The Samaritan Woman
Shawna R. B. Atteberry
In John’s Gospel the Samaritan woman at the well is
the first person to whom Jesus openly reveals himself as Messiah. The
pious Jewish leader, Nicodemus, did not hear the words that Jesus tells
this foreign woman when she states her belief in the coming Messiah: “I
am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). This is also the
longest private conservation Jesus had with anyone in the New Testament
4:3 [Jesus] left Judea and started back
to Galilee. 4:4 But he had to go through
Samaria. 4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot
of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 4:6 Jacob's well was
there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It
was about noon. 4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water,. . .
Verse 4 says that
Jesus “had to [Gk: edei] go through Samaria.” The use of edei
(had to) makes it clear that this is a divine appointment. It was not
geographically necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, and Jewish
travelers normally traveled around Samaria. Jesus and his disciples
entered a Samaritan village, and the disciples went to buy food (v. 8)
while Jesus sat by the well because he was tired. A woman from the
nearby village of Sychar came for water.
4: 7b and Jesus said to her, "Give me a
drink." 4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 4:9 The
Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of
me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with
Jesus then did
something that was a cultural taboo: he spoke to a woman in public; and
not just a woman, but a Samaritan woman. She was twice an outcast in
Jewish thought. Jesus asked her for a drink of water. She was
understandably shocked: a Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan
woman? He also should not have wanted to share a vessel with her for
drinking water since it would be considered unclean. She was right to be
4:10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the
gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you
would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
4:11 The woman said to him, "Sir,
you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living
water? 4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the
well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 4:13 Jesus said
to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 4:14
but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be
thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of
water gushing up to eternal life." 4:15 The woman said to him, "Sir,
give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep
coming here to draw water."
then turned to a discussion of living water versus the water in the
well. At this point many commentators say that the woman did not have
the ability to engage Jesus in serious theological conversation. Because
she was a woman she did not have the intelligence to keep up with the
conversation (O’Day, 384). That is why she was confused about this
living water Jesus offered. But the woman was no more confused over
living water than Nicodemus was over being born from above in the
previous chapter (John 3:4, 9-10). The woman was not confused because
she was a woman, just as Nicodemus was not confused simply because he
was a man. Both of them were confused because Jesus was introducing them
to new spiritual truths. Nicodemus never quite “gets” what Jesus was
telling him in John 3. Yet, the Samaritan woman did come to understand
who Jesus was and what he was telling her. Although the woman still
wasn’t sure what this living water was, she wanted it.
4:16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your
husband, and come back." 4:17 The woman answered him, "I
have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have
no husband'; 4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have
now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"
When Jesus told her
to go get her husband we find out that this woman has had five husbands,
and was now living with a man who was not her husband. Many commentators
have jumped to the conclusion that she was an immoral woman who had been
divorced five times (O’Day, 384). Yet, John 4 never says she was
divorced. There are at least two other possible reasons why this woman
has had five husbands.
One possibility is
that she was unable to have children (the biblical language is “she was
barren;” cf. Gen 11:30). In a culture that placed supreme importance on
having children, especially sons, barrenness was solid ground for
divorce (cf. Deut 24:1). So it is possible that the men had married her,
then found out that she couldn’t have children so divorced her to marry
more fertile women.
She could also be
trapped by the Levirate marriage law. Her five husbands could have been
brothers for whom she was supposed to produce an heir (Matt. 22:24-28).
Either the family ran out of sons or the next son could have refused to
marry her. That she was living with a man now who was not her husband
could have been the lesser of two evils. Since the culture provided
economic security only within family structures, her only other choice
after husband number five died or divorced her could have been
prostitution. Regardless of why the woman had had five husbands, the
implication is still that she is a woman who cannot keep a man.
4:19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see
that you are a prophet. 4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,
but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."
After Jesus told the
woman about her life, she knew that he was a prophet. Again many
commentators downplay the woman’s theological ability by saying that her
next question concerning the proper place of worship is a ploy to draw
attention away from her supposed immoral life (O’Day, 384). What they
don’t acknowledge is that the woman asked what is probably the most
pressing theological question for first century Samaritans: where is the
proper place of worship?
The Samaritans were
descended from the Israelite people who had not been deported when the
Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom (722/21 BC) and imported other
peoples into the region (2 Kings
17:22-41). They continued to
worship Yahweh, but also allowed the worship of other gods from the
resettled peoples’ homelands.
Alexander the Great
allowed the Samaritans to build or renovate a Samaritan temple on
Mt. Gerizim. This became a point
of contention to the Jews who had returned and rebuilt Solomon’s temple
in Jerusalem. Tensions continued to degrade until the temple on Mt. Gerizim was destroyed by the
Jews in 128 B.C. (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels,
726-7). Both groups believed that they were worshiping Yahweh, and both
believed that they had the right place to worship Yahweh. The woman had
met a prophet–someone who knew what had happened in her life, and one
she was sure could answer the most pressing theological question of her
heart and of the time.
4:21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe
me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this
mountain nor in Jerusalem. 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we
worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 4:23 But the hour
is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the
Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to
worship him. 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship
in spirit and truth."
Jesus did not accuse
her of changing the subject; he answered her question. It did not matter
where one worshiped God—it was how God was worshiped. There would
no longer be limitations of geography in worshiping God for God is
spirit, and he will be worshiped in spirit and truth.
4:25 The woman said to him, "I know that
Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will
proclaim all things to us." 4:26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one
who is speaking to you."
The woman stated her
belief in the coming Messiah who would reveal all things to them. Jesus
then revealed something to this unnamed, foreign woman that he did not
reveal to Nicodemus, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John
4:26). The Samaritan woman was the first person to whom Jesus revealed
himself as Messiah in the Gospel of John, and this is the first “I am”
statement in the gospel as well (Cunningham and Hamilton, 122; see “‘I
am’ in John’s Gospel”).
Why did Jesus reveal
himself to this woman and not to Nicodemus? The woman was not expecting
a political Messiah. The Samaritans were looking for the ta’eb or
“restorer” (Sloyan, 54). The Samaritans were not looking for a political
Messiah from the line of David; they were looking for a prophet like
Moses who would restore the observance of the law of Moses as it should
be (Sloyan, 54). Jesus could reveal himself as Messiah to her without
worrying about political misunderstandings that would have arisen in
4:27 Just then his disciples came. They
were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said,
"What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 4:28 Then the
woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the
people, 4:29 "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever
done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"
returned with food scratching their heads and wondering why Jesus is
speaking to a foreign woman in public. Then the woman went to her people
and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!
He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v. 28).
4:30 They left the city and were on their
way to him. . . . 4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him
because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever
done." 4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay
with them; and he stayed there two days. 4:41 And many more believed
because of his word. 4:42 They said to the woman, "It is no longer
because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for
ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."
She became the first
evangelist in the gospel of John. She went and told her people about
Jesus and brought them to him, so they could see and hear for
approached people “randomly or casually but as possible bearers of
witness to him to whole populations” (Sloyan, 54). A foreign, single
woman who had had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was
not her husband was the one Jesus chose to bring a town in Samaria to
him so that they could say, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know
that this is truly the Savior of the world” (v. 42).
Shawna Renee Bound,
“Women in the Gospels” in Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical
Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (Copyright
© 2002 by Shawna Renee Bound).
Loren Cunningham and
David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on
Women in Mission, Ministry,
and Leadership (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000).
Jesus and the Gospels (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
Gail R. O’Day,
“John,” Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsom
and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
John, Interpretation Commentary, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).
-Shawna R. B. Atteberry, Copyright ©
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