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The Samaritan Woman of Sychar - John 4

Watercolour and ink portrait of Photini by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait and of other Bible women can be purchased here.

It seems to me that people have been too quick to cast aspersions on some women of the Bible. Eve, Delilah, and Bathsheba have been unfairly portrayed as seductresses. Mary Magdalene has been wrongly labelled as a prostitute, and the Samaritan woman has been regarded as a loose woman. This article looks at the Samaritan woman from Sychar (situated near the ruined city of Shechem) without negative prejudices.

Jesus in Samaria

In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman of the town of Sychar came to draw water from Jacob’s well.[1] She probably came to the well every day, but today would be different. Jesus was there. What follows is an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman.

Jesus had felt compelled to travel through Samaria—possibly because of this very encounter—instead of travelling around Samaria, thought by some to be the usual route taken by devout Jews.[2] He was now tired from his journey and sat resting near the well while his disciples went into the village to buy food.[3]

Jews and Samaritans

Jesus ignored the centuries-old hostility between Jews and Samaritans, and he engaged the Samaritan woman in conversation. It is the longest conversation between Jesus and another person recorded in the Gospels.

Jesus begins by asking the woman for a drink of water. She is astonished, even shocked by this request, and points out that Jews do not “associate” (CSB, NIV), or “have dealings (NASB), with Samaritans. The Greek word for “associate” here, sugchraomai, is also commonly used to mean “the sharing of eating utensils and dishes.[4] Jesus doesn’t have his own utensil to draw water, and Jacob’s well is thirty metres deep.

However, it wasn’t only her ethnicity that was a potential issue. The Jews regarded Samaritan women as “menstruants from the cradle” (Mishnah Niddah 4.1). According to Old Testament regulations, menstruating women were ritually unclean. Nevertheless, Jesus is asking to drink from the vessel of a Samaritan woman!

Living Water

Jesus then begins talking about living water (John 4:10, 13–14). Just as Nicodemus had failed to see the spiritual meaning of being “born again” in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel (John 3:3–4), the woman fails to see the spiritual significance of “living water” and only sees what will be a practical advantage for her.[5] Living water, that is, flowing water, was preferable to the still well water that percolated through the ground.[6] And a never-ending supply meant no more trips to and from the well carrying heavy water jars (John 4:15).

Jesus knows that the woman is “thirsty” and he promises “living water” that will completely quench a person’s spiritual longing. He describes this living water as becoming a spring of gushing water, eternally flowing from within the person who receives his free gift. In John 7:38–39, imagery of living water is used again and we are told that it represents the Holy Spirit.

Five Husbands

Jesus suddenly changes the subject and asks the woman to call her husband. The woman answers candidly saying that she has no husband. Jesus commends her honesty. He knows that she has had five husbands and that the man she is now living with is not her husband. Jesus conveys these facts without the slightest sense of criticism or condemnation. It is important to note that Jesus never tells the Samaritan woman to repent of any sin, nor does he tell her to “sin no more,” a phrase found elsewhere in John’s Gospel (John 5:14; 8:11). Sin is not mentioned at all in John 4.

Lynn Cohick writes that the Samaritan woman’s history fits a pattern we find among first-century women of “marrying in their early to late teens, living with fairly simple marriage traditions, relatively easy divorce laws, and haunted by the threat that death might at any time steal away a husband …”[7] The Samaritan woman’s five husbands do not necessarily signify loose living; they may signify a series of tragedies for the woman.[8]

True Worship

It is possible, however, that the five husbands represent the five tribes sent by the Assyrians who had intermarried with the Samaritans, and that the woman is symbolic of Samaria.[9] The man she is with now, who is not her true or genuine husband, may represent the Samaritan religion which was not true or genuine. The woman, possibly perceiving this metaphorical meaning, realises that Jesus is a prophet speaking about true religion. So she asks him a theological question about true worship.

Some have suggested that the woman brought up the subject of worship to change the course of conversation away from an uncomfortable past. I suggest instead, that she had a genuine interest in worship and theology, and was asking an honest question to someone she regarded as a prophet (John 4:19). Jesus gives her a meaningful reply and explains that the Father is looking for true worshippers and that genuinely spiritual worship is not tied to one location (John 4:20–26). (The Gospels also record other theological conversations between Jesus and women.)

Messiah and Saviour

As Jesus teaches her theology, the woman becomes increasingly aware of his spiritual stature and says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responds to this with, “egō eimi” (“I am”), a term thought by some to refer to God himself. He tells her, “I am he who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). Jesus identifies himself to her as the Messiah (cf. Peter in Matt. 16:15–17 and Martha in John 11:27).

The woman immediately leaves her water jar and goes into the town (cf. Matt. 4:19–20). She openly testifies in Sychar about Jesus and poses the question, “Could this be the Messiah?”[10] And many people believe in Jesus because of her testimony (John 4:39). A woman’s testimony was generally not regarded as credible at that time. The Samaritans of Sychar were ready to believe, however; and they went on to trust in Jesus even more when they had heard him for themselves. They declared, “Jesus is the Saviour of the world!”[11]

Ben Witherington suggests the short parable about sowing and reaping that is given further in the chapter, in John 4:37–38, may be intended to imply that the Samaritan woman is one of the sowers or one of the reapers of the harvest.[12] In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she has been given the title of “equal to the apostles” because of her evangelizing work. Origen, Chrysostom, and Ephrem of Syria, among others, regarded her as a preacher of the gospel.[13]

Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Using Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman recorded in chapter 4 and Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus recorded in chapter 3, John presents fundamental and profound spiritual truths, and yet the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus could not be more different from each other.

Nicodemus was male, a Jew, and educated. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), and a “teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). His name, which in Greek means “conqueror of the people,” implies strength. It seems clear that Nicodemus held a privileged, prestigious, and powerful position in society. Interestingly, he visited Jesus discreetly at night, possibly under the cover of darkness (John 3:1–2). And he disappears silently from the scene without us knowing if he, at that time, accepted Jesus’ teaching. Nicodemus’ last words to Jesus in John 3 are, “How can this be?” (John 3:9 cf. John 7:50–51; 19:38–40).

In contrast, the woman was female, a Samaritan (despised by the Jews), and her family connections were complicated and obscure. She is nameless and seems vulnerable. She meets Jesus, a man, in the midday sun in what was a potentially scandalous encounter according to the social customs of that time. Nevertheless, she put her growing faith into action and went into town to tell the people about the Messiah.[14]

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were very different individuals. Yet John puts these two people side by side in his Gospel and shows that Jesus treated them with equal regard. Jesus answered their theological questions and taught both of them precious eternal truths. One thing Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had in common was that they both needed the new life in the Spirit that Jesus offered.


[1] There is simply no evidence that drawing water from a well in the middle of the day is a sign that a woman has an immoral or shameful life. Rachel was at the well around the middle of the day. The Hebrew gives the sense “when the day was at its height” (Gen. 29:7 ESV). See also Genesis 24:11 (towards evening), Exodus 2:15–18 (unspecified time), and 1 Samuel 9:11 (unspecified time).

Lynn Cohick comments on the idea that going to a well in the middle of the day was suspect.

Many expositors focus on the woman’s presence at the well at noon as a signal that she is a social outcast. But this conclusion is not based on any parallel description or implication within the Greco-Roman world that moral women went to the village at certain times and degenerate women visited at other times. … From the story’s standpoint, it makes sense that Jesus is thirsty at noon, as opposed to, for example, 7:30 in the morning.
Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 123.

[2] John 4:4 cryptically states, “It was necessary for [Jesus] to go through Samaria.” What was the necessity? I suspect God had prepared the Samaritan woman’s heart and that she was ready to be a true worshipper and useful to God. So Jesus was compelled to travel through Samaria to meet with her. God may have prepared the Samaritan woman’s heart, just as he had prepared Lydia’s heart and Rahab‘s heart before they met Paul and the Israelite spies respectively and that she may well have been an important part of God’s strategy for reaching the town of Sychar.

[3] In the Bible, wells have “proven to be significant meeting grounds, giving relief to emotionally and spiritually parched people” (e.g., Hagar in Genesis 16:7; Jacob in Genesis 29:1–14; Moses in Exodus 2:15–21). Grace Ying May and Hyunhye Junia Pokrifka-Joe, “Wells,” The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (eds) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 597.

[4] The etymology of sugchraomai gives the meaning of “to use together”.

[5] John uses a literary device in his Gospel where Jesus makes a statement that is understood first only in natural terms and then explained further in spiritual terms (e.g., “born again” John 3:3–9; “living/running water” 4:10–15; “bread from heaven” 6:32–36).

[6] Flowing water was considered more health-giving than still water. Furthermore, according to the Hebrew Torah (Lev. 14:5–6, 50–52; 15:13; Num. 19:17; Deut. 21:4), the use of flowing water, was required for ritual purification of the more severe forms of uncleanness; and in the Judaism of Jesus’ time flowing water and rivers were associated with repentance and forgiveness. Robert L. Webb “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus,” Studying the Historical Jesus, Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (eds) (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 188. Still, there is no reason to think the Samaritan woman lived an especially sinful life.

[7] Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 128. Cohick discusses the possibility that the Samaritan woman may have lost her five husbands through divorces and deaths, and that her current partner may have been unable to legally marry her. More on this here.
For a number of reasons, cohabitation without marriage was not uncommon in the Roman Empire. Slaves, for instance, could not marry legally, but some had conjugal life partners. Also, it was illegal for a Roman citizen to marry someone from a lower social status, making a legal marriage impossible for some couples.

[8] My friend Bronwen Speedie suggests that the Samaritan woman may have been blamed, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of her husbands, and shunned by her community. This is plausible and it reminds me of a story in the Book of Tobit 3:7–17. According to this story, seven husbands of Sarah (Tobit’s future daughter-in-law) are killed on their respective wedding nights by a demon, and Sarah is blamed and scorned despite her innocence. While the story is fiction, it does convey how people thought in the ancient world. (The Book of Tobit is a Jewish work written around 200-100 BCE and included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern and Greek Orthodox canons of scripture.) James McGrath writes that the story of Sarah and her dead husbands “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.” (Source: Bible Odyssey)

[9] The Assyrian king brought people from (1) Babylon, (2) Cuthah, (3) Avva, (4) Hamath and (5) Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria (2 Kings 17:24).
The idea of connecting the five Assyrian tribes with the Samaritan woman’s five husbands “was proposed decades ago by John Bligh in ‘Jesus in Samaria,’ The Heythrop Journal 3 ( Oct 1962): 336. It has been regularly disputed by commentators who prefer a literal interpretation …” Sandra Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier 1999) in chapter 7 which looks at John 4:1–42. (Google Books)

[10] The wording of the Samaritan woman’s question in Greek, in particular, the use of the interrogative particle mēti, would normally anticipate a negative response. But the question may have been worded that way to be circumspect and, therefore, more culturally appropriate. Tucker and Liefeld suggest something else is indicated in the wording of her question. They write,

Far from believing easily, or, to put it in crass terms, being gullible, as some might (wrongly) expect a woman to be, this woman was cautious about her conclusion. … [She was] not rushing headlong and wide-eyed into something she did not understand.
Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 1987), 33.

Compare their idea with Philo’s statement which was written in the first half of the first century AD: “… but the mind of the woman is more effeminate, so that through her softness she easily yields and is easily caught by the persuasions of falsehood, which imitate the resemblance of truth” (Philo, Questions on Genesis 1.33).

The fact remains that the Samaritan woman brought up the idea that Jesus might be the Messiah to the townsfolk, and they listened to her.

[11] The Messiah is the promised saviour, or deliverer, of Israel and a descendant of King David. The Samaritans recognised Jesus as the saviour, or deliverer, of the world (John 4:42).

[12] Ben Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” Ashland Theological Journal 17.1 (Fall 1984): 22–30, 24. (Online source)

[13] In his commentary on John, Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253) makes several comments about her evangelism. Here are two examples: “Kindly she ‘began preaching’ (ekērusse) about the Messiah to the townsfolk” (PG 14.449C); “Here indeed, a woman ‘preached the gospel of’ (euaggelizetai) the Messiah to the Samaritans” (PG 14.449D).

Some regard the Samaritan woman as the first person, other than Jesus, to proclaim the ‘gospel of Christ’ (kerygma). Ephrem of Syria (306–373) wrote a hymn about the Samaritan woman which includes this line: “Your voice, O woman, brought forth first fruit before even the apostles, announcing the kerygma.” “Hymn 23,” Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, translated by Kathleen E. McVey (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 363. (Google Books)

Chrysostom (327–407) says even more wonderful things about the Samaritan woman. He regarded her as a model disciple and states,

For that which the apostles did, this woman did also according to her ability. They left their nets when they were called; she went of her own accord, without any command, leaves her water pot and, winged by joy, performs the office of evangelists. And she calls not one or two, as did Andrew and Philip, but having aroused a whole city and people, so brought them to Him. Homily 34 on John’s Gospel (on John 4:28–29)

[14] In a forthcoming book on female agency in the Bible, Murray D. Gow observes, “In contrast with Nicodemus the theologian, who is clearly out of his depth in his dialogue with Jesus (cf. Jn 3:4, 9–10), we see a continuing growth of insight in the woman.”

© Margaret Mowczko 2016
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Postscript 1
The Samaritan Woman in Eastern Orthodox Tradition

The Eastern Orthodox Church claims that the Samaritan woman’s baptismal name is Photina, or Photini, meaning “enlightened one.” They say she continued her evangelizing work in Carthage but was later tortured and martyred by Nero. And, as mentioned above, they have given her the title of “equal to the apostles” because of her evangelizing work.

Martha E. Pierce, who has written three historical novels on the Samaritan woman, has looked into her hagiography and makes the following observations. However, apart from the woman being from Sychar, I doubt these statements are based on reliable information.

Pierce writes,

Her vita [biography] has gone through changes of tone over the centuries, but there are some consistent historical facts.
1. Photina lived in the village of Sychar in Samaria, and was one of 5 sisters.
2. She was present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given.
3. She had two sons who went with her on missionary journeys.
4. The Council in Jerusalem sent her on mission to Carthage in North Africa.
5. She lived in Rome from AD 62 to 64, and died in the Neronian persecution in AD 64. (Source)

Postscript 2: December 29, 2022
Calvin on the Samaritan Woman

Calvin portrays the Samaritan woman as both impudent and immoral. She is an extremely unlikeable character in his eyes. He sees her as disdaining, and even despising, Jesus because of his claims. What is worse, Calvin interprets Jesus as saying in John 4:17, “Though God joined you to lawful husbands, you did not stop sinning, until, rendered infamous by numerous divorces, you prostituted yourself to fornication” (Calvin, Commentary on John 4). Calvin’s severely negative view of the Samaritan woman is unjustified. There is nothing in John 4 that insinuates the woman was immoral.

Explore more

A note on “everything I ever did” (John 4:29)
Women and Theology: Jesus said to her …
Jesus Called Her “Woman”
A Brief History of the Samaritans
Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
The Shame of the Unnamed Women of the Old Testament
“Preaching” words in the NT and the women who preached
I compare the Samaritan woman with Lydia (Acts 16) here.

Further reading

Chris Knight has written an excellent article on the Samaritan woman. He discusses elements in her story that people have used to disparage her character. A pdf is here.

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

71 thoughts on “The Samaritan Woman of Sychar (John 4)

  1. If the Samaritan woman was an outcast, why did all those townspeople follow her back to the well? Great post!

    1. Great point. They seemed receptive of her message.

      The text reads, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did‘” (John 4:39).

      And, “They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this person really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42).

      There is nothing remarkeable recorded in John 4 about the reaction of the town’s folk to the woman’s testimony.

    2. Perhaps they were surprised that she, a social outcast because of her sinful life, was:
      1. engaging with them
      2. with an amazing testimony and
      3. the suggestion that she may have met the Messiah.
      “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him” (John 4:28-30 NIV).
      It appears that the word of knowledge, along with Jesus’ claims, had astounded her enough to disregard the social estrangement she experienced. Her unlikely interaction with the people in her village, along with her testimony and rhetorical question about the Messiah, drew the village people.
      God’s loving interaction with her through Jesus was probably designed to elicit not only her response but, in turn, affect the village.

      1. There are a lot of assumptions in your comment, Robert.

        John does say that the woman was a social outcast, that she lived a sinful life, that the townsfolk were surprised she was speaking with them, that she disregarded social estrangement, or that it was an unlikely interaction.

  2. Interesting thoughts on the five husbands. I will have to mull this one over.

    1. It’s not an original idea, but there might be something to it.

    2. The standard assumption that having had five husbands, she must have been immoral, probably promiscuous and thus dumped by those five husbands, has annoyed me for a very long time.

      It comes from the default of misogyny and woman-blaming.

      When I researched for my book, I realised that she could easily have lost five because they had died or divorced her and she may not have been at fault for any of those divorces.

      And yes, there were many people in those days who were not allowed to legally marry.

      For example, Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry. Marriage was disallowed for them because they were always potentially on active duty, always liable to be sent to various parts of the Empire at the drop of a hat. Many soldiers entered into long-term cohabitation relationships. Those relationships would have been like marriage in most respects except for the legal formalities. The degree of loyalty of the parties to each other could have been just the same as marriage.

      Thanks so much Marg for this post. It’s terrific!

    3. Hint: study the customs of the time and place. Divorce is only granted to the men. Women are at the mercy of their husbands. Possibly, the first four men gave her a written letter of divorce which freed her to marry again. The fifth husband was the cruelest of all. He didn’t give her a writ of divorce. She wasn’t granted the opportunity to remarry. This all goes to one point if she, indeed, was married to these men. She could have been turned out to make her own way however she could survive. She may have been made an example to others to do exactly what their husbands wanted. At any rate, she needed the freedom and privilege of knowing our Savior. He actually revealed himself to her! Our compassionate Lord.

      1. Are you speaking about the Jewish custom, Connie? Also, not even all first-century Jewish people, especially those with Roman citizenship, followed the custom that only husbands could grant a divorce. (Divorce and remarriage were easy for men and for women under Roman law.)

        I strongly doubt the Samaritan woman had been married to a Jewish man. What were the customs of divorce for first-century Samaritans living in the Roman province of Judea?

        1. No, I wasn’t assuming she was married to a Jewish man. I was referring to the divorce customs of the day and the, for the most part, inability of women to initiate divorce.

          1. We don’t know if the Samaritan woman was divorced. But if she was, what customs did the Samaritans’ follow? Where their customs more like the first-century Jews or Romans? Divorce customs of the day varied greatly.

            First-century Jewish (non-citizen) women could initiate a divorce, but they couldn’t finalise it. David Instone Brewer summarises the situation in first-century CE Judaism.

            “Only a man could enact a divorce, but this did not mean that women could not initiate a divorce … The principle that divorce could be enacted only by a man was based on the law that said that a man should write out the get or “divorce certificate” (Deut. 24:1). This resulted in the principle that a man had to enter into divorce voluntarily, but a woman could be divorced against her will …”
            David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 85-86.

            On the other hand,

            “The Romans seemingly pared the marriage process down to a bare minimum (the Roman government did not license or even register marriages, nor did it prescribe any specific ceremony for marriage) and instead used agreement (consensus) as a sort of litmus test for both the inception and continued existence of marriage.”
            Bruce W. Frier and Thomas A. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 26. (Google Books)

            Citizen men and women could marry and divorce easily.

  3. I love this insight! We see the two side by side (Nic and the Samaritan woman) and can compare their fruit. I want to be like the samaritan woman who produced fruit for His Glory. We know this is the expectation and standard for normal Jesus followers but see little of it today where 85% of believers have never lead another person to Jesus and the majority have not nor share the Gospel.

    1. She certainly had a vocal ministry.

      Nicodemus makes other appearances in John’s narrative, however, in chapters 7 and 19, where he speaks up for Jesus (indirectly) and where he helps Joseph of Arimathea place Jesus’ lifeless body in a tomb.

  4. Although, as you mentioned, many take a different tack on this story (including myself, see http://www.oneforjesus.net/jesus-and-the-ho/ ), at a certain point, her moral background doesn’t matter, because the common ground of the interpretations is inescapable. You said it: whether the powerful male Jewish leader or the unnamed female Samaritan, “Jesus treated them with equal regard.”

    The story remains a powerful lesson in the transformation that can result when we walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard.

    1. It’s a powerful story. I love how the Samaritans (despised by the Jews) are presented in a positive light in the Gospels.

      “The parable of the Good Samaritan presents the Samaritan in a very favourable light, but we must be mindful that Jesus chose the figure of the Samaritan for effect in his story (Luke 10:25ff). The thankful, healed Samaritan leper is also presented in a favourable light (Luke 17:11-19). The Samaritan woman, and indeed her whole village of Sychar, are presented as people ready to accept that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:4-42).”
      From https://margmowczko.com/a-brief-history-of-the-samaritans/

      1. Have you thought of the Samaritans living in our society? (Bikers, a different genus group, drop outs from school or clubs, convicts). When I relate to certain “Samaritans”, they always act surprised that a “suit” would talk to them. As Robert commented, when we express Love, Grace and Mercy our message is often acceptable and believable. Thought provoking analysis. Thank you.

        1. Hi Gary, Jesus was in Samaria when he spoke to the Samaritan woman. He was on her turf. Jesus was the outsider, or the odd one out, in this situation.

          And I don’t understand the “suit” analogy. Why would anyone who genuinely wanted to reach out to the people you’ve mentioned choose to wear a suit?

    2. I have a friend struggling with “numbers” of souls he has won or not. I believe your observation, “when we walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard.”is often missed by many of us. Instead of expressing love, grace and mercy, we are looking at “production”. I will pass this on to him. Thanks.

    3. There’s a great chapter about the Samaritan woman by Dr. Lynn Cohick in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Vindicating-Vixens-Revisiting-Sexualized-Marginalized/dp/0825444136. Highly recommend.

      I do think we need to be extremely careful and avoid labeling women sexual sinners when they are not called this, or blamed for sexual sin in Scripture.

      A Bible scholar can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that we’re often reading a modern, Western woman’s sexual agency anachronistically, back into the Scriptural text.

      For example:

      Would the Samaritan woman have been financially self-supporting, with, say, a career that would have allowed her to float from man to man, as she wished? Would she have chosen to raise a child, or children, conceived by multiple men, knowing what cruel judgment and unfair ostracization her child(ren) would be treated with? Or would she have lived in a non-patriarchal society where women without heirs weren’t economically helpless, and with access to reliable birth control to avoid the inconvenience of raising children as a single woman, derided as “loose” by her community?

      And would her testimony about Jesus have been so trusted by her community, if she had had a reputation as such a “loose” woman?

      I think it absolutely does matter how we describe and teach about the Samaritan woman, because in conservative evangelical churches today, it is still far more likely for women to be blamed for sexual sin, while men are endlessly forgiven for lusts they cannot be expected to fully control. (See Sheila Wray Gregoire’s superb work on this.)

      Please don’t ever blame women for sexual sin, when God Himself never does.

  5. Excellent treatment of the incident. You mentioned in your footnote about flowing water which, in my opinion, explains why the woman did not understand. Jesus says, “If you knew who you were speaking to you would ask him for flowing [running] water.” “To get that kind of water you’d have to have a very long rope indeed–but you don’t have one, or a bucket…”

    Also, (this is off the top of my head) but there is a problem with the timing–because many assume John is using Roman timing when describing the crucifixion–but in John 4 for the woman to come at mid-day he’d be using hours of the day that were typical of Judaism. I hate to put that out there publicly since it’s just from my memory and I don’t have my references handy…perhaps someone can verify that.

    1. Hi Darryl,

      A few of the conversations that John records have Jesus being deliberately ambiguous at first. (The Greek of “born again” in John 3:3 can also mean “born from above” which is probably the meaning that is meant.) This initial ambiguity seems to be a literary device that John uses to draw people into the discussion.

      You’re right that there is a question about the time of day. Here’s note 13 from the NET Bible about John chapter 4 and the “sixth hour:

      tn Grk “the sixth hour.”
      sn It was about noon. The suggestion has been made by some that time should be reckoned from midnight rather than sunrise. This would make the time 6 a.m. rather than noon. That would fit in this passage but not in John 19:14 which places the time when Jesus is condemned to be crucified at “the sixth hour.”

  6. But the parallel between Nicodemus and the woman is very clear. In fact, I would say it is thematic throughout John. There are very specific one-on-one encounters/conversations that mark John’s account–Nicodemus, the woman, the cripple, (I don’t count the woman taken in adultery, I think that incident belongs in Luke), all the way to Pilate’s conversation.

    Again, thank you for a wonderful treatment of the text.

  7. Even some of the most gracious men and women miss this point…that the Samaritan woman may not have been immoral at all…there are a multitude of ways this could be, and the last one (oh they love this one!) may have been her brother,or her father…Why are they so quick to decide when the Bible is not clear about this?

    Can you imagine if a man was described as having had 5 wives one after another (or even all at the same time ☺) this is never portrayed as immoral…after all Solomon has 300 concubines…now compared to the Samaritan woman…”well?”

    1. Yes, in the first century most women, if they survived childbirth, outlived their husbands, and many remarried.

      I hadn’t thought that the man she “has” now might have been another male relative. That’s interesting, but I’m not sure whether John 4:18a can be interpreted that way. I’ll try and look into this.

      1. Wow. That’s a thought I’d never considered, and I’ve been thinking about her/researching for a while. Her husband or her brother. I kind of doubt it, but I love that kind of thinking!

        I just happened to find your blog while googling the term “how common was the name Herodias” and am delighted to have found you! Keep up the good work!

        Actually, about Herodias. I have been reading a book that says that the gospels state that John called Herod out because he married his brother’s wife, but doesn’t mention that they are related. What I want to know is: is that something the original readers of Mark would have known already? Wouldn’t the name “Herodias” be kind of a giveaway? (Sorry to hijack the thread! Feel free to send me to another post where this discussion is more applicable!)

        1. Hi Sarah,

          Like you, I also doubt that the Samaritan woman’s “man” was a brother or other relative, but was delighted at the thinking behind the idea.

          Herodias was a schemer. She wanted to climb the social ladder. Perhaps Philip wasn’t ambitious enough for her. Anyway, she divorced her first husband Philip in order to marry his half-brother Herod Antipas, the exact scenario, I believe, that is prohibited in Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” I write about their divorces and subsequent marriage here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/jesus-divorce/

          However, even Antipas was not as ambitious as she liked. Herodias persuaded him to ask Rome for more territory. She wanted to be “first lady” of more than just Galilee and Perea. And she wanted her husband to have the title of “king”, not just “tetrarch”. She wanted to be a “queen”.

          After petitioning Roman emperors on a few occasions, in the end, Gaius Caligula refused his request and banished Antipas to Gaul. Herodias went with him, but Antipas died soon after.

          Josephus gives us information in Antiquities book 18, chapter 5 about how the couple met. In chapter 7, Josephus relates how Antipas’s trip to Rome to see Gaius Caligula, at the urging of Herodias, went horribly wrong. Nevertheless, Herodias demonstrated true love and loyalty to Antipas.

          Sorry for the long answer. I love the women in Herod’s family. Some of them were crazy and dangerous divas. I have an essay about Salome I, Herod the Great’s sister here: https://margmowczko.com/salome-i-herod-the-greats-sister/

          So to get to the point: I imagine that all the original readers of Mark knew exactly who Herodias was. She was the daughter of Aristobulus IV, the son of Herod the Great and his second wife, Mariamne I. Aristobulus IV was the a descendant of the prestigious Hasmonean dynasty.

          Herod Antipas and Herodias, and their divorces and marriage, were the talk of the town in their day, and I’m sure rumours of their affairs spread far and wide.

          1. Thank you for your response! I am reading a book about her by Florence Morgan Gillman and she says that Mark (who usually clarifies Judaism for his Gentile readers) says nothing about the familial relationship between Herodias and Antipas. (implying that JtB didn’t condemn him for marrying his niece, just for marrying his brother’s wife) None of the Gospels mention that they are related, actually, and so I had to explore a bit whether their familial relationship would have been common knowledge. With a name like Herodias it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be, but one must check these things out!

          2. Many marriages in Herod’s family were with close family members. Salome I’s first marriage was to her uncle. (Later, Berenice, the great-granddaughter of Herod the Great, married her uncle, Herod V.)

            Herod the Great organised the marriages of his children, mostly, to other members within his family. Only a few Herodians married people outside the family, usually to form alliances with foreign royal families or highly esteemed Roman families.

            Endogamous marriage within families was common among the nobility of antiquity. And it was common among the Israelites (e.g. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, etc.)

          3. Thanks for this on the Samaritan woman!
            Reading comments above,
            Aristobulus IV, the son of Herod the Great, was of the lineage of the Hasmoneans? Do I misunderstand?

          4. Hi Deidre, Yes, Aristobulus IV’s mother was Mariamne and she was of Hasmonean descent.

  8. Thanks for the historical background and the tie in with the Assyrian Occupation from 2 Kings 17.

    The contrast from the Pharisee Nicodemus to the Samaritan Woman is striking as well. John juxtaposed someone from the inner circle – Nicodemus – with someone marginalized so far out that she would have been virtually invisible, and in this way showed that God’s concern is for everyone no matter who they are or where they’re from.

    1. Thanks Tim. It is a tremendously comforting thought that, from God’s perspective, no one is marginalised in his kingdom. Now to put that reality into practice. I’m glad we are allies in that endeavour.

  9. Compare the stories of women at a well with the Samaritan woman in John. Who was the first woman to be met at a well? Hagar – an Egyptian/Gentile – who was met by the Angel of the Lord (Jesus pre-incarnation). But, the most powerful comparison is when Abraham’s servant goes to find a wife for Isaac and meets Rebekah at a well. Compare Genesis 24 with John 4. Rebekah was a Gentile just like the Samaritan woman in John 4. Genesis 24 is a very powerful typological story of Jesus and his Gentile bride. Finally, with all of that perspective, the Samaritan woman in John 4 had five husbands and was living with a sixth. But, here was this Gentile woman meeting Jesus at a well. The Gentile bride had met her seventh husband, her perfect and complete husband, her husband that would bring her rest.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Steve.

      There does seem to be something about wells. (I mention wells in a footnote.) And I love how God used Gentile women for important jobs, not to mention that Rahab and Ruth are included in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy.

      Can we really call Rebekah a Gentile? Isaac and Rebekah were cousins. Isaac’s father and Rebekah’s grandfather, who were both born in Mesopotamia, were brothers. The reason Rebekah became Isaac’s wife was because she wasn’t a Canaanite, but was family. Also, Jacob (AKA “Israel”) had not yet been born when Rebekah married Isaac. So I’m not sure that we can make an Israelite versus Gentile distinction in regards to Rebekah at this stage of the history of God’s people.

      1. Amy Jill Levine’s book “The Misunderstood Jew” and Brant Pitre’s “Jesus the Bridegroom” have some really interesting takes on how the setting of the well would imply a certain type of relationship between Jesus and the woman for readers who were familiar with the stories of Rachel and Rebekkah.

        1. Thanks for this, Sarah. They sound very interesting!

  10. This is very interesting, but the one hang-up I have is this: What is she talking about when she says, “He told me everything I ever did”?

    This comment makes sense if she’s talking about a literal five husbands. It doesn’t if it’s just a metaphor. Or do you think that it’s both?

    1. Hi Bethany,

      The part of the conversation about husbands is recorded in just three verses of a long conversation. And I can’t see that these three verses encompass “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” (John 4:29 CEB).

      I think there’s more to verse 29 than the five husbands. I think the woman is referring to the entire conversation which brought about an incremental and gradual realisation that Jesus was quite possibly the Messiah.

      A lot is hanging on what she meant by “done”. The Greek word epoiēsa can be translated differently, but because we don’t know exactly what she referring to “I’ve done” or “I did” are the safest translations.

      1. Certainly it doesn’t encompass everything she’s ever done, but it’s the only time in the conversation that they talk about *anything* she’s done. What else would she be referring to?

        If it were referring to something else in the conversation, why wouldn’t John have recorded that part? Even if he didn’t say the specific things for privacy’s sake, he could have said something to explain what she was referring to.

        1. I’m honestly not sure what the woman was referring to when she said “he has told me everything I’ve done. Could this man be the Messiah?””

          The verses that mention the husbands uses the Greek verb for “have” (echō) four times. This is an entirely different verb with a different range of senses than “do” (poieō). Then again, there may be some overlap in sense.

          Another reason for not being convinced the woman is referring to her husbands is that she begins to realize Jesus is a prophet after he mentions her husbands. But she begins to realize that Jesus is the Messiah after the conversation about worship. Perhaps “everything I’ve done” refers to her manner of worship. But it could be that “everything I did” is not recorded in the conversation.

          I do understand your point, but I’m just not sure what the woman “did”.

          Update: A note on “everything I ever did” (John 4:29)

  11. Thanks, I found your insights on the Samaritan woman at the well very interesting. Of Course, it doesn’t matter either way. For all have sinned and need the living water of Christ. There isn’t enough information to determine the reasons for her having 5 previous husbands but Jesus does seem to imply that she is currently living outside of marriage with another man in sin. I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus spoke to this particular woman, she was a good representation of Northern Israel and their plight following the captivity. The 5 husband analogy to the Assyrian plan to integrate the Northern tribes was probably an underlying truthful insight into the entire passage. The woman, however, was impressed by the fact that Jesus told her everything about herself (vs.28) Which leads me to believe that they were not talking in such generalities. I also believe that it was customary for women to gather at the wells in the evening not mid-day but I would have to research that further. Thanks again.

  12. I find this so encouraging. Could it be that she is ‘more than’ rather than ‘less than’ as portrayed time after time from Bible class lessons and the pulpits? And yes, I think it matters, a lot. Thank you.

  13. Hey, Marg. Thought this article on certain points complements your treatment:


    1. Interesting article, Timothy.

      I’m confused by this statement, “The Samaritan woman probably recognized that Jesus was Judean by his distinctive Jewish traditional clothing and his accent.” I have never described Jesus as a Judean, but as a Galilean. Does the author use “Jewish” and “Judean” interchangeably with essentially the same meaning?

  14. How comforting it is to read an article like yours on the internet. I am a old christian soldier of 81 years, and find your interpretation of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well one of the best, and most enlightening I have ever heard or read. I think it was a predestined meeting, and God had prepared her heart for the encounter with Jesus. May God bless you for your good work and for the study of Gods word that made it possible.

    1. L.C., Your words are very encouraging on a difficult day. Thank you.

  15. Enjoyed reading as usual… your articles..
    to me it is interesting to notice Jesus becomes/ willing to be a RECEIVER ( Give me a drink)… and the Samaritan Women becomes a GIVER… to begin with … but story unfolds very powerfully..

    1. I think it’s interesting too. And we can still give a drink of water in Jesus’ name if not to Jesus directly (Matt. 25:37-40; Matt. 10:42//Mark 9:41).

  16. This post was so enlightening to me! I’ve wrestled with this story in my own faith journey. Your article supports some of my own lay conclusions, corrects some of my faulty presuppositions, and enlarges the Gospel “weight” of this passage with comprehensive and detailed scholarship. Thank you, thank you.

    1. You’re most welcome, Cathy. I’m so glad this encounter is told in John’s Gospel.

  17. I know this is an old post. Could the Greek be interpreted as ” He has told me all that has been done to me” this would imply that Jesus was aware of her story, and felt compassion for her. Also could the man she is with be a kinsman redeemer who has not fulfilled his part and married her, so the rebuke is to the man and a show of compassion to her?

    1. Hi Allen, It’s uncertain that Levirate marriage (to a deceased spouse’s brother or kinsman redeemer) was commonly practised in the first century. The purpose of Levirate marriage was to produce a son who would inherit his dead father’s property. But property distribution in Samaria under Roman rule was very different to property distribution in bronze-age Israel.

      In Israel today, Levirate marriage is illegal.

      I’m sure Jesus did have compassion on the woman. Her five marriages, and the fact that she is now living under the protection of a man she is not married to, indicates a hard and sorrow-filled life.

      The verb for “did” is first person: the woman is saying “everything I did.” This may be part of an idiom that is used a few times in the New Testament.

      I’ve just posted a new blog post on the woman’s statement in John 4:29, especially “everything I ever did” here: https://margmowczko.com/everything-i-ever-did-john-4/

  18. Marg, I was drawn into your article by the words you quoted on John Calvin’s very harsh estimation of the Samaritan woman! Oh, dear!! I grew up in a Calvinist home and culture. We were taught to be fervent “Calvinists” as young people in the church. “Calvinists are we, let our colours be, over land and sea, high unfurled! From God’s Holy page, we of youthful age, have a heritage to show the world! Delve then, search then – with united talents, prayerful, careful under heaven’s light. Lead us, feed us, Source of truth eternal, gird our Federation with Thy Light!” Our Youth Federation theme song! Calvin seems to have been pretty certain he was right. And we Young Calvinists thought we were, too, as his followers!! I read his Institutes of the Christian Religion as a New Year’s project years ago and discovered he was quite intemperate in his language when disagreeing with contemporaries, especially Roman Catholics! More especially, Popes!! Anyway, I have learned long ago that Calvin was only human, and while I learned much that was good, from his writings and teaching, there is much I feel ashamed of , including his commentary on the woman of Sychar! I have often thought of her when reading about the apostles going to Samaria to preach the Good News and finding believers there already – wanting to learn more. No doubt the result of this dear woman’s earlier evangelism amongst her countrymen/women! An amazing, beautiful, inspiring encouragement for Christ-loving women everywhere and through all the ages.

    1. What I find magnificent about the Woman at the Well is the conversation between Jesus and her. They talked actual theology. Most important of all, He revealed Himself to her and she believed!

      1. I also like the conversation between Jesus and Martha. Jesus didn’t dumb down theology when speaking with women.

    2. All church fathers and classic theologians got some things wrong. Some of those things they got horribly wrong.

      I love your thought: “I have often thought of her when reading about the apostles going to Samaria to preach the Good News and finding believers there already …”

  19. Meredith J. C. Warren’s article Five Husbands: Slut-Shaming the Samaritan Woman can be read here: https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.bibleandcriticaltheory.com/files/2022/01/BCT-17.2-Warren-final.pdf&hl=en

  20. She’s living with a man she’s not married to. Of course she’s immoral. Just mentioning it would bring shame in that culture.

    You claim, “In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is described as “equal to the apostles” because of her evangelizing work.” But provide no citation. Is this like your misrepresenting Chrysostom?

    More bogus “scholarship” from you.

    1. John, If you google “Photini, equal to the apostles” you’ll see that the Eastern Orthodox Church has in fact traditionally regarded the Samaritan woman as “equal to the apostles.” It still does. (I was careful with how I worded the phrase in the article.)
      Here’s a link to one of many search results: http://ww1.antiochian.org/st-photini-samaritan-woman
      And did you see this statement in the first postscript?: “I doubt these statements are based on reliable information.”

      Also, just because you disagree with something I’ve written, it doesn’t mean I’ve misrepresented it. I typically cite my sources and often provide links so readers can see the context more fully.

      By the way, for almost 10 years I have lived with two grown men, one of which is my husband. I can assure you, there is nothing immoral about this domestic setup. There are several scenarios where a woman might live with a man who she is not married to and it not be considered immoral.

      Jesus never says the Samaritan woman was immoral, he never tells her to repent from any sin, and there’s no indication the folk of Sychar were in any way reticent about listening and responding to her and her message (John 4:25-30; 39-42).

      Brother, I welcome constructive criticism, but your mean-spirited comments are unedifying and do you no credit. I have better things to do with my time than to respond to pettiness and insults. So, goodbye.

  21. Hear, Hear! Thank you, Marg, for standing up for this woman who is an example of many women of our present day. While not exactly in the same position as our Sycharian, many find themselves in helpless positions. We have no idea what her extended responsibilities may have been. Children? Elderly mother? Jesus knew. The entire encounter was so intense and heartfelt. The conversation they had was nothing short of amazing. He revealed himself to her! She made it into scripture for a purpose. Not to highlight what she did, but, to highlight His saving grace.

    1. I love your comment, Connie. When I read John 4, I see Jesus as being respectful and caring towards a woman who had had a hard life. He treated her as an intelligent person with valid spiritual needs and theological concerns. And by placing her story next to Nicodemus’s, John highlights Jesus’s regard, care, and concern for the Samaritan woman. I love this story!

  22. A truly wonderful post Marg! I have been following you for some time. First on the Junia Project, then your website and Facebook.
    When you asked us to indicate where we lived, Berwick, Melbourne was my happy reply!
    Your work is bright, warm, intelligent and very interesting in every way, you have lifted my esteem and confidence in difficult church circumstances with the open and thoughtful discussions you have.
    The references are so helpful and fascinating.
    This particular post has scratched an itch l have had for years to see her represented as she should be… an enthusiastic, willing and amazing woman who understood so much.
    Again, Thankyou, please keep going, we so need you.

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words, Gillian. Before COVID I travelled to Melbourne occasionally for speaking engagements. Perhaps I will again soon. This year I’m travelling to Queensland for speaking engagements.

  23. Marg-

    Your perspective and writings are refreshing. Thank you for allowing God to use you to encourage us.

    The relationship between Jesus and woman is one that should be taught to young ladies.

    Jesus demonstrates that women have meaning, purpose, and worth. Jesus revealed himself for the first time to the Samaritan Woman. After his resurrection, Jesus revealed himself again to Mary Magdalene. These women were trustworthy and faithful to share Jesus’ specific message with others. You’re writing, Marg demonstrates this same character.

    Again, thank you.

    May God bless you as you strive to honor Him.

    1. Thank you, Ala!

      1. Don’t forget teaching this also to the men. Our young AND old men should learn from the Master.

  24. […] the EOC has conferred the title of “Equal to the Apostles” (isapostolos) on several women including Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman in John 4, Apphia of Colossae (Phm. 1:2), and Nino of Georgia. The legendary Thecla also has this title. […]

  25. […] (29) Have theological discussions with Jesus about worship and the resurrection: The Samaritan woman, the first indigenous Samaritan evangelist (John 4:19–25, 39), and Martha (John 11:20–27). […]

  26. Her sin was pointed out in the word of knowledge Jesus spoke to her.
    “The fact is . . . the man you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18).

    1. For the past 10 years, until recently, I have lived with two men. Only one was my husband and I was not sinning.

      Jesus doesn’t tell the Samaritan woman to stop sinning or to change her living arrangements (cf. John 5:14; 8:11).

  27. […] Jesus didn’t stop the Samaritan woman from telling the men of Sychar about Jesus (John 4:4–42). And later he expressly gave instructions to Mary Magdalene to tell his “brothers” the amazing message that he was alive (John 20:17–18). (More about the Samaritan woman here, and Mary Magdalene here.) […]

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