Commentary on John 4:5-42
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we find the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels. Contemporary interpreters tend to miss much of the significance of this encounter because they make it into the tale of the sinful and ignorant foreigner whose life turns around because she meets Jesus—the bread and butter of a revival preacher’s repertoire. Certainly, this story is about conversion, but it is much more complex than that, as we will see.
Some historical background first. For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighboring lands and practiced similar religions while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. The origin of the Samaritan people remains a mystery, but suffice it to say that ancient Jewish explanations of Samaritan origins were overwhelmingly negative.1 The Jewish-Samaritan enmity climaxed in 128 BCE when John Hyrcanus, high priest and ruler of the Jews, destroyed the capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim to the ground. It is not surprising, then, that these groups remained bitter enemies at least until the first century CE.
It is surprising, however, that in this story Jesus initiates contact with a Samaritan woman, an outsider and inappropriate interlocutor. After her shocked reply, Jesus proceeds to speak about the living water he could give her. The woman’s reply, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” focuses on the common ground of the Israelite history they share. With this shared foundation, Jesus begins to reveal more about his messianic identity, something he has done very little thus far in John.
Jesus says, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:15). Water is an important symbol in the Gospel of John: frequent talk of baptism and John the baptizer (1:26, 31; 3:22-24; 4:1-2), Jesus turning water into the best wine (2:7-11), a discussion about being born of water and spirit (3:5), and now a conversation at a well about water gushing up to eternal life (John’s shorthand for a new quality of life, not heaven). The woman asks for this water (and the new life?) but then the story takes a sharp turn “Go, call your husband, and come back.” (4:16)
Why does Jesus seem to change the subject here? Well, it has to do with a well. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets his future wife, Rachel, at a well at midday. A generation before, Abraham’s servant had found Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, at a well (Genesis 24). The biblical scholar Robert Altar labels repeated settings like these “biblical type-scenes” and he calls the meeting-at-a-well trope a betrothal type-scene.2 The first Christians to experience John’s Gospel read aloud would have recognized this type-scene as soon as they heard that Jesus stopped at a well at noon.
And with Jesus’ mention of husbands, John finally gives the audience what they had been expecting—a reference to marriage. What they did not expect, though, was that the woman in the scene was not a blushing soon-to-be bride but a wedding-weary woman. Preachers love to play up the scandal of the woman’s multiple husbands, characterizing the Samaritan as a serial divorcée or an unfaithful tramp. But these interpretations stray from the actual story, injecting modern sensibilities (and sometimes misogynistic assumptions). Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make a value statement about the five husbands; it is likely that the woman’s past is not her fault. As a woman, she could not initiate divorce; she could have also been widowed and remarried multiple times.
So, if Jesus is not shaming the woman, why does he mention marriage? Many commentators interpret the woman’s husbands symbolically, representative of either the five political powers that had ruled Samaria or the five groups that were rumored to have comprised the early Samaritan people.3 In this view, Jesus is rehearsing Samaritan history. Perhaps this betrothal type-scene doesn’t anticipate the marriage of a couple but of the Samaritans and their God.4 Jesus tells the woman that soon all people will worship not divided but together in Spirit and truth. Jesus then gives the Samaritan woman insight into the mysterious nature of God—God is Spirit!—and invites her into the reality of this divine truth.
“I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, “when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (John 4:25). The Samaritans, like the Jews, anticipated the arrival of an eschatological messianic figure, called the Taheb. The Memar Marqah, a Samaritan document from the third century BCE, says, “The Taheb will come and reveal the truth.”5 It makes sense, then, that Jesus’ disclosure of the Samaritan’s truth prompted her hopeful comment about the Messiah.
Jesus confirms her hope: “I am (he) … the one speaking to you” (John 4:26). This is the first “I am” statement in John. The Johannine “I am” statements come in two forms: affirmations in which Jesus simply replies, “I am,” and statements like, “I am the bread of life.” Here, Jesus says only “I am,” but in the context, he means, “I am the Messiah.” This is the central truth of the Gospel of John (see 20:30-31) and it is the only time that Jesus reveals this truth to another person. That the person he trusts himself to is a Samaritan and a woman is deeply significant, not only to John’s first-century audience but also to anyone who seeks to understand the gospel. The gospel truth of Jesus’ life is that he brings a new way of life, a way that results in all people—women and men, Samaritans and Jews, outsiders and insiders—worshiping in Spirit and in truth. This gospel becomes life changing for the Samaritan woman’s neighbors when she tells them about the Messiah, and becomes the first and most effective evangelist of John’s Gospel.
- The prevailing Jewish explanation of Jesus’ time associates the Samaritans with the Cutheans, descendants of the colonists referred to 2 Kings 17:24-41. According to this tradition, when the northern tribes of Israel were led into captivity by the Assyrians, settlers were sent from Cutha (near Babylon) to populate Samaria. These peoples then adapted Israelite religion into their own practices and formed a faith that eventually revolved around the Torah and a temple that rivaled the one in Jerusalem. Other Jewish sources suggest that the Samaritan people originated with priests and other Israelites who either fled or were exiled from their people when they refused to send their foreign wives away during the resettlement of Jerusalem post-exile. For a concise treatment of the relationship between the Samaritans and Jews as background to John 4, see Jonathan Bourgel, “John 4:4-42: Defining a Modus Vivendi between the Jews and the Samaritans,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 69 (April 2018 ): 39-65.
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic books, 1981), 51-52.
- Craig Koester puts forth the theory that the husbands are the empires that ruled Samaria (“The Savior of the World: John 4:42,” JBL 109 : 665—80, 676. Oscar Cullmann (The Early Church [London: SCM Press, 1956]: 187—8) was an early proponent of the idea that the husbands represented the mixed heritage of the early Samaritans.
- Mark W. G. Stibbe argues that John 4 is “an ironic betrothal scene in which infidelity is false worship and marriage true worship.” John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 48.
- Jonathan Bourgel, “John 4:4-42,” 56.