Lesser-Known Women: The Woman of Samaria

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well
“Christus und die Samariterin am Brunnen,” Angelika Kauffmann, 1796

Where do we find her in the Bible?

The story of her encounter with Jesus is in John 4.

Who was she?

  • This is one of the longest stories of Jesus’ being in conversation with a woman. In it, he upsets all sorts of conventions:
    • He is a Jew; she is a Samaritan. The Jews at the time would have little or nothing to do with the Samaritans, believing them to be no better than Gentiles, even though the Samaritans descended from God-fearers and Israelites of the Northern Kingdom (a.k.a. “Israel”).
    • He is a rabbi, and he speaks – at length – directly to a woman who is not his wife or who is not a member of his family.
    • He asks to drink water that she would draw for him. Ritually, she, her water jug, and ladle would all be “unclean.”
    • He has a lengthy theological conversation with her (a Samaritan woman).
  • She has been married five times and is currently living with a man. Jesus never condemns her, just confirms the truth about her life and relationships. Note that the Gospel writer never tells us that her many marriages are the result of immorality; this is something that later scholars added as their understanding of the situation. ((The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, accessed 07/22/2014.))
  • The question about proper worship is not the woman’s deflecting the conversation away from her personal life but seems to be her desire to engage in conversation with Jesus (whom she believes to be a prophet) to give her a “ruling” on the disagreement about where proper worship occurs. (The Samaritans worship at Mt. Gerizim; the Jews believe that Jerusalem is the only proper place to worship.)
  • When she goes to tell her neighbors and friends about her encounter with Jesus, they are so intrigued by the apparent change in her, her story, and this person, that they rush out to meet Jesus.

What lessons do we learn from her story?

  • It is interesting to note that she goes to the well to draw water at noontime, rather than in the early morning or at twilight, when other women would go.
    • Some scholars suggest that she goes at this hour to avoid the gossiping and staring accusations of the other women as they draw water. ((Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, Harper Collins, 1953 and 1988.))
    • Others draw the contrast between this nameless, powerless, Samaritan woman encountering Jesus during broad daylight with Nicodemus (John 3), the powerful Jewish leader who comes to him only at night. ((NIB))
      • The contrast with Nicodemus is made even sharper by the woman’s willingness to engage Jesus in conversation. Nicodemus resisted Jesus’ attempts to be in conversation with him.
      • Note also that Nicodemus did not accept Jesus’ offer of salvation; this woman does – and even shares the Good News with others.
  • Jesus does not condemn her for her life circumstances. We don’t know why she has had so many husbands, nor why her “current” man isn’t her husband. It is interesting that the reasons for her marital history matter much more to Biblical scholars than they did to Jesus himself. ((NIB))
  • The woman’s question in v. 20 about the proper place to worship isn’t an attempt to deflect the conversation away from her life story. It’s an attempt to draw Jesus into further conversation and to ask him to make a pronouncement on one of the greatest divides between Samaritans and Jews.
  • “This passage summons the church to stop shaping its life according to societal definitions of who is acceptable and to show the same openness to those who are different that Jesus did when he traveled in Samaria. The church is asked to cross boundaries as Jesus does instead of constructing them. It does no good to cling to notions of a privileged people or a privileged place, because Jesus has already ushered in a time when ‘you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.'” (v. 21) ((NIB))
  • “The Samaritan woman’s successful evangelization of her town belies the myth of the privileged position of men as witnesses and disciples. Because of her witness, the number of persons who believe in Jesus grows. Jesus treats her as a serious conversation partner, the first person in the Gospel to whom he makes a bold statement of self-revelation” (in v. 26). ((NIB))
  • In the Orthodox Tradition, she is a saint, known as Photine or Svetlana. ((Wikipedia article on the name “Svetlana,” accessed 07/22/2014.)) “Her continuing witness (beyond the people in her village) is said to have brought so many to the Christian faith that she is described as “equal to the apostles”. Eventually, having drawn the attention of Emperor Nero, she was brought before him to answer for her faith, suffered many tortures, and died a martyr after being thrown down a dry well. She is remembered on the Sunday four weeks after Pascha (Easter), which is known as the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman.'” ((Wikipedia article on “The Samaritan woman at the well,” accessed 07/22/2014.))

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