Jesus and a Woman at the Well, a post-colonial feminist reading

John 4


The John 4 narrative has traditionally been interpreted as an evangelistic text where a Samaritan woman’s readiness to accept Jesus’ pronouncements is understood as an act of conversion. Jesus, the pure Jew and the ‘living water,’ crosses boundaries by speaking to a Gentile woman, who is perceived as impure. Other texts and interpretations describe her as an outcast and a sinful woman, having had five husbands and living with a man who is not her husband. On the other hand, some feminist theologians have read the text as a courtship text because Jesus has probably the longest conversation with the Samaritan Woman in the whole of the Gospels. Furthermore, the epic love matches of Moses and Zipporah and Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament happened around water wells. Some grassroots women have remarked how Jesus had an interest in the woman: how he wanted to know if she had a husband, but later volunteers information he had researched beforehand, and how his interest in her is liberating because she was obviously not a virgin.

There are so many ways to look at the text but as a Filipino woman whose nation’s history is one of colonization alongside conversion and evangelism, it is necessary to study the text from the perspective of women and as colonized people. Musa Dube, an African Feminist theologian, proposes doing postcolonial feminist readings by asking the following questions:

• Does the text have a clear stance against the political imperialism of its time?

• How does imperialism affect men and women of ancient and present times?

• How does this text construct difference: Are there dialogue and mutual interdependence or condemnation of all that is foreign?

• Does this text employ gender representations to construct relationships of subordination and domination? If so, which side am I reading from: the colonizer, the colonized, or the collaborator? If I concentrate on patriarchal analysis of the text, does this translate to a decolonizing act?

• How can one reread this text for relationships of liberating interdependence between genders, and among races and other social categories of our worlds?

Who needs a drink?
Read verses 6 to 14

In the first part of the passage, it is Jesus who needs water. Furthermore, it is Jesus who needs the woman. But in the exchanges, Jesus commands that he be given water to drink, asserts that he knew something the woman did not, and promises the superior quality of water that comes from him which will never make those who drink thirsty again. In response, the Samaritan woman questions why a Jew would even ask for a drink from a woman of Samaria. At the very beginning of the conversation, she pronounces their differences and her subordination. However, her next words exhibit some form of resistance, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” She must have thought, this man is talking about how she should be the one asking for water from him, if she knew him, when he comes to a well with nothing to bring up water and is the one who is so thirsty. She must have felt somewhat incredulous to his claims. If he knew so much and could even offer ‘living water,’ why could he not even draw water from the well himself? And so she asks, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob….?” He answers with finality about the water that he can give as one that “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Who needs a drink? Who is thirsty? Who comes to the well? Jesus needed a drink. Jesus was thirsty. And Jesus came to the well. But in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, he convinces her that she needs his living water. The Samaritan woman drew water from well in Samaria, her own land, and she knew her ancestors, Jacob. Before Jesus came, she did not care for ‘living water’ and was sustained by the water in her well. Why did Jesus have to come and offer her something she did not need? In the story of Zipporah and Moses and in the story of Rachel and Jacob, it is the women who draw from the well and offer drink to all who are thirsty, even if they are strangers. It is an act of hospitality that communities and families are familiar with even to this day. It is in recognition of our common humanity that we open ourselves to those who come to us thirsty. But this very same act opens our communities and societies to domination and subordination, especially when those who come to us assert their superiority. In the Philippine experience, the Spanish came with the cross and the sword, and the Americans came with the Bible and the gun. It was not a ‘holy conversion.’ Caroline Brewer, a historian, calls what happened to the Philippines a ‘holy confrontation.’ Today, communities who once welcomed strangers with thirst-quenching water cannot access their own wells and springs because of trans-nationals’ water rights.

Christ and Christendom
Read verses 16 to 26

In the following texts, Jesus’ character further defines his superiority and the Samaritan woman’s inferiority. He commands her to call her husband, tells her that she worships what she does not know, and salvation only comes from the Jews. Jesus’ questions have been interpreted, especially in the West, as a judgment on the woman’s morality. Because she has had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband, Jesus was reminding her that her behavior, going to the well without other women at noontime and without her husband, were not the actions of a decent woman. In a Bible study with grassroots women, one retorted, “Why did she not ask where his wife was?” In many communities, there are so many rules to regulate women’s behavior. Women who behave differently are considered dangerous and may even be demonized. And the text exhibits clearly these perceptions. The Samaritan woman offers no excuses when Jesus states that she has had five husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband. She does not explain that she had levirate marriages, where women are forced to marry the brother of her husband in his death so that she may bear a son for the dead husband. Who would want to marry five husbands? Or five brothers or male cousins? And why did she now have a man who was not her husband? The question about her husband was to contrast her character with Jesus’ character who she herself, in the text, recognizes as a prophet. And Jesus affirms this saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Many postcolonial readers of the Gospel according to John argue that the narrative characterizes Jesus as the ultimate, the unlimited, and the undeniable savior: the great “I am.” While Jesus vulnerability and humanity is still very evident in the other gospels, Jesus’ seems too messianic in John. He says, “I am the light of the world,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These absolute self declarations are imperialistic and dominating in a world of different cultures, religions and ideologies. Truthfully, when Christianity which started as movement became ‘Christendom,’ it became imperialistic and oppressive.

It is imperative that we differentiate the Jesus of the poor and the Jesus of Christendom. The Jesus of the poor, lest we forget was not a Christian. He was a Jew. The Jesus of the poor may declare his Jewishness but will assert that we are all children of God; he will offer water and life for all, especially communities in need and will have no need to declare to be the ‘living water;’ he will offer salvation to those who need God the most and will have no desire to declare that salvation comes from the Jews (or from Christians!); and the Jesus of the poor says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He will not have to say, I am he.

In memory of her… And of him.
Verses 39-42

Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are texts that tell of Jesus’ anointing by a woman. Both texts end with, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” The narrative on John 4 on Jesus and the Samaritan woman ends with, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” In the conquest of cultures and nations, women’s voices and actions are forgotten and dismissed. It is a denial of women’s share in history. In our histories and her-stories as colonized, colonizers and collaborators, we must critique how Christ is characterized as a male, a superior and a dominator. In his birth and death, Jesus was vulnerable and under the domination of the Roman Empire. A critique of the John 4 text is necessary to honor the memory of the messiah who lived his life for the poor and marginalized until he was executed.

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