The Woman at the Well – has she been unfairly maligned?
[November 9, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Was the woman at the well a floozy who just had to have a man at her side to feel okay about herself?
I suspect that Christians tend to make too many assumptions about what brought about the marital history of the Woman at the Well (John 4). Most people make one or more of the following assumptions:
- Each of her marriages had ended in divorce.
- She had caused some if not all of those divorces; she was “just too hard to live with!”
- She was “sexually loose and a serial offender”.
- She was one of those women who “just had to have a man” — that explains why she was prepared to live with a bloke even though he hadn’t married her.
The fingers all point at her. It’s said from the pulpit in euphemisms, because there are children and teenagers in the pews, but it’s clear enough for adult women in the congregation to squirm — especially ones like me who were promiscuous in their past. Nothing wrong with pointing out the sin of promiscuity — I admit to it being one of my major sins before I came to Christ — but to grind women’s noses in the dust over and over again every time the Woman at the Well’s story is preached seems to me somewhat misogynist.
Consider these alternative scenarios for the Woman at the Well:
(1) Several of her marriages might have ended by the death of her husbands. People often died young in those days when there were no antibiotics and other marvels of modern medicine, let alone public health systems like sewers and running water.
(2) If some of her marriages had ended in divorce, the chances are that she had been treacherously divorced by men who were using the liberal “any cause” divorce which was a pretty common divorce method for men to employ in Jesus’ day.
(3) We have no proof that any of her marriages ended because of her sin. And the way the church has assumed this for centuries is just typical of the way the church has denigrated and marginalized women.
(4) The only hint we have of her sin is that when she met Jesus she was living in a de facto relationship. But it’s unwarranted to extrapolate from that and draw negative conclusions about her culpability in all her previous marriages.
[November 9, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to November 9, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to November 9, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to November 9, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (November 9, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
- Posted in: Christianity
- Tagged: Barbara Roberts, divorce, interpreting Scripture, John (gospel), shame
I love this story, because this woman was a definite victim, an outcast of her society, and Jesus loved her. He never condemned her. I am glad that it was recorded about all her past, because so many of us can relate. What is wonderful is that Jesus said nothing about her situation.
This poor lady never had any sons or they would have looked after their mother. We don’t understand the life threatening situations women were in, without a man to feed them. She was at the mercy of whoever would have her. And very likely some of those men abused her for not giving them sons.
Being barren could be one explanation for her past. Maybe she was raped as a girl, or maybe she got kicked enough to make her not able to have a child. Maybe she got beat up and her face was scarred. Maybe she was sick or going blind and she couldn’t work much.
We hear plenty about her past, but we never hear about her extreme faith. She ran and told the men in the city (at a time when women were not allowed to speak to men) and they all believed her. She was a great evangelist. Her whole city was saved because of her testimony, her voice. And Jesus loved her.
[Paragraph breaks added to enhance readability. Editors.]
Besides the men in the pulpits, we can also thank the male artists over the centuries. A picture paints a thousand words. Women either had halos or they wore red dresses and had lots of cleavage.
Preach it, sister! I love your other suggestions about what might have been in the woman’s background. Clearly, when Jesus mentioned her prior marriages, He did not convey scorn, belittling, or harsh judgement. He must have emanated immense love to that woman, otherwise she would not have rushed out and evangelised her village.
I hadn’t thought of all the paintings; if you find any such images of the “Woman at the Well”, email me and I’ll try to put them into this post. (Pray for my techo skills to improve too!)
This is a very good post. I know for me, it’s tormented me knowing that if I get married again, it will be my third legal marriage. Others could easily judge that and they do. But both times I was married to the same abusive man. The second marriage was entirely pastoral coercion inflicted upon me to remarry him. You are so right that just because a woman has been married several times does not mean the finger needs to be pointed at her in those ways. I too have heard all of those things assumed regarding the woman at the well.
What’s a bloke?
Sorry folks! A bloke is a guy, a fellow. It’s Aussie slang but for me it is so normal I didn’t realise that. It is used informally, when we want to talk about a man who is not in a suit, just an ordinary casual guy.
LOL, I was kidding, Barb.
There are many ways of looking at this, but there are some points that really stand out to me:
1) Jesus HAD to go there, which was against the “traditions”
2) Jesus sent His disciples away — were they not ready to see what He had to do?
3) He got in the woman’s way….Who found whom? This is our Shepherd!
4) Jesus cut to the chase and went straight for what was bothering her in His discussion, like Paul did with Agrippa in Acts….this can only happen from the Holy Spirit-filled person.
5) Who or what she was didn’t matter to Him.
6) She was the first one (in Scripture) to whom Jesus ever personally revealed He was the Messiah.
7) On her word of meeting the Messiah, the whole town came out to meet Jesus….and believed on Him because they learned to hear Him with their own ears. And this is the work of an Evangelist….and she was first, and a woman.
Barbara, I agree with you on the tendency to make unfair assumptions.
We often see this within the church, in regard to anyone who has experienced divorce (whether male or female). Divorce tends to be viewed, at best, as a permanent blackmark on the individual’s record, if not a major character flaw.
Few Christians who have not, themselves, experienced divorce, even considered the possibility of an innocent party in a divorce situation….or treat it as a “presumed guilty until proven innocent” situation.