John 4:16-18

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

Most of how you read this passage turns on these three verses. The standard interpretation is that this woman has moved from husband to husband with a scandalous abandon and now lives “in sin.” Yet nowhere does the text indicate the reason for her succession of marriages or present state. Moreover, nowhere in the passage does Jesus extend to her forgiveness or imply her need for it.

So if not this reason, perhaps another. After all, she very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous, yet most readers assume the latter.

Why? Likely somewhere along the line we heard and accepted this interpretation, or it’s our own unexamined bias, or it’s that we’re used to the Bible being fairly hard on women, or some combination of all three. But let’s imagine for a moment that the woman at the well is not scandalous but desperate, not wanton but in need, not “living in sin” but rather in hope, in the hope that this man who promises living water will keep his promises. How does that change the way we see her and how we will read and hear all that follows?

Now for the difficult question: how often do we do the same in our daily lives? How often, that is, do we catch just a glimpse of someone and make evaluations of their character rather than examine their circumstances. Not consciously, I imagine, but unconsciously, as our judgments and opinions of people we barely know may be shaped almost entirely by their gender, ethnicity, economic status or, in short, how similar or different they are from us. Our reaction to this woman, in other words, doesn’t simply betray our training in reading Scripture, but our training in reading – and often misreading – people. So what kind of difference would it make – in our lives and in the world – if we were to slow down and imagine the circumstances and character of the people we encounter each day more charitably?

Prayer: Dear God, give us eyes to see people as you do, as beloved children of God and therefore our sisters and brothers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Post image: Stained glass window from Zion Lutheran Church, Baltimore MD.