A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?
A lot has been said about the Samaritan woman that Jesus met at Jacob's well. John was careful to tell us that she had had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not one of them. In our modern day interpretation of scripture, we label this woman many things:
How we see this woman is vital to the story. If she was a woman of less than acceptable morality, then Jesus exchange with her is about sin and grace and forgiveness. It would be a nice story, absolutely. But there are a few clues in John’s account telling us that there is more going on here than that.
First, marriage in First Century Jewish culture was different to what we westerners know it to be. There were different rules and customs.
It was unheard of that a man would marry a convicted adulteress with neither fortune nor fame. That she was a serial divorcée is also unlikely. She would’ve needed the repeated help of a male advocate to do so.
And since barrenness was not always a cause for divorce, we can’t assume that she was divorced five times for that reason. If she was known to be barren, can you imagine five men risking marriage to a woman who everyone knew was infertile? Not in their culture.
It is more likely that her five marriages and current living situation were the results of tragic and unfortunate events. Perhaps one or two of her husbands divorced her, or maybe she initiated divorce in one case. Maybe a couple of them died tragically, and she had to marry her deceased husband's brother, as was their custom. As for her current situation, maybe she had no dowry resulting in no formal marriage, meaning her status was similar to a concubine’s. Perhaps the man she was currently with was old and needed care, but his children didn’t want to share their inheritance with her, so he gave her no dowry document. Perhaps he was already married, making her his second wife. While the ancient Jewish culture allowed it, such an arrangement went against Jesus’ definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4–6). It makes sense, then, that Jesus would say she wasn’t married. Scripture doesn’t tell us why she had five husbands, but exploring first-century realities helps us imagine how her life might have unfolded.
I think her situation was less “woman of loose morals” and more “woman who knew great pain and loss.” The fact that later on in the story, when she goes back to her town and tells her friends and neighbors about Jesus, and they all listen? And return with her? If she indeed had a wide reputation of cheating and lying and playing the field, it is likely that no one would have listened to her. If she were branded a sinner, they would not have put any stock in her words. But they did. They believed her, and they followed her and her story back to the well that day to meet the man who had answered her questions, even some she didn’t know she was asking.
Furthermore, she asked intelligently, well thought out, theological questions of Jesus. She wasn't a timid woman, hiding in her pain, or in immorality. She was a truth seeker. And as is always the way, if we seek deep enough into it, suffering propels us to seek the truth, and it is where God can be found.
A Samaritan woman, who had no cultural right to talk to Jesus, and had every cultural reason not to engage him (and vice versa), found the Divine in the midst of her mess and pain at a well dug deep with story and controversy.
This is a tale about seeking and longing; grace and inclusion. Worship and presence.