Between Text and Sermon: John 4:5-42

By Bridges, Linda McKinnish | Interpretation, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Between Text and Sermon: John 4:5-42


Bridges, Linda McKinnish, Interpretation


The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:5-42 is old, cast in the customs of an ancient world where water is drawn from deep wells by waterpots, and racial and gender animosity rule social and religious customs. But the story of the Samaritan woman is also new, capable of being preached to modern people who, although they no longer draw water from ancient wells, know church and societu to be arid, made dry by racial and gender animosity. Water from the well--the everlasting one--still remains a necessary ingredient for life worth living.

The quiet but intrusive words spoken by the narrator in verse 28, "she left her waterpot," capture our interest. Called a "narrative aside," words inserted by the narrator without narrative expansion or explanation, this phrase is often overlooked. A careful examination, however, encourages us to ask: Why did she leave her pot? Why does the fourth evangelist want us to know that she left her pot? We already know from reading other parts of the Fourth Gospel that the words of the narrator are important; they are not just fillers in the story line. Notice other comments made by the whispering narrator: "He had to pass through Samaria" (v. 4); "For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food" (v. 8); "Just then the disciples came" (v. 27). What do these particular words, "the woman left her waterpot," reveal?

Although a central character in the story, the woman remains unnamed. Yet, by verse 29 we feel as if we know her. She is a Samaritan--and that means an outcast in Jewish society. Furthermore, she is a woman--and that also means marginalization in first-century, patriarchal culture. With these two strikes against her, she is labeled by a rabbinical maxim as a "perpetual menstruant" (m. Nid. 4:1); and perpetual menstruants are forever unclean, unapproachable, and unacceptable by God.

This anonymous woman of Samaria has remained nameless--even in contemporary scholarship. Most commentators have refused to give her an important role in the story. Paragraphs written in scholarly journals and sermons preached from lively pulpits tend only to elevate the vices of this immoral woman, thereby keeping her in the dark shadows of the story. The Samaritan woman, along with other women in the New Testament, becomes the epitome of sin, rather than a model for ministry. And she remains anonymous.

How can scholars be so sure that the Samaritan woman was the cause of the five failed marriage? Why do we so eagerly assume that the unnamed woman was an immoral harlot needing redemption and not a part of larger society that also needed the water of eternal life? That she needed redemption needs no debate, for she is presently living with a man who is not her husband. The interpretation that she was an unclean harlot, the prototype of sexual sin and prone to evil and promiscuity, however, needs a fresh, uncritical examination, loosed from male biases.

Perhaps she was just old and had outlived all five husbands, for the text does not give her age. Then, in her later years, she gives up on legal marriage contracts and lives with a man who is not her husband.

Or perhaps this so-called "paradigm of sexual excess" is more accurately interpreted as a victim of ancient, oppressive patriarchy. Careful exegesis details that by law only men could divorce women in the ancient world (Deut. 24:1-4). Women were not permitted to divorce men. Later, the rabbis would expound on this marriage code and argue that a man could divorce his wife with any just cause, which could be faulty bread or even the lack of beauty (m. Git. 9:10). Maybe her five husbands had found her lacking, unsuitable, unlovely, unfit for their desires, and they simply rid themselves of responsibility and relationship. And society applauded their efforts with laws made to protect the man and abuse the woman.

What if this woman with no name needed redemption not from the excesses of sexual promiscuity but from a series of injustices from five husbands in a culture programed for male domination? …

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