The Identity of a Samaritan Woman

By Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.

NRS John 4:1-43

The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a narrative that speaks well to so many contemporary concerns. It is a powerful story that speaks of the spiritual quality of God, the dislocation of worship from particular buildings and places, even the willingness of Jesus to expand his sphere of influence beyond the Jewish community as the Gospel is presented to the hated enemy, the Samaritans. But for this moment I want to raise a different concern.

Jesus in this narrative is in conversation with a woman who has three distinctive markers of her identity that put her at risk of social alienation. She is first of all a woman, hence as we will later see, one who is not the ideal candidate to deliver the gospel message to her people. Second, she is in an unconventional sexual relationship. Jesus points out that she has had several husbands and that the man currently in her life is not her husband. Third, she is a Samaritan, a member of a group viewed with enmity by the Jews because of their syncretistic practices. So, her unconventional sexual arrangement coupled with here gender identification and her ethnicity are identity makers that make her a less than optimal choice for Jesus as a witness. Yet Jesus uses her anyhow!

It is because of the first two identity markers that her testimony is challenged later in the narrative. Though her ethnic identity clearly wasn’t a challenge for them, the response of the Samaritan men in this account to suggest that they do not wish to believe on the basis of her account. This is told positively, i.e. that they have seen Jesus and heard the words from his mouth and now that is enough for them to believe fully.

Yet there is a lingering concern. Why did they feel compelled to make this statement? Perhaps it was the twofold problem of her personality, her gender identification and her sexuality that made her a problematic witness for them. These aspects of her identity likely imperiled her in her community, placed her outside the confines of acceptability, made her not enough. A woman’s testimony was suspect at best as is evident by looking at many passages in the Torah, a text largely held in common by both Jews and Samaritans. Note the response of the disciples in v. 27 “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman…”. Contact between men and women in Jewish and Samaritan societies was carefully regulated, particularly for holy or religious teachers like Jesus. Further, her connection to multiple sexual partners in arrangements less than official (“for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” v.18) likely compounded their incredulity of her testimony.

Yet Jesus chose her, a person whose gender and sexuality would have alienated her from her community, would have made her the source of scorn and derision, Jesus chose her to be his angel. An angel is a messenger come to convey a message. Jesus chose her as his apostle. An apostle is one who is sent on a mission. Jesus chose her whom the world despised to be the vessel to deliver good news to her people.

Like this woman, many in world are alienated and ostracized by others because of aspects of their identity. Some of us have been rejected because of our gender and how its configuration has been judged by others. Others of us have been rejected because our sexuality and our sexual ethos do not align with their own. Often this is the source of bullying, harassment, condescension, and derision.

But what is clear to me is that such value judgments do not prevent Jesus from seeking us out, from finding us, from sharing the Good News with us, and from using us to reach Others. Jesus Loves us no matter how the world evaluates our identity. Jesus can and will use us, regardless of what others think about us. We are affirmed by Jesus! We have value with Jesus! We have value with God.

As we face an often hostile world, let us do so cognizant of the fact that we are Loved by, embraced by, and useful to our God and our Savior. Let the story of this woman motivate us to stand strong in who we know ourselves to be, always willing to serve the will of One who knows everything about us…and loves us anyway!