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 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. 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. He was now tired from his journey and sat resting near the well while his disciples went into the village to buy food.
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.” Jesus doesn’t have his own utensil to draw water, and Jacob’s well is thirty metres deep. So he is asking to drink from her vessel—a Samaritan woman’s vessel!
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. Living water, that is, flowing water, was preferable to the still well water that percolated through the ground. 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 we are told that living water represents the Holy Spirit.
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 …” The Samaritan woman’s five husbands do not necessarily signify loose living; they may signify a series of tragedies for the woman.
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. 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. A literal translation from the Greek of John 4:26 has Jesus saying, “I am he who is speaking to you.” He 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 says, “Could this be the Messiah?” 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!”
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. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is described as “equal to the apostles” because of her evangelizing work. Origen and Ephraim of Syria, among others, regarded her as a preacher of the gospel.
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 are 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 telling the people about the Messiah.
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.
 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 (cf. Gen. 24:11; Exod. 2:15–16; 1 Sam. 9:11). Lynn Cohick writes:
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.
 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.
 In the Bible, wells have “proven to be significant meetings 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.
 The etymology of sugchraomai gives the meaning of “to use together”.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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)
 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)
 Ben Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” Ashland Theological Journal 17.1 (Fall 1984): 22–30, 24. (Online source)
 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)
Furthermore, she is regarded as the first person, other than Jesus, to proclaim the ‘gospel of Christ’ (kerygma). Ephraim 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)
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Postscript: 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.” And they say she continued her evangelizing work in Carthage but was later tortured and martyred by Nero.
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.
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)
A note on “everything I ever did” (John 4:29)
Women and Theology: Jesus said to her …
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.
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.