The woman at the well: Was she really sinful?
Challenging the narrative of the ‘sinful woman’
I love the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s the longest recorded one to one conversation in the Bible between Jesus and another person. And it’s brilliant. If it’s not a bit of the Bible that you’re familiar with, you can find it in chapter four of John’s gospel.
Like many women in the Bible, the Samaritan woman gets a bit of an unearned reputation in Christian culture as ‘sinful’. And I have to admit that this annoys me somewhat because it’s totally unjustified.
Culturally, over the centuries, there has been an almost complete inability to view women in the Bible as just people. If you’re a biblical woman, you’re either Mary or Jezebel. Virgin — either literally or figuratively — or vixen — sexual temptress and general nasty piece of work. Saint or sinner. Or possibly the unnamed victim of some pretty horrific violence. But we don’t talk about those very much.
The biblical narrative is actually a lot more complex than that. Although the men outnumber the women very substantially, there are still some fantastic, intricate, nuanced female characters. But the cultural lens through which the text has been viewed over the centuries has meant that even the complex, interesting characters get dumped into the saint or sinner categories. They become flattened caricatures. Particularly if there is any hint of sex being involved. If there is sex, commentators have an uncanny ability to make it the responsibility of the woman. Even if she’s the victim. Which is why Bathsheba, for example, who David had brought to his palace because he wanted to have sex with her, gets portrayed by centuries of artists and commentators as the temptress on the roof, rather than the victim of rape and forced marriage, which is actually much closer to the truth.
Anyway. I digress. Back to the Samaritan woman. She meets Jesus by a well when she goes to draw water. They have a really interesting theological conversation. She then goes back to her village and persuades lots of people to come and meet Jesus. So how does she end up in the Sinner category?
The evidence for her being ‘sinful’ is taken from two snippets. Firstly, we know that she is out collecting water at noon. Secondly, we discover that she’s been married quite a lot. We know this because Jesus asks her to go and get her husband and when she tells him she doesn’t have one, he tells her that she’s spoken truly because she’s had five husbands and the man she is now living with is not her husband.
If you’ve been around church a bit, you will surely have heard sermons where these two pieces of evidence are added together and extrapolated to get to about 92. Her multiple relationships must mean she’s sinful. And the fact that she’s fetching water in the middle of the day is clear evidence, apparently, that she’s an outcast. Women usually collect water in the morning when it’s cooler so she must be avoiding the crowds. Ergo, she’s a sexually sinful woman who has been ostracised by her community.
This has become such a widely accepted reading that it tends to float past people unchallenged. Recently, I heard a usually pretty sensible Christian thinker point out, in a conversation, how Jesus doesn’t condemn her for her sinfulness. What sinfulness?? How could someone I thought so sensible and enlightened still be letting misogynistic interpretations of the Bible slide past him unchallenged? I was outraged. Which is actually what prompted me to write this article. Once I’d finished shouting at my podcast player.
So let’s start again. What if we don’t come at this story with the now ingrained assumptions about the woman being a sinful outcast. What if, instead, we think about the circumstances that might lead a Palestinian woman in the first century to have had five husbands.
Firstly, we can be pretty sure that it won’t have been her choice. Women in the first century were not the wielders of power. The ‘sinful woman’ narrative has her luring men into marrying her and then discarding each one and choosing another. That scenario is so unlikely as to be laughable.
To have got through five husbands she must have been bereaved or abandoned or both, multiple times. That’s a lot of suffering. A lot of heartache. And a truck load of vulnerability. Having a husband was how women kept destitution at bay. Which is why the early church put so much emphasis on caring for widows. Did her family and community help her to keep remarrying? What was it about her that made her a good match, despite having had so many previous husbands? Did she end up having to marry increasingly undesirable and desperate men? How has she now ended up co-habiting? Is it an arrangement that she wanted, or does it just keep starvation at bay?
We will never know her story, but we can make a guess that it’s a complex one, that includes a lot of difficulty and required from her a great deal of strength. And she sounds like a remarkable woman. To keep finding husbands in a small community, despite all the tragedy, suggests that she was an unusual character. She could have ended up as a destitute widow. But she didn’t.
The picture we get from her conversation with Jesus is that she is someone with charisma, with a lot of spark and resillience. Whatever has happened in her life, she hasn’t been beaten down by it. She is full of energy. Assertive, questioning, thoughtful. Not afraid to prod and challenge. Jesus responds in kind. He questions and challenges and gives her things to think about. It’s a great conversation. Full of nuance and depth. I discover something new just about every time I read it.
The notion that this woman was an outcast doesn’t really work either. Admittedly she’s not collecting water at the usual time of day, but there could be all sorts of reasons for that. Perhaps she was avoiding people. But maybe she just ran out of water. Perhaps she wasn’t well organised. Perhaps she was helping out a neighbour. Who knows. But after her conversation with Jesus, she doesn’t go quietly back to her village, she leaves her water jar at the well and goes to tell everyone that they really ought to come and meet Jesus. And low and behold, they take her at her word and come to meet him. That doesn’t really fit with the narrative of rejection. It suggests she has enough respect, enough standing, in her community that people take her seriously. If she says something, it’s worth listening.
I like the Samaritan Woman. She’s fascinating. But she only came to life for me when I stopped looking at the story the way I’d heard it preached so many times. When I started to question the standard narrative that reduced her to the one dimensional label of the sexually sinful woman. It would be good to be able to say that in our enlightened western culture we don’t do that anymore. But we do. And not just to women in the bible. Maybe we should stop.
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