The Gospel of John is a wonderful text at every level of reading and understanding. It is poetic, it has amazing narratives such as the Samaritan Woman at the Well (today’s gospel), and more. It is also a quite nuanced text. Consider the following segment of the conversation:
16 Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” 17 The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ 18 For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.
The most popular understanding – meaning what most assume about the text – is that this woman is a sinner. But, the text is not necessarily evidence of the woman’s immorality. In any case, Jesus does not judge her; any moral judgments are imported into the text by interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than her moral laxity. Perhaps the woman, like Tamar in Genesis 38, is trapped in the custom of levitate marriage (Deut 25:5-10; see also Luke 20:27-33), and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her. There are lots of other explanations. In response to Jesus’ words, the Samaritan woman says:
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”
This might be a clever change of topic to avoid the obvious and embarrassing, but I would suggest there is something else in the nuance.
There are perhaps OT echoes within this exchange between Jesus and the woman. 2 Kings 17:24 indicates that after the fall of the Northern Kingdom: “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria and settled in its cities. “People from five nations were resettled in Samaria. In ancient Hebrew the word for husband was ba’al – “On that day, says the Lord, she (Israel – 10 northern tribes) shall call me, ‘My Husband’ and never again ‘My Ba’al’ “(Hos 2:18). In Genesis, Hagar, the slave wife of Abraham refers to him as ba’al; Sarah, the free wife, speaks of him as adon – both indicating a marital relationship. The term ba’al means “husband”, “lord”, or “master”, and thus became a word for “gods”. A little later in 2 Kings 17:29, we are told “every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities they lived”. Could the five husbands symbolize the five nations and their gods? [Note that 2 Kings 17:30-31 lists seven gods worshiped by the five nations.]
As interesting as that nuance may be…what would it mean to we 21st century people?
This morning Bishop Barron posted, “Think of the five husbands as five errant paths that the woman has taken. She has “married” herself to wealth, pleasure, honor, power, material things, etc. Or think of them as five ideologies or gurus that she has followed, hoping to find joy”
Certainly a thought for each of us to see how many spouses each of us had or still has.
Bishop Barron concludes: “The point of the story is that Jesus is proposing marriage to the woman, to his Bride the Church. Only in him will the human race find happiness, peace, and the “spring of water welling up to eternal life.”