In our previous explorations of the well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, we have looked at how art and literature might provide us with tools for deepening our understanding of what we find there. Please refamiliarize yourself with the story. It also might be helpful if you go back and read the previous blogs, just to get a sense of what I am trying to do. I am not attempting an exhaustive commentary. I am just digging around beneath the surface of the story , and talking about some of the things I discover.
In the book of proverbs, the sage instructs us to feed our enemy if they are hungry, and if they are thirsty give them something to drink. The explanation is that in doing so we will heap `coals of fire upon their head. This is less about hair singeing and revenge, and more about providing `life essentials’ hospitality so that the `enemy’ will be shamed into rethinking their status and consider becoming a friend.
When Jesus shows up at the ancestral well side in Schechem He is not only alone and thirsty. He might well be seen as `the enemy.’ An `enemy’ asking for a drink…….
The woman speaks out. She describes the invisible `border wall’ between them. She is female. A Samaritan. Ethno cultural origins and gender should get in the way of a conversation like this. There are no dealings between Jews and Samaritans.
Jesus’s opening gambit, according to our storyteller, got this woman to put some important cards on the table.
(Sorry…since seeing `Crazy Rich Asians’ I’ve now got game theory, tribal and family traditions, and honor/shame categories on my mind.)
For John’s early audiences, it was the other way round. The Samaritan was regarded as the enemy. The tradition of enmity between them can be traced to stories of origin, as well as recent political outrage. …According to one ancient story in the second book of Kings, the king of Assyria had deported the Israelite inhabitants of the land of Samaria and repopulated the land with members of five other nations. These groups brought their own idolatrous worship practices, which they were forced to modify and combine with the worship of `the one true God. ’ This new population also developed a counter narrative in which they were the `true worshippers,’ with `correct’ temple location and deeper fidelity to the fundamentals of the Law. More recently, during the reign of Antiochus there was an attempt to impose Hellenistic customs upon the Israelites, leading to profanation of the temple and resulting in pushback/ the `Maccabean revolt.’ The Samaritans avoided being drawn into the conflict by disavowing any association with Israel.
So, there are stories of origin, contested `worship’ narratives and political distancing… Suffice to say, there was no love lost between these people groups.
We might even pick up an echo of some of these traditional tensions below the surface of the exchange between Jesus and this woman.
But wait, there’s more…….
For me, some of these background details give this familiar `well’ story that third dimension. So do the categories `shame’ and `honor.’ I am suggesting that we look for emphasis on these things as we reflect on the cultural background of the Biblical story. We might well classify this woman as `guilty.’….Why would she be ashamed, according to her cultural norms?
The woman is described as someone who is shamed in different ways.
She has been through multiple marriages. (In addition to this , she is past the acceptable number) Different Biblical scholars have given different reasons for these multiple marriages. Some suggest adultery. Others propose that the marriages were childless. She would be blamed. Impurity and/or infertility are both (equally?) shame factors.
Her ancestors worshipped non Israelite Gods. Some commentators have suggested that the reference to `five husbands’ was an subtle jab at the five nations the King of Assyria relocated to Samaria…….the nations and their Gods. The reference to a `sixth who is not your husband’ had more to do with recent strategically advantageous political liaisons (up to and including Rome?) and less to do with current live in boyfriends. Let me suggest that this use of oblique symbolism and imagery (on the part of Jesus, and the storyteller) might be consistent with the earlier multilevel use of `living water.’
In this narrative world (or narrated scene) it is fair to say that in the honor/shame system this woman cannot win for losing.
In addition, it is fair to say she had a mouth on her. When Jesus confronted her about her `five husbands’ some commentators suggest that she was embarrassed by the `reveal’ and tried to `save face’ by changing the subject. According to these commentators she begins by conceding the depth of His insight `I see you are a prophet’ and then veers off to talk about mountains and temples.
Other commentators pick up more of a sarcastic edge to her words. Her initial pushback acknowledges (?) Jesus’s adroit way of summing up her personal situation (or community’s political situation) but then she presses him for insight into the long standing tensions between the two communities. If those who pick up an edge to her tone are right, then she is still `in character’ as described by the storyteller.
Whatever assumptions we might make about the woman’s attitude and her lifestyle, we have to keep in mind that this does not (or should not) preclude the idea of this woman asking intelligent theological questions. She is self-aware, informed, and curious. Also, she is transparent enough in her testimony to her fellow villagers. (so…)What else did she and Jesus actually talk about? What kind of worshippers truly `honor’ God with their worship? Where does all of the above place her in the `spirit and truth’ grid?
NEXT UP …….`THE GOD WHO SEES ME’