Historical Cultural Context
A popular proverb says: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” In the case of Bible stories, familiarity blunts sensitivity and often blocks proper understanding. Anyone familiar with Mediterranean culture immediately identifies shocking and jarring elements in this story.
What Is Wrong With This Picture?
Scholars doubt that this event ever took place in the life of Jesus. There is no Synoptic evidence for a ministry in Samaria. Indeed, Jesus forbade it. (Mt 10:5) After the resurrection, John was involved in the mission to Samaria (Acts 8:1-8), and the Johannine community contained Samaritan believers. This scene was, therefore, likely read back into Jesus’ life-time from the history of the Johannine community.
From a Mediterranean cultural perspective, there are other irregularities that offer new insight into the story.
(1) Wrong place, wrong time. The Mediterranean world is divided according to gender. Women have their places (kitchen, home); men have theirs (outdoors, the fields, the gate, the marketplace). The well is space common to both men and women, but they ought not to be there at the same time. Women can use the place only in morning or evening. Here, the woman comes to the well at noon...when other women will be properly elsewhere. She is alone.
(2) Speaking to a strange man in public. Even the woman admits this irregularity. “How is it that you, a Judean man, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jn 4:9) Culture indicates that the problem is not different ethnic heritage but different genders. For a man to speak to an unchaperoned woman in a public place is very suspicious.
(3) Talking to other men in a public place. After her discussion with and enlightenment by Jesus, the woman went to the village marketplace, the place reserved for men; women should not enter there when men are present.
What Is The Evangelist Intending To Say With This Scene?
Clearly, a cultural subversion is taking place. Modern social scientists would call this a cultural innovation. John seems to be confirming new roles for women in his community.
Jesus not only talks with the woman, but in a carefully orchestrated, seven-part dialogue (each speaks seven times) he guides her progressively from ignorance to enlightenment, from misunderstanding to clearer understanding. She is the most carefully and intensely catechized person in this entire Gospel!
Though the woman demonstrates her brazenness in discussing “masculine,” political-religious topics (“Messiah” and “Temple”) with Jesus, he accepts her questions and answers them rather than steering her back to “feminine” topics. Revolutionary indeed!
The evangelist reports: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” (Jn 4:39) But the village men in the narrative offer a left-handed compliment: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.” (Jn 4:42)
Comparing and contrasting women’s place in ancient Mediterranean and contemporary Western culture is instructive in its own right but ought not deflect attention from the woman’s astonishing and rapid insight into who Jesus really is: “Judean [a scornfully pronounced identification],” “sir” “prophet,” and “Messiah,” leading ultimately to the village’s recognition of Jesus as “Savior of the world.” Would that all believers could progress as insightfully and rapidly as she and her village did.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University