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A New Look at the Samaritan Woman
Last week I began a series of reflections on women in the Gospel of John. This continues an ongoing project on how the Trinity heals the trauma of spiritual abuse. This week I planned to write about the Samaritan woman of John 4, which I have been studying for a few weeks. However, as happens from time to time, when I sat down to begin writing I stumbled across a connection I had never seen before and yet looked quite significant. Hence, writing time turned to more study time, and today’s newsletter is a rougher draft than anticipated. In the famous words of Pascal, this is longer because I haven’t had time to make it shorter.
What is John doing with the meeting between Jesus and the woman of Samaria? That is the all important question as we come to a text that has been read for centuries in misogynistic ways. The prevalent misreading of the Samaritan’s marital history betrays male bias and sexual objectification. Caryn Reeder has covered this problem extensively in her book The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo. As Reeder argues persuasively, there simply is no evidence in the text of John 4 to suggest the woman was anything like a serial adulterer or sexually immoral. Those and similar interpretations completely miss what John is doing with this narrative. Why this story? Why at this point in his overall gospel presentation of Jesus?
In short, I believe John included this story to show how Jesus restores both men and women to God’s original mission — with surprising newness with the sending of Son and Spirit — of spreading his temple presence throughout the earth.
The Samaritan woman’s story is not about sex, but it would be wrong to say it isn’t a sexual story. It is. Sexuality, God’s purpose for humanity to reflect the Trinity in creation as male and female, is central. Understanding this dynamic helps us to better see the dignity Jesus extends to this woman. Jesus, quite frankly, does not treat this woman the way she has been treated by male interpreters for centuries. And female spiritual abuse survivors can take comfort in seeing just how unlike Jesus is compared to preachers and communities who so easily degrade women.
Reeder gives detailed explanations of a handful of key interpreters from the early church, the Protestant reformation, and modern day that “offers a microcosm of the dehumanizing, reductive sexualization of women in Christian theology and practice.”1 I was going to include some original quotes referenced but not actually quoted by Reeder, but this is already too long as it is. Suffice to say, terrible assumptions are made about the Samaritan woman: she’s an adulteress, a prostitute, a love addict. When none of that is actually in the text, and the story makes perfect sense without those interpretations, why has that has been the majority interpretation since even the 2nd century?
The real questions we should be asking are, how did Jesus view this woman? And how has John portrayed her?
Reeder and others2 have presented able expositions of John 4 that fits much better both in the overall context of the 1st century Graeco-Roman world as well as the overall context of John’s Gospel. Within John, Jesus’ prophetic knowledge of the woman resembles Jesus interaction with Nathanael, knowing who he was even before Nathanael met him (1:43-51). While both are indeed sinners in need of a Savior, in neither episode is sin mentioned or implied.
What follows builds on those corrections to answer at a theological level what John is communicating with this story. I had planned to focus on the well imagery from the Song of Songs, but discovered the connection below instead.
Is Genesis 3 the Key to John 4?
I can’t remember how I stumbled on to this, but it was definitely inspired by a commentary on John by Catholic monk Bruno Barnhart, which focuses on symbolism within John as well as symbolic resonances between John and the Old Testament. A few essays by NT Wright also provided inspiration, who wrote this about the plethora of OT allusions and echoes in John:
“Once one starts enquiring after metaleptic resonances [ie echoes] all sorts of texts emerge from the woodwork and ask to be taken into consideration.”3
I now have a hypothesis that the 4th chapter of John’s gospel is an intentional echo of the 3rd chapter of Genesis. I don’t want to bore readers with too many exegetical details, but at least a few are in order. Consider the following comparison between John and the Greek text of the Septuagint (LXX):
Woman (gyne) occurs 13x in both John 4 and Genesis 3, and both narratives focus on dialogue between a woman and the Son of God (John 4) and the serpent / Satan (Genesis 3).
Jesus tells the woman, literally, “voice your man” (phonēson ton andra sou), John 4:16 (The Second Testament).
God says to Adam, “Because you have listened to the voice of your woman” (tēs phonēs tēs gynaikos sou), Gen 3:17.
Jesus draws attention to the woman’s lack of a man (ie husband).
God draws attention to Adam’s lack of a suitable companion, ie, woman (Gen 2:18-20).
Key words in Genesis 3 are eat (17x), food (1x, brōsis), fruit (3x, karpos), life (5x), esp “live forever” (zēsetai eis ton aiōna), Gen 3:22, 24.
Key words in John 4 are water (8x), drink (5x), eat (3x), food (1x, brōma, same root as Gen 3), fruit (1x, karpos, same as Gen 3) and life (2x), esp. “eternal life” (eis zoēn aiōnion), Jn 4:14.
The serpent tells the woman “that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened (Gen 3:5), and the woman saw, and it was a delight to the eyes (3:6).
Jesus tells his disciples “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes and see (4:35).4
Ok, hopefully you’re still with me. There are even more echoes, but that’s enough to at least get you thinking about this possible connection.
If I am right, so what? What’s the point?
As almost all commentators observe, Jesus meeting a woman at a well is a Hebrew betrothal type scene, a sort of Jewish meet-cute.5 Think Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah. When a man meets a woman at a well, Jewish readers would start anticipating wedding bells.6 This expectation has already been raised by John himself. Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (ch. 2) signaled the eschatological joy of new wine in the marriage between the Bridegroom and the people of God (John 3:29). This woman is meeting a man at a well. Betrothal type scene activated. But it’s also different in many ways, most notably the woman’s current marital status, literally having a man who isn’t her man, astranslates:
“Yēsous says to her, “You have said beautifully that ‘I do not have a man.’ For you have had five men and now the one you have isn’t your man. You have spoken truly.” (John 4:17, The Second Testament).
Just as God brought Adam to an awareness of what (who!) he was missing, so too Jesus brought this woman to an awareness of who she was missing.
Is John presenting Jesus as the True Husband who restores humanity in wedded union to the True God? What better person to symbolize this spiritual reality but a woman? Here’s howdescribed God’s original intent and design for woman in an article titled Woman as Zion:
Beside him to help him, God built the woman as the glory creature, a glory marker, to help Adam pass through temptation and enter God’s rest. By her presence, she evangelizes Adam. Her body tells him of life beyond the garden, a Sabbath city and temple. She speaks to him of the Mountain of the Lord in the heavens. Garden, city, temple, and mountain all portray the realm of Sabbath rest where God is enthroned and worshiped. Her words match her being. She does the work that no other creature can, speaking his language. She holds the message of the heavens which she is uniquely suited to speak, “Come” (Rev. 22:17).
As Anna observes, the garden/city pattern of Gen 1-2 and the wedding imagery of Gen 2 is brought to the foreground in Song of Songs, which is, as I’m discovering, certainly in the background/foreground in John 4:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed…a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon (Song of Songs 4:12, 15.
Jesus’ first sign in Cana is a bottomless well of meaning: all that was hoped for, longed for, desired, in the symbol of a wedding is finally coming true. What is being finally married is nothing less than heaven and earth in the person of Jesus:
And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
This was God’s plan all along. Where Adam failed to guard God’s garden/temple and rid it of the evil serpentine intruder, Jesus is the New Adam who, in his own person, is the temple-presence of God. He dwells among God’s people in bodily form (1:14) and cleanses the temple of uncleanness (2:13-17). Jesus’ act in the temple signals that he is making right what went wrong in the original garden/temple. As a male, it is easy to see how he is fulfilling the task given to Adam/man. But he is also restoring men and women to that original commission of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15.
After the highly symbolic temple scene of John 2:13-25, a man, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus under cover of darkness, and fails to come to the light and believe. If other men are being restored to God’s mission, we will have to wait to see it (eg John 9 and John 21).
In a powerful contrast to Nicodemus, Jesus meets a woman. Like Nicodemus, no one else is present. Unlike Nicodemus, the woman responds in faith, and immediately spreads the word to her neighbors in Sychar.7 Jesus’ speech in John 4:34-38 re: “the fields white for harvest” helps us make the connection to Genesis 1-3. As Reeder points out, the fact that John sandwiches this speech in the middle of the woman’s evangelism and the townspeople’s response indicates that Jesus is interpreting this woman’s action. “Jesus and the woman are the sowers, and the Samaritans are their harvest.”8
Jesus’ discussion of the harvest, laborers, reaping and sowing likely has resonance with multiple OT texts. Based on the many similarities noted between John 4 and Genesis 3, I believe God’s punishment on Adam in Genesis 3:17 is one of those texts. God declares that Adam will eat from the ground, but only with pain and toil. Whereas Adam desired divinity in eating the forbidden fruit, he instead tasted death, and would thus be constantly reminded of that by “thorns and thistles” (inedible plants) and in “the sweat of your face.” God’s commission to “work” and “keep” the garden (Gen 2:15) was a priestly commission to guard and extend the temple of God throughout the earth. Because of sin, that mission was frustrated.
With that thematic context in mind, Jesus words in John 4:35 take on new meaning:
“Look! I say to you, Lift up your eyes and observe the field that are white for harvest” (The Second Testament).
In a reversal of the serpent’s deceptive “your eyes will be opened” (Gen. 3:5), Jesus is promising the eye-opening reward and fulfillment of being satisfied with the food which is God’s mission for humanity.
In Genesis 3:22 God says,
“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take [lambanō] also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
In John 4:36 Jesus says,
“The one harvesting receives [lambanō] a wage and assembles fruit for Era Life” (The Second Testament).
“Receives” is the same word as “take” of the tree of life. Adam was forbidden from taking of the tree of life. Now that Jesus has come, God’s harvesters are taking wages and gathering fruit for eternal life. And significantly in this episode, it is a man (Jesus) and a woman who are taking wages and gathering fruit.
Reversing Gen 3:17, it appears the Samaritan woman, in addition to Christ/Adam, is doing the laboring/harvesting, sowing/reaping, gathering/eating the fruit which really is life eternal. The Samaritan woman is Eve, Zoe, mother of all living and Adam-like farmer/gardener.
Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is intentionally bringing back both men and women to the family of God and re-connecting them to God’s purpose to be his image bearers throughout creation. The Samaritan woman’s story in John 4 is a powerful portrayal of how Jesus intentionally seeks women to be a part of his bride, belonging to God and joining with him in beckoning the hungry and thirsty to God’s wedding banquet.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take [lambanō] the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17)
Quote from Bruno Barnhart
We have seen that the sexual metaphor in the New Testament has traditionally been interpreted in terms of the union of the Word, as Bridegroom, with that bride who is at once the church, the mother of Jesus and the soul of each believer. This is in continuity with the image of Israel as the bride of God in the Hebrew scriptures. The later biblical tradition which sees the divine wisdom, represented by a feminine figure as both the companion of God and the companion of man, has had few followers in Christian tradition. When both the Word and wisdom of God were presented by the New Testament authors as conclusively present in the man Jesus, both Word and wisdom took on an apparently definitive masculine identity. Our study of John's gospel suggests that this has been a one-sided development. The symbolic depths of human sexuality exist in God before the creation; both masculine and feminine are present archetypally in the divinity — God is a wedding.9
If you are a woman reading the Samaritan woman’s story, how does this interpretation speak to you compared to the majority perspective that focuses on her alleged sexual sin and Jesus’ grace for that sin? If you are a man reading the Samaritan woman’s story, how is it for you to consider that, in John’s Gospel at least, a woman is the first to fully experience Christ’s reversal of the curse of sin, and the first to preach that Messiah has come and is calling His bride?
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The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 175.
Cf Aimee Byrd, The Sexual Reformation, pp. 45-50.
Interpreting Jesus, p. 237.
This short speech in 4:31-38 comes after the woman went back to her town, but John places Jesus’ words strategically in the middle of the woman’s evangelizing and the townspeople’s response as an interpretation of both his and the woman’s harvesting labor.
Cf Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 50-60.
Reeder, The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 154-155.
Cf Reeder, p. 153. Also cf Margaret Beirne, Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: A Discipleship of Equals, for a compelling thesis that John’s Gospel contains a series of gendered pairs serving as foils and comparisons in characterizing responses to Jesus (eg Nicodemus and Samaritan woman, man born blind and Martha, Mary of Bethany and Judas, Mary Magdalene and Thomas).
Reeder, p. 169.
The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 236.