The typical reading of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:5-30 is faulty.
This interpretation presents her as a “loose” woman, a serial divorcee (five times!) who is currently shacking up with a man in an illicit unmarried relationship. Because of her well-deserved reputation for immorality, she is shunned by all the other women in her village.
It follows that Jesus’ conversation with her demonstrates his willingness to keep company with outcasts, confront sinners and call them to repentance and faith in him as the Messiah.
That is what I have always been taught, what I have always believed, what I have passed on to others. But I don’t do so anymore because it doesn’t make sense.
I started questioning this interpretation for a couple of reasons. One was that it requires women in biblical times to have rights that they didn’t have. Even in U.S. society, women didn’t have these rights until a relatively short time ago, and in many cultures they still don’t.
These include the right to have a say in who you marry and the right to initiate divorce, among others that could be named.
In Jesus’ day, these were prerogatives of men but not of women. In Jesus’ day, and in much of the world today, women didn’t have much say in their lives, and often what say they had was whatever their husband or father allowed them to have.
Christianity Today published recently an article by Lynn H. Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, titled, “Was the Samaritan Woman Really an Adulteress?”
She sets out the reasons why we need to reassess our view of this story based on cultural differences, noting that it wasn’t until the Reformation that she was regarded as a sexually immoral woman.
“For most early church and medieval interpreters, the Samaritan woman was a careful, polite seeker – a sinner who, once illumined, truthfully witnessed her new faith to others,” Cohick says.
There’s another reason why I started questioning the narrative. I noticed how there is a tendency for people to blame the victim.
When a woman is raped, for instance, while no one excuses the rapist, many people wonder what she did wrong, as if rape won’t occur unless a man is provoked. Was she dressed provocatively? Had she been drinking too much? Did she send off the wrong “signals”?
When Freddie Gray was killed while handcuffed in police custody, some people posted his rap sheet on the Internet, as if a history of nonviolent drug crimes meant that he had it coming.
It’s prejudice that causes people to do this, however subtle or unconscious it may be.
And Samaritans certainly knew about prejudice. They were considered by Jews as apostates, people who were ethnically impure, doctrinally suspect and with questionable views on the Hebrew Scriptures.
Notice how quickly we judge the woman in John 4. We assume that when she says, “I have no husband” she is trying to hide her guilt.
If we understand that she is probably a widow five times over and even now has to seek refuge in the household of a man with whom she lacks even the status of a wife, we see that more likely she is hiding embarrassment.
Possibly she is filled with shame, since in those days it was understood that if you endured multiple tragedies God must be punishing you for something.
She probably believed it herself, thinking, “What have I done, that God would allow this to happen to me?”
When Jesus speaks to her, he doesn’t offer her scorn, to which she had become so accustomed.
He offered her the acceptance that she was so often denied. Acceptance from a Jew, from the Messiah, from God.
Jesus’ disciples couldn’t understand such acceptance. What Jesus was doing wasn’t just radical, but wrong.
It was radical, but it was very right, and it resulted in an entire village hurrying to come meet this man who put aside questions of blame and offered instead the living water of God’s unconditional love, grace and acceptance.
Christians today would be wise to go and do likewise.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.