The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo

Margo Fraga reviews Caryn A. Reeder's new book.

Caryn A. Reeder
InterVarsity Press, 224 pages | Published February 15, 2022

What is it about the unnamed Samaritan woman of John 4 that we find so intriguing? Her status as unmarried with a questionable reputation? The assumption that she’s an adulterer? A prostitute? That, at the very least, she’s the reason for her many failed marriages? If this narrative interpretation – so common in sermons and Bible studies – sounds familiar, The Samaritan Woman’s Story is your next must-read!

Caryn A. Reeder asserts that Christians misinterpret the woman at the well, labeling her a sexual sinner and allowing this focus to cloud who this woman truly is: knowledgeable, thoughtful, brave and a trusted evangelist. Reeder retells the narrative in a refreshing and accessible way, reinforcing her argument with chapters of brilliant exegesis paired alongside historical context, biblical themes and contemporary stories. By picking apart the ways Christian traditions have “conditioned us to see biblical women through the lenses of sex and sin,” Reeder claims a voice for the Samaritan woman and exposes the interpretive mistakes of early church fathers.

Reeder argues that how we tell these Bible stories affects our view of present-day women; we focus more on the sexualization of bodies than the person being sexualized. She highlights how #ChurchToo and #MeToo movements expose the bodily dangers of the ways narrative, Scripture and theology have been spun around biblical women. Jesus takes her intelligence, deep questioning, faithfulness, worth and voice seriously; why can’t we?

Reeder’s voice is prophetic and convincing. Her thought-provoking study confidently reclaims the Samaritan woman’s narrative: This is not a story about a sexually promiscuous sinner receiving forgiveness from Jesus. Instead, this is a story of a brilliant woman who can hold her own in a theological conversation with Jesus. She is a natural evangelist who speaks truth with authority and is heard and respected by others.

Reeder efficiently unpacks weighty theological, social and historical perspectives. Young women were usually married to older men, with marriages contracted between the woman’s father and the bridegroom. Rather than hopping from one husband to the next, the Samaritan woman would have been consenting to marriages arranged on her behalf; even in the event of death or divorce, she would have been expected to marry again.

Church fathers chose to ignore the socio-historical context for this story. When we, as the church, do the same, we allow false labels of biblical women to color our contemporary views of women — and we ignore the Samaritan woman’s role in bringing others to Jesus with her solid and unwavering faith. She is the first to see Jesus as Messiah, and in all their banter, Jesus never speaks to her about sin or expresses that she requires or has received forgiveness. Instead, he reveals himself and trusts her to evangelize and deliver the good news to the town.

We honor women when we tell the whole story. By keeping their voices and worth alive when we interpret, teach and preach Scripture, we can shift the narrative. Christ saw the Samaritan woman for who she indeed was. He didn’t let her marital status, gender or ethnicity cloud her call to discipleship.

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