The chapter that relates the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 begins by setting the stage for what will take place later in Samaria and is rooted in what already by this time in the Gospel’s progress has taken place in Judea. Jesus’ rapidly growing popularity resulted in a significant following. His disciples performed an ancient Jewish ritual of ceremonial washing with water, just as did John the Baptist and his disciples. The ritual represented people’s confession of sin and their recognition of the need for the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness. When it became clear to Jesus that the crowds were growing large, but especially when he heard that this alarmed Pharisees very much, he decided it was time to go to Galilee to continue his ministry (vs.1-3).
The text simply says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” (vs.4). Perhaps, at this point a short geography lesson would be helpful. Samaritan lands were sandwiched between Judea and Galilee. The way around Samaria took twice as long as the three day direct journey from Galilee to Jerusalem because avoiding Samaria required crossing the river Jordan twice to follow a path running east of the river (Vita 269). The way through Samaria was more dangerous because often Samaritan-Jewish passions ran high (Ant. 20.118; War 2.232). We are not told the reason Jesus and his disciples needed to go through Samaria. John simply says that Jesus “had to go” implying that for Jesus this was not ordinary. Perhaps Jesus needed to get to Galilee relatively quickly. But the text gives us no indication that he had a pending invitation to an event in Galilee that he was running late to. Only that he left when he felt an imminent confrontation with the Pharisees over his popularity among Israelites was unavoidable. This was coupled with Jesus’ understanding that the time for such a confrontation has not yet come. In the mind of Jesus the confrontation with the religious powerbrokers of Judea, (and make no mistake about it the leading Pharisees were integral part of such leadership) at this time was premature and that more needed to be done before going to the cross and drinking of the cup of God’s wrath on behalf of his ancient covenant people and the nations of the world. The way Jesus viewed Samaritans and his own ministry to them may surprise us as we continue looking at this story.
We know that Jesus’ movements and activities were all done according to his Father’s will and leading (Jn.5:19). He only did what he saw the Father do. This being the case, we can be certain that Jesus’ journey through Samaria at this time was directed by his Father and so, too, was his conversation with the Samaritan woman.
Jesus’ surprising journey through hostile and heretical territory has a meaning beyond any surface explanation. In a very real sense, God’s unfathomable plan and mission from the time His royal son was eternally conceived in the mind of God, was to bind in redemptive unity all of his beloved creation. Jesus was sent to make peace between God and people as well as between people and people. The accomplishing of this grand purpose began with an uncomfortable encounter between Jesus and those who practically lived next door – the Samaritans.
© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.
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The sources present us with at least two different histories of the Samaritans. One – according to the Israelite Samaritans, and the other – according Israelite Jews. While difficulties exist with the reliability of the ancient documents tainted by the Samaritan-Jewish polemic as well as the late dating of the sources on both sides, some things can nevertheless be established. The Samaritan story of their history and identity would roughly correspond to the following:
1) The Samaritans called themselves Bnei Israel (Sons of Israel).
2) Samaritans were a sizable group of people who believed themselves to be the preservers of the original religion of ancient Israel. The name Samaritans literally from Hebrew means The Keepers (of original laws and traditions). Though it is difficult to speak of concrete numbers Samaritan population at the time of Jesus was comparable to those of the Jews and included large diaspora.
3) Samaritans believed that the center of Israel’s worship ought not to have been Mt. Zion, but rather Mt. Gerizim. They argued that this was the site of the first Israelite sacrifice in the Land (Deut.27:4) and that it continued to be the center of the sacrificial activity of Israel’s patriarchs. This was the place where blessings were pronounced by the ancient Israelites. Samaritans believed that Bethel (Jacob), Mt. Moriah (Abraham) and Mt. Gerizim were the same place.
4) The Samaritans essentially had a fourfold creed: 1) One God, 2) One Prophet, 3) One Book and 4) One Place.
5) The Samaritans believed that the people who called themselves Jews (Judea-centred believers in Israel’s God) had taken the wrong path in their religious practice by importing novelties into the Land during the return from the Babylonian exile.
6) Samaritans proper rejected the pre-eminence of the Davidic dynasty in Israel. They believed that the levitical priests in their temple were the rightful leaders of Israel.
Now that we have made a partial summary of the undisputed by other side history and beliefs of the Samaritans, let us turn to the Jewish version of that same history. This record essentially comes to us from the two Talmuds and its reading of the Hebrew Bible, Josephus and the New Testament.
1) Samaritans were a theologically and ethnically mixed people group. They believed in One God. Moreover, they associated their God with the God who gave the Torah to the people of Israel. The Samaritans are genetically related to the remnants of the Northern tribes who were left in the land after the Assyrian exile. They intermarried with Gentiles who were relocated to Samaria by the Assyrian Emperor. This act of dispossession and transfer from their homeland was done in a strategic attempt to destroy the people’s identity and to prevent e any potential for future revolt.
2) In the Jewish rabbinical writings, Samaritans are usually referred to by the term “Kuthim.” The term is most likely related to a location in Iraq from which the non-Israelite exiles were imported into Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). The name Kuthim or Kuthites (from Kutha) was used in contrast to the term “Samaritans” (the keepers of the Law). The Jewish writings emphasized the foreign identity of the Samaritan religion and practice in contrast to the true faith of Israel that they saw especially in the later period as Rabbinical Judaism. Rabbinic portrayals of the Samaritans were not exclusively negative.
3) According to 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6, the claim that the northern tribes of Israel were all exiled by the Assyrians and therefore those who occupied the land (Samaritans) were of a non-Israelite origin upon closer reading is rejected by the Hebrew Bible. This passage states that not all of the people from the northern kingdom were exiled by the Assyrians. Some, perhaps confirming Samaritan version, remained even after the Assyrian conquest of the land in the 8th century BCE.
4) The Judea-centred Israelites (the Jews) believed that not only did the Samaritans choose to reject the words of the prophets regarding pre-eminence of Zion and Davidic dynasty, they also deliberately changed the Torah itself to fit their theology and heretical practices. One of the insights that can be gained from comparing the two Pentateuch’s, the Torah of the Samaritans and the Torah of the Jews. The Samaritan text reads much better than the Jewish one. In some cases, the stories in the Jewish Torah seem truncated, with wandering logic and unclear narrative flow. In contrast, the texts of the Samaritan Torah seem to have a much smoother narrative flow. On the surface, this makes the Jewish Torah problematic. Upon further examination, however, this could lead to an argument for the Samaritan Pentateuch being a latter revision or editing of the earlier Jewish text. Based on this and other arguments, we agree with the Jewish view in arguing that Samaritan Torah is a masterful and theologically guided revision of the early Jewish corresponding texts.
In describing the encounter, John makes several interesting observations that have major implications for our understanding of verses 5-6:
“So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.”
First, John mentions the Samaritan town named Sychar. It is not clear if Sychar was a village very near Shechem or Shechem itself is in view. The text simply calls our attention to a location near the plot of ground Jacob gave his son Joseph. Whether or not it was same place, it was certainly in the same vicinity at the foot of Mt. Gerizim. While this is interesting and it shows that John was indeed a local, knowing the detailed geography of Ancient Roman Palestine, it is no less important, and perhaps even more significant, that the Gospel’s author calls the reader’s attention to the presence of a silent witness to this encounter – the bones of Joseph. This is how the book of Joshua talks about that event:
“Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons” (Josh.24:32).
The reason for this reference to Joseph in verse 5 will only become clear when we see that the Samaritan woman suffered in her life in a manner similar to Joseph. If this reading of the story is correct, than just as in Joseph’s life, unexplained suffering was endured for the purpose of bringing salvation to Israel, so the Samaritan woman’s suffering in hew life led to the salvation of the Israelite Samaritans in that locale (4:22).
John continues: “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour” (vs. 6). It has been traditionally assumed that the Samaritan woman was a woman of ill repute. The reference to the sixth hour (about 12 PM) has been interpreted to mean that she was avoiding the water drawing crowd of other women in the town. The biblical sixth hour was supposedly the worst possible time of the day to leave one’s dwelling and venture out into the scorching heat. “If anyone were to come to draw water at this hour, we could appropriately conclude that they were trying to avoid people,” the argument goes.
We are, however, suggesting another possibility. The popular theory views her as a particularly sinful woman who had fallen into sexual sin and therefore was called to account by Jesus about the multiplicity of husbands in her life. Jesus told her, as the popular theory has it, that He knew that she had five previous husbands and that she was living with her current “boyfriend” without the bounds of marriage and that she was in no shape to play spiritual games with Him! In this view, the reason she avoided the crowd is precisely because of her reputation for short-lived family commitments. First, 12PM is not yet the worst time to be out in the sun. If it was 3PM (ninth hour) the traditional theory would make a little more sense. Moreover, it is not at all clear that this took place during the summer months, which could make the weather in Samaria irrelevant all together. Second, is possible that we are making too much out of her going to draw water at “an unusual time”? Don’t we all sometimes do regular things during unusual hours? This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are hiding something from someone. Third, we see that the daughters of the priest of Median were helping him to satisfy the thirst of his animals at around the same time of day, when people supposedly do not come to wells (Exodus 2:15-19).
When we read this story, we can’t help but wonder how it is possible in the conservative Samaritan society that a woman with such a bad track record of supporting community values caused the entire village to drop everything and go with her to see Jesus, a “heretical to Samaritans” Judean would be prophet. The standard logic is as follows. She had led such a godless life that when others heard of her excitement and new found spiritual interest they responded in awe and went to see Jesus for themselves. This rendering, while still possible, seems unlikely to the authors of this book and seems to read in much later theological approaches into this ancient story that had its own historic setting. We are persuaded that reading the story in a new way is more logical and creates less interpretive problems than the commonly held view.
Let us take a closer at this passage.
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” (vs.7-9)
In spite of the fact that to the modern eye the differences were insignificant and unimportant, Jesus and the nameless Samaritan woman were from two different and historically adversarial people, each of whom considered the other to have deviated drastically from the ancient faith of Israel. In short, their families were social, religious and political enemies. This was not because they were so different, but precisely because they were very much alike.
According to the traditional perspective, the Samaritan woman probably recognized that Jesus was Jewish by his distinctive Jewish traditional clothing. Jesus would have most certainly worn ritual fringes in obedience to the Law of Moses (Num.15: 38 and Deut. 22:12). Since Samaritan men observed the Mosaic Law too, it is likely that the Samaritan woman’s former husbands and other men in her village also wore the ritual fringed garment. The Samaritans’ observance of the Mosaic Law (remember Samaritans means the “keepers” of the Law and not the people that lived in Samaria) was according to their own interpretation and differed from the Jewish view on some issues, but it is important to remember that they were more like rival siblings to the Israelite Jewish community than like unrelated strangers. We continue reading:
“‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’ ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’ Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’ He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ ‘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.’ ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’”
This passage has been often interpreted as follows: Jesus initiates a spiritual conversation (vs.10). The woman begins to ridicule Jesus’ statement by pointing out Jesus’ inability to provide what he seems to offer (vs.11-12). After a brief confrontation in which Jesus points out the lack of an eternal solution to the woman’s spiritual problem (vs. 13-14), the woman continues with a sarcastic attitude (vs.15). Finally, Jesus has had enough and he then forcefully exposes the sin in the woman’s life – a pattern of broken family relationships (vs.16-18). Now, cut to the heart by Jesus’ all knowing ex-ray vision, the woman acknowledges her sin in a moment of truth (vs.19) by calling Jesus a prophet. But then, as every unbeliever usually does, she tries to avoid the real issues of her sin and her spiritual need. She begins to talk about doctrinal issues (vs.20) in order to avoid dealing with the real issues in her life. Though this may not be the only way this text is usually reads, it does follow generally negative view of the Samaritan woman.
Because this popular interpretation presupposes that the woman was particularly immoral, it sees the entire conversation in light of that negative viewpoint. We would like to recommend a wholly different trajectory for understanding this story. Though it is a not an airtight case, this alternative trajectory seems to be a better fit for the rest of the story and especially its conclusion.
Rereading the Story
As was suggested before, it is possible that the Samaritan woman was not trying to avoid anybody at all. But, even if she was, there are explanations for her avoidance other than feeling so guilty about her sexual immorality. For example, as you well know people don’t want to see anyone when they are depressed. Depression was present in Jesus’ time just as it is present in people’s lives today. Instead of assuming that the Samaritan woman changed husbands like gloves, it is just as reasonable to think of her as a woman who had experienced the deaths of several husbands, or as a woman whose husbands may have been unfaithful to her, or even as a woman whose husbands divorced her for her inability to have children. Any one of these suggestions and more are possible in this instance.
It is important to note that to have five successive husbands was unheard of in ancient society, especially a conservatives one like the Israelite Keepers of the Law (Samaritans). This fact even caused some ancient and modern commentators to erroneously suggest that this encounter was not historical, but metaphorical. ‘Since Samaritans represented Gentiles and therefore the unreasonable situation of having five husbands should have given a clue to the reader that this is not a real story and not a real woman’ went their argument. In that society, unless the woman was wealthy, adopting her non-committal life-style was an economic impossibility. Since it was not her servant but she herself who went to draw water, we conclude that she was probably not wealthy and therefore simply could not afford the sort of lifestyle that we have endowed her with throughout the centuries of Christian interpretation. Without even considering other possibilities as viable options, those who have taught us, and those who have taught them, have consistently portrayed this woman in a wholly negative light. This we believe is unnecessary.
If we are correct in our suggestion that this woman was not a particularly “fallen woman,” then perhaps we can connect her amazingly successful testimony to the village with John’s unexpected but extremely important reference to the bones of Joseph. It is noteworthy that for Gentile and even “Jewish” hypothetical readers of this Gospel, the place of burial of Joseph’s bones would not be as important, though still significant, as it would have been to the Israelite Samaritans, since the bones of the Patriarch also link God’s presence with the vicinity of Mt. Gerazim and the Holy city of Shechem. When we hear that the conversation takes place next to Joseph’s bones, immediately we are reminded about Joseph’s story and his mostly undeserved suffering. As you remember, only part of Joseph’s sufferings were self-inflicted. Yet in the end, when no one saw it coming, the sufferings of Joseph turned out to be events leading to the salvation of the world from starvation.
Now consider the connection with Joseph in more detail. Shechem was one of the cities of refuge where a man who had killed someone without intention was provided a safe heaven. (Josh. 21:20-21) As inhabitants of Shechem were living out their lives in the shadow of the Torah’s prescription they were no doubt keenly aware of the unusual status of grace and God’s protective function that was allotted to their special city. They were to protect people who were unfortunate, whose lives were threatened by avenging family members, but were actually not guilty of any intentional crime worth the punishment threatened.
Joseph was born into a very special family where grace and salvation should have been a characteristic description. Jacob, the descendent of Abraham and Isaac, had 11 other sons, whose actions, instead of helping their father to raise Joseph, ranged from outbursts of jealousy to a desire to get rid of their spoiled but “special” brother forever. But there was more. It was in Shechem that Joshua assembled the tribes of Israel, challenging them to abandon their former gods in favour of YHWH and after making the covenant with them, buried Joseph’s bones there. We read in Josh. 24:1-32:
“Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God… But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”… On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. 26 And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD… 31 Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel. And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants.
It is interesting that the place for this encounter with the Samaritan woman was chosen by the Lord of providence in such a beautiful way: an emotionally alienated woman who feels unprotected while she lives in or near the city of refuge, is having a faith-founding, covenant conversation with the Renewer of God’s Covenant – God’s Royal Son Jesus. She does so at the very place where the ancient Israelites renewed their covenant in response to God’s words, sealing them with two witnesses: 1) the stone (Josh.24:26-27), confessing with their mouths their covenant obligations and faith in Israel’s God and 2) the bones of Joseph (Josh.24:31-32) whose story guided them in their travels.
In a sense, the Samaritan woman does the same thing as the Ancient Israelites in confessing to her fellow villagers her faith in Jesus as the Christ and covenant Savoir of the world. We read in John 4:28-39:
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him… Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…”
The connection between Joseph and the Samaritan woman does not end there. We recall that earlier Joseph received a special blessing from his father at the time of Jacob’s death. It was a promise that he would be a fruitful vine climbing over a wall (Gen. 49:22). Psalm 80:8 speaks of a vine being brought out of Egypt whose shoots spread throughout the earth, eventually bringing salvation to the world through the true vine. In John 15:1 we read that Jesus identifies himself as this true vine and just as Israel of old, Jesus was also symbolically brought out of Egypt (Matt.2:15). In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus – the promised vine in Jacob’s promise to Joseph – is in effect climbing over the wall of hostility between the Israelite Jews and Israelite Samaritans to unite these two parts of His Kingdom through His person, teaching and deeds. In a deeply symbolic fashion this conversation takes place at the very well that was built by Jacob to whom the promise was given!
Now that we have reviewed some relevant Old Testament symbolism, let us now reread this story through a different lens. It may have gone something like:
Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman: “Will you give me a drink?” His disciples had gone into town to buy food. The woman feels safe with Jesus because, not only is he not from her village; he does not know about her failed life or even how depressed she may have felt for months. In her view, he was part of a heretical, though related, religious community. Jesus would have had no contact with the Israelite Samaritan leaders of her community. He was safe. This openness of the woman to Jesus is very similar to Christian workers seeking outside counselling for their family problems. People they know and love are nice, but can also be dangerous. Who knows?! They may leak information that in some cases may end the worker’s ministerial career. So in difficult cases, Christian ministry workers usually opt for paid counselling specialists who are independent and unconnected to their churches and ministries. The specialist is safe. It’s his or her job. That’s all. In that sense Jesus was safe. He was not a Samaritan and a Jew.
The problem here was not simply that Jesus was a Jew and she a Samaritan; their peoples, their fathers and grandfathers, were bitter enemies in the religious and the political arenas. Both peoples considered the other to be imposters. Scholars point out, appealing to the Babylonian Talmud, such rabbinic Talmudic statements as “Daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from the cradle” and therefore any item that they would handle would be unclean to the Jew (bNidd. 31b) and “It is forbidden to give a woman any greeting” (bQidd. 70a). It is important that we be aware of methodological problems when appealing to the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud was codified and edited much later than were the Gospels (early 200 C.E. vs. early 600 C.E.). Therefore we must be cautious in using the Talmud to explain the much earlier Gospels. Not only was it written much later, but also, as is widely agreed, it was not recognized as the sole or even major representative of Jewish teaching until sometime between the 6th-8th centuries. In other words, in contrast to today, it represented only the elite and marginal rabbinical classes and not the whole Jewish community’s way of thinking. All of this is to say that the do-not-greeting-a-woman rule may not have been at all a rule practiced by Jesus, the Jew and therefore cannot be uncritically used in interpretation. On the other hand the reference to the Samaritan women going through menstruation periods from their birth, while obviously mythical does fit perfectly with other things we know about the deep-seated hatred between Samaritans and Jews. But even with that a good level of caution within interpretive freedom should be exercised.
Jesus responds: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” It is important that we picture the woman. She was not laughing; she was having an informed, deeply theological and spiritual discussion with Jesus. This was a daring attempt to ascertain truth that was outside her accepted theological framework and surely would not pass the test of cultural sensibilities of “faithful” Samaritans. She takes issue issue with Jesus, precisely because she take the word of God (Samaritan Torah) seriously:
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’ Jesus answered: ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’”
After the above interaction, which strikes a familiar chord for the Christian who has experienced the life giving power of Jesus’ presence and spiritual renewal, Jesus continues the conversation. Jesus lets the nameless Samaritan woman know that He understands her troubles much more fully than she thinks, by showing her that he is aware of all the pain and suffering she endured in her life.
“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ ‘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.’”
Remember the seemingly obscure reference to Joseph’s bones being buried near this very place where the conversation took place? At the beginning of the story, John wanted us to remember Joseph. He was a man who suffered much in his life; but whose suffering was ultimately used for the salvation of Israel and the known world. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt became the only nation that acted wisely by saving grain during the years of plenty and then being able to feed others during the years of famine. It is highly symbolic that this conversation took place in the presence of a silent witness – the bones of Joseph. God first allowed terrible physical, psychological and social injustice to be done to Joseph, but he then used this suffering to greatly bless those who came in contact with Joseph. Instead of reading this story in terms of Jesus nailing the immoral woman to the cross of the standard of God’s morality, we should read it in terms of God’s mercy and compassion for the broken world in general, and marginalized Israelites in particular.
According to the popular view, it is at this point, convicted by Jesus’ prophetic rebuke, that the woman seeks to change the subject and avoid the personal nature of the encounter by engaging in non-important theological controversy. The problem is that these matters are un-important only to the modern reader. They were of very real concern for ancient readers especially those whose home was in Roman Palestine. Therefore, let us consider an alternative interpretation that, having seen Jesus’ intimate knowledge of her miserable situation and his compassionate empathy, the woman feels secure enough to also break tradition and to climb over the wall of forbidden associations. She makes a statement that invites Jesus’ commentary on a matter having to do with the key theological difference between the Jews and Samaritans.
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
As you may remember the Samaritans were Mt. Gerazim-centered Israelites in their understanding of the Pentateuch (Torah), while the Jews were Mt. Zion-centered in their interpretation of essentially the same body of literature, admittedly with occasional variations. This question seems trivial to a modern Christian who usually thinks that what is really important is that one can say: “Jesus is in my life as a personal Lord and Savoir”. But while this question does not bother anyone today, it was a major issue for the Israelite Samaritans and Israelite Jews and by extension the Jewish Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Indeed this deeply theological and spiritual conversation was a very important intersection on the road of human history, because of the tremendous impact of the Christian message on the entire world ever since this encounter took place.
With fear and trepidation the Samaritan woman, putting away her feeling of humiliation and bitterness towards the Jews, posed her question in a form of a statement. She got from Jesus something that she definitely did not expect to hear from a Judean prophet:
“Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’”
In our reading therefore the Samaritan woman’s question reflected a good, honest, and righteous assumption that Jesus’ ministry and arrival in Samaria had rendered already obsolete. In the book of Hebrews (Heb.12:1-24) the author addressed the believing community. He stated that the greatness of faith in Israel’s God through Jesus the Messiah must provoke them to a far greater response than the ones enshrined in Jewish tradition. He urged believers to persevere in the faith as follows:
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire… But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The basic argument here is that responsibility to observe the New Covenant is much greater than any level of covenant responsibility that was encountered by the people of God in the past. Therefore keeping this covenant is essential in spite of difficult circumstances. The author appeals to everything that is greater: Jesus is greater than the great Moses, the New Covenant is greater than the great Old Covenant, the blood of the righteous man (Jesus) is greater than the blood of the righteous Abel. Basically, the greater the covenant, the greater is the responsibility. One of the arguments included within the overall comparison in the book of Hebrews is that the heavenly Mt. Zion is better and greater that the great earthly Zion.
Jesus had already stated that the center of earthly worship was to be relocated from physical Jerusalem to the heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem concentrated in Himself when he spoke to Nathaniel. Please, allow us to explain. The incident is related in John 1:50-51.
“Jesus said, ‘You believebecause I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.’ He then added, ‘I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”
Jesus invoked the great Torah story of Jacob’s dream of the angels of God ascending and descending on the Holy Land of Israel where he was sleeping (Gen.18:12). He said to Nathaniel that very soon the angels would be ascending and descending, not on Bethel (in Hebrew – House of God) which Samaritans believed to be identified with Mt. Gerizim, but upon the ultimate House of God – Jesus himself (Jn.1:14).
The official Samaritan religion, as far as we know, did not include any prophetic writings, at least as far as we know from much latter sources writing about Samaritans. “The woman said, ‘I know that “Messiah” (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.” (vs. 25-26) We read in Deut.18:18-19:
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.”
Though a later Samaritan text speaks of a Messiah-like figure Taheb (Marqah Memar 4:7, 12), the Samaritans of Jesus’ time only expected a great teacher-prophet. The “Messiah” as the King and Priest was an Israelite Jewish, not an Israelite Samaritan concept as far as we know. For that reason the reply of the Samaritan woman shows that this was not an imaginary or symbolic conversation (he will explain to us everything). In view of this, it seems that now the woman graciously used Jewish terminology to relate to Jesus – the Jew. Among Samaritans this was not usual. Just as Jesus was choosing to climb the wall of taboos, so now was the Samaritan woman. The story of this encounter “gives guidelines about how to deal with wounds and divisions, especially those of long-standing… in the Samaritan pericope he is presented as a reconciler of ancient enemies.” We will consider this theme in this book’s application final chapter in this book entitled – the Call.
The story quickly switches to the return of the disciples, their reaction and commentary-like interaction with Jesus. This interchange is sandwiched between the encounters with the Samaritan woman and the men of her village. The disciples were surprised at seeing him conversing with the Samaritan woman, but no one challenged him about the inappropriateness of such an encounter.
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (John 4:27-39)
While it is possible that disciples were surprised he was alone with the woman the general context of the story seems to point us in the direction that disciple’s response had to do him conversing with Samaritan woman instead. Leaving behind her jar, the woman rushed to town to tell her people about Jesus. Posing an important question to them could this be the one whom Israel has been awaiting for long? Speaking as he was in the context of the encounter Jesus points out to his disciples that what he was doing was God’s will pure and simple. That doing of the will of his Father gave him his divine life energy. This divine energy enabled him to continue his work. We continue to reading:
“Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages; even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.’”
In these verses, Jesus has challenged his disciples. The writer of the Gospel of John is challenging his readers to consider the crop that is ready for harvesting. It is almost certain that the disciples of Jesus thought the spiritual harvest pertained to the Jewish community alone. Jesus challenged them to look outside their box to the neighbouring heretical and adversarial community for the harvest – a field that they had not considered until this encounter. The significance of Jesus’ commentary on the encounter was not to highlight the importance of evangelism in general but rather to bring attention to the fields that were previously unseen or thought of as unsuitable for the harvest.
While Jesus no doubt was conversing with his followers about suitability of teaching Samaritans God’s ways, he heard voices from the crowd approaching him from a distance. The faithful witness of this gospel, describes it like this:
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (vs.39-42)
Interpreting the Bible is difficult task. It is as difficult as interpreting anything else in life. We bring our past, our preconceived notions, our already formed theology, our cultural blind spots, our social standing, our gender, our political views, and many other influences to the interpretation of the Bible. In short, all that we are in some way determines how we interpret everything. This does not imply that the meaning of the text is dependent on its reader. The meaning remains constant. But the reading of the text does differ and is dependant on all kinds of things surrounding the interpretive process. In other words what a reader or listener gets out of the text can differ greatly from person to person.
One of the biggest handicaps in the enterprise of Bible interpretation has been an inability to recognize and admit that a particular interpretation may have a weak spot. The weak spot is usually determined by personal preferences and heartfelt desires to prove a particular theory regardless of the cost. We, the authors, consider that having an awareness of our own blind spots and being honestly willing to admit problems with our interpretations when they exist, are more important than the intellectual brilliance with which we argue our position.
One opportunity to exercise an honest approach is when commentators recognizes that there is something in their interpretation that does not seem to fit with the text and the commentators do not quite know how to explain it. What we feel can be legitimately suggested as a challenge to our reading of the story of the Samaritan woman are the words the Gospel author places on her lips when she tells her fellow villagers about her encounter with Jesus. She says: “He told me everything I ever did.” What would have matched our interpretation perfectly is if her words had been, “He told me everything that happened to me” or better yet “was done to me”.
There are several viable options for resolving this problem. Some of the options include grammar issues and hypothetical the existence of an earlier Aramaic version of the Gospel of John. While allowing for these possibilities, the authors consider that the best response is to refer to a manuscript of the Gospel of John that has the phrase in a shorter version. In this manuscript, the woman’s words do not end with “He told me everything I ever did,” but with “he told me everything”. These words could refer to either self-inflicted or other-inflicted circumstances and do not by itself present any kind of problem for our reading of the story.
The next question would be why this manuscript’s reading should be preferred to the commonly used one. In order to explain this, we will need to introduce a very important biblical studies tool that may be unfamiliar to many readers. However, many of you have encountered the results of applying this tool many times by people that work with new Bible translations. For example, many modern Bibles put brackets in place of John 8:1-11 and mention that the earliest and the most reliable manuscripts do not contain the beloved story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus (Mark 16:9-20 is handled the same way). This story may be true and may have been transmitted orally before being incorporated into the text of John, but it must be acknowledged that, even if this story is true, it must have been only later inserted by a copyist. The interpretive tool that was used here is called textual criticism. The nomenclature is misleading, since the text is not being criticized, but rather compared with other manuscripts and analyzed. In other words textual criticism refers to a careful analysis of a text in comparison to other texts with the express goal of determining the earlier and more precise manuscripts.
Textual criticism considers various ancient manuscripts, since we do not have a single original of any biblical book, in order to determine the text that would be as close to the original as possible. Textual criticism uses all recent and older manuscripts discoveries. Though to some Christians, proposing the relevance of such a method might imply unbelief, we are persuaded that when used responsibly this method can be a significant tool in the hands of honest, capable and especially believing interpreters of the ancient texts. How can this scientific method help?
One example is the general principle that textual criticism uses to determine which manuscript is earlier, a principle that could be called “priority of the shorter manuscript.” A shorter manuscript is preferred because the ancient scribes were more likely to expand the text they were copying than make it shorter. Expansion of the text was done with some liberty in the ancient world, in contrast to modern readers’ general discomfort with such a practice, a discomfort shared by the authors of this book.
It was of course still possible that the longer text (in our case, “He told me everything I ever did”) was the original. But the textual critical method argues that, in general, the opposite was the case. The shorter text is most likely to have been the original (in our case “He told me everything”) and only later was the text expanded by a scribe who felt that the text would be improved and its meaning clarified if he added the “I ever did” ending. If we are correct in our understanding and the context of the story argues in our favour, than it would be fair to say that the Christian scribe in his desire to help the reader with improving the flow of this narrative, actually ended up sending the reader in a different interpretive direction.
In democratic courts we follow the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” In a sense we are declaring here to the court of our readers that we believe we have presented enough evidence to show “the presence of reasonable doubt.” We are arguing that the charges of “immorality and not seeking spiritual truth” should be dropped against the Samaritan woman. The reasons are the lack of evidence and the presence of other likely scenarios that could explain the interaction between her and Jesus in a more satisfactory way. We argue that this story should serve as an example and a call to reconsider the message of the Holy Scriptures in its historical contexts and with greater willingness to think outside agreed traditions that may ultimately have nothing to adequately support them. Earlier in the chapter we stated that we are not presenting an airtight case. We are, however, suggesting a possible alternative to the usual interpretation. We believe our alternative is a more responsible one. Our claims are therefore modest, but remain challenging. It was Mark Twain who said “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”
 It is a mistake to think that the main reason for Jewish antipathy toward the Samaritans was racial. Judaism has always had a strong tradition of Gentile conversions where the converted Gentiles became full-fledged Jews and were accepted by the community. One notable example of such an attitude is Rabbi Akiva who was not ethnically Jewish (neither he nor his parents went through a formal conversion to Judaism). It is not the non-Jewish DNA that was responsible for the Jewish antipathy. The adversarial relationship was largely religious in nature. The political component of rivalry should also not be overlooked when considering the reasons for the negative relationship between Samaritans and the Jews. For example, when Alexander the Great was passing through the region, he is reported to have paid tribute to Israel’s God in the Temple on Mt. Gerizim and not on Mt. Zion.
 This may have been a case of textual corruption where the end letter (“mem” was replaced by “resh”) was confused by a scribe.
 See Calum M. Carmichael. Marriage and the Samaritan Woman. New Testament Studies 26 (1980): 332-346.
 See also Ps. 60:6-7 and Ps.108:7-8 twice in verbatim repetition we are told that Ephrem is God’s protective gear – helmet.
 Samaritans called their Temple for “Zeus the friend of strangers” thereby avoiding trouble under Antiochus IV (2 Macc. 6:2) which cemented even more the negative feelings between Jews and Samaritans. Deut.27:3 in MT has Mt. Ebal as place where first alter was to be built, while Samaritan Pentateuch has Mt. Gerazim in its place. It is not clear whether MT changed the identity of the mountain because of Anti-Samaritan views, or vice versa.
Join the conversation (44 comments)
I think there was tampering with Paul’s Corinthian letters but it takes maturity of spirit and understanding to accept this. It is no new stance. I have ventured my idea but it seems one just has to stick to the traditional approach (?). And one will of course step on toes when adopting a more open approach for it takes courage or else us women must forget about ever working for the Lord the proper way. Let the men reign! Pope John Paul would have been so happy with such approach. He was clearly quick with his “castigation” approach to women who also wanted to voice their opinion and who had made a bold effort to rectify the wrongs of the very distant! past – the sins of the fathers that are still with us and that hasn’t then changed one bit!
Let me be clear! I am not for brazen feminism. I think God sometimes just has to use a strong man and a truly anointed man in a leadership role can indeed instil confidence second to none. But let’s also remain open to research for all is not spelled out for us in the Bible! Surely, Paul would not have permitted on the one hand women to prophecy (taking temporary control of the audience through Holy Spirit unction over the assembly!) only to bring them totally in submission almost in the same breath? I was merely driving something that had tipped the scales for women in general and of course FOREVER – clearly having its roots in apostolic and early post-apostolic times yet not rooted in Paulinism! And if I am going to be made stupid every time I participate, then I’d rather not participate at all. Let’s then stick to the status quo rigidly and properly. For what is strange to me is that women were silenced for centuries and my question therefore is: Why must we bide by what had happened almost twenty centuries ago, sticking to a POST-apostolic approach in stead of asking ourselves why female prophetesses were given permission to use their tongues in the Pauline assemblies, yet, only to be harshly told to keep their silence. Isn’t this incoherent to say the least? I wonder how many are acquainted with Clemens I and his subtle underhand approach AND with the mighty influence he had exerted in his day and age – he was indeed well acquainted with Paul and he could then easily have been the very one, not Apollos, who had caused him much grief in Corinth – let’s then strive to retain objectivity for is this not supposed to be a true academic’s approach? From what I can gather from my research is that he was not the man he is on the whole thought to have been, especially after the passing of Paul. Fact is, he was the one who had paved the way for not only Gnostic women, but women in general, to strictly hold their silence on assembly level, clearly stripping women of their selfworth and dignity for centuries. I don’t think Paul was ever incongruent or stupid or then plainly uninformed. Nobody has implied that. But unless we are prepared to visualize the FULL picture, then we may as well think the post-apostolic way, i.e. that women must keep their silence forever! Also, if I must today draw a strict line between past and present approach, then I might as well close my Bible forever!!
Sorry for perhaps having written too long again…. also I just had to be true to myself and my own stance too!
All the very best with the study group!
Hello Dr. Eli,
Always love to learn about the allusions of the scriptural writer which we are likely to miss due to our lack of knowlege of the bible and biblical history, e.g., the allusion to the bones of Joseph. I must say, however, that I am sceptical once one strays from what the text says. Nothing is said about depression – and there certainly would have been an ability to make it known in the language of John – and yet, once it is taken for granted it completely colours the encounter with Jesus. But did it happen? A rather important consideration. Also, why would Jesus so pointedly allude to her previous five husbands? And in answering her reply again he expressly says (touto alaythes eireikas); by using the demonstrative adjective touto perhaps he is saying here, at least, you speak the truth. Likewise, if the woman really were interested in theologizing with Jesus why would she be quite eager to have knowledge of a water by which she would no longer thirst, nor need go there to haul?
But thank you for the provocative interpretation. It makes one think.
Gary, hi. Thank you for writing and voicing your disagreement. I far prefer clarity to agreement.
About the depression: I am simply here providing an alternative possibility as to why the woman could have come to the well in the time of the day when other woman would not be expected to be there. True I am filling in the gaps saying that it could be because of depression and grief, but so do those who are saying that she was a woman with uncommitted relationships in her life. Now… if you don’t see that THAT is as much an assumption and interpretive possibility as my depression possibility, there is probably nothing I can do. The last thing that the fish in the tank of water will ever notice is water itself. I think too much argues against the traditional view of the woman… please, read carefully my arguments in the article (I don’t want to repeat them here). Why would Jesus refer to her husbands (also please read the article more carefully). I do not think he is nailing her to the cross of justice, I think instead he enters her pain of loosing the husbands she had to divorce, death, etc. (My grand aunt was a window of four husbands so I know it is possible.) I think you and I here see to different Jesus :-). I mean it in a good way.
Once again I suggest that you 1) reread the article, 2) read also the intro to the commentary (like Niche for the John’s Gospel and various studies I have on Israelite Samaritans). I think part of the problem is that you don’t realize how religious and committed to God was the Samaritan society. Once you change the opinion about Samaritans in general you will I think be able to see better what I am saying may have been the case.
Blessings and much peace,
To me it is now clear to me that Jesus merely revealed her past, i.e without judgment and condemnation. But passing a comment on her current relationship is almost in the spirit of the adulterous woman.. He has something in store for her that will give her life a new dimension or a new perspective once she has tasted the waters of life in Messiah! Your type of perspective is better than the usual judgmental response, I think
I think it’s because you are doing things so thoroughly!
Dr Eli, Thanks for this detailed, informative article covering also things that I have never thought of, especially Joseph’s history having a bearing on the Samaritan woman’s. Yes, we are apt to only view her as an adulteress but this piece of wisdom has once again challenged our all too often superficial approach to Scripture. Jesus must then have seen and assessed her in a much different light and then also in much broader context. Pulling in Joseph’s history and then of course also thinking of Jesus as a type of Joseph, indeed gives an edge to this “story” which all too often merely revolves around moral conduct and a “Samaritan” woman. It is remarkable how Jesus time and time again, succeeds in gripping our attention with implication and so much more than meets the eye!
Thanks again and God bless your wonderful teaching ministry!
Ester, I was myself surprised to connect the two stories. I have one handicap I jump too much in my thinking, this is also my greatest strength – I connect what others don’t. eli
Thank you for this discussion. I am reading her story from the perspective of inclusion/exclusion of persons from community. The idea that she could have been depressed is a good one that I will work with. We often forget the people mentioned in the Bible of course dealt with these issues as well.
Very interesting reading. It is a novel view to me that the Samaritan woman spoke to Jesus as a ‘Keeper of the Law’ and not as a citizen of the geographical area described as Samaria.
Could l have anything on the status of Jewish women at the time of christ; something that has to do with the oral traditions of the Elders as it pertained to the status of women at the time of Christ?
Dear Chuma, you should some research about it and let me know what you find. Nothing in particular comes to mind, but I am sure there is something written about it somewhere.
Dr Eli, sorry for chiming in but would like to add my viewpoint. It is said that there were women who were members of the Pharisees but I cannot say to which level they belonged/were permitted – of the presumably eight. It is also said that Paul’s mother was a Sadducee. Whether she had full membership of this sect I don’t know but it seems both categories did give women at the time a fair degree of selfworth and socio-societal freedom although the theocracy was of course male orientated. The Essenes are said to have given much freedom to women but in practice men were the official leaders.The Greek women were very emancipated and we can gather that this type of freedom of speech and conduct would naturally have rubbed off on Greekspeaking Jewish women (Hellenists). But it seems e.g that Clement I took the lead to silence women – contrary to Paul’s stance on allowing women to even teach ( Phoebe). And Clement is regarded as a Hellenistic Jew/Essene. So Jesus we know and especially thinking of the Samaritan woman, was at ease when liaising with women in public and he was not critized as he was, e.g in his liasons with the tax collectors proving perhaps a Pharasaic stance. But it seems men on the whole were regarded, as in all patriarchal societies, as the leaders exercising control and this chauvinism we can cleary detect in the post-apostolic church which initially disregarded the listing of female martyrs.
Paul on women is very complicated. Not only are his letters from the ancient past and therefore must be compared to the contemporary views and not ours, but also we are missing some of his letters to the churches (for example, the letter to the Corinthians is missing) AND we are not reading what people wrote to him that sparked his response that we are discussing.
IN OTHER WORDS we are missing context. I have a suspicion that we reading Paul because of these two factors incorrectly. For example Paul says that the Law requires women to be silent. Is he an idiot?!!!! Does he not know that no parts of Jewish law of any kind make such a requirement? Does he not know his Judaism????!?!?!?! Relax. Of course he does.
It is possible that he is not referring to the Jewish law at all, but to the Roman law where women are strictly forbidden from speaking in public assemblies. Let us keep on thinking together. Dr. Eli v
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Thank you so much for this very interesting view on this story which I had not met before. I found your website as preparation for a talk to some elderly folk on Living Water. I will bookmark your site for further help. May the Lord continue to bless you.
Dear Frances, I encourage you to read everything from the beginning in my Samaritan-Jewish commentary on John’s Gospel. I think you will find their a lot of things that you were not aware of. Blessings and peace, Dr. Eli
I thank you for such an interesting article as I research many different takes on the passage dealing with Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It is one of the best interpretations I have read thus far. What I am looking for is whether someone also has the same interpretation on the the “Five Husband” and the “New man in her life” which I have personally interpreted to represent that as a Samaritan her people were once under the law of Moses (Five husband – Torah) and now the man she was with not her husband (The religion of Jeroboam). I believe God chose her to experience an encounter with Jesus in order to bring salvation to his children (Isrealites) who were led astray by a King who defied the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
Interesting. Thanks for taking part in the dscussion, Mike.
Thank you for this very interesting article. I enjoyed very much to read this different perspective. My question is: Could you explain in this perspective why is not immoral if this samaritan woman lives with a man who is not her husband? Or could be this man her brother or another relative? Does the text allow this?
Once again thank you, you made my day 🙂
Ivan, thank you for your comment. The text fully allows for this. So as I indicated I believe the burden of proof is on those who want to show otherwise. Make sure that you are on my weekly teaching e-list. Very interesting things from John’s Gospel are coming. Blessings, Dr. Eli
[…] Jesus And The Samaritan Woman: Reading A Familiar Story Differently – A lengthy and helpful post looking at the story and its Old Testament connections. It rejects, as I do, the common premise that this was somehow an especially immoral woman of her day, and makes a compelling case for this perspective. […]