Woman at the Well

Sometimes I think the way we interpret this passage says as much about us as it does the passage.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

February 2, 2014

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Commentary on John 4:1-42

Sometimes I think the way we interpret this passage says as much about us as it does the passage.

For this is a passage and story that has, in my opinion, been notoriously misinterpreted, in part because we read it in isolation of the rest of John’s gospel and in part because of the Church’s history of bad treatment of women.

So let me lay my cards on the table: I don’t think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I don’t think that she has a shady past. And I don’t think Jesus forgives her. Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance but to life-giving faith. Allow me to explain.

The character who occupies center stage of this passage is a woman of Samaritan descent, and even if we don’t know what that means, John goes out of his way to tell us. First, Jews and Samaritans don’t get along (verse 9); second, women and men generally keep a safe social distance from each other (verse 27).

All of which explains why she is so surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. Jesus eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).

And that’s precisely the sentence that has moved preachers of all stripes and across the centuries to brand her a prostitute. Yet if we read more closely we discover that there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.

Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.

The difficulty with the all too regular interpretation is that it interrupts and distracts from the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet” and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic.

But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. Keep in mind that “seeing,” in John, is an important theological activity. “To see” is often connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she is therefore not changing the subject but making a confession of faith.

Why? Because Jesus has “seen” her. He has seen her plight of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — he exists for him, has worth, value, significance, and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet.

For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries: where is the proper place of worship? This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion. This is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man.

Can we imagine that? That John has not placed before us a morality tale but rather is offering this woman as a striking and inspiring example of faith? Of what happens when Jesus likewise sees us and invites us to see and believe in him in return? The contrast with the passage from last week only confirms this interpretation. Nicodemus, after all, is a Jewish man and leader who comes to Jesus only after the sun has set. Night, we may remember, functions symbolically in John as the time of disbelief and dark deeds (3:19-20).

This woman, by contrast, is a Samaritan woman of no account (she is not even named) who comes at noon. Not, by the way, because she was ashamed of her shady past and so wanted to avoid her neighbors — as the traditional interpretation reads — but because just as darkness represents disbelief in John, so also daylight signifies faith. In the presence of the “light of the world,” this woman leaves behind her ordinary tasks and life (symbolized by her water jar) to share the extraordinary news of the one who sees us truly and deeply (“he told me everything I have done”), loves us as we are, and commissions us to share this news with others.

Can you hear echoes to earlier passages? For while the contrast with Nicodemus is clear, so also is her similarity to Andrew, who after responding to Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” goes and tells his brother Peter they have found the Messiah (1:39-42). The pattern is again repeated in Philip’s invitation to Nathanael to come and see (1:45-46). This nameless woman, that is, shares the same insight and activity as Jesus’ principle disciples, except perhaps that where they each told one other person, she tells all her neighbors!

So let’s admit that how we interpret this passage says a lot about us and our theology. And then let’s interpret and preach this passage as John inviting us to imagine that anyone — even someone as unlikely as this nameless Samaritan woman … or unlikely as us! — is seen by Jesus, loved by Jesus, and has the capacity to bear witness to the one who comes to enlighten our lives and world and to give us living water to satisfy even our deepest thirst.



God of life,
Shower us in your living water, bringing us to new life, fresh and clean. Walk with us as we share the knowledge of your living water with others, so that all might live. Amen.


For all the faithful women   ELW 419
Take my life, that I may be   ELW 583, 685, H82 707, UMH 399, NCH 448
O sons and daughters   ELW 386


Give me Jesus, Larry Fleming