In John’s Gospel the woman at the well is the first person Jesus openly reveals himself as Messiah. The pious Jewish leader, Nicodemus, did not hear the words that Jesus tells this foreign woman when she states her belief in the coming Messiah: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). This is also the longest private conservation Jesus had with anyone on record.
Verse 4 says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” The edei (had to) makes it clear that this is a divine appointment; it was not geographically necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, and Jewish travelers normally traveled around Samaria. Jesus and his disciples entered a Samaritan village, and the disciples went to buy food while Jesus sat by well because he was tired. A woman from the village came for water. Jesus then did something that was a cultural taboo: he spoke to a woman in public, and not just a woman, but a Samaritan woman. She was twice an outcast in Jewish thought. Jesus asked her for a drink of water. She was understandably shocked: a Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman? He also should not have wanted to share a vessel with her for drinking water since it would be considered unclean. She was right to be confused.
The conversation then turned to a discussion of living water versus the water in the well. At this point many commentators say that the woman did not have the ability to engage Jesus in serious theological conversation; because she was a woman she did not have the intelligence to keep up with the conversation (O’Day, 384). That is why she was confused about this living water Jesus offered. But the woman was no more confused over living water than Nicodemus was over being born again in the previous chapter. The woman was not confused because she was a woman, just as Nicodemus was not confused simply because he was a man. Both of them were confused because Jesus was introducing them to new spiritual truths. Whereas Nicodemus never quite gets what Jesus was telling him in John 3, the woman did come to understand who Jesus was and what he was telling her.
Although the woman still wasn’t sure what this living water was, she wanted it. When Jesus told her to go get her husband we find out that this woman has had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. Many commentators have jumped to the conclusion that she was an immoral woman who had been divorced five times (ibid). There are at least two other reasons why this woman has had five husbands (John 4 never says she was divorced).
If five men had divorced her, the reason could be is because she was barren. They married, found out she couldn’t have children, and divorced her to marry more fertile women. She could also be trapped by the Levirate marriage law. Her five husbands could have been brothers she was supposed to produce an heir for. Either the family ran out of sons or the next son could have refused to marry her. That she was living with a man now could have been the less of two evils: her only other choice after husband number five died or divorced her could have been prostitution. Regardless of why the woman had had five husbands, the implication is still she is a woman who cannot keep a man.
After Jesus told the woman about her life, she knew that he was a prophet. Again many commentators downplay the woman’s theological ability by saying her next question concerning the proper place of worship is a ploy to draw attention away from her supposed immoral life (ibid). What they don’t acknowledge is the woman asked what is probably the most pressing theological question of the Samaritans in the first century: where is the proper place of worship?
The Samaritans were descended from the Judean people who had not been deported in the exile and the other peoples who were imported to the region. They continued to worship Yahweh. Alexander the Great allowed the Samaritans to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim, which became a point of contention when the Jews returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Tensions continued to degrade until the temple on Mt. Gerizim was destroyed by the Jews in 128 B.C. (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 726-7). Both groups believed that they were worshiping Yahweh, and both believed that they had the right place to worship Yahweh. The woman had met a prophet–someone who knew what had happened in her life, and one she was sure could answer the most pressing theological question of her heart and of the time.
Jesus did not accuse her of changing the subject; he answered her question. It did not matter where one worshiped God–it was how God was worshiped. There would no longer be limitations of geography in worshiping God for God is spirit, and he will be worshiped in spirit and truth. The woman stated her belief in the coming Messiah who would reveal all things to them. Jesus then revealed something to this unnamed, foreign woman that he did not reveal to Nicodemus, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). The Samaritan woman was the first person that Jesus revealed himself as Messiah to in the Gospel of John, and this is the first “I amâ” statement in the gospel as well (Cunningham and Hamilton, 122).
Why did Jesus reveal himself to this woman and not to Nicodemus? The woman was not expecting a political Messiah. The Samaritans were looking for the ta’eb or “restorer” (Sloyan, 54). The Samaritans were not looking for a political Messiah from the line of David; they were looking for a prophet like Moses who would restore the observance of the law of Moses as it should be (ibid). Jesus could reveal himself as Messiah to her without worrying about political misunderstandings that would have arisen in Judah.
The disciples returned with food scratching their heads and wondering why Jesus is speaking to a foreign woman in public. Then the woman went to her people and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v. 28). She became the first evangelist in the gospel of John. She went and told her people about Jesus and brought them to him, so they could see and hear for themselves. Jesus never approached people “randomly or casually but as possible bearers of witness to him to whole populations” (ibid). A foreign, single woman who had had five husbands, and was now living with a man was the one Jesus chose to bring a town in Samaria to him so that they could say, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (v. 42).
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Gospels.”
Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Mission, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000).
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
Gail R. O’Day, “John,” Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Gerard Sloyan, John, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).