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 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 lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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7 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.

  4. Colby Clapp says:

    Well, I am obviously a little late to the party, but I was cleaning out my email inbox and found that I never read this post – I generally read them when I see them because I appreciate your perspectives.

    I have a perspective I have toyed with that I have found really no one else talks about, so maybe I am grasping at straws, but I’ll post it here and you can tell me how off base I may be. I think the text takes on a whole new meaning if we take it literally – where man doesn’t necessarily mean husband. In this case, it would be translated starting in verse 16, “Go call your man and come back” (obviously here, the idea of husband is implied – the man who belongs to you, or more aptly the man you belong to – but after this, I think there is room for a different approach, especially given the twist in verse 18) “Jesus said to here, “You are right when you say you have no man. The fact is, you have had five men and the man you now have is not your man. What you have said is quite true.” In this perspective, as crude as it may seem to us, I think Jesus may very well be giving her a rundown of her sexual history, not a list of divorces (or deceased husbands). This would only reinforce the idea that the woman instantly recognizes him as a prophet. It would have been easy for someone to find out she had been married 5 times. But to know how many men she had been with, that would be something different altogether. While I am no scholar of the 1st century world, I find it highly unlikely that a woman living in a small village and poor enough that she would have to go and draw her own water (and not have servants do it) would have been married more than twice. She would have had next to no value in a culture that prized virgins. Some biblical stories (such as Ruth, Abigail, Michal (who was royalty, so not necessarily a good case study in the relationships of small agrarian villages), and others) do show that a woman was not ‘discarded’ necessarily after their first marriage, but if she wasn’t a woman of means or prestige, I have a hard time thinking that she would have been considered “worth” marrying the 3rd, 4th or 5th time. Also, in this context, I don’t think she was “shacking up” with some guy. I think the implication is that she is having an affair with a married man – “he is not your man,” as in, “he is someone else’s man.” One or two of those “men” could easily have been her legal husband, but I think it is more likely that the other 3 or 4 were not.

    Not every instance of “man” can be translated as husband in this context. Obviously, it doesn’t say, “the husband you have now is not your husband.” That wouldn’t make much sense, though I think it does convey the gist and irony of what he was confronting her with. The first use of “man” in “go call your man” is definitely implying “husband,” and while that would generally set a precedence for how every other instance of “man” in this conversation would be understood, obviously it breaks down by the end. So what we have to do is find the place that the transition is made. I think it is possible that the transition could be earlier than what we have generally assumed.

    I realize that your whole point of your post is to not be too hasty in looking down at this woman, and I agree with that. A woman was sometimes forced to extreme measures to survive or have any hope of not being alone which was all but a death sentence, or at least a sentence to abject poverty (Tamar is a great example of this – and she is regarded as “righteous” for her act of desperation). She was probably considered “used goods” and just as the non-original story in John 8, we shouldn’t be quick to condemn the woman when there were 5 or 6 men who willing to “use” her and move on. Jesus obviously does not discount her and treat her as a cosmic mistake (though he does confront her feigned innocence). He chooses rather to use her not sexually but to invite her to join in the bringing in of the new kingdom.

    I think the conclusions drawn from the fact that she was at the well at the middle of the day are a little bit far reaching (and please let me know if you think my conclusions are far reaching) – While people no doubt started their day fetching water, I think you also simply got water as needed as well. I think it is interesting to note that even though she may have had a “reputation,” the townspeople were still inclined enough to listen to her to come out and see Jesus for themselves. She wasn’t treated as a leper, but she was listened to.

    I think we are too quick to judge people according to their sexual history. I don’t think God is as prudish as we make him out to be. He knows. Jesus makes it clear that he knew when he confronted her. And in no way does it show approval for poor choices, but I can’t really think of any character in the Bible who was “defined” by their sexual past or broken marriages as we are prone to think of them. There are significant stories that show that this struggle is part of our nature and how it often comes with pain because promiscuity is not God’s plan for us, but even the most significant instances – David and Bathsheba, Judah and Tamar, Rahab, they are not limited to being defined by those actions. God seems a whole lot more apt to not regard people in the context of their sexual mistakes than we are. We have made God a puritan, and God really doesn’t fit well in that box. People are people. She was a person. I would imagine that a lot of women today have had at least 6 sexual partners in the course of their life. Some wise choices and some not so. She was not different. So I appreciate the idea that we shouldn’t necessarily paint her as the worst sinner that Jesus interacted with. That was not the case. She was a woman who probably had not had the chances and opportunities to become a a model housewife – maybe when her first man/husband “put her out.” As Jesus says in Matt 5:32, the man who sends away his wife “causes” her to become an adulteress. The fault is on him, not on her. She is simply doing what she must to survive in a male centered world that has a limited place for a woman. If her “man” didn’t secure for her that place, then she would be all but forced to find an alternative place on her own.

    Anyway. If you can tell me how on or off base I may be in this theory, I would appreciate it. Something I have been thinking about for a while, now in regards to this passage.

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