In the gospel of John, Jesus (a Galilean) engages in a most unusual conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well.
“So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.” (John 4:5-6)
From the start, a first-century Israelite reader would be alerted to the fact that this conversation takes place next to the burial place of Joseph’s bones. “They buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem…” (Joshua 24:32). This immediately hints at a connection between the Samaritan woman’s story and the story of Joseph. What kind of connection? Please allow me to explain.
Traditionally, the Samaritan woman is presented as a person of ill repute; a loose and sinful woman who (although traditionally pictured as young) already had five husbands and was currently living with a man who was not her husband. Like Rebecca in Genesis 24, she comes to the well towards evening, when the temperatures are cooler, and meets the Messiah who is weary from walking all day (John 4:6). [Note: The Gospel of John does not use the same timekeeping system as the other Gospels. To see why, please compare Matthew 27:45 with John 19:14. Matthew follows the Jewish reckoning of time in which the “sixth hour” is 3 PM. John follows the Roman reckoning of time where the “sixth hour” refers to the sixth hour after midnight or, as in this case, the sixth hour after noon.]
In any event, the timing of her visit to the well is near sunset – perhaps in order to avoid the critical eyes of the community. The painting accompanying this article is a good example of this traditional interpretation: she is young, beautiful, and she is out to attract men. As the traditional theory goes, Jesus confronted her with her sin and she had no choice but to admit it.
However, Jesus’ conversation at the well with this seemingly unrighteous woman bears all the marks of deep theological engagement on both sides. The woman knows that (according to the traditions of Judean Israelites) Jesus would be ritually contaminated if he were to use a vessel that belonged to a Samaritan woman. A later Judean legend, which asserted that Samaritan women’s menstrual cycles began immediately following childbirth, serves to emphasize this point (BT, Niddah 4:1).
She, therefore, wonders (again like her ancestor Rebecca) how she can help him draw water since he has no vessel of his own (i.e. a ceremonially clean vessel). They discuss worship, salvation, and even the concept of Messiah. The initial tension is soon resolved and the conversation results in her testifying about Jesus to her entire village. Consequently, many Samaritan Israelites believe in Jesus, and he stays with them for two days.
Why did members of her Israelite/Samaritan (though non-Judean) community trust her witness, if she was a known sinner? Why, given the adversarial religio-political climate between Samaritans and Judeans, would they drop everything they were doing and come to see a young Judean man?
What if the description of the Samaritan woman has been misunderstood by both us and later interpreters?
Doesn’t her avoidance of people, having five prior husbands, and a live-in boyfriend support this view? Isn’t that enough evidence? Not really. Avoiding people (if that was her purpose) may have been a symptom of a profound depression caused by her life’s difficulties, including multiple divorces and/or the deaths of her husbands.
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (John 4:17-18).
The mere fact of having had multiple husbands is not a sin in and of itself. In ancient Israelite society, women did not initiate a divorce. Her five husbands could have died of sickness, been killed by bandits, perished in battle, or simply divorced her because of infertility. Still, in any of these cases, the result would have been devastating to her each time.
Jesus stated that she was currently living with a man who was not her husband. Many assume this meant that the woman was cohabitating with her boyfriend. However, this is not explicitly stated. Because she would need some means of support, she may have lived with a distant relative or in some other undesirable arrangement in order to survive. In her Aramaic speaking culture, it was important for a woman to have a male protector around her at every stage of her life. These protector males, called “gowra” in Aramaic (from a root meaning “strength”) could be a male cousin, uncle, or other guardian responsible to take care of her.
Moreover, Samaritan Israelites did not practice Levirate marriage as did Judean and Galilean Israelites (a group to which Jesus belonged). Samaritans believed that the benefit of Levirate marriage should not apply to a woman if her marriage had been consummated. It is likely that Jesus was not nailing her to the cross of justice, but instead was telling her that he knew everything about the pain she had endured. This is certainly more consistent with the Jesus we know from other stories.
Finally, it is interesting that Joseph’s suffering (remember this conversation is taking place not far from his tomb) and the Samaritan woman’s suffering is not the only thing they had in common. Both Joseph’s suffering and the suffering of the Samaritan woman brought forth the same result in the end – the salvation of their people (John 4:39).
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