The Woman at the Well

woman at the well

We know the story in John 4, right? Jesus travels through Samaria and stops at noon by a well in Sychar, where he meets an immoral woman. This woman is so shunned that she comes to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid interacting with the rest of the inhabitants. Jesus confronts her sinful behavior of “having 5 husbands and living with a man” and offers her “living water.”

But I want to suggest something different from this fairly common retelling. Come along with me for a few moments…

A woman walks down the road to the well near the noon hour. Contrary to what some have suggested, noon is not the hottest part of the day (try 3:00ish), and depending on the time of year, it might not have been hot at all. Perhaps this was her first time coming to the well that day or perhaps she needed more water and came back a second time. Either way, noon was not necessarily an unusual time to go for water. In the book of Exodus, Moses found the daughters of the priest of Midian watering their father’s animals at this time.

Meanwhile, as Jesus journeyed through Samaria, he came to a well in the “town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:5).

When biblical authors make a point of giving extra details about the geography, it’s often because it has a literary tie in with the story at hand.

Compare John 4:5 with the following verse from Joshua 24:32, “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.”

But what would the woman at the well and Joseph have in common? Dr. Eli Lizorkin–Eyzenberg points out that Shechem was near Sychar (or possibly renamed to Sychar) and suggests the following possibility on one of his blog posts:

“The reason for this reference to Joseph in verse 5 will only become clear when we see that the Samaritan woman suffered in her life in a manner similar to Joseph. If this reading of the story is correct, than just as in Joseph’s life, unexplained suffering was endured for the purpose of bringing salvation to Israel, so the Samaritan woman’s suffering in hew life  led to the salvation of the Israelite Samaritans in that locale (4:22).”

But what is meant by her suffering in life? Reading through Lizorkin–Eyzenberg’s post, I noticed that we were both on a similar page concerning our interpretation of this woman’s tragic life—her (probably through no fault of her own) having had 5 husbands.

Here are two of the reasons I’ve come to that conclusion over the past few years:

  1. In that world, marriages were arranged and women could not initiate a divorce. By law only a husband could divorce his wife, and he could do so for any reason he wanted—because she burned his dinner, because he didn’t find her attractive, because she was infertile, etc.
  2. In that world, life expectancy also wasn’t as long. Men died in battle frequently. Men died from sickness and disease. Men sometimes married far younger women who outlived them (the typical marrying age for a Jewish girl was around 14).

Whether the woman at the well lost her 5 husbands through divorce or death (or a combination), she played no decision in her circumstances.

After losing five husbands, it seems unlikely that anyone else would choose to marry her, and a woman in that culture could not live without a provider. When Jesus said to her “you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband,” there are several possible interpretations.

Many have suggested that she was living in an immoral relationship with a man. If this were the case, it must be remembered that a woman could not go out and get a job to make money. Women survived through their connection to a male.

But it’s more likely that she was living with a male relative (perhaps a father or brother) who functioned as her caregiver, or that she was the concubine of another man. When a woman was given in marriage to a man of higher status, she often was not considered a wife but a concubine. For example, consider the story in the Old Testament of Rachel and Leah giving their maids to their husband—they were called Jacob’s concubines, not his wives.

When Jesus says to the woman, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true,” I don’t think we should see this as condemning her lifestyle.

Rather, this is a moment when Jesus’ words said to her, “I recognize you’ve had a very difficult life. You lost 5 husbands and then you had to endure the shame of going back to your father’s house for bread.”

His compassion bridges the way for a spiritual dialogue, which culminates with her saying, “‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.’”

After this she left her water jar and went into the town to fetch the inhabitants, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

Now if she were truly an immoral woman and an outcast looked down upon by society, it is unlikely that they would have listened. But they did. She brought the town back to hear Jesus, and many believed in him that day because of her testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”

That phrase “all that I ever did” is probably the biggest counterargument to my version of the story. “All that I ever did” sounds negative, but this is where textual criticism becomes important.

We don’t have the original manuscripts. We have several thousand copies of the originals and no two copies are exactly a like—they all have minor differences. So, the editors of the text do their best to give us a Greek text that they think is closest to the original (and most of the time these brilliant editors are pretty accurate at what they do).

In John 4, there are a few alternative possibilities. One of them is that the woman at the well said, “He told me everything!” And, then a later editor inserted the words “I ever did” to try and make it flow better.

Because I am not an expert in reading the marginal notes in the Greek apparatus, I’ve taken the liberty of quoting again from Lizorkin–Eyzenberg’s post:

“What we feel can be legitimately suggested as a challenge to our reading of the story of the Samaritan woman are the words the Gospel author places on her lips when she tells her fellow villagers about her encounter with Jesus. She says: ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ What would have matched our interpretation perfectly is if her words had been,  ‘He told me everything that happened to me’ or better yet ‘was done to me.’

There are several viable options for resolving this problem. Some of the options include grammar issues and hypothetical the existence of an earlier Aramaic version of the Gospel of John. While allowing for these possibilities, the authors consider that the best response is to refer to a manuscript of the Gospel of John that has the phrase in a shorter version. In this manuscript, the woman’s words do not end with ‘He told me everything I ever did,’ but with ‘he told me everything.’ These words could refer to either self-inflicted or other-inflicted circumstances and do not by itself present any kind of problem for our reading of the story.”

In my concluding thoughts, I prefer my takeaway from John 4 not be based on uncertain assumptions such as “Jesus showed grace to a scandalously, immoral woman.”

When I read John 4, I see how her testimony brought salvation to many in her town. And I remember, no matter where we are in life—even if we have seemingly little worth, power, or money—we can make a difference. Not because of who we are, but because of our great God who delights to take the weakest ones and showcase his glory.