It’s a much-loved story.
It’s midday, baking hot, and deserted. Nobody in their right mind goes out then. Except a Samaritan woman. And Jesus. It soon becomes obvious why she does: safest time of day. But Jesus…? It’s not at all obvious what he’s up to.
You see, she’s been married 5 times, and living with a 6th. And we all know what that means… No wonder she goes out then. She can get her water while avoiding the gibes, jeers and scorn.
‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
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)
Now, here’s the thing. The story lends itself perfectly to a dissatisfaction narrative: you know the one? Looking for ultimate meaning in relationships in this life… but they always fail to deliver, so you go onto the next one, hoping for the big one. It’s the perfect illustration for the point that Jesus just made about the difference between drinking well water and his eternal water (4:13). She will need to return to the well tomorrow for more water. Whereas Jesus quenches spiritual thirst forever. If only she hadn’t sought fulfilment in her marriages… she’d have saved so much heartache!
That’ll preach! And I’ve now lost count of the times I’ve read or heard it. In fact, I was reading something just this week which emphasised the point.
A life turned round by grace
A very cursory glance at some popular commentaries reinforces this. Please note: I’m not being critical of them – in their different ways, each offers genuinely helpful contributions. But when it comes to this anonymous woman’s past, they are silent about it, or make similar points. Nearly all pick up on Jesus’s wonderful gentleness and openness, but this is how they describe her.
- New Bible Comm. (Donald Guthrie): she ‘has not grasped the nature of her own need’ and observes that Jewish rabbinical teaching condemned divorcing more than 3 times.
- ESV Study Bible (Andreas Köstenberger): no mention of her past – instead, he just lists a few OT texts on sexual immorality.
- BST (Bruce Milne): the woman is being ‘evasive’. She is then ‘caught’ out by Jesus’s obviously supernatural knowledge.
- Pillar (Don Carson): her response was ‘truculent’ and trying ‘to ward off further probing’ and aims to ‘mask her guilt and hurt’. Otherwise no other explanation.
- Preaching the Word (Kent Hughes): hers is a ‘parched soul’ whose life was ‘a miserable chain of unfulfilling relationships’. Then the ‘pathetic fact that she had married five times indicates that she longed for fulfilment in her life and that she had sought it intensely’.
- Teaching John (Lucas and Philip): the chapter titled: ‘Jesus and a tainted woman’ – part of the ‘morally degenerate’ and condemned by the law because of ‘the nature of her life and behaviour’.
- Word (George Beasley-Murray): Jesus’s question about the husband leads to ‘a revelation of her immoral life.’
Now I am not making the crass point that she had can’t have had anything to be ashamed of. That would be absurd. Then, once she is overcome by coming to know Christ, she tells everyone about it (with a remarkable impact – 4:39-42 – Samaritans accept him too). She has said that, ‘he told me everything I had ever done’. That could be a neutral statement – in other words, he knew how many marriages she’d had. But it is likely (as well as theologically correct) to say that he knew her heart and her deepest spiritual needs – for forgiveness as well as satisfaction. So the commentators above who mention her spiritual needs met in Christ are clearly right.
But there’s one crucial factor in the story which is so often overlooked – and it changes the narrative’s complexion radically.
A victim of victim blame?
The factor is the status of women in the ancient world. Without question, there was an imbalance of power when it came to marriage. Divorce was relatively easy for men, but practically impossible for women (eg see here). And as far as I could see from my far too quick survey, Kruse was the only one to point this out in the newer Tyndale NT Commentary.
- Tyndale (Colin Kruse): he points out that it’s not 100% clear from John’s of anēr (πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας) her 5 prior relationships were marriages or affairs (anēr can be translated ‘man’ and ‘husband’). But he does mention her lack of prerogative to divorce, while highlighting Jesus’s gentleness and supernatural knowledge.
So let’s presume, therefore, that she didn’t necessarily want the divorces. It’s speculative of course, but isn’t it much more likely that she could only acquiesce to what men did to her? The more often it happened, the greater the sense of ‘being damaged goods’. I found myself thinking about this a lot recently by the phenomenon in the new China of the ‘mistress-dispellers’, described in a fascinating if long New Yorker article.
But it was worse in 1st Century Judaea. No wonder she was living with a 6th man, even without being married to him. What else could a woman in such a vulnerable position do? That would be better than nothing.
Jesus offers no comment about her status. And treats her with a magnetic dignity and respect. Even though he is outrageously transgressing various ancient taboos (a Jewish, single man, speaking to a multi-married, Samaritan woman in public)! He doesn’t condemn her lifestyle but meets her deepest heart-needs. I’m not sure he would be so gentle to the various men who have treated her so badly. [Nor, for that matter, would he be so accommodating to the man with whom the woman about to be stoned in John 8 – but that’s another story.]
This doesn’t change the overarching satisfaction narrative, of course. That’ll still preach. But it does deepen it. There is, in addition, a wonderfully affirmative and empowering element to the intervention of grace. It proves that for Jesus, there is never such a thing as damaged goods.