Session 9 - Jesus, the Samaritan Woman, and Breaking Cultural Barriers
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised
to find him [Jesus] talking with a woman. John 4:27
- Women in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds.
- Aristotle, as did most Greek philosophers, believed that the
male was superior physically and mentally to the female and therefore
was destined to rule over her. (The Stoics held a somewhat higher view
- Except among the highest social classes, women were educated in the
- Greek women married early (e.g. 14 years compared to 35 years for men).
In Greek law, a woman was under authority to a male throughout her life.
Divorce laws were much more liberal for men than women. Under the Romans,
rules were more liberal (requiring consent for marriage by both parties).
Divorce rates were high in Roman times.
- The most important role of women among the Greeks and Romans was childbearing.
- Women who worked typically worked in the home (there were a few midwives
and merchants). Occasionally a woman accumulated considerable wealth (such
- Generally, women did not address public assemblies.
- Women enjoyed the greatest degree of freedom in public religion, serving
as priestesses/prophetesses (e.g. Delphi). Occasionally, women participated
independently in religious ceremonies (such as the celebration of Bacchus,
the god of wine).
- In general, the role of Jewish women during the time of Christ was
more restricted than for the Gentiles. There is some evidence, however,
of exceptions (an inscription suggests that Rufinia was the head of a
synagogue during the second century after the birth of Christ).
- Given this background, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at
the well is remarkable both in the character of the woman and the interaction
between the woman and Jesus.
- Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well.
- Women in the gospel of John play an important role (Mary the
mother of Jesus, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well).
This narrative is one of many which emphasize the central role of women
in the ministry of Jesus.
- Seeking water at Jacobs well a view of the woman who confronts
Jesus and His response to her.
- We will concentrate on the woman and the response of Jesus to the
woman rather than the message of Jesus in this study. We must remember,
however, that John provides this narrative to us primarily so that
we may know Jesus (the self revelation of Jesus to us of His nature
and destiny), not the Samaritan woman.
- Some have suggested that this woman was unusual in that she comes
alone to the well and comes at midday (the usual time would have been
evening when many women gathered at the well). (4:6, 7) Most, however,
believe drawing water would have been a normal activity for a woman
who perhaps was helping workers in the nearby fields. She must have
been of a lower social status or she would not be engaged in this
activity. It is possible her poor reputation in the area would have
lead her to come alone to the well.
- The address of Christ to the woman (do me a favor) was unusual.
(4:7) She recognized Him as a Jew (probably by His speech). Jews did
not speak to Samaritans in public. Male Jews usually did not speak
to females in public. (There is a rabbinical saying, A man should
hold no conversation with a woman in the street, not even with his
own wife, still less with any other woman, lest men gossip.)
Jesus must have recognized something special in this woman.
- The woman confronts Jesus with His unusual behavior. (4:9) She
was bold and probably not ladylike. Yet Jesus is not offended
with her (as He might have been with the Pharisees).
- Jesus immediately begins a discussion of living water.
(4:10) The womans native intelligence is apparent. Her response
(4:11, 12) is very much like the response of Nicodemus (a ruler and
intellectual) in John 3:4, that is, a concrete question with abstract
overtones. She appreciated that Jesus was speaking of something more
than physical water but pursued the discussion with a concrete question.
- Jesus does not hesitate to confront her with her sins. He does
not hesitate to inform her that He sees through her, that he can look
back into her life and into her heart. (4:16)
- As bold as this woman was initially, she was repentant when confronted
with the facts regarding her relationship with men. (4:17)
- When further confronted, the woman does not become defensive but
rather could see Jesus. The insight displayed by this woman into the
person of Jesus is remarkable. She did not see Him as an abstract
figure (though He had spoken to her in the abstract). She perceives
that a Jew might resolve the age old controversy between the Jews
and the Samaritans (the Jews did not perceive that Jesus could resolve
the controversy between the Jews and the Romans even though Jesus
was a Jew). (4:19, 20)
- After Jesus further reveals Himself to the woman (4:21 24),
she expresses even greater insight. (4:25) She moves beyond the insight
of Nicodemus in the preceding chapter (we do not read that Nicodemus
moves beyond the confusion which initially brought him to Jesus, though
later he was apparently a follower [John 19:38 42]). The fact
that these two encounters in chapters three and four are juxtaposed
begs us to compare the responses of these two characters to Jesus.
- Jesus probably reveals that He is the Messiah first to this woman
(4:26) though He was recognized earlier (1:41). Later in the gospel
of John, another woman, Mary Magdala was the first to witness the
resurrection (Chapter 20). It is probably more significant, in the
case of the woman at the well, that Jesus reveals His true status
to a Samaritan (one who would not misinterpret his mission as a political
mission) than to a woman. Nevertheless, that these women are the first
to receive two of the greatest revelations regarding Jesus is most
- The disciples return and are surprised that He is talking with
the woman, but they do not rebuke him, suggesting that this encounter
was not all that unusual. (4:27) Jesus was very comfortable in the
company of women from all stations of life.
- The woman is a convincing witness. (4:29, 30) Given her probable
status in the area, this is remarkable (yet it is the power of the
message rather than the messenger which is the more remarkable). Why
should they listen to this frequently married woman who came to the
well at noon rather than evening? She plants the seed by raising the
unlikely question, Could this be the Christ [Messiah]?
- The woman is open with the townspeople, revealing what must have
been a painful history. (4:39)
- The woman fades from the center of this narrative as the Samaritans
from that town believe for themselves (4:42). Nevertheless, more space
is devoted to this woman than to most persons other than the apostles
in the New Testament.
- Some Lessons from Johns Gospel Regarding the Role of Women in the
- The Samaritan woman at the well overcomes several barriers
(not just her womanhood) in her quest to know Jesus. These included cultural
(she was a Samaritan), spiritual (she was not Jewish) and status (she
was a known sinner). Her boldness is a stark contrast to the role into
which we frequently place women, yet her boldness is depicted in this
narrative as a strength, not a weakness. She tends to be more than less
representative of the women depicted in John (especially Mary the mother
of Jesus, Mary Magdala and Martha).
- Though women typically maintained their social roles, they had a profound
impact during Jesus ministry (as witnesses, as examples, as key
- Women were especially important as examples of the necessary openness
to Jesus which is essential to a clear understanding of His revelation
(a personal revelation of who He is). The more He said, the more she
wanted to hear.
- Women were also important examples of persons who were uninhibited
by their roles (or agendas) from acting upon the revelation. They
were more open. Some might suggest that this means they were more
easily swayed. I believe they were ideal witnesses and therefore they
were listened to despite their backgrounds and status.
- The woman at the well was a prime example of the good soil,
ready to hear the testimony of the Messiah (in contrast, for example,
- The women in the Gospel of John are excellent examples for both men
- The women were primarily disciples, yet they exhibited qualities of
leadership in their discipleship.
- The most important women in the early community of persons who followed
Jesus were those who confessed Him and were witnesses of His saving grace
to others. Despite our interest in the role of women, the message was
more important than the messengers.
- Nevertheless, Jesus did not appoint women as one of the original twelve
apostles. The significance of this distinction has been debated. Some
suggest that the culture of the time would not have accepted women as
apostles whereas others suggest that there were women leaders in Israel
(such as Deborah and Queen Alexandra [who ruled Israel before Herod the
Great]). These latter also argue that Christ did not hesitate to break
cultural traditions in other areas (such as eating and healing on the
Sabbath). Therefore Christs selection of only men as a clear statement
of role distinction is debated to this day.
- The injunctions of Paul regarding women must be considered in light
of the role of women in the gospels and the relationship of Jesus with
- Sterling, GE: Women in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (323 BCE
138 CE), in Osburn, CD (ed.): Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity. (Volume
I) Joplin, MO, College Press, 1993, pp. 41 92
- Chesnutt, RD: Jewish women in the Greco-Roman era, in Osburn, CD (ed.):
Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity. (Volume I) Joplin, MO, College Press,
1993, pp. 93 130
- Wheeler, F: Women in the gospel of John, in Osburn, CD (ed.): Essays on
Women in Earliest Christianity. (Volume I) Joplin, MO, College Press, 1993,
pp. 197 - 224