The reputation of the woman at the well

I heard it in church again today. I’ve no doubt said it myself before. The woman at the well is “a woman of questionable moral character.” All of this because of her multiple marriages and current questionable living arrangements. Maybe. But maybe not.

Let’s try some other options on. And let me quick to say that I’m thinking out loud without being an expert in the world of the NT. But here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s start with the fact that women in that culture had little say over matters pertaining to marriage. Marriages were mostly arranged by fathers to benefit a family’s social standing. The woman at the well likely had little say in who she married. And on the end of the marriage, she could not initiate divorce. She went from being her father’s property to her husband’s. And even if her husband died, there were rules about the remarriage of widows over which she would have little say.

It’s true that women could be divorced for sexual infidelity, though for any number of lesser reasons as well. But it’s doubtful that marriage to an adulterous woman would be appealing in that culture, making serial marriages unlikely. She would likely be exposed to public shame and perhaps even to the point of being forced into prostitution. It’s more likely, I think, that she’s been widowed several times, and remarried to kinsman. While the text is silent as to her exact situation, it also doesn’t say anything about her being morally challenged.

But what about the fact that she’s shacking up with a guy who is not her husband? Doesn’t this indicate that she’s a loose woman? Again, we can’t say for sure what the situation is. But there are other possible explanations. For a variety of reasons, she may have exhausted the pool of potential husbands and is destitute and in desperation has found someone who would take her in. This certainly would have been scandalous, but it also would put the woman in a completely different light in the reader’s mind.

Again, the text is silent about her exact circumstances. The one thing that is certain is that she was relatively powerless in a system that favored men. When Jesus reveals insight into her life’s situation, it may be less a way to expose her sin (does that sound like Jesus?) and more a compassionate revelation of himself as a prophet who comes to offer living water to the powerless (that definitely sounds like Jesus).

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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6 Responses to The reputation of the woman at the well

  1. Lori Ruch says:

    Thanks Mark. These were exactly some of the points Kirk and I made a few years ago in our Pepperdine class on the woman at the well and also ( me alone) at a women’s retreat prior to that. Seeing this story this way makes so much better sense to me. Why else would Jesus speak to her as if SHE personally were being welcomed by the father as one of the true worshippers (could be implied) who would now be able to worship in spirit and truth–neither on this mountain or that temple. She would also have been fully aware of the two-way animosity between the gentiles and Jews after the jews’ destruction of the Samaritan temple/massacre in in possibly her grandmother’ s or great grandmother’s day. I think it also supports the real possibility she has survived under layers of abuse/culturally imposed shame and hostility with a genuine quiet faith of her own.. awaiting the messiah. ( as she says) This is my favourite story of how Jesus came to lift up the oppressed and powerless, victims of the fallen patriarchal culture. For lack of time.. please forgive my very brief summary of some things. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Totally agree. Lori


  2. Luke says:

    I have heard both perspectives before, and agree that we need to be careful before pronouncing judgments on the woman’s character based on the limited information we have (her multiple marriages, or, even more tenuously, the time of day at which she fetches water).

    Furthermore, I do think that to the extent that we focus so much on the moral character of the woman, we miss some more profound theological and literary moves that the Evangelist is making, as he presents the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as a typical well engagement story (Abraham’s servant/Rebekah, Jacob/Rachel, Moses/Zipporah). This reading of the text is significantly reinforced by John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the Bridegroom at the end of the previous chapter.

  3. Desta Love says:

    I agree that we have rushed to judgment regarding the social standing of the Samaritan woman. Given her social world, it is unlikely that she would be a prostitute and be married four times. We do not know the circumstances of her marriages but we can surmise that this may reflect leverate marriage practices. As a woman who has survived the loss of four husbands she would be a prime candidate for prostitute since she would likely have no male agency in the world. But she is living with a man who is not her husband. Perhaps he is a kinsman/redeemer who is providing her the protection of male agency.

    Whatever her life situation may be we can still see the exchange between her and Jesus at the well and ask, “What is wrong with this picture?” As a woman of the ancient world she would always venture into public in the company of her husband or other women. But here she is in public space at a public hour alone. It does suggest that she carries shame and has been shunned by the women in her community. But at a bare minimum, we all know that the exchange between Jesus and the woman is a violation of social norm–for men to not speak to women in public who are not their wives. But it goes deeper than that. She is a Samaritan woman and Jews considered Samaritan women menstruant from birth, thus permanently unclean. So there are layers of shame and impropriety here, which of course are of no consequence to Jesus. I like Lori’s comment that she has survived layers of abuse and shame. Even her marriages are because of a leverate situation she no doubt experiences blame and thus carries shame. And if she is barren, all the more reason for the community of women to shun her.

    To me, the power of this passage is that Jesus deems her worthy of the gift of God, regardless of her situation–even if she had been a woman of ill repute. Also, her exclamation to the community is somewhat revealing, “Come see a man who told me all I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?” In this public space, at this public hour–he reveals to her all the answers to our questions about her and she does not feel shame in his presence.

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