Modern understandings of John 4 often depict the Samaritan woman as an adulteress. One commentary refers to her as “this immoral woman of Samaria.”1 The author notes that the woman had been married to and divorced from five husbands. Not only that—this commentary says she was presently committing adultery with a sixth man who was not her husband.2 Most commentators, preachers, and Bible teachers paint a similar portrait of the Samaritan woman Jesus speaks with in John 4. They would have us think she’s a conniving adulteress shunned by her community.
What if I told you that very little of this picture comes from the text itself?
A careful examination of the Bible in light of its historical and cultural context demands that we rethink the Samaritan woman. Preachers often focus on the Samaritan woman’s sexual past. They say she seems to change the subject or evade responsibility when her words could just as easily be genuine questions.
Yet it’s to the Samaritan woman that Jesus explicitly revealed himself as the Messiah—knowledge he entrusted to few during his earthly ministry. Moreover, she is the one who first brought the gospel to Samaria (Acts 1:8). When we focus on the woman’s (perceived) sin, we miss how Jesus took her questions seriously, taught her, and used her to begin reaching Samaria. Instead of taking the text at its word, most interpreters draw unwarranted conclusions that do not fit the historical-cultural context.
Let’s look at three clues from the passage that seriously challenge the traditional view of the Samaritan woman.
Clue #1: The Passage Does Not Comment on Her Reputation
We make much of the woman’s collecting water during the heat of the day, assuming that the community shunned her for her sexual immorality. Nowhere does John make this connection. The text simply states that the woman came to the well around noon. From a narrative standpoint, mentioning the time of day emphasizes Jesus’s tiredness and thirst (John 4:6). There are insufficient grounds to conclude that the woman collected water at this time to avoid the harassment of her neighbors. After all, if they despised her so, would they have taken her messianic proclamation seriously? John notes that many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of her account of him (4:30, 39, 42).
John never claims that the Samaritan woman was an outcast. And even if her town did shun her, many preachers readily conclude that she is to blame. Many biblical characters are mistreated who do not deserve it, the greatest example being Jesus himself. Though this passage doesn’t give sufficient basis to depict this woman as a martyr or righteous sufferer, neither does it give us warrant to view her as a cunning adulteress.
The people may have thought something was wrong with a woman who had been repeatedly widowed or divorced. Whether this thinking is justified is a whole other question, one that leads many preachers to jump to conclusions. They seem to agree with what they presume the villagers think, though this passage offers only a blurry, cropped snapshot of this woman’s life. Ironically enough, the people of Sychar may have been making the same mistake as many contemporary preachers—assuming that the woman is responsible for her marital baggage, though neither they nor we know the full story.
Clue #2: The Passage Does Not Say How She Had Five Husbands
It’s tempting to construct an entire narrative of this woman’s sexual past. Any such narrative, however, is speculation. The passage simply states that she had had five husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t comment on why that was the case. To many modern readers, commentators included, it seems self-evident that this woman lacked self-control. Examining the historical context, though, reveals other possibilities—none of which lay all the responsibility on this woman.
First, she could have been a widow. Life expectancy in the ancient world was much lower than in industrialized nations today. In addition, women often married men who were already several years older than themselves. It is not unreasonable to suggest that one, if not more, of her husbands died.
Second, she could have been divorced. We cannot read a modern Western understanding of divorce, in which both spouses generally play a role, into the text. In the first century, the power of divorce rested almost solely with the man. Only the husband could initiate a divorce, regardless of his wife’s desires.3 Thus, it’s historically untenable to portray the Samaritan woman as solely or even primarily responsible for her lot.
Either the woman’s husbands died, they divorced her, or a combination of both. Whatever the case, assuming that she was sexually promiscuous does justice neither to the Bible nor to its historical context.
Clue #3: This Passage Does Not Focus on Sin
Perhaps how Jesus himself interacted with this woman is the most decisive indictment of the standard view of John 4. He never mentions sin! Rather, the focus is on who Jesus is and how he can slake her deepest thirst. Of course, the woman was a sinner just as all people are (Ps. 14:1–3; Rom. 3:10–12), but that isn’t the main point. This account is about the identity of the Messiah, not sin. Even before the topic of husbands arose, Jesus hinted at the living water that he provides (John 4:10).
According to the standard view, Jesus brought up her husbands to convict her of her sexual sin. This need not be the case. John’s narration is not explicit in why Jesus asked about her husband. He does seem to be revealing an area of need in her life, but need is not always directly related to sin. In mentioning the details behind the woman’s answer that she lacked a husband, Jesus is not necessarily calling out sin. After all, Jesus said that she spoke honestly—a comment that we should take seriously, not sarcastically (John 4:18).
Then the woman asked Jesus about the proper place for prayer, and he gave her a relatively straightforward answer. Many preachers assume she asked this question to deflect attention from her marital situation. If Jesus’s intent in the exchange was to convict her of sin, why didn’t he bring the conversation back to the subject of marriage? After all, he had responded to many insincere or even trap questions by re-directing the subject or exposing ulterior motives (e.g., Matt. 22:15–22). In contrast, Jesus gave the Samaritan woman a remarkably direct answer. He did not even speak in parables—he openly spoke about profound spiritual truth. He spoke more explicitly with her than he did with many. Indeed, Jesus entrusted the Samaritan woman with the knowledge that he is the Messiah (John 4:26).
Why Does It Matter?
Many preachers place all guilt and responsibility on the Samaritan woman. And though only the woman appears in the passage, it’s unsettling that virtually no attention is given to the role of the men in her life. Even if the woman was involved in adultery, she obviously did not do so alone. The Samaritan woman is usually presented as a cunning adulteress, one who lacked sexual self-control. Though the Bible never calls the woman an adulteress—or even a sinner—many readily conclude that she and she alone is responsible for her complicated past, never mind that women of that time had little say in marriage and divorce.
The way the church views biblical women shapes how we view women in our midst. When we assume that a woman’s complex marital history is her fault, it’s easier to see women as inherently more sexually promiscuous. Claiming that the Samaritan woman asked about the proper place of worship in order to change the subject minimizes the significance of Jesus’s conversation with her, drawing attention away from his points on proper worship and his identity as the Messiah.
The standard view subtly downplays women in theological discourse by stressing the Samaritan woman’s marital situation more than her questions and faithful response. These assumptions do justice neither to the passage nor to the woman. It is time to see the Samaritan woman the way Jesus did—as a seeker in need of him. It is time to see women as Jesus did, as followers who deserve to be taken seriously and have our questions answered directly so that we are empowered to preach the good news of the Messiah to our own communities.
Photo by Dmitriy Ganin on Pexels.
 John F. Hart, “John” in The Moody Bible Commentary, edited by Michael Rydelnik and Michael G. Vanlaningham (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 1,617.
 John F. Hart, “John,” 1,617.