Asking questions of the woman of Samaria in John 4

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 , which has full references and bibliography.]

Brief 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,

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)

Dr Chris Knight carried out research in the scientific civil service for 22 years, towards the end of which he completed a PhD on contemporary Islamic responses to the problem of evil.

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.

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39 thoughts on “Asking questions of the woman of Samaria in John 4”

  1. While I fully agree with Chris Knight that this account is not about an immoral woman, he seems to have missed the published material that Cornelius Bennema suggests reflects the academic consensus among scholars of John—that in this scene Jesus is the bridegroom messiah and the woman represents the Samaritan people. The detail in the passage and reworking of OT sources is remarkable. (Bennema, Cornelius. Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John. 2d ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2014)

    • To give one example (one that Bennema misses):
      The Samaritans worshipped the true God, but they also had a history of involvement with the cults of different nations (2 Kings 17:24‒34) —these were referred to as the five false gods of Samaria (see Josephus) —and had their own temple on Mount Gerizim which, however, the Samaritans insisted that Moses had designated as the place where the nation should worship.

      Jesus points to her five husbands, and the fact that the man she is presently co-habiting with is not her husband (I suggest she was probably an agunah). These husbands echo the five false Samaritan gods—the Canaanite word for a god is baal, the same word that is sometimes used for “husband” in the Hebrew Bible (see word play in Hosea 2:16). It seems an analogy arises from her sixth ‘husband,’ to the Samaritan worship of Yahweh (the sixth ‘god’), but at the wrong temple.
      So rather than the woman changing the topic (v. 20) —I suggest she makes it clear that she had understood what Jesus was saying and goes directly to speak of that temple (her sixth ‘husband’—the sixth ‘god’) in John 4:20.

      See paper on my wesbite, also: Hamer, Colin. The Bridegroom Messiah: The Cross, Love’s Greatest Story. London: Faithbuilders, 2018.

  2. I first came across the idea that the Samaritan woman was not immoral in the improbably named The (Spiritual) @dventures of CyberCindy by Gill Rowell (Paternoster, 2002) and have been convinced of its legitimacy ever since. I was also taken by Margaret Barker’s reading that the Samaritan woman was possibly barren. I posted some quotations about the Samaritan woman on my (infrequently updated these days) blog, which hopefully add to this discussion:

  3. I completely agree and have preached this woman’s story along the same lines. At no point does Jesus speak of her sin. Preachers read into the story according to modern morality, and thus give Jesus an edge, challenging the woman about her husbands but that is inference on their behalf. Jesus was never into accusation and the only people he challenged were the religious, not the marginalised. It’s just as possible that the words he spoke about the man she lived with could have been tender and understanding, showing he knew the back story of rejection and desperation. His conversation with her was theological, and the longest recorded conversation he had with anyone in the NT. Until the Reformation, this woman was known as Photina, bringer of light, and called ‘equal to the apostles’ by the Eastern Church. It’s our moralising, victim blaming defaults that have stained her in this way.

  4. OK – so we’re now led to believe that the Samaritan woman was a paragon of virtue, who did not smoke, did not drink and generally was a fine Christian lady.

    For my own reading, I never `bought’ the idea that she was an outcast – and that that was why she was getting water at a strange time of day, since that seemed to me to contradict the fact that an awful lot of people were very interested in hearing what she had to say about her encounter with Jesus.

    We are told that in order to understand what the Holy Writ is saying, we really have to do an awful lot of work to understand society at that time, that Palestine of 2000 years ago really was very different to society of today – and if we imagine that there are any similarities between the way people thought back then and the way they think now, then we’re going to pick up the wrong end of the stick.

    I’m not so sure about this. Those of us who are Christians understand the importance of not engaging in fornication, of not committing adultery; it’s all part of the `love your neighbour’; the Christian basically abhors mucking other people about – and sees all these matters as part of this.

    But step aside, for one minute, into society-in-general, which consists overwhelmingly of people who not only never darken the doors of any church, but who fundamentally reject the Christian understanding of relationships. For people who enjoy pop music, there are the likes of Mick Jagger, who seems to have had umpteen wives (and goodness knows how many between) – and the crucial point is that, among the non-Christian element of society (which is practically 100 percent), nobody seems to mind. Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Alma Mahler, who seemed to have as lovers all of the top creative geniuses of Western Europe, three of whom she went so far as to marry – and, for the overwhelming part of society, this didn’t seem to pose a problem. More recently, we had Boris Johnson (who seems to be a well established fornicator, with several divorces behind him) elected leader of the Conservative party, so – really – things that we, as Christians, consider to be very important, don’t seem to bother most people.

    While – yes, I agree, the reasons why the woman had 5 husbands are not given (so they may well be benign) – the text does seem to suggest that Jesus has seen into her heart and found something that she wasn’t exactly proud of.

    So unless the society of the time was completely, totally, utterly different from today, the `traditional’ understanding, that having had 5 husbands has negative connotations, makes some sense, as does the fact that people were prepared to listen to her when she went back and told them about the encounter.

    And we see the result of the whole episode – people came to listen to Jesus and were prepared to receive the Word. This is much less of a miracle if the woman and those who were brought to Him by her testimony were already living by the Word.

    • Hi Jock,
      I do not think it is being suggested she was a paragon of virtue. But the ‘traditional’ idea that having five husbands is somehow immoral is in fact a very modern concept—for reasons Chris Knight points out.
      Catherine Parr the last wife of Henry VIII was a devout Christian and disliked by the Roman Catholic Church—but they never suggested her morality was in debate despite marrying four times.

    • Jock: You say, “the text does seem to suggest that Jesus has seen into her heart and found something that she wasn’t exactly proud of.”
      This could be said of the “sinful woman” recorded in Luke 7. By her gestures , not her words, Jesus recognised repentance. He then pronounced forgiveness.
      In the context of John 4 there is no evidence of Jesus (at this point at least) “seeing into her heart” in order to ascertain repentance. Nor is there any evidence of Jesus pronouncing forgiveness!
      Re Colin Hamer’s thesis: I think it has possibilities. But I don’t share Geoff’s unmitigated enthusiasm; particularly in relation to his (Colin’s) penultimate paragraph. I’m pleased though that the word “suggest” has been included here.

    • I’m not sure they really reject the Christian understanding of sex: it is just inconvenient to their short term needs, which is quite different.

  5. This whole account also demonstrates a remarkable Christology. It was God who had ‘married’ Israel, and God that had ‘divorced’ her—and yet the OT promises a future for exiled ‘Israel’, north [Samaria] and south [Judah] (e.g., Jeremiah 3:1–8; Jeremiah 31:31–32; Isaiah 54:5–7). This promised restoration of ‘Israel’ is also the context of Isaiah 52 and it seems Jesus is drawing attention to that—and his own divinity, by alluding to Isaiah 52:6 in his reply to the woman in John 4:25–26 (linguists make a comparison with the LXX of John 4:26 and the Greek that John employs):

    Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am. (Isaiah 52:6)

    The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26)

    Jesus does not appear in John’s Gospel as a messenger—he says, in effect, to the woman: “Come to me.” The fact that Jesus’s offer included the despised Samaritans I suggest is one reason for her surprised comment in John 4:29.

    • Indeed Colin. That is the focus of the whole of the encounter with Jesus, not the woman’s past, which is something of railway siding, a sidetrack. The worship of the true God, in Christ Jesus as the long expected Messiah in contrast to the woman’s religious beliefs – as you say – Christology.
      It was a divine corrective by Jesus to her thoughts, beliefs as expressed by her in the encounter.
      Have we been divinely corrected in our encounter with Jesus? Where do we place our true worship?

      • Geoff – it isn’t a railway siding. It is sinners who get saved – probing into a sinful past of a person who gets saved to show that they really do need to be redeemed – is an important part of the message. Also, the Samaritans were people whom the religious Jews particularly looked down on.

          • Geoff – we’re not told the eventual outcome – and perhaps not a useful question to ask.

            In John 1 to John 6 I take the following naive pattern (a bible scholar may have better ideas): we see Jesus revealing himself to ever increasing circles – and we see people seeming to accept him with a high level of enthusiasm, but the second half of John 6, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he gives a clear explanation of what it is all about, the cost of discipleship – and almost all of them walk away and decline to follow after that.

            With this in view, he isn’t going to be giving us answers about specific individuals in John 4.

  6. Nobody knows why she had already had five husbands, but that is a lot to die during her lifetime and the chances that she had been divorced are high. Barrenness is a possible explanation, although it is unproven and should not be assumed when building an exegesis. We should take the same attitude to her as if we had been told that a woman in the third world today has had five husbands: raise an eyebrow and wonder what had been going on, but don’t judge.

    I do believe that she was cohabiting with a man she was not married to. It is the obvious meaning of “the man you now have is not your husband”. And, whatever Caryn Reeder says and whether or not some such co-habitation was accepted and recognised as an ‘informal marriage’ by Jews, it is unacceptable before God. The authorities have a right to know who is married – a divine right, in ancient Israel – becaue they have to administer Mosaic laws concerning who is the legitimate heir, whether sex with a third party constitutes adultery or fornication, etc.

    • This is one of those passages like the woman with the issue of blood that frequently comes up for preaching. Whether that reflects the expected congregants and their interests – well it may well to some degree.

      Alas it therefore breeds its own set of bad jokes as the pastor is settling the congregation down. It is said that she was a large lady – after all, she was ‘a woman of Some Area’. Then there is the very plausible oldie about 1 John 4:18 (perfect love casts out all fear) being a wedding telegram message; the telegram company leaving out the puzzling initial 1; with the result that people looked up the message to find the wellwisher had said ‘You have had 5 husbands already and the one you now have is not your husband.’.
      Sermons can be structured around the woman’s dawning realisation (Jew – Prophet – Messiah?), and J John’s frequently were.

      • Hello Christopher,
        You’ll aware that J. John is at Keswick this week, as is John Stevens of FIEC who evidently was converted through the evangelistic ministry of J. John while he was a student at Cambridge Uni.

  7. Thanks for the comments so far – and for highlighting wider issues relating to the passage. My focus in this article is on the impact of our assumptions. In 2 Timothy 2.15, Paul tells Timothy to seek to rightly handle the word of truth. Our assumptions can at times get in the way of that and I hope that, whether or not the main points of this article are accepted, it will cause us to pause a moment longer as we read this (or any) text and ask whether our understanding of it is based rightly on the evidence before us or relies on our prior assumptions.
    Many commentators and preachers over the years have made unhelpful statements on this passage which go far beyond what the text says or even hints at and this can distract us from seeing what Jesus was doing in this encounter.

    • Hello Chris,
      Re: your last sentence. Your article doesn’t seem to discuss what Jesus was doing in the encounter, rather than look at some speculation at what sort of woman she was or wasn’t.
      That may give some indication of how not to preach the text, but how would you preach it in the context of the whole Gospel of John, its place there and it’s flow and OT allusions? And I’m with Colin H – it’s only “incidentally* about her drawing out some earth quaking claims of reality over who Jesus is, his true identity, and his offer(s) to the Samaritan woman.
      NB Dane Ortlund identifies 14 *I am* sayings in John (Surprised by Jesus – subversive Grace in the Four Gospels).

      • Hi Geoff,
        No, I didn’t discuss that – the article was trying to clear away misconceptions and I already had to be ruthless with the original material I had! I think preaching on this will still be very varied, depending on the preacher’s context and his prayerful reflections on it. Very briefly, the woman is intrigued, I’d say, by Jesus’ request and the ensuing conversation which develops her understanding of who Jesus is (Jew-prophet-Christ?) and she ends up ‘making disciples’ by ‘going’ back to the town to share what had happened and bringing them to Jesus which is reminiscent of parts of Matthew 28.19. The disciples had brought food back from the city but brought no potential disciples back. The woman had received (or started to) spiritual living water, rather than the physical well water she had set out for, allowing lots of comparisons and elaboration (and seems to me a rather humorous aspect to the account showing Jesus’ great communication skills). The woman’s encounter with Jesus changes her and by her intentional actions bring many others to that same encounter.
        There are many comparisons and contrasts with Nicodemus, which speaks of who can receive this living water. There are also all the Old Testament allusions of encounters at the well (plus the wedding at Cana beforehand which links in) and I think this potentially was an issue in the minds of those present including the disciples when they returned, but I would be hesitant about elaborating on that too much as it may just have been that the encounter happened to be at a well (just as the pool of Bethesda in John 5 happened to have five colonnades rather than it being an invented detail to symbolise the limits of the ‘old covenant’, as was once thought).
        I wouldn’t be talking specifically about repentance etc. because that isn’t in the text (other texts will bring that out in other sermons) and there is so much else to say that is in the text. So, hoping I haven’t opened up too many other cans of worms, I hope that at least indicates some places my reflections might go.

        • Many thanks, Chris.. I found much more edification, gospel relevance and pointers in that.
          Off to discuss another Jesus encounter at the beginning of Marthew 12:1 – in our church mid -week group following the sermon by our minister on Sunday gone.

        • Hi Chris,
          I would suggest that the well is not incidental. Previous meetings at a well resulted in marriage (Isaac and Rebekah, Genesis 24:14–16; Jacob and Rachel, Genesis 29:1–20; Moses and Zipporah, Exodus 2:15–17, 21).

          Jacob is named three times in the account and John portrays Jesus, like Jacob, as a man from another a country, seeking a bride, arriving at a well at the middle of the day, and asking a single woman for a drink, who on realising the man’s identity, ran home to tell her people.

          • Hi Colin,
            As you will realise, my article wasn’t intended as a full exegesis of the passage but to try to allay the ‘excesses’ in describing the woman’s character and lifestyle. I fully agree that the bridegroom allusions can be seen here which possibly made the initial conversation ‘awkward’, but these weren’t really relevant to my own argument. I’m just a little cautious about finding deeper meanings in what might simply be what happened in a particular place (and meeting strangers at a well can’t have been that unusual an event) and we then make our own connections and impose our own further meaning onto them, which none of us want to do with Scripture. Jacob didn’t actually ask for or receive a drink at the well – he provided the (well) water. That could be paralleled to Jesus offering the living water, of course, but in Gen 29 Rachel herself doesn’t even receive the water, her flock does. Also, I would say that with John’s time system this wasn’t at noon (as in Genesis 29), but at about 6pm (which corresponds to the timing of Genesis 24) – otherwise we seem to get the contradiction between Mark and John about the time of the crucifixion which I mentioned in the article. I think there are other, more definitive elements in the narrative which show the message of Jesus was for the Samaritans, even if we ignore the well / bridegroom connotations. I realise many commentators make much of this issue and I’ll continue to reflect on whether I am being too cautious on accepting this!
            I think if that theme is accepted it does have to be carefully explained and understood in the wider context of the passage, so that the Samaritans aren’t just seen to replace an earlier ethnic group as the people of God. However, the culmination of the encounter, the final words, do this by indicating clearly that Jesus is recognised as the Saviour of the world (John 4.42).
            I’ll also comment here on a couple of your other points made above, if I may. I think your suggestion that the woman was unable to marry because she was an agunah is very interesting, linking in with Bennema’s own acknowledgment of the argument that the woman ‘is perhaps not (willingly) immoral’ and denigrating the ‘excesses’ of some commentators.
            I’m still not convinced by the argument about the five husbands having a symbolic echo though. I’m really not sure the linkage here works – although there are five nations (as I read Josephus to be saying), there are actually seven gods (as given in 2 Kings 17.24-34, as you reference). The three commentaries on John I have to hand (Bultmann, Barrett and Morris) all reject the argument, citing that the number of gods is wrong, that some of them were female, that they were worshipped simultaneously not consecutively and that it is hard to see Jesus as thinking the Samaritans were legitimately ‘married’ to false gods. Morris suggests John’s original readers would have been hard pressed to make the connection.
            Nevertheless, I do appreciate the thought-provoking comments!

  8. Wonderful discussion. Given that the scene of the the woman at the well and the Samaritans’ response is paralleled with the rejection of the Jews on the other side of John’s gospel in its chiastic structure, I think that the Christological interpretation is the one that John intended.

    • Hello Teresita,
      A former Pastor, obtained a Masters degree from Durhan Uni, on the Gospel of John. I understand a that it has subsequently been published.
      He identified a chiastic structure to John 15.
      I wonder if more can be identiied in John.

      • Do beware that a chiasmus is ABA (at its most simple), and so can be found everywhere whether intentional/clear/significant or not.

        • Thanks, Christopher,
          Surely you need to add another B, then we’s both be singing from the same scholar’s speculative song sheet – one of many, including use of numbers!

          As part of my then job, more than 20 years ago, I spoke to a young Jewish woman in her late teens/ early twenties, in a mental health hospital. She was keen to talk about some poetry she had written, explaining that it was composed with a chiastic structure. Perhaps it was employed more frequently than we gentiles assume by the NT writers, just as it was by the writers of some Psalms.-, some with greater complexities such as Psalm 119.
          A chiasm as you are aware is to be found in Joel 3: 17_21. Others have been seen in Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and some Prophets.

          It also seems that chiastic structures have been identified in the book of Revelation.

          It would appear to be somewhat odd if there were a more or less complete discontinuity of the process in the New Testament.

          • It is a popular device but a trick you can do is write something and give it to someone else, get them to identify all the conceivable chiasmuses and then you can see what percentage were intentional. Because there are always going to be an awful lot of unintentional ones.

            Secondly there are different reasons that a chiasmus can be identified, some of which are quite weak. So we end up with semi/possible chiasmuses. If they are not too clear they are probably unintentional.

            Third, the gospels all have forward-thrust sequential structures. A chiasmus which is cyclical does not comport well with that AT ALL.

            I am still amazed at all the chiasmuses people identify when they must know full well that a high proportion of them are bound to be accidental, and (worse) they have provided no way of making anyone sure that the ones they have identified are deliberate.

        • Christopher,
          Of itself misuse is not an arguement for no use, but correct use.
          Sure there is a foward thrust to yhe NT as there is to all of scripture, but it is in a cyclical movement.
          Not only that but its employment is a method of remembering as is parallelism and making the same points through contrast. You seem to be s little discombobulated over this.

          • I’ve worked out the main reason why (there are others).

            I was talking about the forward thrust in the Gospels not in the NT.

            The Gospel writers are all artists so would not see the point in chiasmi that were equivocal (could be there, could be not there) because that would be a failure in literary artistry.

            But a very high proportion of conceivable chiasmi are of that nature.

            It beggars belief that people are so tied to this unexciting structural device (which certainly was common) when there are some really exciting ones for which (to boot) the evidence is considerably greater.

  9. Very interesting article Ian. Thanks. I wrote a short story about the woman’s ‘husband’ . I make him to be a previous resident of Jerusalem who moves to Samaria to get away from the oppressive moral atmosphere. He likes Sychar. Everybody’s got ‘history’ and everyone keeps out of everybody else’s business. It’s a ‘permissive’ environment where people are more ‘relaxed’.
    I think, relatively speaking, the woman was much like everyone else in her world. They were all guilty of something. All without pedigree. Disorganised. Hence the water fetching at possibly an odd hour. Modern equivalent would be neighbours making a lot of noise at inappropriate times. Etc

    • Others have written tales around this woman. ‘The Day I Met Jesus’ by Frank Viola and Mary DeMuth is a book of five short stories about women named in the New Testament, and she is one.

      • Hi Anton,
        I guess there are many stories. I wanted to write from the boyfriend’s perspective as I thought it probably hadn’t been done. My character spends all his time in the house waiting for the water to arrive.

  10. Including here a reply to a comment made on Facebook. The comment was:
    ‘Can you find me any evidence that the Roman day began at midnight or midday? I have previously searched and found none, although it is often stated. I would love to have an ancient source that would confirm this. My experience of classical texts is that they tended to use the hours of daylight just as the Jews did. Adam Kubiś agrees.
    Kubiś, Adam – 2021/04/29 – The Biblical Annals
    Roman versus Jewish Reckoning of Hours in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical Misconception That Refuses to Die’

    My reply (slightly edited) was:
    Jack Finegan argues for this difference in timing systems between the Synoptics and John’s gospel. Other commentators on John’s gospel concur, including B.F. Westcott and more recently R. Alan Culpepper. Norman Walker’s 1960 article in Novum Testamentum gives much of the evidence and arguments, plausibly showing why the other hour references in John’s gospel are better explained on this basis. Walker also includes two examples where this system seems to have been used in first century Smyrna, an important port city of the Roman Empire, which was not far from Ephesus where many think John’s gospel was written.
    To hold that the Synoptics and John used the same reckoning system means that you are committed (as I understand it) to a contradiction existing between Mark 15.25-34 and John 19.14. For many, that’s irrelevant, but for others it is an issue that needs to be addressed but is usually ignored.
    Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Revised Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), pp.10-11.
    R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p.219.
    Norman Walker, ‘The Reckoning of Hours in the Fourth Gospel’, Novum Testamentum 4 (1960), pp.69-73 ( for those with access).

    P.S. It’s definitely a minority view but I’m amazed how often I’ve recently come across commentators who do state their agreement with it in passing. That’s not an argument for it, just an observation.


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