The Gospel of John is full of symbolic imagery, the contrast between darkness and light being perhaps the most prominent image of all. Jesus is the light. Those who follow him live in the light. Those opposed to him live in darkness. We saw this in our Gospel reading from last week about Nicodemus who was “a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish people.” (John 3:1).
Nicodemus was apparently curious about Jesus, but not willing to threaten his status and position, so “He came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2) in order to ask Jesus some questions, but Nicodemus fails to understand him. Jesus is harsh in his response, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.” (John 3:10-11) and “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds might not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21). In other words, “Nicodemus, you creep and crawl in darkness to question me, but you are not willing to come into the light with me.” And Nicodemus disappears into the night, his status and position unthreatened.
Our reading for today from John chapter 4 about the Samaritan woman stands in stark contrast to the story of Nicodemus. In this story we have an unnamed woman who is not Jewish, but Samaritan. Thus, in the eyes of most Jewish men, she is a person of little consequence or status. Scholars differ about the origin story of Samaritans, but what they can agree on is that they were close cousins, perhaps even siblings of Jewish people and the family feud between them was fierce. For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighboring lands and practiced similar religions while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. The Jewish-Samaritan hostility climaxed in 128 BCE when John Hyrcanus, high priest, and ruler of the Jewish people, destroyed the Samaritan capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim to the ground. When travelling from the northern territory of Galilee to Jerusalem the quickest route would have been through Samaria. However, most Jewish people would rather go the long way around then risk encounters with Samaritans. Jesus does not do this. He goes straight through the heart of Samaria in the broad light of the middle of the day. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. The Samaritan woman encounters Jesus in the brightest light of the day. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:21)
Since about the third century, this passage about the Samaritan woman has been reduced by scholars and preachers as being a tale of sexual morality and forgiveness The woman has used her sexuality badly. She is the one at fault for her marriage failures. Some have even called her a prostitute. John Calvin even called her an adulterer who forced her husbands to divorce her. Most preachers today are willing at least to recognize that she may have been a victim of her culture, but still they say, she made bad choices, and isn’t it amazing grace that Jesus loved her anyway. Sadly, this interpretation has served patriarchy and misogyny more than Scripture and God’s kingdom and it doesn’t stand up upon close examination of the passage.
If you look at the passage closely. We are never told of the reasons for her five marriages and her sixth relationship of co-habitation. While five marriages were unusual then as now, being unusual does not make it immoral. In Jesus time and place, marriage had nothing to do with love, romantic attraction, and sex, except sex as procreative action. Most women were betrothed to a man of her family’s choosing between the ages of 12 and 15. The young woman did have to consent, but it would have been difficult for her to go against the wishes of her male elders. The marriage was contracted to bind families together and for the birth of children. It was hoped that romantic feelings and love would develop as the couple lived out their lives together, but if they did not, no matter. In Roman society, though not Jewish society, it was acceptable and expected that men would seek sexual partners outside of their marriage. Woman did not have this privilege, as they were the property of their husbands.
Under Roman law both a woman and a man could initiate divorce and it was common and accepted. There was no stigma to taking such an action. It is likely though that more men sought divorce than women, as woman were in a much more vulnerable position than men once divorced, and their children were considered to be the property of the father, so divorcing women would lose their children. Jewish law allowed only men to initiate divorce. As a result, Jewish women who were also Roman citizens who wanted a divorce would do so under Roman law, and did.
In Jesus’ day, it was expected that anyone who was widowed would seek remarriage, in order to have more children and to advance the financial status of their family. Widowed women in particular, unless wealthy, would need to seek remarriage for their own survival or to advance their family’s financial, social, or political standing, all of which would have been perfectly acceptable reasons in their culture. These second, third and sometimes fifth marriages were still contracted by the male leader of the widowed women’s family. She could not seek such a marriage out and contract it on her own. It was also perfectly acceptable in Jesus’ day to cohabitate without the legal contract of marriage and there were good reasons for doing so. There were many restrictions around marriage. Soldiers could not marry. Slaves could only marry other slaves. Roman citizens could not marry noncitizens. If a man already had heirs and did not wish to split his property with additional children from a new relationship, he might choose to cohabitate but not marry. Cohabitation was a culturally acceptable alternative to contracted marriage when contracted marriage was not possible.
I share all this with you to explain that there are many explanations for the Samaritan woman’s five marriages and sixth relationship, beyond the idea that she was somehow a wanton woman who was not in control of her sexual desires. And the text simply doesn’t tell us why she was married five times and why she is currently living with a sixth man. We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus never calls her a sinner and he never offers her forgiveness. He has no problem in other chapters of John telling people not to sin anymore (John 5:14; John 8:11), so presumably if the story of the Samaritan woman was about sin, Jesus would have mentioned sin. So why then does he bring up her five marriages and her current cohabitation? Because, by providing this unusual information about her, she comes to the understanding that he is something special (she sees him as a prophet) and is able to comprehend his words as he discloses his true identity to her.
So now that we know that this is not a passage about sexual immorality, sin and forgiveness, lets take a look at it again to see what it does have to say to us. First let’s notice how remarkable this passage is. In it we find the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels and it is with an unnamed Samaritan woman. In this passage there is a true give and take between the Samaritan woman and Jesus. She is smart. She is theologically articulate. She is aware of history, theology and current events. Jesus is engaged by her questions and responds with equal engagement. Second, the Samaritan woman is the first person in the Gospel of John to whom Jesus reveals himself. He makes his first “I am” statement to a Samaritan woman. Third the woman’s neighbors, who certainly knew her marital history, listen to her and believe in Jesus on account of her testimony (John 4:39-42). They appear to have no concern or judgement towards the woman, which you would expect if she were an outcast in her community. The first apostle in the Gospel of John is a Samaritan woman.
Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, a powerful, educated Jewish man who sought out Jesus in the dark of night and in secret, protecting his worldly status and identity and who left Jesus without any further understanding. This week we hear the story of the Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus in the light of day. Through her honest and open questions and challenges to Jesus, she grows in understanding. Jesus reveals his true identity to her an identity that is not bound by ethnicity, religion, gender or anything else at all. God is not to be found in the Temple or on the top of a mountain or with only particular people, but instead God “camps out” among the people in Jesus (John 1:14). God’s kingdom breaking into this world is not for Jew, or Samaritan, or Greek, or slave or free, or male or female, but is for everyone. God’s dream for the world, that everyone have enough, that wars cease, that love not violence is the prevailing power, that everyone is privileged and no one is unprivileged, is God’s dream for everyone, not just a select few. And when you really grasp the enormity of God’s love, you can’t help but to share that love and the message about God’s dream with others, just as the Samaritan woman did.
God cannot be contained by our ideas about gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, race, socio economic status, nationality, religion, or any other category we might create. Jesus walked among us 2000 years ago and God raised him from the dead to show us the enormity and radicalness of God’s love for all of creation. We very limited human beings will continue to create categories that make us comfortable and give us power over others and we will continue to claim that these are the categories God would have us create. We will continue to pass laws that put some on the inside and some on the outside and lead to the oppression, harm, and death of those placed on the outside. We will continue to define ourselves by our very limited categories of nation, race, gender, and sex and gender identity. And God will continue to break through any categories and limitations that we place upon God and God’s dream for us, because God is unlimited and most importantly God’s love is unlimited. And like the Samaritan woman, we need to share this understanding with the world, because this is truly Good News. Good News that the world needs to hear, especially in the face of prejudice, violence, misuse of power, and oppression. Amen.