26 March 2015

Interpreting the story of the woman at the well (John 4)

I remember reading in college an interpretation of the story about the Samaritan woman (John 4) where the she was considered a prophetess. I didn't entirely find the argument convincing, but I do remember finding something enticing about it. I liked how seeing the woman in a positive light changed how I thought about what was happening in the text.

One of the defining moments in the story is when Jesus asks the woman to get her husband. Her avoidance in answering the question and Jesus' response ("you have had five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband") makes it obvious to the reader that her marital state is not good. We immediately brand her with the Old Testament variation of a Scarlet A. We read into the text that anyone having had five husbands (and now living common-law!) is a Sinner.

But could her "not good" marital status translate into something else and, if so, how does that change how we understand the story? James McGrath does a wonderful job of pointing out the biblical texts we should use to help us interpretthis text, so I will include them here, instead of trying to say them in my own words: 
"We are told that the woman has previously had five husbands, and that the man whom she now has is not her husband. Unless Samaritan law was very different from Jewish law, and their culture likewise radically different, there is no possibility that this meant that the woman had divorced five men. Women could not initiate divorce in Judaism, and in this patriarchal cultural context, a woman who divorced a couple of husbands would not be likely to be taken as the wife of yet another. Are we to imagine either that several husbands have divorced the woman, or more plausibly, that the woman has been widowed multiple times?
Several stories do feature women who were widowed more than once and would have been known in the original hearers’ context. Gen 38 narrates the practice of levirate marriage—the responsibility of a man to marry his (childless) brother’s widow (Deut 25:5-10). An even closer parallel to John 4 is in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 3:8), where a woman named Sara loses seven husbands to a demon on each wedding night. The story suggests that a serial widow may struggle to remarry—a man might fear that some curse or demon was associated with her, and that his own life would be at risk if they wed. Such beliefs would of course leave the woman in a more vulnerable position, though she might still become a concubine.
It must be pointed out as well that neither divorce, remarriage, nor concubinage were considered immoral in this time period, and so the widespread slandering of the Samaritan woman from the story, so popular in sermons, is inappropriate."
     James F. McGrath, "Woman at the Well", n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2015]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/woman-at-the-well.aspx
Assuming the woman is not sexually immoral does not change the not good-ness of her situation. Being divorced or becoming a widow five times, and now having no man willing to marry her, would be a cause of shame. It is possible that being childless was part of that shame, as not bearing children could explain the high rate of divorce and/or remarriage.

In the midst of the woman's shame and complicated situation, Jesus spoke to her, answered her questions, saw her with all the complications, and invited her to be the one to share the gospel with others. Many people today suffer shame for the things that others have done to them or the situations they have been forced into (e.g., sexual abuse), yet we as a church find it much easier to talk about how guilt, as our tendency to brand the Samaritan woman as a sinner shows. But I believe we lose something there. The text proclaims loudly that the gospel given by Christ changes everything for those who know shame. Even more, those who know shame might be uniquely gifted in passing on the gospel to others.