What Jesus Learned from a Samaritan Woman

What Jesus Learned from a Samaritan Woman July 17, 2019

The first chapter that I completed a draft of as I developed my idea for a book on What Jesus Learned From Women was the story of the woman at the well in John 4. I previously wrote an entry on that subject for the Bible Odyssey website (and I had the very cool experience the last time I taught my course on the historical Jesus of a student reading the Bible Odyssey piece and finding it helpful, only to be surprised to find their professor’s name at the bottom as its author!).

I’ll incorporate into the chapter about what Jesus learned from the Samaritan woman some thoughts that I shared previously on my blog about the theme of common ancestry, as it relates to the encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman. In the chapter, I also discuss whether there is any reason to think that this highly symbolic episode has any connection with something that actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus. That’s particularly challenging to do for a general audience.

I was delighted when I found that Rachel Held Evans had retold the story in Inspired, in a manner that not only departs from the traditional slanders against the woman, but explicitly compares her to Tamar, as I also do in my chapter. More recently, I discovered that Efrem the Syrian also understood the story in a similar way.

Perhaps the most encouraging and yet at the same time disturbing discovery in the process of working on this project thus far is how many commentators have better insights than those one hears most often in sermons and even much academic writing about this story and those of other women in the life of Jesus. Most of those perspectives come from women, some writing mostly in other languages such as Spanish. I’ve learned so much from them. There are barriers of gender, language, and class that continue to impact our world and even the academy. There is something poignant about how the life experience of Jesus learning from women that I am writing about, and what I am learning from women myself, overlap and intersect. 

Also about this story:

Rethinking the Samaritan Woman

Episcopal Cafe had more than one piece about the story, including “Reflections on St. Photini.”

The piece on “Seeing Life in Full Color” from Red Letter Christians also relates to this.

I’m still wondering about which additional figures ought to get a mention even if only briefly. What do you think that Jesus might have learned from Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, for instance?

Of more general but still somewhat related interest, see Susan Ackerman’s OUP reference entry on women in ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible. See too:

What to Say When Someone says Patriarchy is God’s Plan

Marvel and the Women Heroes of the New Testament

I found Peter Carrell’s comments on the issue of same-sex marriage in his own denomination helpful and balanced, and then was dismayed to find him assuming a view of the Samaritan woman in John 4 that is extremely problematic.

Here is an excerpt from one of the better parts of his post…

I am very concerned that the way in which homosexuality is made an issue in the life of churches in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has an (unintended, I am sure) effect of further marginalizing an already marginalized group within churches. If for no other reason than not wanting to participate in this further marginalization, I do not see myself leaving a church, let alone forming a new church, because of this issue.

I am also concerned at the kind of “God” and “Christ” we construct when we act and speak as though the God of Jesus Christ is displeased with a church which permits within itself plausible differences over this matter. I do not find in the gospels a Christ whose longing for the church is that it is so clear over sexuality that a disagreement is worth breaking up the church – the Christ, that is, who enjoyed dinner parties with sinners, accepted anointing from a notorious woman, and observed but did not condemn the promiscuous life of the Samaritan woman we met at the well. Yes, the same Christ of the gospels is strict on sexual morality, tough on divorce, etc, but the “whole” Christ of the gospels is not constructing a movement which will become a church which will divide over a legal matter.


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  • John MacDonald

    In the chapter, I also discuss whether there is any reason to think that this highly symbolic episode has any connection with something that actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus. That’s particularly challenging to do for a general audience.

    Einstein reportedly said if you understand something, you should be able to explain it to anyone, lol ! His genius wasn’t just in highly advanced mathematical/physical thinking, but just as much in his illustrative examples/analogies/etc.

    • I hope you will read the book and let me know whether I let Einstein (and you) down!

      • John MacDonald

        Yes, make sure you let us know when it’s out!

        I had a real eye opening experience once when I was trying to teach Bernoulli’s principle in a grade 6 Science class on flight, and one of the gifted students pulled me aside after class and said she didn’t understand. After a short exchange with her questioning my presentation it became glaringly obvious to me that I had not explained it well because I didn’t understand it myself. The rest of the class only thought they had gained understanding, but they really hadn’t.

        Hegel talks about thinking that makes explicit what is always, already there even though we are not usually aware of it. For instance, in the tearing of a sock, the previously implicit Category of Unity of the sock is made manifest, precisely “as a lost Unity.” Similary, Being is made explicit by considering it as analogous to Nothingness. Nothing “is,” in that we can think about it, talk about it, but is not itself a “being.” Being, such as with the Category of Unity, ‘is,’ even though it is not a being, nor the totality of beings.

        But, Hegel says, we first truly encounter Being in Becoming, like the example of the tearing of the sock I gave above. This means it is precisely in our illustrative examples/analogies/allegories/etc that ‘What’ something truly ‘is’ comes to light. We can see this, for instance, when we realize a neologism is necessary to dis-close (un-hidden / a-letheia) the matter at hand.

        • John MacDonald

          It’s one thing to have acquired enough trivia to claim with confidence that one is “knowledgeable” in a certain content area. It is quite another to gain the “wisdom” to understand when one doesn’t understand, especially when everyone around you is mistaken into thinking they ‘know’. Hence, Socrates said “I know that I know nothing.” But what does this mean? Socrates is often quoted on this point, but how often is he understood? Socrates clarified this outlook to mean: “Not wise with their wisdom, nor foolish with their foolishness.”

  • James Elliott

    There are several examples in the Gospels about Jesus learning from those around him, and i was looking forward to some thoughts on what he might have learned in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. I’m not particularly picking up on that in this blog. I think we see Jesus being radically open to talking with a woman, given the social expectations. We see Jesus engaging her in a sort of argument and giving her credit for the ability to think for herself. I don’t think she was quite as shunned as some commentators want us to believe, because the people in her village listened to what she had to say. But i’m not seeing that he “learned” anything, at least not on the level that he did with the Cananite woman. At any rate, would John’s Gospel present him as “learning” since the emphasis was on his divinity?

    • Good questions, and sorry for not saying more about what’s in the chapter. I think the very fact that the disciples are surprised that Jesus is talking to her indicates that this is not simply an everyday occurrence. She is drawing him beyond his comfort zone and usual practices, much as the Syro-Phoenician woman does.

      There is definitely an emphasis in John on Jesus being the Word-made-flesh, not needing to learn from any human being, etc. And yet I think there are nevertheless some historical traditions in there even so. And given that John still depicts Jesus as “a man who tells what he heard from God,” perhaps the divine has not obliterated the human even from the perspective of this author…

      • James Elliott

        That makes sense. Thank you!