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Prime Time/Evan Hazard: That sinful Samaritan woman at the well

"The Woman at the Well" (John 4:3-29), was the Gospel text in the Common Lectionary for Sunday March 27. The other three choices were a Psalm, another Hebrew Bible text, and part of an Epistle, but my guess is "The Woman" was the most common sermon text that Sunday.

It was the text at my church, but Pastor Eric dealt with the "living water" aspect, not with who the woman was.

The account is only in John (written around the year 90), not in any of the three earlier gospels. Unlike many New Testament (NT) stories, it contains no explicit miracles. But, like many accounts in both the Hebrew Bible and NT, it leaves much unsaid, and many assume it says things it doesn't.

I don't pretend to know if the story reports an actual event, or if Jesus actually spoke the words in it. But either way, we can learn something from it, and see what it says about society in Israel in NT times and the church that emerged later. There is a good online article about it, "Misogyny, Moralism, and the Woman at the Well," by David Lose, a prof at Luther Seminary in St. Paul: . Read it if you can.

Rev. Lose's complaint is that most preachers consider the woman a prostitute and then launch a sermon on morality. They base this on the statement, "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband." Lose shows this is unjustified. Some of the five may have died, and husbands could divorce wives more or less at will. And it was not against Torah for a husband to sleep with a widow or an unmarried non-virgin. In the account, Jesus neither accuses the woman of sin nor advises repentance. Her situation, though perhaps tragic, is not scandalous.

Lose concludes that clergy often call the woman a prostitute because the church has a long history of misogyny (debasement of women) and because it is obsessed with morality. The online article fleshes out his case. Basically, he concludes that nothing is suspect about the woman.

There are two details Lose does not mention, but before jumping to conclusions, I emailed Lose's online site to a favorite theolog. Peter Milloy is a retired UMC pastor, and also a biblical scholar. When he comes to a theology workshop, he brings a NT in the original Greek. He also knows the Hebrew Bible well. Peter reminded me of its list of a man's taboo female bed partners: "a) someone else's wife [adultery]; b) the virgin daughter of another man without the other man's OK; c) any woman who's having her period; d) a woman and her daughter; and e) a long list of people he's related to." (See Leviticus 18:6-19, and 20:17-21). But nothing in Leviticus prohibits his sleeping with a widow or a divorcée. So "the woman" and her consort have not sinned.

One detail Lose ignores was first brought to my attention by my first female pastor. It is noon, the heat of the day, and "the woman" is alone. Normally, women gathered and socialized at wells in the cool of the morning. She has avoided them, probably because they do not accept her. They may not approve of her sleeping with a married man, perhaps one of their husbands.

I said the account contains no explicit miracles. Jesus could have miraculously, by telepathy perhaps, motivated the woman to delay her well duties so she would be alone, but I doubt the writer of John intended that. When peculiar events are to be seen as miracles, scripture usually makes that clear. The simpler explanation is that she was avoiding other women.

Peter told me of the other detail, something that is lost in translation. The NT was originally written in first century Greek. In Greek, modifiers commonly follow the nouns they modify, much as in modern French. In French "the blue train" is "le train bleu." In Greek, the "your" would normally follow "husband," but in John 4:18, the Greek word order is "not your husband."

Translators have simply adopted that sequence, which of course is our usual word order. Why did the writer of John use the unusual Greek sequence, "not your husband?" For emphasis: Jesus is stressing the "your," and you do that in Greek by moving the modifier to precede the noun. In informal writing, or in speech, we would say "not YOUR husband." Maybe we should allow that method of being true to the original Greek.

The story is about the "living water," not about a naughty woman.

Evan Hazard, a retired Bemidji State University biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.