Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar is one of the longest and most intense discussions recorded in the gospels (John 4:7-38). Though the renowned divine appointment forms a self-contained unit within John’s gospel, it has been argued that the scene is best appreciated when juxtaposed with Jesus’ preceding encounter with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). See Mary Margaret Pazdan (b. 1942), “Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman: Contrasting Models of Discipleship”, Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Culture 17 (1987), pp. 145-48.
The conversation is one, that culturally speaking, should never have happened. Jesus simply should not be with this woman. R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) acknowledges:
The tension between Jesus and the Samaritan woman crosses four levels: gender, nationality, race, and religion. In the course of the conversation, all four barriers are crossed and community is created. This story, therefore, is the Johannine equivalent of the story in Acts 8:5-24 about how the gospel reached the Samaritans. (Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John: (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series), 139)The dialogue also features taboo subjects seldom discussed publicly as it encompasses politics, religion and the woman’s sexual history (John 4:7-30). Among the facts unearthed is that the woman has had five husbands and this revelation is awkwardly divulged.(John 4:18).
The discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman divides into two parts (John 4:7-15, 4:16-27). After addressing the theological controversies of the period, Jesus abruptly (and intentionally) changes the subject to an even more sensitive issue.
He [Jesus] said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” (John 4:16-18 NASB)The conversation turns when Jesus instructs the woman to summon her husband. Margaret M. Beirne follows:
With John 4:16, the dynamic shifts as the Johannine Jesus turns the conversation towards the woman’s private life...By having Jesus extend it to her ‘husband’, the narrator is deliberately setting the scene for the woman’s confession (in faith, not moral terms) of her mounting perception of who Jesus is. Whatever is implied by the reference to ‘five husbands’ (John 4:18a), it is not meant to be the focus, but is primarily a way of bringing the woman (and the implied reader) to a further stage of recognizing and witnessing to the identity of Jesus. (Beirne, Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: A Genuine Discipleship of Equals, 82)Since Jesus changes the topic from “living water” (John 4:7-15) after the woman has missed his figurative point (John 4:15), it appears that the first portion of the conversation fails. As such, the inquiry into her husband could represent a second attempt.
David Seeley (b. 1956) analyzes:
Hendrikus Boers [b. 1928] recognizes that what he calls the first narrative “subsequence” between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:6-7, 9-15) “fails in every aspect.” The woman understands neither Jesus’ mission nor his identity. Even in the second “subsequence” (John 4:16-21, 23-26, 28-29), “the woman’s recognition that Jesus may be the messiah” is still couched in terms of “the clearly mistaken sense of a miracle worker.” Nevertheless, Boers maintains that the meaning of the phrase “living water” does become manifest in the woman. “As far as the woman is concerned, it means to participate in Jesus’ doing of his Father’s work.” (Seeley, Deconstructing the New Testament, 120)It is Jesus who directs the conversation to the topic of men (John 4:16). Through a psychological lens, Jean-Marc Chappuis (1924-1986) evaluates:
Jesus would have been a bad Rogerian...the gospel conversations, in fact, notably those reported by John and even more especially those with Nicodemus [John 3:1-21] and the Samaritan woman [John 4:7-30], testify that he accomplishes only two-thirds of Carl Rogers [1902-1987]’s program. He practices empathy. He perceives and respects the internal frame of reference of those to whom he is speaking. On other hand, he does not submit to Rogers’ third precept, which is that of non-directness. On the contrary, he does direct the attention of his interlocutors authoritatively towards a new horizon at their existence, towards a possibility offered them to live differently. (Chappuis, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman: The Variable Geometry of Communication,” The Ecumenical Review, 34, no. 1 (1982):12)The change of subject does not flow naturally and in modern vernacular Jesus appears to be committing a “party foul”. Mark W.G. Stibbe (b. 1960) explores:
At this point, something very strange occurs. We have what appears to be another non sequitur. Instead of pursuing the topic of the living water, Jesus suddenly changes the subject and says, “Go, call your husband and come back’. The South African scholar J. Eugene Botha [b. 1959] has examined this statement in light of speech act theory. He proposes that at this point Jesus breaks one of the ‘cooperation principles’ upon which all conversations depend. This ‘cooperation principle’ goes as follows: ‘make your conversation contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk-exchange in which you are engaged’...One of the four maxims of this cooperation principle is the maxim of relation, ‘which requires that the contribution must be relevant in the talk exchange’...Botha’s view is that Jesus flouts the maxim of relations. He likens the dialogue at this point to the following exchange: ‘A says: “Don’t you think Fred sometimes acts like an idiot?” To which B replies: “I planted some shrubs yesterday”’...What Botha proposes is that Jesus, up until John 4:16, is engaged in a fruitless conversation. He therefore deliberately flouts the maxim in order to pursue a more hopeful topic...Botha...is right to say that Jesus appears to flout the maxim of relation, but he is wrong to say that the conversation up until that moment was ‘a failure’, and he is equally wrong to imply that Jesus’ behaviour here reveals that he is a poor conversationalist. The fact is, Jesus’ language in this exchange is an example of what the literary critics call ‘discontinuous dialogue’ (A.D. Nuttall [1937-2007] 1980: 128-38). Throughout the fourth gospel, Jesus employs a ‘technique of deliberate transcendence’ in his use of language...‘The gaps in Jesus’ dialogue imply a transcending compliment, a supernature’ (Nutall 1980: 133). Nowhere is this truer than in John 4:16. (Stibbe, John’s Gospel (New Testament Readings))The irregularity of Jesus’ inquiry is seen in the woman’s response: “I have no husband” (John 4:17). Jack W. Stallings (b. 1944) assumes:
Jesus has clearly hit a nerve. For the first time, she has no rejoinder. She can but curtly reply, “I have no husband.” [John 4:17] She is not at all eager to discuss this subject. Jesus, however, is not about to let her off the hook. (Stallings, The Gospel of John (The Randall House Bible Commentary), 67)The woman seemingly deflects. Some have viewed her attempts to conceal her marital history as evidence of guilt. Others have reminded that her avoidance is not because Jesus’ command to summon her husband is misunderstood but rather because it simply cannot be followed. Consequently, the woman need not be perceived as being deliberately evasive. Both views could be (at least partially) correct.
Jesus’ direction could very well have been a conversation killer. The woman certainly tries to end this line of questioning. Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) suspects:
The woman’s response, “I have no husband,” seems designed to cut off further conversation along these lines (D. A. Carson [b. 1946] 1991:221). Laurence Cantwell (1983:80) aptly sees her “clinging rather pathetically to her privacy and some semblance of respectability,” using “a not very clever equivocation which Christ dramatically exposes, to reveal a life which is not so much immoral [though it is that!] as a mess, a broken series of false beginnings and shattered hopes.” In fact, though technically truthful, the woman’s statement is potentially misleading (Craig S. Keener [b. 1960] 2003:605; hence Jesus’ gentle yet firm response, in which he places ἄνδρα [andra, husband] in an emphatic grammatical position [Daniel B. Wallace [b. 1952] 1996:455]).On the face of it, it could be taken to imply that she was unattached and thus available...Jesus, with fine irony, quickly removes all doubt: “You have had five men, and the one you have now is not your husband.” (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 152)D. A. Carson (b. 1946) scrutinizes:
The woman’s truculent I have no husband was formally true, if her five former husbands were all deceased or divorced; but doubtless her intention was to ward off any further probing of this sensitive area of her life, while masking the guilt and hurt. Jesus exposes the whole truth (as the woman herself later admits, John 4:29, 30), but in the gentlest possible way: he commends her for her formal truthfulness [John 4:17], while pointing out that she has had five husbands (presumably each had died or divorced her) and the man with whom she is now sleeping is not her legal husband at all. (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 221)In introducing a new topic, Jesus progresses the conversation from abstract theory to personal history, from head to heart. Kevin D. Huggins (b. 1951) assesses:
Jesus used the concern that was of most interest to the Samaritan woman at the time (worship) to help her discover something about her own heart she desperately needed to change. (Huggins, Friendship Counseling: Jesus’ Model for Speaking Life-Words to Hurting People, 123)To paraphrase a modern expression, all of a sudden stuff just got real. Jean-Marc Chappuis (1924-1986) generalizes:
The most commonplace communication may expand to become suddenly firm and substantial. That clearly is what happens in the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. (Chappuis, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman: The Variable Geometry of Communication,” The Ecumenical Review, 34, no. 1 (1982):11)Jesus alerts the woman that she has had five husbands and is presently living with a sixth man (John 4:18). Her personal history is alarming even to the contemporary reader: She has assembled a basketball starting five with a sixth man to come off of the bench!
Some interpreters have sought significance in the number five. In addition to the Samaritan woman’s five husbands (John 4:18), John’s gospel documents that Bethesda features five porticoes (John 5:2) and Jesus uses five barley loaves (John 6:9, 13) to feed the five thousand (John 6:10).
Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) informs:
Augustine [354-430]...explains the numbers in the Gospel with considerable consistency, using the dichotomy between imperfection under the Mosaic Law and perfection in faith, love, or the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:6-9)...The five books of Moses were signified by the Samaritan woman’s five husbands (John 4:18); by the five porticoes at Bethzatha, which were ineffective for salvation (John 5:2); by the five barley loaves (John 6:9); and the crowd of five thousand people (John 6:10). (Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, 312-13)Others have found meaning in the chronology of her personal life. Alan R. Kerr (b. 1942) relays:
Mark W.G. Stibbe [b. 1960]...points out that if the woman has had five husbands and is living de facto with a sixth, then Jesus is the seventh man in her life: ‘Since seven is the perfect number in Judaism, the implicit commentary must be that Jesus is the man which she has been waiting for, the man in whose presence she will find wholeness (σωτηρία).’ The surprise is that the bride is a Samaritan and not a Jew. Jesus, the bridegroom, is the Saviour of the world (John 4:42) not just of the Jewish people. (Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John, 171-72)The woman’s sexual history has become her defining attribute because it is the only biographical detail presented in the text aside from her nationality (John 4:7, 9). This descriptive sparseness is typical of John’s gospel.
R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) apprises:
John’s characterization is...peculiar in that it does not give the age or physical characteristics of any character. Only the barest outline of their past is ever related: the Samaritan woman had five husbands [John 4:18], the lame man had been afflicted for thirty-eight years [John 5:5], and the blind man had been blind from birth [John 9:1]. Instead, the characters are individualized by their position in society and their interaction with Jesus. This means that they may easily become types. They are not so individualized that they have much of a “personality.” On the other hand, their position in society and interactions with Jesus are verisimilar and realistic. They must be for the reader to accept them and, more importantly, accept the evangelist’s characterization of Jesus. (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, 145)Despite the paucity of data, Adele Reinhartz (b. 1953) infers:
The age of the woman in this case is not known; the references to her husbands indicate that she is an adult; the allusion to the biblical betrothal motif (“boy meets girl at well”) implies that she is of the same generation as Jesus. The fact that she encounters Jesus at a well near but not within the geographical boundaries of her community may imply that she has gained her knowledge of and commitment to this message while she was away from the community, and that she has returned in order to preach to them. (Amy-Jill Levine [b. 1956] with Marianne Blickenstaff [b. 1959], “Women in the Johannine Community: An Exercise in Historic Imagination”, A Feminist Companion to John: Volume II, 22-23)The woman’s marital status is emphasized. Robert H. Mounce (b. 1921) mentions:
It is worth noting that when the woman denied having a husband, she placed the crucial word aner (“husband,” Edward W. Goodrick [1913-1992] & John R. Kohlenberger III [b. 1951] 467) at the end of the clause. Jesus in his response placed it first, thus adding considerable emphasis. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Luke~Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary))The Greek word anēr can literally indicate that the woman has had five “men” but virtually no prominent translations present the text this way, instead opting for the traditional “husbands” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV).
Adeline Fehribach (b. 1950) recognizes:
If five legal husbands is unlikely, should the passage read, “You have had five ‘men’ and the one you are with now is not your ‘husband.’” This translation would imply that she was never legally married to any of the men in her life, a position supported by Laurence Cantwell and Hendrikus Boers [b. 1928]. (Fehribach, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel, 68)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) considers:
It is perhaps...another instance of a wordplay...here involving the word ἀνήρ (anēr), which can mean either “man” or “husband.” If so, Jesus may be telling the woman that she has had five “men”(with whom she lived in fornication) and that the one she is now living with is not her “man,” that is, husband (though he may be that of another woman; note the emphatic position of “your” in the Greek.) In other words, the woman is a serial fornicator (see Charles H. Giblin [1928-2002] 1999). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 152-53)Johns Varghese (b. 1966) expounds:
The fact of the marriage of the woman seems to be based on the interpretation of the word “ἀνήρ” as “husband”. However as Hendrikus Boers [b. 1928] notes, “The parallel between ‘you had’ and ‘you have’, i.e., now, may suggest that none of the other men were her husbands either”. It may thus reflect an adulterous situation in which the Samaritan woman was living and had lived. The woman’s personal history matches her national history. (Varghese, The Imagery of Love in the Gospel of John, 130)Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) assesses:
The relationship of a man (anēr) to a woman is determined by pronouns and context, so stress must be laid on the pronoun “your.” That the man with whom she lives is not her husband does not necessarily mean that he is someone else’s husband or that they have physical relations. She may be living with a close kin. The humiliating fact of having been married five times and five times widowed or rejected and not to be married at present would be sufficient cause to conceal her status. Jesus’s word of praise for a painful admission indicates that he has moved from playful banter to sincere speech [John 4:17]. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament, 85)If the Samaritan woman has had five husbands it would not only be highly irregular but many scholars have asserted that it would also be in violation of the rabbinic maximum. Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) notifies:
If the...rendering “five husbands,” is correct, then the woman found herself in conflict with Jewish law (contra Brooke Foss Westcott [1825-1901] 1908:1.154), since rabbis generally disapproved of more than three legal marriages in a lifetime, even in the case of the death of previous husbands (Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 64b; cf. Babylonian Talmud Niddah 64a). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 152)Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky (b. 1951) challenges:
Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998] follows Hermann Leberecht Strack [1848-1922] and Paul Billerbeck [1853-1932] in his comment, “Jews were only allowed three marriages.” This is wrong. The rabbinic law limiting marriages only applies when the previous husbands have died during the marriage, in which case the wife qualifies as a “killer wife” and is prevented from marrying further. In point of fact, a very famous rabbi disregarded the law to marry the woman he desired. Our passage simply points to the woman as a liar, but not necessarily “markedly immoral” as Brown construed her. (John R. Donahue [b. 1933], “Study of John’s Interaction with First-Century Judaism”, Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998], 99)Inferences drawn from the woman’s marital history vary greatly. F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) discusses:
As Mary Rose D’Angelo [b. 1946] observes, this exchange has generated astonishing “exegetical extravaganzas,” concocting various scenarios about the woman’s pathetic philandering or promiscuous past (“five-time loser”/“tramp”) or, in a thoroughly allegorical reading, interpreting her “husbands” as the alien gods of the five nations ancient Syria relocated in Samaria. (Spencer, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus’ Life, 91)Mark Edwards (b. 1962) audits:
Augustine [354-430] thinks that the purpose of this exchange is to reveal Christ as the true spouse of the soul (Homily 15.19). Calum M. Carmichael [b. 1938] too interprets the scene as the ‘Johannine symbolical equivalent of a marriage’ (1979-80: 335)...Heracleon [second century] defends her by appeal to the Valentinian myth in which a penitent wisdom sows the seeds of spirit by fornicating with the cosmic powers (Origen [184-253], Commentary 13.25). The frequent association of promiscuity with idolatry (Ezekiel 16:51, etc.) lends some weight to the conjecture, endorsed by Sir Edwyn Hoskyns [1884-1937], that these husbands are the five cults which the Assyrians are said to have stalled in Samaria (1947: 242, citing I Kings 17:24-29). (Edwards, John Through the Centuries, 56)Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) researches:
On a possible link between the woman’s personal situation and her quest for life see Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], The Gospel of John: A Commentary (translators G.R. Beasley-Murray [1916-2000], R.W.N. Hoare [b. 1940], and J.K. Riches [b. 1939]; Philadelphia 1971; German original 1941), 188; Dorothy A. Lee [b. 1953], Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology In The Gospel of John (n. 2), 74. The gospel does not say whether the woman was divorced or widowed five times, but five husbands seems excessive, especially since she is living with a man to whom she is not married. Her personal history is often interpreted in terms of sin and unfaithfulness. Some respond that the woman could also be the victim of the sins of others, who divorced her for various reasons (Gail R. O’Day [b. 1954], “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreter’s Bible 9 , 567). (Jörg Frey [b. 1962], Jan G. Van der Watt [b. 1952] and Ruben Zimmermann [b. 1968], “What does it mean to be human? Imagery and the Human Condition in John’s Gospel”, Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, 410)It is hard not to ask how the woman arrived at this place in life. Andrew T. Lincoln probes:
Jesus’...words...expose the woman’s previous marital history and present domestic arrangements [John 4:18]. But the force of these words has been hotly debated. Feminist readings of this passage are quite right to warn against importing into the text assumptions about women’s sexuality and to point out both that the text passes over the reasons for the woman’s marital history and that is not mentioned in order for Jesus to judge her for it. They also challenge readers to rethink whether that marital history necessarily suggests immortality. Sometimes it is suggested that perhaps she is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage and the last male in the family has refused to marry her. There is elsewhere the trick question put to Jesus by the Sadducees in Luke 20:23-27, based on the levirate custom, about a woman and seven brothers. But that deliberately pushed the custom to absurdity to try to make a point. It does not envisage marriage to six brothers as a likely occurrence. In fact, in first-century Judaism it was quite unusual to have more than three marriages in a lifetime...and, in any case, there is no indication that the sixth male here has refused to marry the Samaritan woman, which would be his right under levirate laws; instead, she is living with this man in a sexual relationship. Anyone in the woman’s situation would be bound to have been viewed as morally suspect. (Lincoln, The Gospel according to Saint John, (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 175)Some interpreters have sought meaning in the fact that the story represents a recurring episode known as a “type scene”. The story of boy meets girl at a well certainly qualifies in the Bible.
R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) explores:
The encounter of the leading character with his future wife at a well is a conventional biblical type-scene (e.g., Abraham, Isaac [Genesis 24:10-61], Jacob [Genesis 29:1-20], and Moses [Exodus :15-22]). Allusions to the patriarch (John 4:5, 12) underline the scene’s scriptural associations. The encounter takes place in a foreign land, the protagonist is expected to do or say something characteristic of his role in the story, one or the other of them will draw water and the maiden will rush home and prepare for the man’s coming to meet her father and eat with them. A wedding will follow. In John, however, conventional elements are treated unconventionally; Jesus asks for water but apparently receives none. Dialogue rather than action carries the scene. Living water, of which Jesus is the source, rather than well water, to which the Samaritan woman has access, becomes the critical concern. And the woman is no marriageable maiden; she has had five husbands. Still, Jesus goes to her village, and she receives him as her Lord [John 4:28-30]. (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, 136)Alan R. Kerr (b. 1942) supports:
Paul D. Duke [b. 1953] (Irony in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 101-03) argues that there is a betrothal scene, but John 4:18 introduces an ironical tone to it. Whereas in the betrothal scenes in the Old Testament the potential bridegroom speaks with a virgin, in John 4:18 it is revealed that Jesus is not talking to a virgin but with a ‘five-time loser.’ Calum M. Carmichael [b. 1938] (‘Marriage and the Samaritan Woman’, New Testament Studies 26 , pp. 322-46) argues on theological rather than literary grounds that the narrative of John 4:4-42 presents Jesus and the Samaritan woman as husband and wife. (Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John, 171)Mark W.G. Stibbe (b. 1960) gleans:
Even though the story of the Samaritan woman appears to be about marriage, P. Joseph Cahill [b. 1923] argues that ‘the theme of the narrative is true worship’ and that ‘the controlling metaphor, skillfully contrived by the writer, is not that of marriage but of betrothal’ (p. 41). Many of the narrative characteristics of John 4 fit into the pattern of the Old Testament betrothal scene, especially the mention of Jacob’s well, which is a reminiscence of the well in the betrothal scene of Genesis 29:1-20. However, the marital symbolism and the betrothal echoes are figurative devices. ‘False worship, of which the Samaritan woman is but a symbol, is infidelity or adultery’ (p. 44). John 4:7-30 is an ironic betrothal scene in which infidelity is false worship and marriage true worship. (Stibbe, John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel, 48)In deference to this backdrop, Lyle Eslinger (b. 1953) poses that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are flirting and that Jesus’ reference to her husband is at the point in the conversation where the suitor learns if the woman to whom he speaking is available (John 4:16).
Kevin Quast (b. 1957) reviews:
If Lyle Eslinger [b. 1953] is right about the conversation between the woman and Jesus being filled with double entendres, then Jesus’ mention of her husband fits the context much better. “At the point where she expected to get his ‘living water’ Jesus’s command comes as a rebuke to her carnal misconceptions. Had she not been making sexual advances, had Jesus not understood them, and had the reader not understood both the reader and Jesus, his command to go call her husband would make no sense here. Jesus tells her to get her husband exactly when she expected to commit adultery against the man.” Jesus proceeds to completely shut down the direction she is heading and “now openly reveals his disinterest in her charms by demonstrating his supernatural knowledge of her past.” (R. Glenn Wooden [b. 1957], Timothy R. Ashley [b. 1947] and Robert S. Wilson [b. 1943], “The Samaritan Woman: An ‘Unorthodox Witness’ (John 4:1-42)”, You Will be My Witnesses: A Festschrift in Honor of the Reverend Dr. Allison A. Trites [b. 1936] on the Occasion of His Retirement, 102)Not all view this pericope as a betrothal scene. Jan Gabriël Van der Watt (b. 1952) inspects:
The ‘well’ story might point to a ‘betrothal type scene’ on the basis of the Old Testament ‘well scenes;, as John Painter [b. 1935] (1993:200). Sjef Van Van Tilborg [1939-2003] (1993:183-84) supports Teresa Okure [b. 1941] in saying that the parallels are not definite. David Mark Ball (1996:62) also finds it unconvincing. (Van der Watt, Family of the King: Dynamics of Metaphor in the Gospel According to John, 229)Sjef Van Tilborg (1939-2003) critiques:
The sexual freedom, ascribed to the women in the romance literature, is absent in the Johannine Gospel (although the five husbands of the Samaritan woman are no barrier for her to be in touch with Jesus). Generally speaking...eroticism is absent in the Johannine women. (Van Tilborg, Imaginative Love in John, 177)Adeline Fehribach (b. 1950) adds:
Jesus changes the subject by instructing the Samaritan woman to go call her husband (ἄνδρα) and then return (John 4:16). This is an unconventional statement for a betrothal type-scene. Although the woman’s statement that she has no husband (John 4:17a) appears to restore the type-scene, such restoration is short-lived. (Fehribach, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel, 63)Given the fantastic nature of having five husbands, allegorical interpretations have emerged throughout the centuries. J.D.M. Derrett (1922-2012) posits that the five husbands represent the “five senses” known to Jews and Greeks (“The Samaritan Woman’s Pitcher,” The Downside Review 102 (1984) 252-61). This approach, however, is uncommon.
Most allegorical readings connect the Samaritan woman to her people. Jerome H. Neyrey (b. 1940) introduces:
Using allegorical methods of interpretation, critics have attempted to identify the five husbands (John 4:18) with the five books of Samaritan Pentateuch or with the five gods (ba’al as husband/god) which the Samaritans were said to worship. (Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective, 112)Daniel Rathnakara Sadananda (b. 1963) bolsters:
It has been observed, ‘the husband/husbands’ are important to the Evangelist’s story as his tendency to present women independent shows, the mother of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene (cf. John 11:1-53, 12:1-18, 19:25, 20:1-2, 11-18). Then the talk of husband/man or husbands/men must point towards a symbolic interpretation. (Sadananda, The Johannine Exegesis Of God: An Exploration Into The Johannine Understanding Of God, 240)Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) expounds:
Much is made of the five husbands...as a possible symbolic use of the number five to refer to the five gods of Samaria (cf. Josephus [37-100], Antiquities 9.2888), or the five books of the Samaritan Pentateuch (Origen [184-253], In Johannem 13.8 [Jacques Paul Migne [1800-1875], Patrologia Graeca 14:410-411]), or the five foreign cities that brought their gods (there were in fact seven, but recourse is had to Josephus for the number five) with them (II Kings 17:27-31). The man with whom she is presently living, who is not her husband, has been identified with Simon Magus (cf. James D. Purvis [b. 1932], “The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans” 193-95). These symbolic readings are widespread among those who see the Samaritan woman as a representative figure for all Samaritans (cf. Alfred Loisy [1857-1940], Le quatrième Évangile 182; Oscar Cullmann [1902-1999], “Samaria and the Origins of the Christian Mission” 187-88). In the light of Jesus’ comments in John 4:17 (“you are right in saying”) and John 4:18 (“this you said truly”), C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] (The Gospel according to St. John 235) is correct when he comments: “It is quite possible, and may well be right, to take these words as a simple statement of fact, and an instance of supernatural knowledge of Jesus.” (Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina), 131-132)Urban C. Von Wahlde (b. 1941) supports:
Some have suggested that “five” represents the five pagan gods mentioned in II Kings 17:24 and worshipped by Samaritans. This is strengthened by the fact that the Hebrew word ba’al (“lord,” “master”) was the word used for “husband” and was also used to refer to a pagan deity. The sixth man, to whom she is not married, represents the God of Israel. However, in II Kings 17:30-31, a total of seven pagan gods are mentioned. However, Josephus [37-100] mentions five (Antiquities 9.14.3§288). Origen [184-253] (In Johannem 13:8) understood this as a reference to the fact that Samaritans considered only the five books of Moses sacred. The Palestinian Targum on Genesis 28:10 mentions that Jacob performed five signs (José Ramón Díaz, “Palestinian Targum and New Testament”). (Von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, Volume 2: The Gospel of John (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 174)Though allegorical readings have fallen out of favor, some contemporary exegetes still adhere to them. Gerald Sloyan (b. 1919) exemplifies:
The whole story is fraught with symbolism, so much so that we are right to doubt the literal truth of the woman’s having five husbands and not being married to her present partner (John 4:18). Aside from the inherent improbability of such a career, there is the fact that Samaritans were stigmatized as “Cuthians” (Berakoth 7:1, and so throughout the Mishnah), a tribe of the Assyrian Empire in II Kings 17:24, 30. These were one of the five idolatrous peoples of the East identified in Second Kings by their gods and consorts (II Kings 17:30-31). If the woman’s five husbands were these peoples, the present liaison of the Samaritans at the stone surface of sacrifice on Gerizim would be the sixth: an idolatrous cult in Jewish eyes. (Sloyan, John (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 55)Andrew T. Lincoln (b. 1944) defends:
Against this approach it is objected that the polemic of the latter passage actually mentions seven gods worshipped by five ethnic groups, or that there is no parallel to the successiveness of the woman’s five different husbands. However, the use to which this traditional polemic was later put suggested to Jews that the idolatry of the nations that had settled in Samaria was associated with the number five. Josephus [37-100], Antiquities 9.14.31-32 says that ‘each of them, according to their nations, which were in number five, brought their own gods into Samaria, and by worshipping them...provoked Almighty God to be angry and displeased at them.’ To push the issue of successiveness is to treat the matter of allusion too literally. All that is required is that the woman, in representing Samaria, had a history involving five husbands. That the man she was now living with was not her husband would have suggested the common Jewish view that the Samaritans’ present claim to worship Yahweh was not a valid one. And in pointing out that the man she was with was not her husband, Jesus would be acting in the role of God’s prophet, as did, for example, Hosea, when he states on behalf of Yahweh, ‘plead with our mother, please – for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband – that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts’ (Hosea 2:2). (Lincoln, The Gospel according to Saint John, (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 175-76)Sandra M. Schneiders (b. 1936) argues:
The dialogue on the five husbands is integral to the discussion of Samaritan faith and theology, and the “husbands” are therefore symbolic rather than literal...First, the exchange about the husband occurs...not as prelude to theological discussion but in the midst of it, that is, after the woman has perceived Jesus’ implicit claim to equality with the patriarchs and before she acknowledges him to be a prophet...Second, if the scene itself is symbolically the incorporation of Samaria into the New Israel, the bride of the new Bridegroom, which is suggested by the type scene itself, then the adultery/idolatry symbolism so prevalent in the prophetic literature for speaking of Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh the Bridegroom would be a most apt vehicle for discussion of the anomalous religious situation of Samaria...The third point...Jesus’ revelation to the woman who symbolizes Samaria, of her infidelity is not a display of preternatural knowledge that convinces the woman of Jesus’ power (and thus her helplessness before him), embarrassing her into a diversionary tactic in an effort to escape moral exposure. Rather, it is exactly what she acknowledges it to be when she says in response to his revelation, “I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19). Jesus’ declaration that Samaria “has no husband,” is a classic prophetic denunciation of false worship...In summary, the entire dialogue between Jesus and the woman is the “wooing” of Samaria to full covenant fidelity in the New Israel by Jesus, the New Bridegroom. It has nothing to do with the covenant life of the community. (John Ashton [b. 1931], “A Case Study: A Feminist Interpretation of John 4:1-42”, The Interpretation of John (Studies in New Testament Interpretation), 247-49)John Shelby Spong (b. 1931) interjects:
People forget that this woman is a mythological symbol of Samaria and so they read this statement moralistically, as if this were a commentary on her loose sexual proclivities. They even suggest that the woman was trying abruptly to change the subject from her questionable past to a debate about the proper place for worship. To read this story that way, however, is to miss its meaning totally. This is a symbolic conversation about how the unfaithful region of Samaria can be incorporated into the new understanding of Christianity that Jesus is believed to present and about how ancient religious divisions in the human family can be overcome in the new human consciousness that Jesus comes to bring. (Spong, Tales of a Jewish Mystic)The allegorical reading makes the Samaritan woman a representative sample of her people. Johns Varghese (b. 1966) asserts:
In order to interpret this statement of Jesus, one has to first see whether the Samaritan woman can stand as a representative figure for her people or not...Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman as “γύναι” (woman). In John 4:21 the Samaritan woman is addressed first in the singular and then in the plural (λέγει αὐτη ὁ ’Ιησους...γύναι...προσυνήσετε τω πατρί). The plural προσυνήσετε is a true plural and stands for the Samaritan people represented by the Samaritan woman. This is then continued by the use of further plurals in John 4:22 (ὑμεις προσκυνειτε ὃ οὐκ οἴδατε). Thus the Samaritan woman serves as the spokesperson of the Samaritan people. (Varghese, The Imagery of Love in the Gospel of John, 129)The woman’s marital history befits a Samaritan. Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) surmises:
The text does not say whether she was divorced or widowed, but five husbands seems excessive...Moreover, the woman was living with a sixth man, either out of desire or necessity, in a relationship that was not a marriage. At best her story is tragic; at worst it is sinful. Yet the peculiar details of the woman’s life actually enhance her role as a representative of the Samaritan people. The woman’s personal history parallels her national history. (Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, 48-49)Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) canvasses:
It has been indicated by a number of commentators that the woman, apart from her individual role, represents the people of Samaria (cf. especially Emanuel Hirsch [1888-1972] 1936, 146). Her only name is “woman of Samaria,” and the reference to five husbands has sometimes been seen as a veiled reference to Samaria itself and to its complex five fold background (cf. the five national groups mentioned in II Kings 17:29-31); Rudolf Schnackenburg [1914-2002], 1:433; Barnabas Lindars [1923-1991], 186-87; Adrien Lenglet, 1985, 494). In fact, there is a form of feminist hermeneutic which sees the five husbands in a way which is purely symbolic or representative and which effectively denies the literal meaning. But, as a general principle, the representative level does not exclude the literal level, and to say that in this case it does is ultimately a disservice to feminism. The woman has had five husbands, and, even in her many marriages, she is also representative. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 216-217)Despite notable support, the majority of scholars reject the allegorical reading. Herman C. Waetjen (b. 1929) surveys:
Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 188, rejects all allegorical interpretations and declines to speculate about the significance of the number five. C.K. Barrett [1917-2011], The Gospel according to St. John, 35, prefers to take Jesus’ words in John 4:18 as a simple fact and “an instance of the supernatural knowledge of Jesus.” Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975], John (Hermeneia) I, 230 ignores the matter completely. Rudolf Schnackenburg [1914-2002], The Gospel according to St. John, translated by Kevin Smyth (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968) I, 433, dismisses all symbolic meanings as misleading. Gail R. O’Day [b. 1954], Revelation in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim, 66-67, does not explore any of these possibilities. Laurence Cantwell, “Immortal Longings in Sermone Humili: A Study of John 4:5–26,” poses the possibility of II Kings 17:29-34 but prefers to view the woman as a representation of all humanity and not merely the Samaritan people. Hendrikus Boers [b. 1928], Neither on this Mountain nor in Jerusalem, 171 maintains that the figure is of no significance except “to reveal Jesus’ miraculous knowledge.” (Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions, 169)Reasons for dismissing the allegorical reading abound. For one, it does not fit the modus operandi of the gospel. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) distinguishes, “The Evangelist does not use allegorization, but rather symbolic representation as his main literary device.” (Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 188)
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) monitors:
This [allegorical interpretation] is problematic for several reasons. First, two of the five nations mentioned in the latter passage have two gods apiece, making seven altogether, not five. Further, if one so allegorizes the number here, the “five” of John 5:2 and John 6:9 must be allegorized to remain consistent, yet must be allegorized differently. Finally, the narrative makes nothing of such connections. (Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 606)D. A. Carson (b. 1946) rejects:
The details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five (II Kings 17:30-32, 41; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities ix.288 appears to have his facts wrong, possibly confused, like some modern expositors, by the five named cities from which the settlers were drawn), and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways...his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests. (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 232-33)In responding to the discrepancy that the Samaritans actually worshiped seven, not five, deities (II Kings 17:30-31), Gerald S. Sloyan (b. 1919) contends that two of the gods are consorts (Sloyan, “The Samaritans in the New Testament,” Horizons 10 (1983) 10.
In addition to the disputed number of deities, the allegory itself also has shortcomings. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) confronts:
It is inconceivable that John the evangelist would picture Jesus as speaking of the five false gods as legitimate husbands, while referring to Jehovah as the One with whom the people were living in adultery. The whole of the biblical tradition, which John knew, would reverse that. (Boice, The Gospel of John, The Coming of the Light (John 1-4): An Expositional Commentary), 284)James D. Purvis (b. 1932) specifies:
The woman was not said to have been a faithless wife—which would be the understanding if the ba‘al/husband was meant to be understood as Yahweh. It is the husband who is singled out: “he whom you now have is not your husband;” i.e., he has no right or claim to be your husband (ba‘al/lord). We are reminded of Justin Martyr [100-165]’s claim of the wide-spread acceptance of Simon Magus as a divine being by the people of Samaria (I Apology 26). That the husband who was not a true husband was a false teacher was suggested by Jerome [347-420]...who identified this person as Dositheus. (David E. Orton, “The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans”, The Composition of John’s Gospel: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum, 181)Further, the allegorical reading does not fit the story’s broader setting. Benny Thettayil (b. 1967) contextualizes:
If the ‘husbands’ in John 4:16-18 have nothing to do with her personal life, what does she mean when she tells her people in the town, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ (John 4:29) when the gospel reports no statements of Jesus either regarding anything she had ever done or regarding her personal life except the mention of her ‘husbands’? From the historical point of view, John Henry Bernard [1860-1927] observes in this regard: ‘We cannot in any case assume that more than a fragment of the conversation is preserved, and much that was said is, no doubt, omitted in the narrative of John. Although this interpretation would give an explanation to John 4:29, we cannot accept Bernard’s opinion since it is an argument from silence. We would rather interpret the text on the basis of what is present in the text and what it tells us than on the basis of what is absent in the text. What is present in the text calls for a non-allegorical interpretation of the text. (Thettayil, In Spirit and Truth: An Exegetical Study of John 4:19-26 and a Theological Investigation of the Replacement Theme in the Fourth Gospel, 35)Sjef Van Tilborg (1939-2003) concludes:
The story demands narratively that her five or six husbands are seen as real. Jesus’ revelation makes sense only, when one accents that they are real physical persons; and only then, it can become the main argument for her witness in the city. (Van Tilborg, Imaginative Love in John, 185)Though the allegorical reading does not represent the prevailing scholarly opinion there is an ironic undercurrent in taking a literal approach. Stephen D. Moore (b. 1954) realizes:
The majority of Johannine commentators have preferred the literal reading of John 4:18 to the figurative one...At the same time, these commentators have scrupulously noted the repeated failure of the woman to grasp the nonliteral nature of Jesus’ discourse. In opting to take Jesus’ statement in John 4:18 at face value, then, they effectively trade places with the woman. They reenact what they purport to be describing. They mimic the literal-mindedness that marks her as inferior in their eyes. The standard reading of John 4:18 conceals a double standard, then. To interpret Jesus literally is a failing when the woman does it, but not when the commentators follow suit. (Amy-Jill Levine [b. 1956] with Marianne Blickenstaff [b. 1959], “Are There Impurities in the Living Water that the Johannine Jesus Dispenses?”, A Feminist Companion to John: Volume I, 83)Even if the woman’s five husband’s have allegorical value, their literal presence must take precedence. R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) prioritizes:
It has often been suggested that the reference to five husbands is an allusion to the five nations that were settled in Samaria (II Kings 17:24). More immediate is the characterization of the woman as one who has been victimized by a series of marriages that for whatever reasons did not last, and who is now living with a man out of wedlock. (Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John: (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series), 141-42)Five marriages would not necessarily announce an indictment against the woman. For instance, contemporary Christian author Elisabeth Elliot (b. 1926) has had three marriages and the Samaritan woman could be more Elisabeth Elliot than Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011).
Frances Taylor Gench (b. 1956) recognizes:
The text tells us that the Samaritan woman had five husbands, but it does not tell us why. We do not know whether she has been divorced or widowed. Perhaps, like Tamar in Genesis 38:1-11, she is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage, and the last male in the family has refused to marry her, as Gail R. O’Day [b. 1954] suggests. Moreover, we should bear in mind that divorce (which is not mentioned in the text) was an exclusively male privilege. Linda McKinnish Bridges [b. 1953] observes, “Maybe her five husbands found her lacking, unsuitable, unlovely, unfit for their desires, and they simply rid themselves of responsibility and relationship...What if this woman with no name needed redemption not from the excesses of sexual promiscuity but from a series of injustices from five husbands in a culture programmed for male domination?” (Gench, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels, 116)Guilty or innocent, it is likely that the Samaritan woman would have been viewed negatively. Jerome H. Neyrey (b. 1940) introduces:
The cultural world of the Gospel highly valued female sexual exclusivity, the core of a female’s virtue and worth. Thus a female with five husbands and a current companion not her spouse mocks this criterion; hardly virtuous, she is instead a sinner, an adulteress, a shameless person. But as in other Gospels, Jesus befriended courtesans. Another stereotype transcended. (Neyrey, The Gospel of John (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 95)Jey J. Kanagaraj (b. 1948) concurs:
The word “now having” is deliberate to indicate that she was not living with a legally married person [John 4:18]. In conformity with the oriental view on morality, the Samaritans also must have considered frequent remarriages as dishonorable and illegitimate. (Kanagaraj, John (New Covenant Commentary Series), 42-43)Jerome H. Neyrey (b. 1940) emphasizes:
She had five husbands already...She is no maiden, but a sexually seasoned woman. Her current male companion is not her husband and so has no responsibility to guard her shame or to defend her sexual exclusiveness, which is the only basis for her honor in the village. Although she might have been widowed five times (see Mark 12:20-23), her current non-marital relationship with a sixth male suggests either adultery or concubinage. In any case, she clearly lacks the exclusivity upon which her reputation and honor depend in a gender-divided world. Moreover, when the woman recounts her conversation with Jesus back in the village, she focuses on one point only, his remark about her sexual history: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:29). The villagers were impressed with her testimony that “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39), which can only refer to Jesus’ remarks in John 4:17-18 about the six men in her life. The author insists on keeping the lack of sexual exclusivity before his audience. (Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective, 156)The woman certainly finds herself in a striking pattern for which many have condemned her, casting her as promiscuous. Paul L. Metzger (b. 1964) characterizes:
She bears an especially heavy burden, for as we find out, she has had five husbands and the man with whom she now lives is not her husband (John 4:16-18). The woman has an unquenchable thirst for love, but like Johnny Lee [b. 1946]’s country song “Looking for Love” says, she has looked for it in all the wrong places...A lot of men have made promises to her in exchange for something. No doubt she is a little jaded. (Metzger, The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town, 75)Some have viewed the woman’s relationships as endemic of an overarching negative portrayal. Musa W. Dube (b. 1964) describes:
There is a sharp division between those who know, the colonizers, and those who know nothing, the colonized. Thus the Samaritan woman is characterized as an ignorant native (John 4:10) and in need of help (John 4:10). She is constructed as morally or religiously lacking something; that is, she has had five husbands, and the one she has now is not her own (John 4:17-18). Furthermore, she does not know what she worships (John 4:22). By way of contrast, Jesus, a superior traveler, is knowledgeable (John 4:10, 22); powerful (John 4:14, 25, 42); sees everything about her past (John 4:17-18, 29); knows and offers answers to her community (John 4:21-26); and teaches her and her people (John 4:21-23). The ignorance of the Samaritan woman is pathetic. Despite all these revelations (John 4:26), she remains ignorant to the end. That is, she is still uncertain and asks, ‘he cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ (John 4:29). As Gail R. O’Day [b. 1954]’s analysis correctly notes, the Samaritan woman’s inability to understand is well above that of the male disciples (John 4:27, 31-33). (Dube and Jeffrey L. Staley [b. 1951], “Reading for Decolonization (John 4:1-42), John and Postcolonialism: Travel, Space, and Power, 67)It has been postulated that the woman’s Samaritan heritage trumps her marital history in regards to what would have been perceived as her greatest obstacle. Tod D. Swanson (b. 1955) deliberates:
What is the plight of this woman, who is identified only as a Samaritan whose identity is formed by the Jacob relics? Whatever her plight is, it is symbolized by her only salient characteristic: she has five husbands. However the author may have intended it, the Gospel’s Hellenistic audience would not have seen physical polyandry as the woman’s greatest problem. It is more likely that they would have identified the woman as the Samaritan psyche and her many husbands as the dispersed loves that separated her from the One—her spiritual bridegroom. (Musa W. Dube [b. 1964] and Jeffrey L. Staley [b. 1951], “To Prepare a Place: Johannine Christianity and the Collapse of Ethnic Territory”, John and Postcolonialism: Travel, Space, and Power, 24)Her peers may have seen her as a lost cause. Daniel Rathnakara Sadananda (b. 1963) relays:
Teresa Okure [b. 1941] suggests that the woman’s five husbands should be taken literally, and adds that the Evangelist’s portrait of the woman five times married living with a man not her husband places her in the same category as other “hopeless cases” which serves as the material for Jesus’ signs in the Gospel, but here Jesus did not perform any sign. (Sadananda, The Johannine Exegesis Of God: An Exploration Into The Johannine Understanding Of God, 239-40)In this vein, some interpreters have viewed Jesus as being corrective. Gerald L. Borchert (b. 1932) epitomizes:
Jesus confronted the woman with her life. When she tried to avoid the issue of a husband (John 4:17), just as she apparently sought to avoid coming for water along with the other women, Jesus spelled out clearly her ethical problem. After experimenting with five husbands...she no longer found the marriage ritual necessary (John 4:18). Jewish tradition permitted three husbands, but she obviously had long passed that more lenient rule. When she said that she had no husband at that time, she had in fact stumbled onto an important idea with Jesus—the idea of truth (alēthes, John 4:18). Jesus therefore noted this fact clearly. (Borchert, John 1-11 (New American Commentary), 205-06)Not all commentators have evaluated the Samaritan woman negatively. Though it is hard to use the known data to present the woman in a wholly positive light, some apologists seemingly to treat any focus on her husbands as an affront to women.
The Samaritan woman could have had “legitimate” reasons for having had five husbands and her present living arrangement. Turid Karlsen Seim (b. 1945) remarks that “insufficient account” is given to the fact that, as it was the man who initiated the divorce proceedings, in the Samaritan’s era, divorce was almost entirely a male prerogative (Lars Hartman [b. 1930] and Birger Olsson [b. 1938], “Roles of Women in the Gospel of John”, Aspects on the Johannine Literature: Conference Papers, 68).
Frank A. Spina (b. 1943) considers:
Many interpreters over the years have seized on the woman’s having had multiple husbands and a current “living arrangement” as a clear signal of a sordid past and an unsavory present. But is that a fair analysis? First of all, the woman’s five spouses may have died, a circumstance reflected in Mark 12:18-23, where some Sadducees try to prove to Jesus that there is no resurrection. Second, if the woman has been divorced multiple times, it is highly unlikely that she would have triggered the procedures. Initiating divorce was for the most part a male prerogative. Third, a woman in the ancient Near East would have had little choice but to remarry after divorce or the death of her spouse, for she would be economically dependent on a husband. This is why so many Old Testament laws call for supporting the vulnerable — among whom are mainly orphans and widows. To be sure, the fact that this woman is currently with someone who is not actually her husband does not speak well of her. At the same time, one must ask whether this arrangement is as much a function of economic necessity as of sexual promiscuity. Granted, Jesus seems to go out of his way to bring her current situation to light; yet, at the same time, he refrains from anything more than a fairly mild and largely implicit criticism. We are thus left to wonder what Jesus had in mind when he introduced this topic. (Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, 150-51)Perhaps what speaks most for the woman’s character is the response she receives from others in the story. Margaret M. Beirne evaluates:
The final word may be with her own people whose openness to faith on the basis of her witness to Jesus (John 4:39a) hardly indicates that treatment of her as a social or moral outcast. (Beirne, Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: A Genuine Discipleship of Equals, 83)Equally telling is Jesus’ response to the woman: He does not unleash a lesson in morality. Gail R. O’Day (b. 1954) perceives:
The history of the woman’s five husbands is presented quite disinterestedly, with no suggestion or coloring of moral outrage or judgment. How or why the woman has had five husbands and the quality of those marriages are not a concern of the Evangelist as he tells the story. More importantly, those questions are also unimportant to Jesus. One searches in vain for any words of judgment about the woman’s character uttered by Jesus...This exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is not an attempt to bring the woman face-to-face with her sinfulness or to place in her posture of confession before Jesus. To see the text in this way is to miss the main function of the exchange. The conversation of John 4:16-19 is intended to show the reader something about Jesus, not primarily about the woman. (O’Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John, 47)F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) advises:
A kinder and simpler reading is preferred. Jesus makes no moral judgments about this woman, and neither should we...We don’t know, and Jesus couldn’t care less about the implication of the woman’s marital status (there is no “go and sin no more,” as with the adulterous woman in John 8:11), except possibly to justify his approaching her at the well (she’s single [technically] and he’s single—so there’s nothing improper about intimate conversation between them there). (Spencer, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus’ Life, 91)In fact, not only does Jesus not scold the Samaritan woman, he instead compliments her honesty (John 4:17). Roger L. Fredrikson (b. 1920) observes:
One catches a note of sad regret in the woman’s terse reply, “I have no husband.” Jesus commends her for telling the truth. All of us need to be aware of the flashes of beauty and goodness we see in every sinner. And then he opens up her whole confused situation. She has lived with a passing parade of men, five of them technically husbands, and the latest a live-in affair. None of them are lasting, meaningful relationships. “She belongs to no man, but has been the property of five.” (Fredrikson, John (Mastering The New Testament), 99)Commentators who jump at the chance to chastise the woman take sterner action than does Jesus. Gail R. O’Day (b. 1954) and Susan E. Hylen (b. 1968) correct:
John 4:16-19...[has] been consistently misinterpreted in the history of the church, resulting in the much-repeated presentation of the Samaritan woman as immoral, a sinner, and unworthy conversation partner for Jesus. Yet nothing in the tone of these verses conveys that Jesus judges the woman and her history. The tone of judgment belongs to centuries of commentators, not to Jesus. (O’Day and Hylen, John (Westminster Bible Companion), 53)David R. Beck (b. 1955) bolsters:
The question of the woman’s sinfulness has received far greater attention from some readers than the narration of it seems to warrant. Nowhere in this scene is there any textual evidence of repentance, nor is Jesus portrayed requesting it of her. It is undeniable that by the standards of most cultures, five husbands is excessive, and living with a man not one’s husband is usually deemed unacceptable. Readers whose extratexts include knowledge of common cultural martial standards would find her spousal history notable. (Beck, The Discipleship Paradigm: Readers and Anonymous Characters in the Fourth Gospel, 73)Bruce B. Barton (b. 1943) cautions:
He [Jesus] did not accuse or excuse; he simply described her life so that she could draw some clear conclusions about the mess in which she was living. The conclusions we reach without knowing the facts will usually err in one of two directions: We will accuse others and raise their defenses, or we will excuse others and enable their denial. We see in Jesus’ communication with this woman that faced with an accepting confrontation, people will often respond positively. When we speak to others about themselves, we must limit our words to what we know. (Barton, John (Life Application Bible Commentary), 83–84)Regardless of what her love life indicates, the Samaritan woman is brazen throughout the text, repeatedly violating societal norms and crossing established social boundaries. Amy-Jill Levine (b. 1956) construes:
According to Jerome H. Neyrey [b. 1940], the woman is sexually shameless: she has had five husbands, she is currently cohabitating with a man not her husband (a situation indicating either adultery or concubinage), and she is conversing in public with a man outside her kinship group. Stranger still, when she recounts her conversation with Jesus to her fellow villagers, she focuses primarily on her sexual history (John 4:29), and, consistent with this violation of cultural norms, she makes her announcement not in private, but in male-defined public space. Nevertheless, in her encounter with Jesus, she transforms herself into an insider: she repeats Jesus’ original words ‘Give me to drink; with her own insistence, ‘Give me this water’ (John 4:7, 15). (Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff [b. 1959], Feminist Companion to John: Volume I, 7)The Samaritan woman is unfazed by convention. Then again, the same could be said of Jesus. Betrothal scene or not, in this respect, Jesus has found a kindred soul.
Whether read figuratively or literally, accumulating five husbands is implausible. Though having multiple marriages is more common today, five marriages still turns heads. Therefore people have been gossiping about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well for centuries!
She lives outside of the boundaries. She may have been a notorious figure viewed as a femme fatale replete with the requisite checkered past; a woman who changed men as frequently as most change underwear. The woman could equally be perceived as a tragic figure passed around as an object by men and worthy of sympathy. None of her marriages lasted and she appears to have never experienced a formal, committed satisfying relationship.
Perception of the woman ranges from victim to cougar. For John’s part, the narrator is neutral: The woman’s five husbands are simply presented as a statement of fact. Her life situation is what it is. Perhaps, like all people, the woman is both good and bad. She is human. Given the lack of detail, the reader’s response to the Samaritan woman reveals more about the reader than it does of her.
What is the tone of this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30)? Does Jesus’ inquiry comply to social norms; is it inappropriate? Is Jesus’ transition completely abrupt or do the two strands of the conversation connect (John 4:7-15, 4:16-27)? When the Samaritan woman informs Jesus that she has no husband, does she think that she is responding honestly or is she deliberately attempting to mislead (John 4:17)? Does the woman’s reluctance to discuss her past reflect guilt? What can be inferred with any certainty based solely upon the Samaritan woman’s marital history? Do the multiple marriages speak more of the woman or the men in her life? How important is a person’s sexual history to you when forming your opinion of them? If the Samaritan woman has already married five times, why not marry the sixth man who is not her husband (John 4:18); what’s one more? Would readers condemn the woman so readily if they knew her personally? How would the story be read differently if the Samaritan woman was a male? Who do you know of who has had 5+ spouses? How do you view these people? Is the Samaritan woman a sympathetic figure? If the reader justifies the woman, does it mitigate the impact of the text and Jesus’ acceptance; does it enhance her at Jesus’ expense? Who do you know who is most like this woman? Why is the Samaritan woman not scared away by Jesus’ broaching of such a sensitive topic? What does her willingness to stay say about her? When have you been involved in a conversation that abruptly shifted topics? How do you respond when someone asks you something personal that you would rather not discuss?
Jesus’ seemingly abrupt interjection is purposeful (John 4:16). He exposes the most unusual fact about the woman, which may or may not have been common knowledge. This personal interlude completely changes the dynamics of the philosophical discourse.
The fact that Jesus knew about the men in her life is more important than their exact number as he demonstrates supernatural foreknowledge. Jesus routinely exhibits this skill in John’s gospel.
Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) pursues:
Just as in the case with Nathanael (John 1:47-48) so here; Jesus’ knowledge of what is in a person (cf. John 2:25, 6:15, 61, 64, 70, 13:27; cf. I Corinthians 12:8: word of knowledge; I Corinthians 14:24-25; Luke 7:39-47) is the basis for the person’s first recognition of who Jesus is. Since he has prophetic knowledge, so the woman reasons, let him resolve the thorny issue between Jews and Samaritans, the place where people ought to worship (John 4:20). (Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and Johannine Epistles, 120)Jesus exposes the Samaritan woman’s sore, but not to rub salt in the wound. Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) resolves:
Jesus’ intention in mentioning these things was not to create a sense of guilt, but to confront the pain in her relationships with men. This would accentuate her thirst for a meaningful relationship with God and make her receptive to the revelation he was offering her. (Kruse, John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 132)Robert Kysar (b. 1934) explicates:
The purpose of Jesus’ comments is not to embarrass or accuse the woman; her sin (if it is such and that is not entirely clear) is not the central feature of the conversation. The purpose rather is to open the discussion to a level of honesty so that it can become clear who the woman is and who Jesus is. It is not absolutely necessary that we interpret the woman’s situation as sinful, since we are not told of the occasions for her numerous remarriages...It is Jesus’ extraordinary knowledge of the woman’s life that is the important point in the passage. The woman’s marvel at Jesus’ knowledge reminds us of Nathanael (John 1:49), but she concludes that Jesus is a prophet (John 4:19). (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 65)In unmasking the woman, Jesus presents a prophetic understanding of her life situation and in return she recognizes Jesus as a prophet (John 4:19). Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) connects:
He [Jesus] demonstrates the same kind of insight reflected in synoptic accounts of his ‘supernatural knowledge’ (cf. especially Mark 11:2-3, 14:12-15)...The woman replies that he must be a prophet (John 4:19). Luke 7:39 likewise demonstrates popular belief that prophets would have insight into a person’s character, again in the context of an encounter between Jesus and a disreputable woman. (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 100)The Samaritan woman is shocked into a new revelation. Colleen Conway (b. 1962) determines:
Whatever Jesus’ enigmatic statement regarding the woman’s five husbands and her current non-husband may mean, the effect of his statement on the woman is most significant. She perceives him to be a prophet and immediately engages him in theological conversation, first concerning proper worship [John 4:20-24] and then the coming of the Messiah [John 4:25-26]. (Amy-Jill Levine [b. 1956] with Marianne Blickenstaff [b. 1959], “Gender Matters in John”, A Feminist Companion to John: Volume II, 84-85)Jesus tells the woman just enough to reveal his divine knowledge and in the process turns her life inside out. In exposing the woman, Jesus exposes himself. He unveils his divine capacity and reveals his true identity.
Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) evaluates:
The reputation that has dogged her incessantly now has surfaced again. But Jesus is not simply judging her. She rightly sees that this uncovers his abilities as a messenger from God and recoils, looking for a way to deflect the moral probings of this stranger. Despite what she says in John 4:19-20, she continues to “remain in the light,” for she continues to speak with Jesus and not walk away. (Burge, John (NIV Application Commentary), 145)Thomas H. Olbricht (b. 1929) proclaims:
Jesus’ declaration to the woman at the well in Samaria, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18), was...a sign that Jesus was from God. This statement was as much a sign as those statements concerning the destruction of the temple, the healing of the royal official’s son (John 4:46-54), and the cure of the paralytic (John 5:1-9). (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], “The Word as Sign”, Preaching John’s Gospel: The World It Imagines, 84-85)If the woman is overtly sinful, in this story, her sinfulness merely becomes a means to see Jesus. Jesus gives the woman what she has clearly been seeking: A meaningful relationship and a connection to God. This gives all of us sinners hope: Jesus will respond to us in the same gracious manner as he did the Samaritan woman.
Do you think it is a relief to the Samaritan woman that her “secret” has been revealed and yet the conversation continues; she no longer has to conceal her past or worry about when it might be exposed? What is more disconcerting to the woman, discussing her marriages or talking directly to the Messiah? What is the one subject you least want to talk about right now? Has anyone ever brought it up? What can pastors model from Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritan woman? Can the average Christian be as direct as Jesus? When have you been “exposed”? When have you revealed yourself? When has God been revealed to you?
“Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it?” - Søren Kierkegaard (1833-1855), Either/Or, II.146