Some recent articles I've written for magazines, blogs, and the like.
The Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus (John 4:1-42) has been with me for the last few years, in the back of my mind. Ever since my (Bible scholar) mother said to me, “You know that the woman at the well is most likely not a prostitute, right?” I’ve been trying to recast her into a different role. She has been typecast in most every performance as not only an enemy of Jesus’ Jewish tribe because of her identity as a Samaritan, but as a loose woman who should be ashamed of herself. But I’ve been looking for who else she might be, what other story she might have to offer me or the church.
When I look again, I see this woman is curious and intelligent. She asks good questions. She listens closely and offers her own insights on everything from history (vs. 12) to comparative religion (vs. 20).
She is a spiritual seeker who has the humility and wisdom to recognize the Savior of the world when she sees him.
She is a passionate and articulate preacher, convincing many from her city to see the Messiah for themselves (vs. 39). And she is courageous, speaking to the very folks who had rejected her.
Unfortunately, many commentators overlook these positive traits, and heap on ways to other her. One Saturday, I went to the local seminary to grab a pile of commentaries to see what they had to say about this unnamed woman who meets Jesus. The writings about her that I came across spanned from around 400 C.E. to 2011.
Not one was kind to her. They called her “markedly immoral”(1) and full of “evil deeds”(2) because she was “fornicating with a sixth man, not her husband but an adulterer.”(3) They called her “nonspiritual” and “selfish” because, in asking Jesus about living water, “all she wanted was something to save the effort of the long, hot trip from the village.”(4) Instead of curious and courageous, she was “a promiscuous flirt . . . holy men scurry from such women.”(5)
Making a woman feel less than because of her body and sexuality is a tool of control, a tool to keep her afraid and in her place. It is a tool of violence used to dehumanize a woman. This tool is so old it seems it should be falling apart by now, yet it finds new iterations every day. Whether it’s the woman who’s up for the promotion or the one who speaks up against her abuser, women know that they are vulnerable to being othered through insults like “slut” or “whore” in a way that men are not. A recent study found that male public figures get an average of 3.7 threatening or sexually explicit messages on social media per day; for women the average is 100 per day.(6)
But are the commentators’ words, though overly harsh, based on a grain of truth? Was the woman at the well a prostitute?
The word used for her past relationships is “husbands” (ἀνήρ), as opposed to her current relationship. She has not been sleeping around with random men, she has been legally wedded five times to five different husbands. And while some of those husbands may have died, more than likely at least a few of them divorced her. Since women could not initiate divorce in first century Palestine, each of those divorces was forced upon her; they were not her choice. She is not using the men in her life but is being rejected by them, over and over again.
Why would one woman be rejected by so many men? The text doesn’t give that answer. It is not because of her unfaithfulness—cheating women in Jewish and Samaritan societies were punished (i.e. stoned)—not divorced and remarried. The most likely reason for perpetual rejection in first century Palestine would be infertility: no children produced, she’s rejected; no children produced again, she’s rejected again. There could be other reasons: maybe she had a disability or a mental health issue, or perhaps she burned the coffee one too many times. The text doesn’t say.
But we can say with confidence that she was not a career prostitute. And in all likelihood, the pain in her past was not due to her immorality. She was rejected by her own husbands and her village (she was at the well midday, alone), and has been rejected via shaming in the 2,000 years since—yet the causes of her rejection are almost assuredly not her fault.
I wonder if she has been journeying at the back of my mind because I can relate to her and I, too, need the courage and redemption she finds. As a spiritual seeker, I can relate to her desire for truth. As a woman in this world, I understand the type of shame and othering reserved particularly for women. And as a female preacher in a Mennonite context, I am sometimes undermined and overlooked in ways my male colleagues are not.
Our churches can be painful places for women—where women are treated like enemies just for speaking their truth. But while commentators through the ages may have harsh words for this intelligent and passionate seeker and preacher, Jesus never does. Even though he knows and names her painful history, Jesus regards the Samaritan woman with nothing but respect and love. She is not defined by her painful past; she is not an other or an enemy but is welcomed as an insider, an equal, maybe even a friend.
Jesus’ act of welcome, then, is a healing act, and from this healing this woman is empowered to welcome others to come and see the Messiah.
And so I think this woman and her discovery of living water can be a guide for me, for all of us attempting to follow Jesus while female.
As she courageously makes her way through a patriarchal world that doesn’t make it easy for her, maybe we can follow her.
Maybe if she can bring her doubts and questions about faith, ours are welcome as well.
Maybe if she can be recast in a different role, we can be, too—a role free of the blame and shame our culture heaps on the bodies of women.
And maybe if Jesus frees her to speak her truth boldly, he can do the same for us.
1 Anchor Bible Commentary, Raymond and Brown, eds. Doubleday & Co., 1966.
2 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, John-Merrill C. Tenney and Frank E. Gaebelein, eds. Zondervan, 1981.
3 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Jn 1-10, “Commentary by Maximus of Turin (380-465 CE),” Joel C. Elowsky, ed. InterVarsity, 2006.
4 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, John-Merrill C. Tenney and Frank E. Gaebelein, eds. Zondervan, 1981.
5 The Upside-Down Kingdom (Updated Edition), Donald Kraybill. Herald Press, updated edition 2011.
6 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Online Harassment. Citing a University of Maryland Study in 2006.
This article was reprinted with permission from The Mennonite.
Click here to read the story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser. Published by StepUp Durham, April 2016.
In 2004, Pinkey got a call from her daughter-in-law. It was about her son Clinton, who was a high school teacher. He had been shot three times.
“I was numb,” she says. “Clinton died five days before his 25th birthday. His son—my grand baby—hadn’t turned a year old yet.”
Click here to read the story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser. Published by StepUp Durham, February 2016.
Stoff tells me that he’s seen success, but he’s also seen failure—he’s been through a lot. His right forearm bears a message that reads: Once I had everything, thought I had nothing. It wasn’t until I had nothing, I realized I had everything.
He points to the tattoo. "This is my life," he says.