Chris Knight writes: John 4.4–42 relates Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman by the well at Sychar. Most interpretations of the passage (what I will term ‘the majority view’) will affirm that the woman is an outcast, shunned because of her sinful life, and visiting the well at midday to avoid the other women of her community. Ben Witherington III maintains in Women in the Ministry of Jesus that the woman is ‘morally suspect’ for having been married to five husbands. As the man she was currently with was not her husband, Witherington calls her ‘immoral’ and ‘sinful’, a ‘known harlot’ and ‘woman of ill repute’. Witherington’s condemnation of the woman in these terms is by no means the harshest found in the commentators.
The arguments for this majority view are weak and inconclusive, however, as a number of recent publications have pointed out in presenting a revised view (see Bibliography). Drawing on these works, I suggest that there are alternative, more plausible, explanations to those of the majority view.
Why was the woman fetching water at ‘the sixth hour’ (John 4.6-7)?
The majority view is that nobody would willingly choose to draw and carry water at the hottest part of the day. The woman chose that time to avoid contact with her community as she had been ostracised for her immoral lifestyle.
The assumption that this encounter took place at midday (see next question) is often taken as conclusive proof that the woman was an outcast, but other plausible explanations exist. It was usual to draw water in the evening (Genesis 24.11), but this cannot have been a strict rule as Rachel came to a well to water her sheep while it was ‘still high day’, although Jacob and the other shepherds did not consider it yet time to water flocks (Genesis 29.6-8). Unusual circumstances can dictate a departure from normal procedure. Some or all of the woman’s water drawn the evening before could have been spilt or knocked over. The woman may have run out of water due to visitors or extra household tasks, and midday was the time at which she needed more. The daily work of her household may have required more than normal amounts of water, requiring her to visit the well several times each day.
Janeth Norfleete Day suggests the woman might have avoided the other women of the town to avoid their pity, not their censure. The awkward silence of the other women in avoiding conversation about husbands, children and home life, may have made it easier to visit the well alone.
We simply are not told the actual reason for this woman being at the well at that time. To infer that she is an outcast on this basis is unjustified.
Does ‘the sixth hour’ definitely mean ‘midday’?
The Greek of John 4.6 states that this was ‘about the sixth hour’, although some translations give this directly as ‘noon’. However, there were at least two ways of counting hours in the first century and a number of commentators have suggested that John’s gospel uses a different timing system to the Synoptics. The Jewish system referenced the hours from sunrise and sunset. With a typical sunrise of about 6am, the first hour would end at 7am, with 7am also being called ‘the first hour’. Similarly, ‘the sixth hour’ would be midday. The Synoptic gospels use this system throughout.
An alternative system counted hours from midnight, the start of the Roman ‘civil’ day. The sixth hour indicates 6am, but the hourly count restarts at noon so the phrase also indicates 6pm. This is often referred to as the Roman or ‘modern’ system.
Mark states that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, 9am, with darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour, 12 noon to 3pm. Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3pm (Mark 15.25-34). However, John’s gospel tells us that Pilate delivered judgment on Jesus at ‘about the sixth hour’ (John 19.14). Is this 6am (Roman system) or noon (Jewish system)? Clearly, if the author of John is using the same timing system as the Synoptics then he contradicts the Synoptic gospels, in which Jesus was already on the cross at the sixth hour. If John’s gospel uses the Roman time system, this inconsistency disappears.
Jack Finegan (in Handbook of Biblical Chronology) argues for this difference in timing systems between the Synoptics and John. Other commentators on John concur, including B.F. Westcott and more recently R. Alan Culpepper (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel). Norman Walker’s 1960 article in Novum Testamentum gives much of the evidence and arguments, arguing plausibly that the other hour references in John are better explained on this basis and including two examples where this system seems to have been used in Smyrna, not far from Ephesus where many think John’s gospel was written.
Returning to John 4.6, at ‘the sixth hour’ Jesus was tired from his journey and this could easily be about 6pm after a full day of walking, rather than because of the midday sun. On this basis, the woman’s presence at the well is now normal. If this interpretation is correct, it adds further evidence preventing us drawing any conclusions about the woman from the timing.
Don’t the woman’s five marriages show that she was immoral?
The majority view takes the woman’s five marriages (John 4.18) as key evidence of the woman’s immorality.
The social and human context of marriage in the first century was very different to ours. With an average life expectancy of only about 25 years and an average age at first marriage of about 30 years for men and about 20 years for women, early death of a spouse was not unusual. Divorce was also not uncommon, often requiring little ‘cause’. But divorce was instigated almost exclusively by the husband, not the wife. The livelihood and economic security of most women at this time (outside the rich elite) lay largely in their husband and children, especially if there were no close relatives who could or would support her. Re-marriage was therefore common after a spouse’s death or a divorce and was often the only way for a woman to survive a husband’s death without resort to prostitution, especially while any children were still young. Even if the woman had a surviving male relative, re-marriage would largely be a further business arrangement enacted by this relative and driven by economic necessity, rather than being the woman’s own decision.
These factors alone could easily lead to a number of marriages. A woman could in theory decline a marriage but in practice had little option but to agree. Bonnie Thurston sums it up in her Women in the New Testament: ‘this woman may have felt it imperative to remarry precisely to preserve her reputation’.
Although there is evidence that rabbis frowned upon more than three marriages, this was not illegal. The hypothetical case raised by the Sadducees (Mark 12.18-23) shows that they regarded seven husbands as possible in certain circumstances. Indeed, if Levirate marriage accounts for the Samaritan woman’s marital history, then the number of husbands points towards her being a law-keeping woman.
What about the woman’s present relationship?
Jesus’ comment about the man she currently had not being her husband (John 4.18) is seen by the majority view as a forbidden, immoral relationship.
Again, we do not know enough to warrant such a conclusion as there are other possibilities. There isn’t space here to go into detail, but in The Samaritan’s Woman’s Story (pp.136-40), Caryn Reeder proposes the possibility that the woman was in an informal marriage, either because the man was unwilling to commit to a marriage contract or their social context prevented their marriage (for non-sinful reasons). Either way, rather than being viewed as immoral, such co-habitation was accepted and recognised as an ‘informal marriage’ by Romans, Jews and Samaritans. The woman may alternatively been a concubine, a less secure situation, but preserving the man’s estate for his existing offspring. However, information on concubinage at this time is ‘scant’.
After five regular marriages one of these options may have been the only possibility for this woman (and any still dependent family) to survive. It may not have been what she wanted. Her age, the preference of men for young wives, the possible absence of a male relative or of money for a dowry, could have made such an arrangement the only option for her – an economic necessity more than a moral choice.
Alternatively, the woman may not even have been in a sexual relationship with her current ‘man’. Although Jesus’ wording might suggest a relationship paralleled with that of her previous husbands, it may not. The man mentioned could then have been a relative – a normal situation for a widowed or divorced woman (see John 19.26-27).
The options outlined above illustrate the uncertainty in our knowledge of the woman’s past. There is simply insufficient evidence to determine the background to her relationships. That should deter us from jumping to any adverse conclusion about the woman’s character.
Doesn’t the woman’s sudden change of topic demonstrate her guilt and shame at her marital history?
The majority view often sees this change (from her marital status in John 4.18 to where to worship in John 4.19), as desperation to change the subject due to the shame and guilt that Jesus had just exposed.
This is possible, but we should perhaps ask whether we would draw the same conclusion if a man changed the subject in a similar way? Would we suggest this of Nathanael, who performs a similar switch in John 1.47-48, for example? Women, as well as men, may engage in theological dialogue sincerely, not merely to avoid more personal topics.
We can justifiably take the woman’s change of topic at face value. Recognising that Jesus was a prophet with supernatural insight, she asks a sensible and natural question about where to worship, one of the key theological differences between Jews and Samaritans.
What about the woman’s own testimony to the other townspeople?
The majority view sometimes interprets the woman’s words to her fellow townspeople ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did…’ (John 4.29) as speaking ‘openly of her own notoriety’ (Witherington).
I fail to see how her words acknowledge notoriety. Instead, the community’s response to the woman’s testimony attests to the respect shown to her, not her notoriety. The woman’s testimony in John 4.28-30 caused ‘the people’ to leave the village to see Jesus. John 4.39 tells us that ‘Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…’ It is difficult to believe that many villagers would believe in Jesus from the testimony of a notorious ‘woman of ill repute’. Psychologically, this is highly implausible. Even with her suggestion that this might just be the Christ, many of the people believed in Jesus because of her testimony. The people’s final words to the woman in John 4.42 emphasise even more the impact of her testimony as a respected member of her community: ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves…’. Accepting the testimony of a single female witness about a total stranger possibly being the Messiah demonstrates that she was held in high regard – her word was accepted as trustworthy. That does not sound like a despised and ostracised woman.
In addition, we should note that there is nothing in the passage speaking of sin, sexual or otherwise, as a particular issue in this woman’s life, although sin is raised on other occasions in John’s gospel (eg. John 5.14, 8.11, 8.24, 9.41).
What does all this mean?
The arguments and evidence above suggest to me that the majority view of the woman at the well needs to be rejected. We should be wary of unevidenced assumptions, predisposing us to reach particular conclusions. Caution is required in our judgment of this woman whose life actually shows an intelligent openness in her conversation with Jesus and an apostolic willingness to share her testimony, bringing others to him. If the arguments above are accepted, this will undoubtedly amend how we understand, teach and preach on this passage.
[This article is adapted from a longer article here, which has full references and bibliography.]
On the Samaritan woman:
Day, Janeth Norfleete, The Woman at the Well: Interpretation of John 4.1-42 in Retrospect and Prospect Biblical Interpretation Series 61 (Leiden: Brill, 2002)
Reeder, Caryn A., The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo (Downers Grove: IVP, 2022)
Cohick, Lynn, ‘“What you have said is true”: Women, Agency, Ownership in the First Century’, Jerusalem University College online seminar, https://www.juc.edu/transitions-in-the-land-online-seminar/
On marriage generally, age of marriage and life expectancy:
Satlow, Michael L., Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)
On ‘the sixth hour’:
Walker, Norman, ‘The Reckoning of Hours in the Fourth Gospel’, Novum Testamentum 4 (1960), pp.69-73
Finegan, Jack, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Revised Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998)
Since then he has taught various topics on a part-time basis, including medical statistics for 15 years and Christian doctrine for 5 years. He retired in 2020.