Christians have a tendency to repeat well-known interpretations of Scriptural passages without giving them much attention. But sometimes taking a look from a different angle can bring surprising insights.
Take the well-known story of Jesus in discussion with the woman at the well of Samaria. Jesus tells the woman that she is not currently married to the man she is with, and has had five husbands previously. Typically, the woman’s response to his statement is taken as an attempt to divert his attention from this embarrassing fact. After he has disclosed her rather compromised past, she tries to divert him by drawing him into a long-running controversy between Jews and Samaritans as to which mountain they should pray on. This, surely, will get into such tangled argument that he will forget about her past. Jesus, however, recognises this devious ploy and brings her back to his message by telling her that her question is irrelevant – we will now no longer need to go to a mountain to pray, but will be able to pray in spirit and truth. He ignores the essence of what she said and goes back to the point he was trying to emphasis.
But is that what Jesus was doing?
Is that really what the woman was doing? Let’s look at her behaviour from a different angle, assuming that what we have reported is a genuine, respectful, pastoral approach from Jesus to a person who did not need to be told of her sin – she was already all too aware of that.
We note that when Jesus reveals that he knows of her compromised past, she does not try to justify herself, or blame her husbands for casting her off, or reject him as a Jew (who normally would have no dealings with a Samaritan, and a woman at that!), or any other response – she could have simply walked off – after all, didn’t everyone know of her past? What has Jesus said that would make any difference?
We could actually take this woman as a person of insight and spiritual desire – and come to a different understanding of why she said what she said.
Try reading it this way instead:
Jesus reveals to her that he knows about her chequered past. She immediately feels the force of his comment – he has revealed her sin – sin which she desires to be rid of – which she knows she has to be rid of. But how to deal with that sin? To have her sin forgiven she needed to take a sacrifice to the priests at the temple. But which temple? How could she be sure she would have her sins forgiven if she went to Mt Gerizim, or should she go to Jerusalem as the Jews insisted? If this man really was a prophet, he would know the answer to the conundrum and then she could go to the right temple to find forgiveness from God.
So she asked, where should she go to worship? Not just for a worship service such as we have on Sunday, but where to bring the necessary sacrifice for sin and thus find peace.
Jesus said: That is all coming to an end: it is worship in the spirit and in truth which now matters. Worship in a temple will no longer matter – in fact, that is now the case.
She then said that she expected the Messiah to come to reveal all things to them. When Jesus said, I am that same Messiah, she went back to the city and told the people there that someone claiming to be the Messiah had arrived, and he had revealed her past. Many of the Samaritans believed her, asked Jesus to remain with them, and many believed because of what he said. And as a result, they acknowledged that Jesus was the saviour of the world.
But this woman, who had such a chequered past, was the first to believe and to find salvation in Christ.
Truly, He was the temple which she sought and in whom she found forgiveness for sin.
Her question truly was not a diversion from her embarrassing past, but an insight into who was before her. Jesus did not have to draw her back to the issue under discussion, but answered her question precisely – not in the way she expected, but giving the answer she needed nevertheless.
Sometimes our standard interpretation tells us less of the gospel than an approach which appears to go counter to how we typically hear that gospel explained to us.
Originally posted on http://www.reformationalscholarship.com/
Since publishing this post, a relevant article on this passage has appeared in Christianity Today. Dr Lynn Cohick writes on the question: Was the woman of Samaria an adulteress? While she takes a different approach to the passage, it is complementary to my reflections on the passage and the two articles could be read together to address a number of issues with our conventional interpretations.