The following is a meditation upon the narrative of Christ and the Samaritan woman informed by ancient Palestinian Jewish marriage customs and the place of women in Palestinian society. As such, it is presented as the opinions of the author and not a statement to the exclusion or contradiction of patristic commentary on this Gospel reading.
The fourth Sunday of Pascha commemorates the Samaritan woman with whom Our Lord is recorded in John 4 as having had a very important, but enigmatic encounter. The narrative is familiar to us as well as the majority of interpretations of it. Yet, in the following post, I offer a different perspective* on the narrative, one that is merely a possibility, an opinion, and is not intended to contradict or substitute for the traditional treatment of it. In doing so, I hope to provide some context for how we engage in the practice of Orthodoxy and our engagement with heterodoxy, touching perhaps upon the very raison d’être of the enterprise of this web log. First, let us begin by examining the Samaritan woman and her place in Palestinian society.
Person or Property?
As we consider the narrative of the Samaritan woman, almost by default we assume that she was “a sinner,” an active participant in sexually deviant acts. By the fact that she had five previous husbands, and the man she was living with at the time was not her husband, we somehow assume that it was her fault as if she were in complete control of these situations. In doing this we enter into a frame of mind whereby we understand Jesus to be confronting her about her sexual sins (though tacitly and tactfully). But is this the case?
The records that we have regarding Palestinian Jewish (and by analogy, Samaritan) marriage customs and the place of women in society leave open the possibility to understand this woman as being more victimized by sin rather than being so much a “sinner” herself, that the situation in which she found herself was engendered by her culture and society, and was a complex web of abuse and sin.
In 1st century Palestine, Jewish women were typically married at a very young age, probably in their late teens, to much older men, perhaps in their thirties.† Marriages were arranged by family members or by the bridegroom himself, though there was not likely to be much say in it for the bride-to-be. Marriages were arranged for their economic and social benefits, and perhaps only in rare cases because a young couple met and “fell in love.” As a young girl, she was treated legally as the property of her father. As she was likely to have been married off before she reached the age of maturity (thirteen), she would be under male control continuously throughout her life. According to biblical law, if, before marriage, a young girl were raped, her father would receive damages (Deut. 22:28-29), and likewise, if a young woman were seduced, the male would have to pay a bride price to the father, and in both cases he would be forced marry her (Ex. 22:16-17) regardless of the psychological trauma that would have resulted from a girl having to marry her rapist. In some cases, a father could sell his deflowered daughter as a slave and recoup damages (Ex. 21:7), again without regard to the psychological state of the girl. Since these cases are treated in detail in Rabbinic literature, we may assume that these attitudes must have prevailed, whether or not the customs were practiced to exactitude. A husband received “ownership” of his wife from her father and controlled every aspect of her life. As such, a married woman was little more than chattel to her husband, and it was seen as a virtue for a man to have complete control over his household.
Torah-practicing Jews and presumably Samaritans considered it a sacred duty commanded by God to “be fruitful and multiply,” and, if a man had a barren wife, he could divorce her, and acquire another wife for the sake of fulfilling the Torah. If male sterility were suspected, she could be divorced and remarried, thinking that she may bear children with another husband. If the Samaritan woman of John 4 had five husbands, we might assume, rather than sexual impropriety on her part, she could have been the victim of a system of law that so treated women at the expedience of producing children. Regarding the man she was cohabiting with, it is again unlikely that she was doing so out of sheer sexual promiscuity. Rather, after having five husbands, it was not likely that she would be married again. In such a society, single women except for widows were almost unheard of, and survival would have necessitated that she be attached to a man, either as a wife or as a concubine. If she were in such a concubinal relationship, it would have been forced upon her out of the sheer necessity to survive and provide for any children she may have had in her previous marriages. If she had children at the time, as the Orthodox tradition attests to, they would have been born to her during her concubinage (and thus not regarded as heirs) or expelled (and thereby disinherited) by a previous husband. As the Gospels attest to, divorce was common, and a woman could be “put away” for a variety of reasons with a certificate of divorce (Matt. 19). If a woman were to be divorced, she would become emancipated and free to choose a new husband. If she were divorced for reasons other than adultery, she would be given back her dowry. If she were guilty of adultery, she could be divorced and allowed to marry her paramour. In any case, the Samaritan woman was likely in dire straits, for an emancipated woman, either a divorcée or widow, would have struggled to survive unless she was independently wealthy. The scenario envisioned by many of us today of a free woman in complete control of her sexuality and able to make decisions regarding her sexuality independent of the issue of her and her children’s very survival is extremely unlikely.
The Samaritan Woman and the Son of God
While it is not impossible that the Samaritan woman was a serial adulteress, I hope that the preceding description of the place of women in Palestinian marriage customs would be sufficient to cause us to reconsider the situation. Even if she were guilty of some sexual sin, the situation which led to such sin may have been far more complicated than we have been willing to admit. Women in that society did not have as much freedom as women do today, and their sexual freedom was very tightly controlled by men. Such tight control and the lack of economic opportunity outside of marriage would have made for a very difficult life situation.
We are not given many details regarding this woman’s situation. The narrative stops short of calling her an adulteress, a prostitute, or a concubine, and Jesus himself shows restraint in judging her specifically as an adulteress. By speaking with this woman, Jesus would have already broken a Jewish sexual taboo, whereby engaging in conversation with a woman not his wife, a Jewish man was seen to be placing himself at the risk of sexual temptation (m. Avot 1:5). So, then, it is not simply that men were not to speak with women for the sake of social propriety, but rather that there were sexual taboos in place that would have made this scene not only odd, but daring as well. It could be said then that Jesus is entering her “sexual space,” though he has no interest in her for any reason other than to bring her salvation. He enters into her sexual space in order to heal it.
Furthermore, he asks her for a drink, the implications of which perhaps go unnoticed. Such service as drawing water would be done routinely by a wife for her husband and children. That a married woman should serve another man in this way might have been considered as an invasion of the “marital space” of the woman and her husband. A man would have drawn the water himself, not asked another man’s wife or concubine to perform such a duty, one that was legally reserved for a woman to her husband (and the failure to perform such a duty would be grounds for divorce in some ancient Jewish legal traditions). Again, Jesus enters and, as it were, violates her personal space, this time the space of marital duties, in order that he may spiritually espouse her to himself as a pure bride (Eph. 5:27).
We know today that many sins, including sexual sin, substance abuse, and violence may be caused by a person having suffered such sins in the past. Victims of sin are often led to repeat such sins as they struggle to cope with psychological trauma. A person who has been sexually abused may not develop the proper sense of dignity and self respect resulting in a life of promiscuity. A person who is violently abused may turn to other forms of abuse in order to cope with the psychological pain. Why then should we focus upon the Samaritan woman as a “sinner” per se rather than as a woman who was caught in a web of abuse and victimization which perhaps lead her to commit further sin. We might be able to imagine the enormous psychological pain she must have dealt with on a daily basis – depression, despair, and fear. Rather than being a woman of loose morals, perhaps she was trapped in an endless cycle of abuse, imprisoned in a life of darkness as so many people are today.
And into this web of fear, entered a Jewish Man, who also happened to be the Son of God. He divulges her situation not to condemn her, but to simply say “I know.” Furthermore, as he steps into her womanly space, he draws her into his masculine and divine space, for he is the God-Man. By conversing with her, he brings her into the space of men, the space of public discourse, and in doing so affords her more dignity than she perhaps had ever received in her life. He tells her that she should ask him for a drink, a drink of living water, that he, the Son of God, should serve her and not be served, again affording her respect, dignity, and a sense of personhood that she had likely never experienced.
Jesus demonstrates that he has come not only to save sinners and forgive trespasses, but to save those who have suffered sins and trespasses at the hands of others. Jesus saves both sinners and victims of sin, and he does so by encountering them as persons, affirming their dignity and personhood as only he can. Jesus did not meet her as a movement, a religious philosophy, or a set of dogmas. He met her as a person, “neither Jew nor [Samaritan], neither male nor female.” It is only then that he is able to meet her with his theology – and his theology is personal, hypostatic, and not ideological. The Father seeks worshippers – persons – not places such as Jerusalem or Mt. Gerazim, not ethnic groups like Jews or Samaritans, but persons who worship in spirit and in truth—Liturgical Persons, Eucharistic Persons.
Herein lies the point: The engagement of Orthodoxy with heterodoxy at an ideological level must occur after there is a meeting of persons made in the image of God to affirm such personhood with dignity, respect, and love. If Jesus had initially met the Samaritan woman with his theology of worship in spirit and truth, it would have been interpreted as foreign, as “Jewish,” and would have garnered contempt. But Jesus moves into her “space” and heals her by drawing her into his “space,” which is the space of true anthropos, of true hypostatic personhood. It is only in this context that Orthodoxy may be revealed as her Greek name Photini (“enlightened one”) indicates.
St. Paul wrote in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).
We may speak the language of perfect Orthodoxy, sing our liturgies with angelic melodies, receive the Holy Mysteries, and have zealous faith to move mountains, but if we do not have love – not just a feeling but the gift of personhood – we are nothing. True Orthodoxy and the participation in its Mysteries, before it is a set of dogmas and traditions, is a continuous revelation of personhood, the personhood of Christ as we grow in our union with him. The expression of Orthodoxy is not merely in words and ideas, but in a Eucharistic exchange of the personhood of Christ as we are transformed into its image and give it as a gift to the world, which they may receive with thanksgiving and in it find salvation.
*The thought behind this perspective was engendered by this post by NT scholar James McGrath.
† Satlow, Michael L. “Rabbinic Views on Marriage, Sexuality, and the Family.” In The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 4 The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Ed. Steven T. Katz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 618.