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.

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  • 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.

Let me know who should get credit for this image

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.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Is it possible that these men keep divorcing her because she doesn’t bear them children?

    1. It’s definitely possible. Yet another factor in her heartache

  2. I wonder whether both the dissatisfaction and the victim-of-patriarchy narratives both are too modern and not Jewish enough.

    The echoes of Rebekkah and Rachel at the well reminds you that wells are places the bride is found for the bridegroom.

    The woman could be seen as a symbol of unfaithful Israel (particularly the Northern Kingdom) worshipping on the wrong mountains. Of course Israel was also the victim of those gods and kingdoms she chased after. She was both sinner AND sinned against with her many husbands. But the true bridegroom is calling her back.

  3. 2000 years ago there was no marrage licence. This was when a man picked a virgin took her back to his or her tent and the rest is history. So what confuses me the lady at the well had 5 husbands and was living with the 6 without marrage im confused by this.

  4. Miriam , They had to give certificate of divorce (via Moses) so there was a validity further than “back to the tent” 🙂

  5. Remember this woman was half Jew, so many of the customs were not applicable to the Samaritans. Five different nations were dropped off in Samaria, II Kings 17:24, who knew nothing of God, II Kings 17:25. Verse 33, they feared the Lotd but yet “served” their own gods. Perhaps when Jesus mentioned the five husbands he was referring to the five nations that were planted there. Possibly the woman tried every nation and ran out of choices. Being exhausted, she decides to cohabitate with #6. The idea of Jesus was to deliver the gospel and proper worship to the Samaritans by using the woman who was very familiar with the people and also known for her own proclivities, as a catalyst to get it done.

  6. Well there’s another level to this story, the five husband might refer to the idols/powers the Samaritans have served from the past, and the current man might refer to Rome

    1. it’s not impossible… but I’m usually pretty sceptical of over-allegorised interpretations. There’s absolutely nothing in the text to suggest anything of the sort. Why five? Why would the Samaritans be serving Rome (esp when they might have regarded their faithfulness to the Torah as more faithful than Israel’s larger canon of scriptural texts)? We’re on safer ground if we simply see what is going on in the narrative and seek to understand that within the context of the whole gospel.

  7. Loved the article as well as the premise. As for your statement…”but I’m usually pretty sceptical of over-allegorised interpretations…” I couldn’t agree more! Anyone whose ever been publicly exposed for thier sin in small town should be able to identify with this woman.

  8. he was pointing out her sin and needed to repent . as the other woman caought in adultry he said sin no more jesus said if we know we are sinning then there is no forgivness and if we keep sinning there is no forgivness must jesus be crucified again . no

  9. Is it possible that the 6th man Jesus refers to is in fact married to another woman? Because marriage back then had to do with a blood connection (via a virgin), -sexual relationship and a covenant w/ God.

  10. Was it just an unimportant detail that she had had “five husbands” – rather than four or six, or any other number – or was this too in the providence of God?

    Jesus meets the woman alone, at a well. Isaac’s bride was found at a well, Moses first saw his bride at a well, and Jacob too. It seems a well was a good place for single men to meet single women, for a life partner.

    “Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well.” Jesus was not a ghost, or an angel, he was a real man, fully man, with all the emotions and passions of a real man… yet without sin.

    He is similar to Adam in his sinless innocence before he fell, who filled with desire for the woman, burst into emotional, passionate poetry as soon as he saw a woman, his life companion, Eve: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This Samaritan woman had had five husbands, another man would not commit himself, and now Jesus, the perfect man, is willing to be the seventh man in her life, a husband, who will never leave her nor forsake her, different from all the rest because He will remain faithful, and if she be unfaithful to him, then he will take steps to win back her heart’s deepest love. With him she can enter into rest, she can cease from her own labour and enter into peace and joy. She can know that he knows her through and through and yet accepts her and will stay with her forever.

    Seven is the perfect number in scripture, maybe because if you make a sevenfold promise as Abraham did (Genesis 21:27-32) you are emphatically promising to keep the promise in the future on every single day of the week – I promise I will keep this promise on all future Mondays, and I promise I will keep this promise on all future Tuesdays, etc. Maybe by this means a sevenfold promise became a perfect promise, and seven thus became the perfect number.

    And The Seventh Man in her life is just perfect for her. And because He is the infinite God He is perfect for every other lost, rejected, poor soul who will tie the knot with Him too.

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