Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” John 4:6-7
The Samaritan woman’s story has captured my attention for many years, not in small part because I believe her story has been misunderstood by many readers, in particular that she is immoral. Woman in the World of the Earliest Christians, p 122
Cohick makes it clear in the above statement that a different reading is called for regarding the character of the woman at the well. She actually dismisses the time that Jesus meets the woman as an unworthy argument for her morality. I understand her to mean the historical Samaritan woman, which is my focus currently. AJ Levine addresses the time the woman comes to the well as purely literary: “The argument that the woman’s coming to the well at noon indicates her social ostracism, for the other women of the village would wait until the cool of the evening, falters by ignoring John’s literary art. Nicodemus….comes to Jesus in the dark of midnight. The Samaritan woman, at noon, understands the “light” Jesus brings; the Pharisee remains in the dark. The setting is symbolic of theological insight, not social ostracism.” The Misunderstood Jew p 135
There’s a murkiness underlying this for us lay-people. This whole “historical” vs. “literary” seems like a quagmire in which faith and understanding get bogged down. I want to figure out everything I can about who she was as a historical figure. I am aware that this episode could be viewed as a parable. She could be an amalgam of characters. The fourth gospel writer could be mis-remembering. These are options that, in the past, would have made me feel like I was losing my footing and force me to back away, fearing for my salvation. With an amount of thought and diligence generally contrary to my nature, I have come to see possibilities as open doors rather than dark pits. *(see note below for more on this)
So historically, does the time she arrives at the well give us any indication of her social standing or any insight into her character? According to Cohick, no.
“Many expositors focus on the woman’s presence at the well at noon as a signal that she is a social outcast. But this conclusion is not based on any parallel description or implication within the Greco-Roman world that moral women went the the village well at certain times and degenerate women visited at other times. Nor is there evidence that the absence of other women indicates she is immoral. While company certainly makes chores seem lighter, and so villagers might choose to work together, a lone person working the fields, tending animals, or grinding grain should not immediately suggest suspect morality. The accusation of immorality comes not so much from her presence at the well at noon as from the description of her past marriages and current situation. From the story’s standpoint, it makes sense that Jesus is thirsty at noon, as opposed to, for example, 7:30 in the morning.” Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, Cohick p 123
Can we judge her character based on the time the woman met Jesus at the well? It’s very possible that she was a social outcast, and the time of day that she arrived at the well can be viewed as supporting evidence for other stronger arguments to that theory. Certainly, her arrival at noon cannot stand alone as evidence that the Samaritan Woman was an immoral character.
*Why should I hold so tightly to my own salvation? Isn’t it a gift from a God bigger than we can imagine? Isn’t God greater than my perception of Him? One of the main things I’ve learned in this process is how rigidly I grip the handholds of a salvation I’ve taken responsibility for. When my notions of who Jesus was and is are challenged, I bristle. And then I’m surprised at myself. This goes back and forth for a while until I surrender the idol of my “idea of Jesus” and hand it all over to Him. Again.