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The Samaritan woman
and the Jew Jesus

· ​In the New Testament ·

John presents to us the Samaritan woman. She is probably the best known and most commented on female figure in the whole of the New Testament after Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. His long passage offers us an encounter-dialogue, a literary expedient frequently used in the fourth Gospel, which deals with three aspects closely connected to Israel’s history: the cultural relationship between Jews and Samaritans, religion and the relations between genders.

The first aspect refers us to Israelite cultural history through the symbolism of the well and the water (4:6-15). The dialogue between Jesus and the woman takes place beside Jacob’s famous well, located about two and a half kilometres to the south-east of today’s Nablus. It is a deep well: the measurements taken in the 19th century indicated that it has a depth of between 23 and 32 metres and a diameter of two and a half metres. Given that it is normally dry from the end of May until the autumn rains, it is thought that its water comes from rain and infiltration, or perhaps from some stream.

We are not certain that it was Jacob himself who constructed the well. It is probable that Jacob dug it or had it dug in order to supply his large household and numerous flocks with water, and thereby to avoid problems with the neighbours who must have already owned the other sources of water in the area. Through Genesis 33:18-20 and Joshua 24:32 we know that the well was located close to the field which Jacob had given to Joseph in the vicinity of Sichem, near Sychar, and the historical tradition – present in the sentence spoken by the woman: “Our father Jacob who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle” (Jn 4:12) – underlines the importance given to Jacob in relation to this well.

Duccio di Buoninsegna “Christ and the Samaritan Woman”

Many biblical texts contain popular legends about wells (Ex 17:1-7; Num 21:16-18; Ps 78:15-16; 105:41). Indeed, wells were a constant presence for the Jews and the patriarchs as they moved from one place to another and were thus considered a gift of God. The possession of a well was the most celebrated benefit in Israel, together with that of manna. The same symbolism is also found in the prophesy of Ezekiel, 47:1-12, according to which a source of water would well up from the Temple at the end of time. John 7:37, where Jesus presents himself as the Christ and the living temple from which the living water flows, follows the same lines.

Once again it was beside a well that the search for and promise of matrimony between paradigmatic couples of the Bible took place. It was at the well that Abraham’s servant met Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife, (Gen 24:13-30), that Jacob met Rachel (Gen 29:2-12) and that Moses met his future wife. (Ex 2:15-21). Is this why Jesus speaks of the Samaritan woman’s husbands? Perhaps in order to change her expectations and open her to a new understanding of relationships that go beyond mere coexistence or the cultural need for security?

Similarly the symbolism of water as the source of life and youth is closely linked to the cults of the peoples of the Middle East and to the figurative language of the Old Testament, where God himself is the source of living water (Gen 26:19); Jer 2:13; 17:13; Ps 36:9). Indeed, water was an essential element in the origins of Israel (Gen 2) and in the faith of the founding fathers of the people. Abraham abandoned Ur with his family to go in search of water and fertile land. It was because of water that the people doubted Yahweh in the desert and, in search of water, entered the fertile land of Canaan. Water thus becomes the symbol of the human being’s most profound search. Men and women devote their entire existence to it: it sifts through the meaning of their lives and the meaning of all the senses, capable of determining and building relationships.

The second aspect of this passage concerns religion (4:16-26). Jesus unfolds before the Samaritan woman a deeper understanding of religion and worship, by proposing to her the true profile of the religious person (4:23-24). In suggesting the elimination of the sacred places, Jesus insists on the significance of worship as a dimension of the human being, linking it to the human capacity for adoration and contemplation, over and above the limitations imposed by the religious structures that are bound to sacred places. Jesus then corrects the Samaritan woman’s concern for the where, inherited from her religious system, and leads her to discover the how, broadening her religious horizons to global dimensions.

According to the testimony of the texts, John’s community was formed by disciples of John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-40), Samaritans (Jn 4:1-42), Hellenistic Greeks (Jn 7:35 and 12:20), and the Jews cast Jesus out of the synagogue (John 9). Jesus had lived two strong moments of rupture: his expulsion from the synagogue (Jn 9) and the internal rift as a consequence of the scandal arising by the Christology of the Incarnation (Jn 6:66). It was a peripheral community, lacking power, marginalized and excluded and with a significant presence of Samaritans (Jn 4). When the account was written the exclusion of Christians from the Jewish community was already under way. In this context the discussion on tradition, the sacred books, worship, the law, the prophets and the expectation of the Messiah are full of meaning.

The third aspect is the matter of gender (4:27-42). The encounter with the woman of Samaria shows that Jesus relates to the women of his time and has a positive attitude that goes beyond the cultural stereotypes of the epoch, without ever limiting the woman’s identity to her physical or sexual aspect but rather establishing with her a vital and liberating relationship with uprightness and respect. Thus, for example, God’s kingdom comes through the small gestures of a woman, whose hardworking hands knead the dough and cause it to rise to make bread. Women are images of the kingdom of God which is made visible in the experiences of daily life (Mt 13:33). In the same way, the joy of a woman giving birth reflects love for life (Jn 16:21), and the ceaseless searching of the woman with the haemorrhage is an example of persevering faith which heals and reintegrates the community (Mk 5:25-34). This is not all. In Matthew 19:3-10, Jesus goes beyond what might be mere adulatory language with regard to women since, by reconfirming the matrimonial relationship to levels of parity, he dares to correct the law, restoring rights to women and calling into question the androcentric mentality of his disciples.

Dialogues on themes as delicate as the history of Israel, tradition, worship, women’s marriage and culture are practically absent in the narratives of the Gospels about Jesus. They are found instead in the account of the Samaritan woman (Jn 4). The disciples thus find the closeness between Jesus and the woman surprising. Jesus, however, shatters that other patriarchal pattern which establishes assuring the preservation of the race or the financial patrimony as the principal role of women, or even their use for a physical relationship. Jesus is concerned about the Samaritan woman and establishes a conversation with her, he is interested in her opinion on very sensitive subjects, linked to the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, that is, he treats her as a person, equating her status to that of any Jewish man.

The conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus, it is true, evokes intimate aspects of the woman’s life. Yet, faced with the apparently impetuous sexual life of the Samaritan woman, Jesus makes no moral judgement nor does he morbidly rake up her past; rather, he invites her to concentrate on the most important aspects of her life and her people, bringing her to an experience of faith, transforming her into a messenger (in witness of this, read 4:39) and urging her to break free from the limitations imposed by her Samaritan culture and also by Judaism. The religious and social institutions of the epoch considered women inferior on the basis of specific personal situations. On the contrary, they were not so in God’s eyes.

Detail from the “Libri di Legno” (Parish of San Giuseppe a Marotta in the Diocese of Senigallia)

The Johannine community is audacious in presenting the Samaritan woman to us, as well as in referring to us the role of women in the ecclesial community: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in 2:1-12 and 19:25-27; Martha in 11:17-37; Mary in 12:1-8; Mary Magdalene in 20:1-18. These accounts shed light on three burning themes of the epoch in which the Gospel was written: women, culture and evangelization. Thus the Samaritan woman is not a mere literary figure but rather a symbol of resistance in daily life, a woman who evangelizes on the basis of her culture, breaking away from Jewish patterns.

Like the blind man in John 9, the Samaritan woman proclaims Jesus as a prophet and the Messiah. Was the presence of Samaritans one of the causes of the expulsion of the Johannine community from the synagogue? Starting with a persecuted minority community the presence and positive leadership of women is then clarified; throughout the biblical tradition they appear as a symbol of resistance and an inspiration for the community.

The Samaritan woman takes the position of witness with her words (4:39b), and thus establishes a bond with two other women who are witnesses of Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Martha. Thus the Samaritan woman overturns culture, religion and the chauvinist social hierarchy which discriminate against women, overcoming the concept of evangelization as a mere exposition of content and presenting it as an action generating social changes.

The Samaritan woman warns us that there are still cultural tasks pending.

She is an anonymous and foreign figure. She certainly knows that she is in an irregular personal situation. In fact, the time when she arrives at the well, at about midday, suggests that she may wish to avoid meeting other women. A woman alone at noon beside a well was a sign of impurity. Moreover the Jewish law permitted marrying twice, or at most three times. Yet marrying so many times was considered at that period as a dishonourable action. Verse 29 seems to suggest that the woman is aware of her situation. By transforming her into a direct witness of Jesus the text vindicates the woman and the Samaritan community, opposing the crystallized tradition of Judaism and proposing new relational dynamics, both internal and external, for the newborn Christian community. Jesus breaches the limitations imposed by Judaism and overcomes all the conventions, presenting the woman as a theological agent.

She is a woman who asks neither for healing nor for miracles, but who puts her question on an existential level: “Give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (4:15). In the face of such a request she is the first person to whom Jesus decides to reveal his identity.

She is a woman, a Samaritan, alone and impure, four reasons why no man would want to come into contact with her. Speaking to her of tradition and culture, Jesus considers her an intelligent interlocutor. Once the woman has understood Jesus’ words, she does not follow him or propose to follow him, but returns to her people to whom she offers “another point of view”, she proposes a new cultural and religious perspective, thereby re-establishing the cultural relations shattered by religious men. Indeed Jn 4:28 tells us that she went away and spoke to “the people”. Only when equity in human relations is restored, when the social bond is rebuilt and when petty disputes are overcome does Jesus enter and remain.

At the mouth of Jacob’s well historical relations of cultural hostility were at stake, the meaning of religion and gender relations. Still today the mouth of our own well continues to invite us, urging us not to fail in the struggle to re-establish equity in gender relations and peace among cultures, and to redeem religion as a dimension of the human being in order to support paths which make our Church and our world more honest. 

María José Delgado

The author

A Nicaraguan lay woman, she has taught Religious Sciences at the Jesuits’ Central American University in El Salvador and holds a degree in theology and philosophy as well as a degree and a doctorate in Biblical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. She is currently Director of the Teyocoyani Group, an association of lay theologians dedicated to training community guides in various Nicaraguan dioceses.

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