers.

Jesus says nothing to condemn her. What he says instead is “I am” (vs. 26).

And he doesn’t say that to just anybody. More on that in the next post.