When we were children, my sister and I would take on the characters of the stories my mother read to us before bed. Some were manifest internally—we wondered how a 9-year-old Jewish girl in 1938 Poland would feel if she were to be delivering newspapers on a freezing Alberta evening? Others required a new accent and vocabulary, like the characters in Lois Lenski's Shoo-Fly Girl; we used words like "Ma" for weeks after the book's conclusion, despite our real mother's adamant protest.
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We become the stories we are told. Which means they play a critical role in determining who we become as spiritual individuals and as political beings. "Our ‘freedom,'" theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, "is dependent on our being initiated into a truthful narrative, as in fact it is the resource from which we derive the power to ‘have character' at all."
For people rooted in the Christian tradition, the biblical stories serve as our founding narrative. As Hauerwas notes, "they and they alone satisfy what Reynolds Price has called our craving for a perfect story which we feel to be true."
Yet what we consider true—that is, our sense of the divine—is always mediated and is derived in a certain context. Even Moses, who saw God's back and withstood his voice, did not stare God squarely in the eye. None of us hears in a vacuum. Especially for those of us who have been immersed in biblical stories, each time we read one we revisit every telling we've heard, every corresponding scripture song our Sunday school teachers taught us the motions to.
John's account of Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is one such story that carries a burden of tellings and mis-tellings. To get the story straight requires that we recognize the sexist assumptions that have been read into the text. In commentaries you can still find the Samaritan woman described as "mincing and coy," "mocking," "deceptive," and intent on masking her "evil deeds." She comprehends, some of these commentators charge, only in a "physical and selfish sense" (which implies that some sort of spiritual and selfless faith is both possible and preferable), even though the text itself contains no such judgment.
The story begins with the declaration: "[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria." Given Jesus' Jordanian point of departure, this mandate is theological, not geographical, marking the expansion of Jesus' ministry from the boundaries of Israel to peoples outside. As the evangelist tells it, Jesus has just met Nicodemus the Pharisee, who tries but is unable to comprehend Jesus' words. A Samaritan is the perfect foil to this man of the cloth and serves to illustrate the comparative faithlessness of Jesus' own people, just as do the Good Samaritan of Luke 10:30-37 and the singularly grateful Samaritan leper in Luke 17:16.
Under the midday sun, the woman comes to draw water. Her solitariness and the time of day imply isolation from the other women in her community, who would have habitually come to the well in the morning or evening to avoid the heat. Her choice of watering hour is deliberate—her lengthy marital history (revealed in verse 18) suggests that she is older. One might imagine that she has grown tired of the gossip of the younger women, particularly since she is occasionally its subject.
This scene echoes the betrothal stories of Isaac (Genesis 24:10-61), Jacob (Genesis 29:1-20), and Moses (Exodus 2:15b-21). Yet unlike the patriarchs and their servants, Jesus is not looking for a wife, but a witness.
Hot and tired, Jesus asks for water, violating at least two cultural and religious norms in asking a woman Samaritan for a drink. Important as Jesus' defiance of cultural taboos is, as a male Jew he is at a decided advantage in this situation. He is free to violate boundaries not just because he is God, but because—like all who enjoy the superior position in a power dynamic—he is freer to overstep the lines.
IN CONTRAST, THE WOMAN knows well what a Jewish male will think of her. She does not need the parenthetical tip that verse 9 supplies the reader—she has internalized what water sources she can, and cannot, draw from. She also knows that she is vulnerable to assault or accusation. She cannot act as if the cultural and religious boundaries that define her life do not exist—to do so would be profoundly unwise.
Jesus further subverts the well-as-pickup-scene motif by offering to give her water. Now curious, the woman takes a tentative conversational step toward Jesus, calling him "sir" (verse 11) instead of simply "you, a Jew" (as in verse 9). She enlists her ancestor Jacob, asserting her religious and cultural identity and thus naming the hostile barrier between them that Jesus has yet to acknowledge.
Once more Jesus refuses to abide by the rules of the Samaritan/Jewish conflict and continues to press her toward the living water. The promise of water that will end all thirst understandably appeals to one whose daily life is punctuated by treks to a well. No longer warily assessing the potential for danger, she now trusts him enough to ask him for something.
Jesus begins to push her to reveal the truth of her own life, just as she has been asking him to acknowledge the truth of his identity. Like Jesus' refusal to make his gender and ethnic identity the focus of the conversation, the woman resists turning the conversation into a discussion of her sexual history. She responds to his request that she fetch her husband (verse 16) with the truthful yet sparse declaration that she "has no husband."
Jewish law permitted women to remarry only up to two times, but the woman has had five husbands and is not married to the man she is now living with. Yet Jesus' reply contains neither evident judgment nor indication that Jesus considers her particularly sinful. Rather than condemn her for her past, Jesus commends her (albeit ironically) for telling the truth. His knowledge of her precipitates another step toward her recognition of him, and she tells Jesus who he is ("I see that you are a prophet").
The shift to the Samaritan/Jewish dispute over worship sites tests the extent of Jesus' open defiance of the boundary between chosen and rejected people by confronting him with their shared religious conflict. Jesus moves from the particular dispute to proclaim a new locus for worship that surpasses both the mountain and the temple (over which he has recently asserted his authority in 2:13-22), and is therefore available to both groups.
Jesus continues to draw the woman more deeply into conversation, allowing her to participate in her own transformation and self-revelation. With each conversational turn, she demonstrates both limited comprehension and a readiness to absorb the new layer of revelation. His confusing claim that "the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" calls to her mind the promised Messiah who will explain everything.
This prompts a fuller revelation of Jesus' identity than that given to Nicodemus, Philip, or Andrew earlier in the fourth gospel. Jesus declares that "I am" is speaking with her, invoking the divine name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. This reference to "the living presence of God who makes himself known among his people," as theologian Francis Moloney put it, reveals Jesus as the new manifestation of that name—the Word by which people can come to know God.
THE DISCIPLES RETURN to the scene on the heels of Jesus' revelation, and they are instantly dismayed at finding their rabbi talking to a woman. With their entrance, she departs, forgetting her water jar. Like the apostles' fishing nets, boats, and parents, the jar is abandoned in her zeal to return home and relay all that she has seen and heard.
She tells her neighbors to "come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (verse 29). The phrase "come and see" has been spoken twice already in the fourth gospel—once by Jesus when he calls his first two disciples in 1:39, and again in 1:46 when Philip invites Nathanael to follow Jesus. Her words bring an entire group of people who come to see for themselves, many of whom "believed in him because of the woman's testimony."
The Samaritan woman's transformation, made complete in her act of witness, reveals a faith strong enough to risk ridicule and anger from her community even though she is not entirely certain about the man she drags them out to see. Her story holds the promise of growth and freedom, even for those whose oppression is deeply internalized. She demonstrates the wisdom that comes with loss of the kind of innocence that Rita Nakashima Brock says "we must outgrow, or else we risk remaining superfluous and disempowered, which is the designated state of women and children."
In the midst of highly symbolic language—spirit and truth, temple and mountain, Samaritan and Jew—the woman emerges as a subject in her own right, rather than merely a reflection of what her culture, the disciples, and the Johannine community expect her to be. Contemporary commentaries that unfairly diminish her role in Jesus' project do not do justice to her bravery. In the Samaritan woman, we need to recognize an "unrecorded [history] of resistance to oppression and, in particular, unapplauded resistance to internalized oppression," in the words of ethicist Judith Kay.
As we tell this story, we ought to laud Jesus' example as a wise teacher who challenges and provokes, but neither shames the woman for her past nor ridicules her for requiring time to come to her own understanding of who he is. Jesus, wisdom personified, demonstrates little concern with what Brock calls "protecting the power of God." He addresses her past in order that an honest relationship might develop, removing it as a possible source of shame that might prevent her from moving toward him.
Neither is Jesus terribly concerned about the partial nature of her faith. Jesus urges her toward a deeper understanding so that, eventually, she will believe of her own volition and gradually release her mistrust in the face of what must seem too welcoming to be genuine.
The Samaritan woman ought to foster in us a hermeneutic of suspicion—both toward the ways stories like hers have been used to reinforce sexist stereotypes and toward our own deeply internalized defense mechanisms that might prevent us from participating in our own liberation or in the liberation of others. The text itself indicts the very interpretation it has inspired, revealing a Jesus unconcerned with a woman's sexual past and instead promising a life source that cannot be depleted.
Given the layers present in any story and the human limits to comprehension, our effort to get the story right will always be partial and incomplete. That's what faith is all about—discovering and developing the story, while trying to shake it free from assumptions and projections that weigh it down.
Kari Jo Verhulst was a Sojourners contributing writer and an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when this article appeared.