Q. When Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman in
A. The Samaritan woman, unlike other individuals who speak with Jesus in the Gospel of John, is never named. Some interpreters have taken this anonymity as an invitation to view her as an abstraction, a symbol of Samaria itself. If she is a symbol, the thinking goes, then surely her five husbands could represent the five locations in Samaria that settlers are supposed to have been brought according to
This view gains traction when we look at the heavy symbolism in the story. Readers of the Jewish (or, for that matter, the Samaritan) scriptures would know that when a man and a woman meet at a well, a wedding usually follows. And this well is not just any well; it is the same well where Jacob met his first wife Rachel in
This allegorical and symbolic interpretation of the Samaritan woman has taken hold; yet it denigrates her in a way not consistent with the biblical text, and reflects a lack of sensitivity to the story’s historical context.
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.
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.
The story of the Samaritan woman is indeed symbolic: Jesus is the bridegroom (an image used in