The Samaritan Woman’s Story, Caryn A. Reeder. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.
Summary: Challenges the view of the Samaritan woman as a sexual sinner, considering how this has been read in the church, and the realities of the life of women and marriage that points to a very different reading.
The narrative of the Samaritan woman in John 4:4-42 is one of my favorite gospel narratives. Over the years I’ve given countless talks and led numerous Bible studies on this passage. I’ve always portrayed the woman as of “questionable repute,” having gone through a string of marriages and living with a man who is not her legal husband. I suspect that’s how you’ve heard the story as well. Caryn A. Reeder argues that we’ve gotten the story wrong and that this both reflects and reinforces unhealthy attitudes toward women in the church that thwarts real partnership between men and women in the gospel, contributing purity cultures, fear of women as temptresses, and even offering license to men to sexually abuse.
Let me talk about the second part of the book first, in which Reeder looks at the social world of the Samaritan woman. First she discusses the life of a woman in Jesus’s world. She begins with the lesser worth of girls, who are mainly an expense in terms of dowries. Some baby girls were exposed and left to die. Unless coming from upper classes, girls were taught to manage the household and all its tasks–cooking, cleaning, family businesses, farms and gardens, and specialized trades. They were married young, usually around age twelve to an older man and their primary value, in addition to the household, was bearing children, often a significant number because of those who died in infancy and childhood. Of course, many women died young. Women were married young and kept in the restricted space of the home to protect paternity. Marriages were contracted between the woman’s father and the bridegroom with the bride able to consent to or decline the marriage.
This is important in the case of the Samaritan woman. She was not hopping from the bed of one husband to another. Her five marriages were ones her family was involved with, suggesting the possibility of significant financial resources and status. The marriages may well have ended with the death of a spouse or because of divorce. In either case, women were expected to marry again. Also, men and women often lived together during the period between when a marriage was contracted and formalized. No one would have blinked an eye at this.
Two other things are important to note in the passage. One is that Jesus never speaks to her of sin or pronounces her forgiven, saying “go and sin no more” as in John 7:53-8:11. Nor do the people in town shun her when she testifies about Jesus. Rather they believe her or at least come, and then believe Jesus. Reeder also discusses her noon time visit to the well in the full light of day, contrasting it to Nicodemus’s night time visit in secret. Reeder also contrasts the two dialogues. She is far more engaged, and far more intelligently so than Nicodemus, continuing to question and learn, and she is the first to know that he is the Messiah. She understands what Nicodemus fails to perceive and models discipleship both as a learner and a witness bringing others to Jesus.
Why do I, why do we, not tell the story this way? Reeder traces this to an interpretive history of this story, largely written by men, who perceive her as a sexual sinner, shaped by the perception at times that sex was somehow unclean, even in marriage, that men needed to be wary of temptation by women, and that objectified women as objects of male desire. In successive chapters in the first part of the book she traces this through the early fathers (Tertullian, Origen, and John Chrysostom), Reformation Protestantism from Calvin (who identified her as an adultress) to Clare Lucas Balfour and Moody (who saw the woman as a prostitute, though an effective evangelist), and the present. Liz Curtis Higgs treats her as a sexual sinner after the deaths of her husbands, Barbara J. Essex describes her as having a shady past but as the first missionary, and John Piper identifies her as a adulterer and prostitute who needed the protection of a gender patriarchy.
What was striking to me is that this interpretive history obscured in my own eyes things I should have readily noted in the socio-historical context, important to careful exegesis. I ignored the role of families in contracting marriages and read contemporary practice back into the text. I ignored the betrothal practices (that played into Mary and Joseph’s story) and made her a loose woman living in sin. I ignored the immediate context of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus. And with the sexual sinner aspect so large in my view, I diminished both Jesus and the woman, in terms of the conversation that led to her being the first to see Jesus as Messiah and then bring so many others to him. I missed what “living water” would have meant to a woman who had suffered and witnessed, perhaps, the deaths of multiple husbands.
In her conclusion Reeder discusses contemporary views of women in the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She argues that how we tell these stories does color our views of women in the present–how we honor their worth and their voices. The story challenges men committed to Christlikeness to be like Jesus in this story–not afraid to be with her and respecting her enough to engage her in thoughtful conversation that invites her to explore and question. He takes her intelligence, worth, and voice seriously enough, that, despite barriers of gender and ethnicity, she joins him as a partner in mission.
One thing for sure. I will never tell the story the same way again.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.