Review: The Samaritan Woman’s Story

Caryn A. Reeder is professor of New Testament at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Her books include The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond and Gendering War and Peace in the Gospel of Luke.

John 4 and … Sexual Abuse Scandals?

The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 after #ChurchToo is a twofold response: firstly, to sexualised interpretations of the famous “woman at the well” story; secondly, to relatively recent confessions of widespread sexual abuse in Christian churches (popularised under the hashtag #ChurchToo). Reeder sees the two problems as linked by the marginalisation of women and their voices in our churches. That is to say, she believes biblical interpretations that demonise women (including the woman at the well) have the power to reinforce thought patterns that lead to sexual abuse. This link frames the book in the introduction and conclusion, with two major sections in the middle.

The first major section of the book explores the history of interpretation of John 4 through a series of case studies, from ancient to modern. The second section discusses historical social issues surrounding marriage and sexuality, culminating in a clearer understanding of the range of possible interpretations of the Samaritan woman’s story.

My biggest issue with this book was that it kept me hanging concerning what I see to be the core issue of the book: is the Samaritan woman immoral? Reeder’s presumptive answer is, No. If you are like me, this involves some serious suspension of disbelief. I felt that some bread crumbs of the argument could have been given in the introduction. Instead, Reeder introduced #ChurchToo and then launched into the history of interpretation of John 4, leading the reader under the presumption that there is some minority argument that the Samaritan woman is not necessarily immoral. Honestly, I was so unaware of how she could even make this argument, I had to skip to skimming Part Two before reading Part One so that I could engage with the book.

Perhaps this reversal was to keep the reader on their toes; perhaps I am not modern enough for the train of thought. Personally, I wanted more of a “thesis statement” at the beginning that would help me bridge the book’s many moving parts. In the interest of presenting the argument clearly, I’ve chosen to deal with the biblical “elephant in the room” first.

Is the Samaritan Woman a “Whore”?

In John 4:17–18, Jesus reveals the woman’s marital history:

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

John 4:16–18, NIV

First, it is odd that Jesus asks for her husband, ironically knowing she was unmarried. It seems like a “gotcha” moment to American readers. Having lived in the Middle East, I know that inquiring after male family members is polite in cross-gender interactions. It creates a boundary. Acknowledging a woman’s husband is meant to make her feel safe from abuse, which is an unmentioned link between John 4 and sexual abuse scandals. In my view, Jesus probably brings her husband to the conversation as a matter of politeness and safety.

At face value, in John 4, the woman is having extramarital sex (v.18) and is therefore an immoral fornicator. John Piper and Mark Driscoll have used the words “whore” and “prostitute” to describe the woman at the well, based on these verses. Let’s go over some of the key indicators that preachers have used to make her a sinner, and Reeder’s counterarguments:

1.Wasn’t she gathering water at noon because she was an outcast?

There’s no evidence that gathering water at noon meant she was a social outcast. This idea was promoted by D. L. Moody and has become a common preaching point, but it doesn’t have any basis in historical documents. Reeder routinely challenges people to produce any historical basis for this idea.

If the Samaritan woman was a social outcast, it’s also unlikely that her preaching would have been received so well, and this tension requires some maneuvering by interpreters. They overcome this by saying that the strange woman simply “roused their curiosity”; Calvin says she was like a “bell”. This downgrades the statement of John, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).

2. Wasn’t it shameful for her to be outside the house, without a male chaperone?

Reeder offers specific examples from the first century of women operating in the public sphere, owning property, and speaking with men. She notes several times in the book that women’s seclusion in ancient times was “an ideal, not a reality”, something that is probably exaggerated in our efforts to differentiate our society from theirs. Having lived in the most gender-segregated societies on the planet, I agree with this assessment: women’s seclusion has many exceptions, especially when it comes to basic household chores like fetching water.

Later rabbinic traditions praised a women scholar named Beruriah for her intelligence, her ability as an interpreter, and her active participation in the community. According to one story, she used the words of Mishnah Avot 1.5 to tease a male rabbi for saying four more words to her than he needed to (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 53b). Beruriah exemplifies women’s ability to engage despite the limitations imposed by men.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 167

3. Wasn’t it shameful to divorce many times?

Reeder points out that divorce was considered “common and casual” in the Roman Empire and could be unilateral from the man, or agreed upon by both. In Jewish sources, it could only be initiated by men, but Jews in the Roman Empire could also follow Roman custom. A Jewish midrash famously notes that the wife burning a meal is acceptable grounds for a divorce. So being divorced multiple times was not necessarily a poor reflection on a woman, and didn’t imply adultery. In fact, Reeder argues the opposite: men wouldn’t have kept marrying her if she was a known adulterer.

Adultery was one reason for divorce among Romans or Jews, but there is no reason to assume the Samaritan woman was divorced by her husbands for adultery. Rather, the fact of her remarriages suggests she was not suspected or convicted of adultery. Likewise, the evidence for divorce on account of infertility is slim (and again, the woman’s remarriages would argue against a reputation for infertility).

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.150

We also don’t know whether the Samaritan was ever divorced, or simply outlived all her husbands. In general life expectancy was much lower then than now; women married from around 12; and men were usually ten years older or more, and had a lower life expectancy; so it was common for women to outlive their spouses. So it is easily conceivable that a woman would have outlived more than one husband and/or been divorced by more than one husband. The Roman general Pompey outlived three spouses and divorced two others (p.149).

4. Wasn’t it shameful that she remarried so many times?

In a sermon on John 4, John Piper characterised serial marriage as a consequence of the Samaritan woman’s “cavernous thirst”—a phrase that has not aged well, by the way—and her tragically misplaced need for intimacy. If Reeder is correct, this way of understanding the story probably projects too much agency to an ancient woman, in addition to romanticising marriage.

Finances, housing, and children also constricted women’s ability to refuse a marriage, to divorce, or to remain unmarried following the end of a marriage.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p. 148

Ancient marriages were often arranged by family members, and even after one marriage ended, women sometimes reverted to living under their fathers’ authority. Marriage was both a social arrangement and an economic arrangement, and romantic and emotional bonds were thought to grow after cohabitation, not before. It is desperately anachronistic to characterise the woman as longing for intimacy, fleeing from one husband to another and divorcing them as she sees fit.

5. Finally, what about living with a man outside marriage?

This is really the lynchpin of Reeder’s argument, in my opinion. In a nutshell, throughout the Roman Empire, a type of “common law” marriage was in place, and probably had more standing than an American common law marriage, which is a frowned-upon legal technically. A mishnah says, “A wife is acquired by money, or by contract, or by sexual intercourse.”

Roman lawyers identified cohabitation as a form of marriage . . . This type of uncontracted marriage was just as legitimate as contracted marriage.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.136–137

Cohabitation was an acceptable way of initiating a “marriage”, and there were many legal categories that couldn’t marry, like slaves and soldiers. The working classes couldn’t afford a great feast, and once the families had arranged a match for them, they would simply move in together and begin their life together. In some cases, this was a precursor to contractual marriage, and historical legal documents bear this out.

Romans, Jews, and likely therefore also Samaritans recognized a variety of noncontractual, permanent (or semi-permanent) relationships as acceptable alternatives to a formal, contracted marriage. The range of household situations reminds us that “marriage” is flexible. It is defined and practiced differently in different times, cultures, and spaces. In the first century, the lack of a contract did not make the marital relationship any less legitimate.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.139

There’s one problem I see with this argument, which is the way it blurs too many categories that are integral to the interpretation of the story. She writes that cohabiting couples referred to each other as husband and wife (p.137), but this is expressly denied in the case of the Samaritan woman (John 4:17–18). In the same way, it’s a little confounding the way the book can alternately refer to the Samaritan woman as married and not married. Critics may consider Reeder to have merely muddied the water enough to make room for her pro-woman interpretation. In my view, her arguments are pretty strong, but this very last one, about cohabitation, is pretty difficult for me to swallow in view of my upbringing.

All in all, the second major section displays an impressive breadth of historical facts about ancient social life and family, substantiated by first-century sources, and this leads us to question the central role that sin usually plays in discussions of John 4. Sin is not mentioned in the story, and with power dynamics in place, it’s not at all clear whether Jesus’ words about her marital history were meant primarily to convict her of sin, or reveal the Messiah to her through supernatural knowledge.

History of Interpretation

The first half of the book goes over the history of interpretation. The range of interpretations is immediately impressive. Mark Driscoll calls the Samaritan woman “the leathery-faced town whore”; in contrast, Marie Dentière wrote the following:

What woman was a greater preacher than the Samaritan woman, who was not ashamed to preach Jesus and his word, confessing him openly before everyone, as soon as she heard Jesus say that we must adore God in spirit and truth?

Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre (1539)

I won’t recount this section in great detail here, but the interpreters covered include:

  • Tertullian
  • Origen
  • John Chrysostom
  • Marie Dentière
  • John Calvin
  • Clara Balfour
  • D. L. Moody
  • Liz Curtis Higgs
  • Barbara J. Essex
  • John Piper
  • Mary DeMuth

Some of these are included for their obvious historical weight; others are more or less illustrative of a minority viewpoint. Reeder is heavily engaged in social issues in her review of the modern authors. It was certainly interesting how she shows an interpretive gap between black women and white women, but I felt that race informed the discussion overmuch. Introducing a preacher in a book as a black or white person is a rather oddly loaded way to introduce someone, to my mind.

There are basically three modes: she is a harlot; she is a victim; and she is a disciple. Those that do not center the Samaritan woman’s story around her sexual sin are usually preoccupied with her as a victim of an unjust society. A few, though, see her primarily through her testimony. Many of the minority readings come from women, which shows how much the gender of the reader affects the interpretation. Men generally view her negatively; but some women throughout Reformed history at least have seen her as a tremendous witness in favor of women teaching.

The juxtaposition of Nicodemus (John 3) and the unnamed Samaritan woman (John 4) is an oft-referenced feature of the landscape of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus is honorable; comes at night; comes and goes without understanding. The Samaritan woman is nameless; speaks in broad daylight; takes in the revelation of Jesus and testifies to many.

Below is a short summary of some minority viewpoints from women:

We have reviewed similar interpretations from Marie Dentière and Virginia Broughton. This perspective is common among women writers: Christine de Pizan (writing in 1405), Argula von Grumbach (1523), Harriet Livermore (1824), Phoebe Palmer (1859), Elizabeth Baxter (1897). . . .

Marie Dentière wrote less than twenty years after Argula von Grumbach, but it is unlikely that she knew of Argula’s interpretation of the Samaritan woman, and neither woman would have known Christine de Pizan’s work. Margaret Fell would not have had access to these earlier interpreters. The women writing in the nineteenth century likely knew of each other, but not previous female interpreters. That these women independently found the same message in John 4:4-42 strengthens their challenge to the majority interpretation. (p.98)

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, p.98


The Samaritan woman’s story is a long, multifaceted two-way conversation with Jesus, and it is totally unique in many aspects. It is the only gospel ministry recorded among Samaritans, against Jesus’ general calling to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:25). It is the longest conversation that Jesus had anywhere in the Bible, let alone with a woman. The marital history is a single aspect of it that has probably been overinterpreted to become the lens for the whole narrative.

Reeder’s argument is extensively documented but accessibly written. Her book displays an impressive breadth of knowledge in several subfields, and she moves effortlessly between history, hermeneutics, and sociology. I especially enjoyed the weaving of biography and history of interpretation together. I love both biography and biblical studies, so I have been keeping an eye out for books that do this.

The Samaritan woman’s marriage history may conceivably be viewed as simply a “word of knowledge” (1 Cor. 12:8) that reveals the Messiah to her. The Pentecostal aspect of this story is generally overlooked by interpreters, the present author included.

If we see it as a Pentecostal revelation, this opens up another question about the text: was there something secret or unknowable about the woman’s marital history, or her present “relationship”? Is it possible that one of her past marriages involved an engagement and death that was not publicly recorded? Or that her ongoing relationship was kept under wraps because it was with someone whom it was impossible to marry for legal reasons, such as a soldier?

These proposals of mine are perhaps just as speculative as the going idea that she was “the town whore”. But Reeder’s review of the history and the history of interpretation of John 4 opens up these positive conceptions of the Samaritan woman and other possibilities, and certainly problematises the idea that she was an immoral outcast.

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