Did you know the Bible doesn’t mention any animals at the manger scene? Though the idea is plausible, given the cultural context of the time, God’s Word doesn’t say one way or the other—and the nativity sets we unpack at Christmastime are mere speculation. There’s much we unknowingly bring to Scripture, just like these assumed sheep and camels. It’s simply human nature to integrate ourselves and our experiences—along with what we might know of history—into everything we read, including the Bible. Or take the rich young ruler: In every version of the parable, he walks away grieved, so we might assume he chooses to keep all his possessions. But the text never says that he kept his riches, nor does it say he gave them away. Since we can’t confirm one way or another, we should read the story imagining both outcomes and their implications.
Consider the woman at the well in John 4:1-45. The text tells us that Jesus met a woman drawing water from a well in Samaria. In their conversation, Jesus says, “You have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). It’s easy to read Jesus’ statement as an accusation or judgment, rather than an acknowledgement of the facts. And it doesn’t take much for our minds to begin filling in the gaps. If the woman is currently living with a man who is not her husband, we might reason, then her five marriages must have ended due to sinful behavior. How else does a woman move through five husbands? But what if we were to suspend judgment and read John 4 again? Instead of assuming promiscuity, let’s entertain the possibility that the woman’s story is much more complex than we initially supposed.
A look at history helps here: At the time of the Samaritan woman’s life, a wedding was not the beginning of a love story but an economical arrangement, a transfer of property—specifically of women and their dowries. And divorce was much the same. If a husband wanted to divorce his wife for any reason, he could, with little or no consequence. A wife, on the other hand, could not divorce her husband—she could only request it (which was rare, given the financial risk), and the decision was ultimately up to him. All in all, it was much more common for a wife to become single because her husband had died than because of divorce.
What if we were to suspend judgment and read John 4 again? Instead of assuming promiscuity, let’s entertain the possibility that the woman’s story is much more complex than we initially supposed.
With the significant age gap between older men and their teenaged wives, plus a shorter life expectancy, the death of husbands often left widows searching for economic stability. We see this happen time and again throughout Scripture, with Tamar (Gen. 38:1-19), Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah (Ruth 1:1-5). Also, if like some Samaritans the woman’s family practiced a version of levirate marriage, as a widow she would have been required to marry a close male relative. And if those relatives were close in age, their deaths could move a widow from one male in the family to another.
The complexities multiply the deeper we look. For instance, in ancient Rome and its provinces, cohabitation was a source of protection and security for many, especially for people like slaves, who weren’t allowed legal marriages. Stephanie Coontz points out in her book Marriage: A History that “there was no wedding license, and the modern distinction between cohabitation and marriage was unknown.” Furthermore, “the intense demands on household production [editor’s note: or household management] in ancient states practically forced people to marry to cohabit. Single-person households simply could not survive.”
As for the Samaritan woman at the well, perhaps she had found herself in a desperate situation—with no more remaining eligible male relatives, cohabiting may have been the only way to survive. Maybe the one who wasn’t her husband wouldn’t formally marry her because she was barren. Or was their union illegal because he was a Roman citizen and she was of a lower social rank? We simply don’t know. This is all educated speculation, but in many ways, the reason for the Samaritan woman’s living situation doesn’t matter. Ultimately, how she sinned is beside the point. What really matters here, as with all of Scripture, is what the story reveals about the Lord.
What really matters here, as with all of Scripture, is what the story reveals about the Lord.
In reading John 4 again, allowing the possibility that the woman at the well had been divorced and widowed multiple times, we might notice another dimension in the Lord’s character opening up. Instead of hearing an “accusation,” giving the impression of an omniscient Lord catching a sinner off-guard, we find an all-knowing, tender Savior who sees, understands, and acknowledges pain. When Jesus mentions the woman’s many husbands, we could read His words as if He’s saying, I know you’ve had a tumultuous, difficult life filled with grief. I understand what you’ve been through.
Whether it was because of adultery or widowhood or some other explanation, one thing is for certain—the Samaritan woman at the well was an imperfect being like all of us, with past mistakes, bad habits, and unhelpful tendencies. And when Jesus, a total stranger, called out intimate details of her life, she was seen and known in full, all of her good and bad days laid bare. This could have been frightening, but instead the woman “left her waterpot and went into the city, proclaiming to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is He?’” (John 4:28-29). Considered by many to be the first evangelist, the woman at the well is an example for us to follow. May we be just as repentant, comforted, and emboldened by the Lord’s profound knowledge of us.