The issue that’s been on my mind this week is the apparent paradox of the unnamed Samaritan woman in the story. The paradox is this; she’s an outcast in her home town, but it’s her testimony that persuades her neighbors to faith in Christ, which can hardly be expected of someone with no credibility in her own community.
I believe that the paradox can be resolved by considering the situation from the perspective of the author (John). That might sound like a trite thing for me to say, but too often we rush into trying to understand scripture from our own perspective, rather than respecting the perspective of the people who first wrote it down.
An outcast in her home town
John’s Gospel is full of apparently incidental details, which support the veracity of his account. In verse 4:6, John notes that it was about noon that Jesus sat down at the well, at which time the Samaritan woman came to draw water (4:7).
It’s in the heat of the day, and Jesus is understandably tired and thirsty (4:6, John doesn’t present a super-human Jesus who is unconstrained by human needs and weaknesses). What is remarkable about this setting is that normally, the women would fill their jars first thing in the morning, when it was cooler and more convenient for the day’s chores, but this woman comes at noon. She probably does so because the other women of the town are absent, and she chooses to avoid them. The reasons for her elusiveness are probably linked to her scandalous domestic arrangements, which Jesus brings to light in verse 4:18; she has had five husbands and the man she was with was not her husband.
Husbands and men
Live-in relationships today are considered the norm (for all the wrong reasons, I believe), but in Jesus’ day they were regarded as shameful. We don’t know the reasons behind the Samaritan woman’s relationships but, as they say, it takes two to tango. Possibly, she flitted from man to man, always in search of a better deal (though the issue of dowries comes to the fore); possibly the fickle men she got entangled with abandoned her; possibly successive husbands died (though this would not have marked her to the same extent as voluntary divorces); possibly she was unable to conceive; probably it was a combination of all or some of the above.
John does not bring us to conclude whether she was a victim or a perpetrator, but from his perspective, such a question would have been immaterial. In my reading of the Bible, I see a continuum between personal and collective guilt, unlike today’s sense of justice, which is concerned with isolating personal culpability. In John’s eyes, then, the woman would have been guilty, but her guilt would have been a reflection of her community’s shortcomings. She might have descended into shameful circumstances, but where were the men in her community who should have protected her welfare and honor? Why did they allow this situation to arise? Why didn’t the men in her hometown act like the husbands that they should have been?
It’s this latter thought that came to my mind last week, when I found that the Samaritans had switched political allegiances in the centuries before the encounter at the well. The Wikipedia entry on the Samaritans is difficult to read, but it includes a fascinating passage on the Samaritans' response to the blasphemy of one of the Greek rulers, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The following is adopted from Wikipedia, with my inferences thrown in for good measure.
It is important to understand the rivalry between Samaritan and Jew. The Samaritans gave themselves the name Shamerim, שַמֶרִים, "Keepers [of the Law]", to identify themselves with the Law and God of Moses. The Jews preferred to call them Kuthim, כותים, which is a pejorative term related to the ancient, foreign city of Cuthah. So, both groups contested for the claim to be the “true” Israel, and both accused the other of apostasy and of supporting idolatrous Temples. Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century, which is precisely the time of the encounter at the well. Jesus met the woman at the height of hostilities.
Antiochus was one of the Seleucid Kings of Judah from 175 to 163 BC, in the period between the Old and New Testaments. According to 1 Maccabees 1:41-50 he proclaimed himself the incarnation of the Greek god Zeus and mandated death to anyone who refused to worship him. A major obstacle to his ambition was the fidelity of the Jews to their historic religion and their refusal to allow their homeland to be defiled. The universal peril led the Samaritans, eager for safety, to repudiate all connection and kinship with the Jews. The request was granted.
Not only did the Samaritans sever ties with their Jewish neighbors, but, allegedly, they also voluntarily profaned their Temple on Mount Gerizim, which had been erected in the name of YHWH of Israel. Josephus, a pro-Jewish historian, quotes the Samaritans' plea to Antiochus as follows;
We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and saviour, to give order to Apolonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbances, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation and from their customs, but let our temple which at present hath no name at all, be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius.
II Maccabees 6:1–2 reports an unwilling reconsecration of both Samaritan and Jewish Temples, as follows;
Shortly afterwards, the Greek king sent Gerontes the Athenian to force the Jews of Israel to violate their ancestral customs and live no longer by the laws of God; and to profane the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and the one on Mount Gerizim to Zeus, Patron of Strangers, as the inhabitants of the latter place had requested.
This Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim was destroyed by the Jew, John Hyrcanus in about 128 BC, having existed about 200 years. Only a few stone remnants of it exist today.
So, it is clear that there was a great deal of mistrust between Samaritan and Jew. From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan would have been regarded as fickle and untrustworthy; the ultimate shibboleth being the Samaritans’ ready rejection of their claims of fidelity to the God of Moses, as opposed to the proud, blood-stained history of the Jew’s dogged allegiance to YHWH. In the Biblical idiom, if Ezekiel 16 is a reliable guide, Samaria had behaved like a shameless woman in offering herself to a long procession of lovers. (Though, ironically, both sides had sinned gravely in this respect and neither had the right to cast the first stone, if John 8:2-11 reflects the pattern).
Faithfulness at a personal and national scale
Was it Samaria’s unfaithfulness that Jesus referred to when he brought the issue of the woman’s husbands to light, or was it the woman’s actual domestic circumstances?
This presents something of a problem in approaching the text, but it might not be an either/or proposition. John, I believe, sees heavenly significance in earthly things and, concomitantly, what we do on earth is reflected in the heavens. The woman’s adultery is both a symptom and a sustaining cause of the Samaritans’ heritage (technically, we might conceivably refer to it as the incarnation of the Samaritan Logos, after John 1:14, but I could be drawing a long bow here). Her relationship with her men is stereotypical of the Samaritan condition. Thus, Jesus’ observations speak to her at a personal level and through her to her neighbors at a corporate level. This, I think, is why her neighbors listen to her testimony, despite her status. They see a metaphor of themselves in her, and the situation to which their collective unfaithfulness had brought them. The woman’s statement in John 4:39 was a personal confession, and a collective one, by extension; and it was one that her neighbors acknowledged for themselves.
A fresh start
One impression I get from this story is that the Samaritan woman and her neighbors were sick of the status quo. The woman had been reduced to filling her jars at noon to avoid the talk of her neighbors, and they had suffered dreadfully under the hand of foreigner and Jew for the sake of religion and Temple.
Jesus, according to John, offers them a fresh start and they embrace his message of hope (John 4:39-42). To the woman he says, “I will be the husband you never had.” To her neighbors he says, “I am the True, Living Temple, and you won’t need to fight over me again.” These are not unrelated ideals, but two aspects of what it means to be reconciled to the God of Father Abraham in a new and living covenant.