Don't miss the extended discussion of this story: "What's Wrong With This Picture? John 4, Cultural Stereotypes of Women, and Public and Private Space." Jerome H. Neyrey, Biblical Theology Bulletin 24 (1994):77-91.
"For some, much is "wrong with this picture" of the Samaritan woman. Certain critics focus on the marriage or sexual aspects of the story (Carmichael 1980:336-40). Eslinger (170-71), for example, identifies many double entendres regarding wells, living waters and springs as metaphors for sexual intercourse. These double entendres suggest that something is "wrong with this picture" in that the woman and Jesus appear to be engaged in a sexual game in violation of the cultural conventions for shame-guarding females in antiquity.
Others attend to "what is right with this picture" (Schüssler-Fiorenza 327-28; Seim 69-70; Schneiders 1991:186-94). Sometimes they focus on the role the woman plays in bringing the word about Jesus to her village, thus suggesting that she assumes the role of a "missionary" or "apostolic witness." Conversely, they often argue that nothing is "wrong with this picture": the Samaritan woman should not be construed as a whore nor should females be reduced to their sexuality; her "five husbands" need not be males in the village, but false gods worshipped by the Samaritans.
Are the different readings of John 4 merely a reflection of the gender of the commentator? It is easily verified that male critics tend to accentuate the sexual and marriage allusions in the story, while feminist readers focus on aspects of the story with potential for liberating Christian women. Nevertheless, if the aim of biblical criticism is the recovery of the communication of the sacred author, the conversation about John 4 must continue. As we become aware of the gender perspectives of authors ancient and modern, we should likewise take into account the cultural background of the ancient writer. Admittedly this ancient Mediterranean, pre-industrial cultural background might well clash with our modern Western, post-industrial world. And this will raise difficulties for contemporary males and females in their appropriation of biblical materials. But a full and honest reading of John 4 must take into account the ancient cultural expectations concerning males and females. Such cultural matters may even be part of the "good news" of the story."
John J. Pilch, Historical Cultural Context, Commentary and Spiritual Perspectives, Lent 3. Commentary, historical background, poems and readings. Center for Liturgy, St Louis University.
“Clearly, a cultural subversion is taking place. Modern social scientists would call this a cultural innovation. John seems to be confirming new roles for women in his community.
Jesus not only talks with the woman, but in a carefully orchestrated, seven-part dialogue (each speaks seven times) he guides her progressively from ignorance to enlightenment, from misunderstanding to clearer understanding. She is the most carefully and intensely catechized person in this entire Gospel!”
Reginald H. Fuller, Scripture in Depth, Commentary and Spiritual Perspectives, Lent 3. Commentary, historical background, poems and readings. Center for Liturgy, St Louis University.
“A multiplicity of themes jostle one another in this dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Among them are: (1) Jesus' request for water, leading to the declaration that he is the giver of life; (2) Jesus' suggestion that the woman call her husband, leading to an exposure of her matrimonial past (which some take as an allegorical reference to the Samaritan Bible, which has only the first five books of the Old Testament); (3) the woman's shift of the conversation to the basic dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans—the proper place to worship YHWH—leading to Jesus' pronouncement that the old Jewish-Samaritan debate is about to be transcended by worship in spirit and truth; (4) the woman's assurance that the dispute will be cleared up in the messianic age, leading to Jesus' declaration that he is the Messiah; (5) the woman's departure to fetch her friends to see Jesus, interrupted by the sixth theme and resumed later in the conversion of many Samaritans; and finally, sandwiched between the two parts of the fifth theme, (6) the disciples' return to Jesus and their perplexity over his refusal to eat, leading to the declaration that his food is to do his Father's will, followed by sayings about the harvest, the latter preparing the way for the Samaritan conversions. The short form of the gospel simplifies the discourse by omitting (2) and (6).”
"Jesus Hustles an Invitation to the City,"
“To ask a simple thing of the enemy is to become vulnerable. It is to change the dynamic between the conflicting parties and for a moment it opens out the possibility of a larger exchange. Jesus and the Samaritan woman have deeper and deeper conversation and neither is put off by the challenges of the other. What was enmity was replace by wonder -- the woman wonders, the disciples wonder, the Samaritans wonder. What was hostility becomes invitation: "they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days" (John 4:40).
The urban centers of the world -- large, sprawling, centers of great commerce and wealth as well as of violence and terrible poverty -- are often seen by Christians as hostile territory. Churches are often seen as isolated islands of faith in the sea of mammon.
So signs are put out, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," and when people come we offer them food and drink, prayer and fellowship, but on our terms. People are welcome to be like us. The sign is clear: this is a place of godliness in the midst of ungodliness. It is not a place of vulnerability. Some will come, but many will stay away.
But here in the Gospel we have a hint about another way. When the church seeks to be invited into the lives of those in the city new ways of being reconciled arise. How do we work to see that the metaphorical sign is in place in the shops and apartments and houses, "Episcopalians welcome here"? We begin by being vulnerable, by asking in small and personal ways to be let into the city and its life, rather than staying in the church.”
"He Stayed Two Days," The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation.
“The kingdom that Jesus announced is not one of a privatized faith whose purpose is to guarantee personal peace and affluence. Contrary to so many popular Christian counterfeits, His kingdom does not peddle what the distinguished sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) aptly laments as "the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" who like a Divine Butler is tasked to make us feel good. Rather, Jesus proclaimed that God longs to assuage the deepest needs, spiritual and material, of the morally, spiritually, religiously, and economically least and lost. He invites us to join Him in that service.”
"The Witness at the Well," commentary by Fred B. Craddock from The Christian Century, 1990. At Religion Online.
“If any wish to be fascinated by this woman, let them be so now. She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. "A man who told me all that I ever did" is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: "Can this be the Christ?" is literally "This cannot he the Christ, can it?" Even so, her witness is enough: it is invitational (come and see) , not judgmental; it is within the range permitted by her experience; it is honest with its own uncertainty; it is for everyone who will hear. How refreshing. Her witness avoids triumphalism, hawking someone else’s conclusions, packaged answers to unasked questions, thinly veiled ultimatums and threats of hell, and assumptions of certainty on theological matters. She does convey, however, her willingness to let her hearers arrive at their own affirmations about Jesus, and they do: "This is indeed the Savior of the world." John immortalizes her by giving to her witness a name which is the very term with which he began the Gospel. The Samaritan woman, the Greek text reads, spoke "the Word."”
“The gospel witnesses to the gift of God for all God’s children. In the vulnerability of an interdependent community, in the insistence upon relationship, in the breaking down of barriers. Jesus shows us a new way to learn about one another, learn the truth of one another, and learn that we need one another. True worship takes place not at a sacred mountain or even a shared ancestral well, but in a relationship with the person of Christ, who is the wellspring and mountaintop of hope and peace.
On another day, also about noon , Jesus will face death and again confess his thirst. On that day, only vinegar will be offered -- in mockery. The gift of his living water will not be apparent to the one holding that sour sponge. But today, when Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet, they conspire to bring life out of death. The water they offer each other, water that quenches the thirst of body and soul, holds the gift of life for all.”