Besides being a place to clandestinely smoke a cigarette, high school bathrooms also served as a message board of sorts and I’ve never known another public space like it. There was an ever-present battle between students with Sharpies and facilities caretakers that took place on the walls of the stalls. Usually, they were confessions of love for someone “4 life,” but there was one other common message: an accusation of promiscuity.
Kim is a slut. Angela is a whore. Christina gets around.
My school was always too big to even guess which Kim or Angela or Christina the wall was whispering about. I wondered, though, was this inscription a result of a rumor or just the start of it? Were they just repeating something someone else had told them? Or, was this the place a woman’s reputation got ruined because someone else was bored and they didn’t consider the consequences?
I wonder that about the woman at the well. If you’ve been in church for a length of time, I bet you’ve heard of her. We find her in John 4 trying to get her errands done when Jesus interrupts her. Their exchange dominates the bulk of the chapter, so there’s plenty we learn about her from the text. But, there’s something else typically added to any sermon or teaching about her.
She’s usually described as an “immoral woman.”
I cannot remember the number of preachers—well-meaning and probably unknowing—who have furthered the rumor mill regarding this unnamed woman in their sermons. But do we really know her?
Jesus, in the midst of their conversation, requests for her to bring her husband back to the well with her. She has no husband, she declares. And then—the truth that began the rumor: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is quite true.’”
Five husbands, the preachers declare! What a promiscuous woman with a trail of past husbands behind her and now, a live-in boyfriend! Suddenly, she’s no longer the Samaritan woman at the well. She’s a slut and we’ve continued to scrawl this idea into the margins of this story.
We assume something the text never said. We forget there are other ways and reasons to have a five-husband past—and they wouldn’t be her fault.
In the first century, women weren’t regarded as much. Her expressed surprise when Jesus speaks to her reminds us of that. This was a world where women were always at the mercy of the men.
So, it’s just as plausible—if not more likely—that these failed marriages were the result of either her being given a divorce or being widowed. Women weren’t typically able to divorce their husbands and any kind of split from a man resulted in the loss of provision. She’d immediately lose her financial security by his choice or untimely death. That’s why the Bible is so concerned with the care of widows—they were the most economically vulnerable. Suddenly, her live-in boyfriend goes from being an illicit relationship to a means of survival. Simply change the vantage point of the story and she moves from femme fatale to a casualty of her own culture.
Why do we do this to her?
Maybe it fits the narratives we already know, whether we read it on the walls of the bathroom or in the description of what a woman was wearing when she was taken advantage of. There’s one thing I know for sure, though: the story doesn’t need us to question her morals to make its point.
She’s an unlikely friend of a future king without bringing her sexual history into question. Being a Samaritan leaves her outside of God’s chosen people and being a woman makes her unworthy of this prophet’s time. Regardless, Jesus speaks to her in broad daylight and, for the first time in John’s gospel, shares the secret of who He really is.
John gives us a story of a woman—an irreligious outsider—holding her own in a conversation with “their” Messiah. Just two scenes earlier, Nicodemus, an educated religious man who visits by night, isn’t able to do the same. She remains unnamed, but the story can’t help but return to the consequence of their unexpected exchange at the well: the people believe her and then they believe Jesus as a result.
Don’t let this woman, an example of unlikely faith, become a casualty of our culture, too. You can’t always believe the writing on the wall or the rumor from the pulpit. Let her story speak for itself.