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The Samaritan Woman
John 4:3-42

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 (John 4:7-26).

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 Samaritans.)

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 confused.

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."

The conversation 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 Judah.

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?"

The disciples 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 themselves.

Jesus never 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).

Sources

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).

Dictionary of 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).

Gerard Sloyan, John, Interpretation Commentary, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

-Shawna R. B. Atteberry, Copyright © 2013, Shawna R. B. Atteberry - All Rights Reserved
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