By Rose Marie Berger. Continuing series on badass biblical women.
Have you seen the Dos Equis commercials starring actor Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world”? “People hang on his every word,” the narrator intones, “even the prepositions.” Though the ad is clever and funny, the “Stay thirsty, my friends” tagline makes clear that what’s being sold is unquenchable thirst.
Contrast this with the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well. What’s on offer in John 4 is “living water.” But obtaining it requires a more daring leap than the short-term gains of “Interesting Man’s” carpe diem philosophy.
Who is the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus holds his longest discussion in the gospels? First, let’s clarify what she is not. She is not a whore, nor promiscuous. She’s not spiritually dead or “hopelessly carnal,” as some male interpreters have claimed.
For too long this “type story” in John’s gospel has been sold to us as a sexual morality tale based on an interpretation of the woman as a sinner because she had “five husbands.” Sadly, this serves patriarchy more than scripture. Assuming personal licentiousness on the woman’s part is a result of a patriarchal bias “to reduce women to their sexuality and reduce their sexuality to immorality,” as Sandra M. Schneiders writes in Written That You May Believe.
A different interpretation surfaces when John 4 is read in context as part of a Cana-to-Cana framework that places the woman at the well between the Pharisee Nicodemus (3:1-21), who has religious power, and the royal official (4:46-54), who has political power.
Night-slinking Nicodemus initiates a theological debate with Jesus. In response, Jesus is sarcastic (3:10) and condemnatory (3:18). No response from the Pharisee is included. The Samaritan woman is his mirror opposite. She also engages Jesus in a sophisticated theological exchange — under the noonday sun — and comes to believe. To her, Jesus reveals his true nature. With strength and savvy, she accepts it and witnesses to others.
If there are sexual overtones in Jesus’ exchange with this woman, they are initiated by him. Not necessarily personally, but symbolically. Jesus is wooing Samaria — the Bridegroom has come for his Bride. The wedding motif is central to John’s imagery.
But to charm Samaria, Jesus must first address Samaritan theological concerns, as scholars Raymond Brown, Craig Koester, and Schneiders explain. The woman systematically grills him on the different beliefs held by Jews and Samaritans. Why is he breaking custom by asking her for a drink (4:9)? Why does he elevate himself to the status of the Samaritan patriarch Jacob (4:12)?
In response, he tests her: What about the “five husbands” (4:16-19)? In John’s highly charged symbolism, it’s illogical to read this question as a sudden diversion into the personal. The meaning is much clearer when “husbands” is understood as “lords” or “gods.” Samaria has had five foreign gods since the Assyrians (see 2 Kings 17:30-31) and the one Samaria worships now is not Yahweh, but from Rome.
He’s talking like a prophet, she notes, using all the prophet catchphrases (see Hosea 3-4 and Jeremiah 2). Finally, she challenges him on the last major hurdle in the Jewish/Samaritan theological divide: Worship on Mount Gerizim or on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount?
Jesus’ answer astounds her. He makes a claim for neither. Instead, in his New Israel, all will worship in “spirit and truth” (verse 24).
Still sizing him up, she proclaims, “I know that the Messiah is coming … When he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus replies: “I am.”
At this, she leaves her water jar behind (4:28, as in Mark 1 the fishermen leave their nets) and says “Come see” to her people — the classic markings of a disciple. By her witness, many in Samaria come to believe.
Who is the woman at the well? She is an integral partner in Jesus’ recruitment strategy in Samaria. She is an apostolic witness. She sows the seed that other disciples will harvest (verse 37).
“When a woman tells the truth,” writes Adrienne Rich, “she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” John 4 can be read as “theater of liberation,” where an intelligent religious leader encounters the embodiment of her theological search in the person of her enemy, tests her hypothesis, and when convinced of his validity, tells her truth to her people in a bold and unexpected manner. It requires self-possession, authority, and guts.
I’d call her “the most interesting woman in the world.”
Rose Marie Berger, author of the book Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners senior associate editor.