An unnamed woman from Sychar encounters Jesus as he travels through Samaria.
The Woman at the Well appears in the fourth chapter of John, in what happens to be the longest story about any Samaritan in the Gospels. She inhabits a variety of marginalized identities as a woman who is unnamed, a Samaritan, and married multiple times. As stated in the text, people from Samaria and people from Judea (translated as Jews above) people did not get along at this time in the Roman Empire (John 4:9). We also know that the woman has five husbands and that the man she is currently with is not her husband (John 4:17–18). The Samaritan woman quickly becomes an evangelist in her community, bringing many people from her local community to come to listen to the Judean (Jewish) stranger (John 4:30-42). The townspeople listen to her. They follow her out of the city to meet Jesus. These reactions alone leads to assume that she must have had some respect within her local community. Perhaps she was a local saleswoman, or worked with the man she lived with in a small business or workshop.
Facts you need to know:
- Marriage in the Roman Empire (of which Samaria and Judea were provinces) was an institution in which men held significant power over women. Women often lost their husbands during the frequent wars and skirmishes in this part of the empire in the first century CE. Widows found it difficult to remarry since cultural preferences ran toward younger, unmarried women. Nevertheless, women of child-bearing age often married multiple times—especially if they were from politically prominent families.
- The conflict between Samaritans and Judeans/Jews originated around 300 BCE from differing opinions on the center of worship—Samaritans placed their shrine on Mount Gerizim in the north of Israel (Samaria), while Judeans/Jews worshiped in Jerusalem in the south. Judean troops destroyed the Samaritan shrine on Mount Gerizim in 128 BCE. In addition, Judeans/Jews perceived Samaritan to be a “mixed race” of descendents of those remaining after the fall of the Northern Israelite kingdom in 722 BCE and the immigrants of the conquering empires of Samaria.
- Women in the Roman Empire maintained a variety of occupations. Prominent women and impoverished women alike were often recognized and trusted in their local cities.
John’s story about the Woman at the Well, on the one hand, portrays Jesus radically welcoming the “other,” and living out the truth that anyone and everyone is a beloved child of God. On the other hand, we can imagine that perhaps the Woman at the Well was the one helping Jesus in their interaction. Let’s hear her perspective:
Questions for Reflection:
- What assumptions do we usually make about the Woman at the Well when we hear she has had five husbands (and is living with a man who is not her husband)? Why is our our perception of this woman is so highly influenced by her partners, when men in both this story and many others are rarely characterized by their marital status or lack thereof?
- The Woman at the Well is often imagined as an exile from her community and an immoral woman because of all her partners. But if we reimagine her role in the story using details and facts about women in her time period, this portrait of an immoral exile drastically changes. What details and facts do we ignore in making snap judgements about people in our own lives? Why do we make such judgements? What faith practices might help us be open to seeing Jesus in strangers and unknown people we meet in our day to day lives?
- Who are the people in our world who may be diminished or misunderstood because of their gender, nationality, or social status? How might they teach us more profound ways to understand Jesus’s teaching about living water?
Resources for Further Study:
Catherine Jackson-Jordan is a graduate student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, NC. Before seminary, Catherine graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2016 and worked in nonprofit fundraising in New York City. When she’s not studying, Catherine enjoys caring for her many house plants, reading Jane Austen novels, and hiking with friends.