If you’ve ever bought an oriental rug, you know that you don’t just look at it once on the showroom floor before you say, “I’ll take it.” Any good oriental rug salesman will advise you not to be so hasty. He will want you to look at the rug in different lights. In fact, if he’s worth his salt, he’ll actually take the rug outside, so that you can look at it in the sunlight. He may ask you to walk around it too—to see the fibers from different angles. You just may find that what appears green under the florescent lights of the showroom, is aqua blue under a noonday sun, or turquoise as the sun glides slowly toward the western horizon.
The same thing goes for stories passed down to us in scripture. Their meanings change according to the intellectual, historical, and scientific light we shed on them. Looked at in the light of the 2nd century, a text may say one thing, but in the 21st century, something else entirely. That’s the way it should be, actually. That is precisely why we call the Bible a living document. It is not static. It is fair and right to bring contemporary questions to our Bible reading; and it is fair and right to bring new discoveries to our Bible reading. “What does a certain text have to say about recent politics, or environmental issues?” for example Or, given that we now know the universe was not created in six days—how might we re-interpret Genesis? Finally, it is always important to ask the text, “ How does what is written in the Bible intersect with my life, living as I do in 21st century Scottsville, or Buckingham?
Let me show you what I mean. Matthew Henry was a widely read British Biblical commentator (say that three times fast) and a Presbyterian pastor of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. And his work is still read today. Other pastors and preachers over the centuries, have been influenced in their own preaching and teaching by Matthew Henry. Perhaps you have heard of one of the greatest of all preachers, George Whitfield, a Methodist. He traveled in both England and the US in the mid to late 1700’s. He is responsible for igniting the Great Awakening—which was a time of great religious fervor in this country. George Whitfield was inspired in his preaching by Matthew Henry. George Whitfield said that he had read through Matthew Henry’s six volume commentary four times—the last time on his knees! Which sounds extremely painful doesn’t it?
This week, just out of curiosity, I spent some time reading what Henry had to say about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
I want to share with you some of what I read. In regard to Jesus’ directive to the Samaritan woman, “Go call your husband and come back,” Henry suggests that what Jesus means to say is, quote “’Call thy husband, that he may teach thee, and help thee to understand these things, which thou art so ignorant of. The wives that will learn must ask their husbands.” So says Matthew Henry.
Matthew Henry doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ says to the woman, “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!”
This is Matthew Henry’s interpretation of that line(quote): “Doubtless, it was not her affliction (the burying of so many husbands), but her sin, that Christ intended to upbraid her with; either she had eloped (as the law speaks), had run away from her husbands, and married others, or by her undutiful, unclean, disloyal conduct, had provoked them to divorce her, or by indirect means had, contrary to law, divorced them.” (end quote). So, to reiterate, even though the Samaritan woman had no rights, so that if she was divorced, it was her husbands who did the divorcing, leaving her without a source of income, according to Matthew Henry, she must have deserved that fate, right? It could not be otherwise. .
So again, according to Matthew Henry, what we have here in this story is an ignorant, sinful Samaritan woman with whom Jesus decides to engage in a theological discussion so as to win her over for God. That certainly is one way to interpret the text.
But, I’m about to do an 180, so hold on to your pews.
First of all, I want to address what Matthew Henry calls, this woman’s “sin.” Where does the text say that? Certainly Jesus doesn’t call the woman sinful. As you and I know, Jesus was not one to mince words when it comes to sin. Remember, Jesus even calls Peter Satan, when Peter is being supremely thick headed. “Get behind me Satan!” says Jesus. How many times in scripture does Jesus say, “You are forgiven now go and sin no more?” If this woman were indeed sinful, don’t you think Jesus would have said so? And, don’t you think Jesus would have extended God’s forgiveness so that she could repent and then move on with her life?
If by “sin” Matthew Henry is referring to the woman’s marital status, alternative reasons for her singleness abound. The woman could have been widowed, although being widowed four times would have been sure to raise eyebrows.
In the play the Importance of Being Earnest, The uppity Lady Bracknell says to a young man, Mr. Worthington, who has lost both is parents, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthington, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” But it is possible, I suppose. Could be that the Samaritan woman was four times careless.
But perhaps the Samaritan woman had not been widowed. Only men could initiate divorce in that society, so if she was divorced, it was at the instigation of her previous fourhusbands. Why would they do that? Perhaps the poor woman was barren—having heirs was a real concern for men in that society. Men needed sons to carry on the family name; also, children provided security in a couple’s old age. Or maybe it was that the woman had a mental illness.—Those are two reasons that a man in that society might divorce a wife.
We have left to deal with her current status as a woman living with a man to whom she is not married. Since women who committed adultery in that time were often stoned to death, we can conclude that she was not living in sin. We don’t know what’s up with that but it may be that if the last of her four previous husbands died, then she was in a leverite marriage. In a leverite marriage, a widow is taken in by her husband’s brother. Any children born of that union were considered heirs of the dead husband.
What I am getting at is, it’s not at all clear that the Samaritan woman is a person of loose morals. The poor woman could have been a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Yet, apparently she was scorned. I say scorned. Women usually visited a village well in the morning. They did that to avoid lugging water in the hottest part of the day; they did that too, so that they could chat with other female villagers they met there—trade stories, gossip. This woman, comes to the well alone, in the middle of the day, ostensibly to avoid the stares and slights of the other village women.
Now to this woman’s ignorance. Matthew Henry, remember, tells us the Samaritan woman is ignorant. Really? Why in the world would Jesus bother to discuss theology, with an amoral airhead? Isn’t he wasting his breath?
On the contrary, it is clear that the Samaritan woman already knows something of theology and history. She knows that the Jews and the Samaritans share a common ancestry—both claiming Jacob as their patriarch. She knows that scripture tells of a messiah, and she wonders if Jesus, the Jew with whom she is speaking, could possibly be that messiah. Not even Jesus’ twelve disciples have filled in that piece of the Jesus puzzle, yet here she is, maybe fifteen minutes into conversation with Jesus, drawing that conclusion.
Now believe me, in what I have just said, I am not just defending one first century Samaritan woman or even ALL women no matter their nationality, throughout time. I am defending Jesus. According to Matthew Henry’s interpretation, Jesus stoops to converse with a woman for the purpose of chastising her and then enlightening her, to Henry’s mind--as only a man can do.
However, male and female theologians in our own day look at this text in a different light. They conclude, and I am with them in this, that by treating the Samaritan woman as a conversation partner, as an equal, Jesus elevates her as a person—and in the process elevates himself. Jesus steps out of time, and out of his 1st century Jewish context; He demonstrates for us a different way for men and women to be in relationship, at least different from the way that Matthew Henry envisions gender relationships. In the 21st century this story becomes for us a story about the transforming power of Jesus’ love. Think of it. Through her new found faith, this woman is able to live into a new identity—as a respected believer in her village. She becomes in fact, the very first preacher in Christian history and one of Christianity’s first evangelists. Take that Matthew Henry!
The transforming power of God’s love—The gift that keeps on giving--isn’t that truly living water? And we read about this living water in a book that is the living word of God.
The story of the Samaritan woman read in the right light, then, has the capacity to intersect with our lives in new and profound ways. Come to the waters and drink everyone. Let all the people say. Amen