Guercino - Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

Why Did The Samaritan Woman At The Well Have So Many Marriages?

The Woman of Samaria (John 4:7-30)

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” 11 She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? 12 You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” 13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” 16 He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” 19 The woman *said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus *said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman *said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” 26 Jesus *said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

27 At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why do You speak with her?” 28 So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” 30 They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.

This passage has been used so many times as an illustration of an immoral woman who had perceived that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, few bother to explain the point that the Samaritan woman is an immoral woman. While it’s possible that the Samaritan woman had some immorality I believer there is more to her story than most people tend to consider. Yes she had 5 husbands but we need to ask why. In this post we will examine some information that might point towards a drastically different picture of the woman at the well. In fact, I believe that she is more of a victim than a sinful woman.

3. Women typically could not divorce their husbands

First Century Certificate of Divorce

Divorce certificate from 71 CE Masada:
“… You are free to become the wife of
any Jewish man you may wish”

When examining the woman at the well we have to remember that her societal context is different than ours. If a women today has that many husbands it’s assumed she’s not quite right or that she has commitment issues. However, in the 1st century typically only men could have a divorce granted. The Bible is full of examples of how men can divorce their wives but it’s a different situation if a wife wants to divorce her husband.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts itin her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Moreover, women could not propose marriage to a man. Of course there were ways in which women could persuade men into marrying them but no woman could legally propose marriage to a man since they were technically property and marriage was an exchange of property on many accounts. Thus, if a woman is in a situation like the Samaritan woman, where she needs a home and a male provides her with one, she can’t exactly give the guy an ultimatum. She would be stuck between living in the streets or living with someone in sin (at least we presumed in sin).

2. Women of divorce (or widows) could not survive on their own

Women in biblical times were considered property. They were bought and sold as such and as property they typically had few rights. They would have been the outcasts of society once divorced or widowed. One example of this is the story of Onan and Tamar. Onan is classically known as the guy God killed for spilling his seed, but most Bible readers know that that is not why God killed him. In the story of Onan, Onan’s brother dies and leaved behind a widow.

Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother. Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother.10 But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.(Genesis 38:6-11)

If a woman was lucky enough to have a father still alive it was common to go “back home” after a divorce or widowing. We saw this same thing with Samson’s wife after he sent her away for giving away the answer to his riddle. The same thing happened with the unnamed Levite in Judges 19.

But after a while, in the time of wheat harvest, Samson visited his wife with a young goat, and said, “I will go in to my wife in her room.” But her father did not let him enter. (Judges 15:1)

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. (Judges 19:1-2)

What we do not know about the Samaritan woman is whether or not her father was still alive and if he was alive, what was the reason she did not go back to live with him. We have a lot of gaps in the information. All we know is that she was repeatedly divorced (not of her own doing) and that her current living situation was with a man whom she was not married to.

Divorced woman in ancient times often had to turn to prostitution in order to gain access to money and provide for themselves a place to stay. Since prostitution was very common in ancient times it was not a difficult thing to accomplish.

1. Barren women had no value and were cursed by God

Today women are more educated then men and have a world of opportunity awaiting them if they choose. They are increasingly putting off marriage and family in order to finish school and start jobs. But 2000 years ago that was not the case. In fact, in Jesus’ time most women were seen as having only one purpose; making babies. Moreover, barrenness was seen as a curse from God.

If there is a man who lies with his uncle’s wife he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they will bear their sin. They will die childless. 21 If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless. (Lev. 20:20–21)

Thus says the Lord,
‘Write this man (Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah) down childless,
A man who will not prosper in his days;
For no man of his descendants will prosper
Sitting on the throne of David
Or ruling again in Judah.’”

(Jer. 22:30)

For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (Get 20:18)

It was common for women to be known in history for providing many sons. Often women who were despised were written down in history as having no children or that the Lord caused them to be barren.

Michal, the wife of King David and Daughter of Saul was known as an immoral wife and worshipped idols. The author of II Samuel recorded her death thusly,

Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death. (II Sam 6:23)

Beyond being considered cursed by God, barren women were often divorced so that a man could marry another woman who might better provide a son. This was not always the case, however. It was not unheard of for a man to take on a second wife in order to gain a son. But it was much more common to divorce the woman cursed by God and marry another who would be able to provide sons.

We see one woman in the Bible struggle deeply with such issues as barrenness and taking on a second wife.

Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim-zophim from the hill country of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives: the name of one was Hannah and the name of the other Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. (1 Sam 1:1)

Then Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She, greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.” (1 Sam 1:9-11)

Additionally, a man who was left without a son was also viewed as cursed. A childless Jewish scholar was not eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin (San. 36b.) and would have been limited also in his business dealings.


I believe that there is a real chance that the Samaritan woman was barren and that she was unable to remain married because she could not provide a son for any of her husbands. If she wanted to live a life of immorality she could have become a prostitute and not had to lean on the help of a man. She did not have to be married to a man to live a life of sin. The harlots Delilah and Rahab both had their own places to live as far as the story leads us to believe.

The other reason I think she might have been barren is that Jesus encountered prostitutes and immoral women. When he did we are told that he forgave there sins and told them to go and sin no more. No such exchange happens in this passage.

Lastly, she bears no sign of being embarrassed or remorseful for her living situation. Other sinful women fall at Jesus’ feet and repent. She does nothing of the sort. While this does not mean that my thesis is correct, it’s that her behavior is slightly different than other women depicted in the gospel of John.



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