The woman at the well – a diversion from Thomas

On Friday and Saturday of last week, I attended Wisdom’s Feast – an annual event run by the Centre for Theology and Ministry of the Uniting Church’s Vic/Tas Synod. This year’s theme was “Rivers of Life” and one of the sessions I attended was led by Sean Winter, who looked at water in John’s gospel. This, not surprisingly, included the Woman at the Well – one of my favourite gospel passages. Some of the material I wrote but couldn’t use in my chapter for the forthcoming book Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Library of New Testament Studies; London: T & T Clark, edited by Chris Skinner), intersected with what Sean was saying, so I thought I would share it here, instead, with additions prompted by Sean.

Sean pointed out that in John, the imagery of water always has the potential to teach the reader/hearer something about life in the Spirit and that when water is introduced as a physical element of a Johannine story, it rapidly becomes spiritualised. This is definitely the case in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He begins by asking her for a drink (v 7), which surprises her because Jews don’t normally share things with Samaritans (v 9).  He responds to her surprise by saying that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink of water (the Greek here has a dual meaning – either running water or water that gives life) (v 10).

Whenever I have heard the next verse read aloud, it has always been made to sound as though the woman is respectful and subservient, but I don’t think this is right. It doesn’t fit well with her question in v 12 – “are you greater than our ancestor Jacob…?” I think it is more likely that she decides that not only is the Jew unusual in talking to her, but also at least a little loopy. She is an intelligent woman, capable, as we will see, of holding her own in a theological conversation, so she tries to discourage him, but carefully, since they are alone at the well and he doesn’t appear to be quite balanced.

“So, sir, there is a major flaw in this offer – you don’t happen to have a bucket and this well is too deep for you to just lean over and scoop some up with your hands. (I have the bucket, remember – that’s why you asked me for water.) Who do you think you are – are you greater than our ancestor Jacob (ie, do you think you can create a new spring)?”

Jesus responds by telling her that the water he’s offering will mean she will never be thirsty again. It is not clear at this stage whether she is still humouring him – “Yes. OK. Give me some of this water so I don’t have to keep coming back here to draw water (v 15)” – or whether he has started to convince her that his offer is worht considering, but I agree with Sean that at this stage she is not actually conceptualising him as the Messiah.

It isn’t until he tells her to go and call her husband and it becomes clear that he knows an awful lot about her domestic situation that she starts to think that there might be something more to him than she had initially thought – and then she names him a prophet (v 19). Even when she leaves her jar of water and goes back to the town to tell the others, she is still saying “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” in a way that in the Greek expects the answer “no”. We never hear a claim that Jesus is Messiah from her lips, although it is probably reasonable to assume from v 42 that she, like the people of the town, believes him to be “the Saviour of the world.”

Traditional interpretation depicts her as an outcast because she is at the well in the middle of the day by herself, has had five husbands and is now living with a man to whom she is not married. In order to come to this conclusion the reader needs to fill in the information that women normally went to wells together in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day, and that this woman had been divorced five times. Given that average maximum winter temperatures in the area are around 12-16 degrees Centigrade (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit), noon does not always mean hot, though; unexpected events can lead to the need to get more water than was anticipated; and her husbands may have died from illness and accident until the point where there was no further male relative in her first husband’s family that she could marry. The fact that, when she returns to town the people she meets come out to find him suggests that she was probably not a total outcast.

I like this story because it traces the growth in the woman’s understanding of Jesus and her belief in him and because in it we have an account of a Gentile woman who not only comes to saving faith but is the means by which others come, too. I really don’t think, though that she immediately recognised Jesus as anything other than what she hoped was a harmless nutter of the kind that you get stuck sitting beside on a long haul plane flight when you haven’t brought significant work with you to do. We also need to remember that the account of the original conversation between Jesus and the woman cannot have been a firsthand account (unless we would like to suggest that the woman at the well was the beloved disciple – not a line I would like to try to run) because the woman and Jesus were the only two there. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus or the woman is the source of the story.

12 thoughts on “The woman at the well – a diversion from Thomas

  1. Judy, I like your interpretation of this story from John. It shows originality. So often we read Scripture with low expectations or a sense of familiarity (or even orthodoxy) that prevents us from seeing the worlds of meaning that are possible. N.b. I don’t think any Samaritan would like to be called a Gentile, but rather, an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob.
    Yes, the woman’s replies to Jesus betray a low level of skepticism about his grasp of things; as you say, to her, he’s “a little loopy.” This realization ‘brings the story down to earth’ from the usual exegesis, making it an adventurous human encounter. Bravo!

  2. OK, Mike – that is another option, of course. However, if we accept the author’s claim that the stories in it are true and verified by the author, then either Jesus or the woman has to have told the gospel’s author what happened at the well because the author was not there. It is not firsthand eyewitness testimony and is therefore filtered differently.

    And Paul, yes, point taken about naming Samaritans. She was, though, an outsider both from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples and from her own perspective.

  3. The author doesn’t actually claim that he has verified all the stories. The claim at 19:35 is in the context of the crucifixion and seems to apply just to that (to fend off claims that Jesus didn’t die?) In contrast, Luke does make a general claim about having verified things, and he evidently hadn’t heard many of the Johannine stories – not only about the woman at the well, but also about the raising of Lazarus, of which he must have heard unless it was an invention of John. It seems that if we believe John in all details, we cannot believe Luke in all details, and vice versa. But why should we believe either in all details? Some stories in both sound like were early apocrypha. (E.g. adulterous woman)

  4. Mike, I wasn’t thinking of 19:35, which I agree seems to refer just to the crucifixion, but rather to 21:24-25, which appears to be a much more general attestation. I don’t quite agree that we can’t believe either Luke or John in all details, because, of course, we can *believe* anything we want, but to maintain that either is true (= factual) in every detail is a faith statement, rather than something that rests on empirically verifiable evidence. I am deeply sceptical about the details of any of the material in the gospels, but much happier to accept the gist of the stories.

    I also don’t think that ‘doesn’t mention’ necessarily = ‘hadn’t heard’ because, as John suggests, there must have been many more stories than any of the gospel authors felt the need to record to make their points. This particular story simply wouldn’t work in the Synoptics – its power is in the gradual unfolding of the narrative through dialogue and if you tried just to narrate the events it would make little sense. It is also much more believable than many of the stories in the gospels. In isolation, it’s just a story about a gifted clairvoyant. The raising of Lazarus is different.

  5. Hi Judy. Sorry for picking the wrong cite. The profession of truthfulness, however, has to be weighed against the profession of a desire to lead the reader to believe (20:31). Since I think the latter was the predominant motive, I have a lot of skepticism about any story that John tells. With respect to the Woman at the Well (Jn 4), I seem to recall that travelers from Galilee to Jerusalem and back avoided Samaria because of thieves. But Jacob’s Well was in Samaria, and I think the author wanted Jesus to go there to contrast this Jewish symbol with his own “living water”, combined with an outreach to the Samaritans. The thing about five husbands strikes me as unusual to the point of unbelievability. I suspect, rather, that this is a reference to five periods in the history of Samaria, with the woman’s apparent current companion (but not “husband”) perhaps being externally-imposed Roman rule.

  6. Hi Mike. I agree with you that the motive of leading the reader to believe is likely to have a significant effect on how the author tells stories, but I don’t think that necessarily means making things up from scratch. The five husbands is nowhere near as unlikely in that context as it is now. It was quite normal practice when a man died childless for his widow to be married off to his brother so that there would be a child bearing the dead husband’s name, and people frequently died quite young then. Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12: 18-27 and Luke 20:27-40 all tell the story of the Sadducees asking Jesus whose wife such a woman would be at the resurrection, but in this story the woman had seven husbands.

  7. More on the story from the NIV Study Bible: (1) “he had to go through Samaria” (Jn 4:4): “The necessity lay in Jesus’ mission, not in geography… Jews often avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan and traveling on the east side …” (NSB, 1596, though Lk 17:11 has him passing through Samaria). (2) Map indicates that Sychar (the town in the story) is quite close to Mt. Gerizim, the center of Samaritan worship, pointedly referenced in the story. (3) Jacob’s Well not mentioned elsewhere in scripture. (4) NSB interprets that the woman married and divorced five times, not that her five husbands died. Five divorces would probably make her an outcast of sorts, and account for her being alone at the well. (The 7-husband resurrection question in the Synoptics must be rhetorical exaggeration, don’t you think? Not that seven brothers couldn’t die, but that they died one by one, leaving time in between for the woman to marry the next one, and that they were all unmarried, seems quite unlikely.) All in all, the Woman at the Well story strikes me as contrived. It follows immediately upon his trip to Jerusalem to clear the Temple, so that in a one-two punch, he confronts the major holy sites of the Judaeans and the Samaritans, declaring that his followers will worship at neither site. A little too convenient for my liking.

  8. Let me amend that stuff about the supposed 7 brothers a bit. They could have died one-by-one, of course. But unless polygamy was allowable in such a situation, it’s hard to see how it could have happened. It seems unlikely that one brother was married to the woman in question, but that the others were all somehow available for monogamous marriage when their turn came.

  9. Mike, the traditional interpretation of the woman at the well is, of course, that she was divorced five times and is now ‘living in sin’ and was therefore a total outcast from her society. The traditional interpretation of the role of most women in the Bible puts them in as bad a light as possible, however, and it’s often not necessary and sometimes involves reading more into the text than is actually there – eg the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute comes from making assumptions about unnamed women being Mary. I don’t own a copy of the NIV Study Bible, but was seriously underwhelmed by the very conservative line the NIV Teen Study Bible takes on just about everything when the church gave one to my daughter to celebrate her graduation from primary (elementary) school to high school.

    Yes, the seven brothers is hyperbole – the Sadducees are trying to demonstrate how ridiculous the notion of the resurrection was – but all three of the synoptic writers repeat it with the same number of wives and there is warrant in the Jewish laws for it to happen, so there must have been a way.

    Yes, the order is convenient but another explanation of that is that the author put events that happened at different times together, rather than that the author made up the events.

    The problem is that no matter how you interpret it, this text creates problems. If you are looking at it from outside Christianity, then the easiest explanation is that the author made the whole thing up to convince a gullible audience of a particular theological point of view. If you are looking at it from a literalist Christian perspective, then everything really happened exactly as it says. What I am interested in is whether, if you come from a less literalist Christian perspective it is possible to say that the authors of the gospels were neither God’s dictation secretaries nor manipulators of the gullible but people of good faith who were recording their understanding of how God interacts with human beings, based on the testimony of people who saw and heard what happened. The work I’ve done on eyewitness testimony and human memory suggests to me that it is possible to understand it in this way.

  10. Thanks for the conversation, Judy. I’m not a fan of the NIV Study Bible either, BTW, but it had some relevant and relatively-impartial stuff I couldn’t find elsewhere in one place. I don’t think the observation about Jews avoiding Samaria is very strong, given that Jesus may have been an outcast himself, and that his followers went into the area later to seek converts, according to Acts. Anyway, just want to say that I enjoyed our little exchange and only wish it could have been longer to explore tangential issues, but blogs must move on!

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