Jesus’ concept of messianism was different from that of his contemporaries. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Christ reveals himself as a prophet who knows her difficult life situation, and as the Messiah who knows that on her own strength, she cannot overcome her sin and put her life together. How the Samaritan woman recognized the Messiah in the encountered Jew, and how this meeting changed her life is explained by biblical scholar Fr. Prof. Dr. Mariusz Rosik, in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin.
„For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” (John 4:17-18). What happened to those five? It’s hard to suppose that the woman was a widow of five since the lifespan of men was much longer than that of women. Or perhaps the Samaritan woman was unable to have children and was therefore sent away by subsequent husbands, or was unable to remain faithful? The commentary on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent presents the non-obviousness and complexity of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and the context of the woman’s situation.
We publish the complete commentary.
In a dialogue with a Samaritan woman, Jesus admits clearly that he is the Messiah. In response to the woman’s frank confession, ” I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” (John 4:25), Jesus, with disarming sincerity that leaves no room for doubt, states: ” I am he, the one speaking with you” (Jn 4:26). To make it easier for the reader to grasp the intricacies of Samaritan beliefs, John simplified the whole thing a bit. To be accurate, in the mouth of Jesus’ interlocutor, the Evangelist should place these words: „I know that the Messiah, called Taeb, will come,” for this was the title by which the Samaritans referred to God’s Anointed One. Both in Israel and among the people of Samaria, messianic expectations were still alive.
Jesus’ conception of messianism is entirely different from that of his contemporaries. Jesus dreams of the kingdom of God, but His vision differs from the commonly accepted one. The Jews long for political liberation from the bondage of the Romans. Jesus longs for spiritual liberation from the bondage of sin. The Jews dream of a strong state with inviolable borders. Jesus longs for the borders of the kingdom to run through people’s hearts. The Jews project a vision of a future ruled by an independent king before whom the pagan nations will tremble. Instead, Jesus sees the Son of Man on the throne, before whose majesty all the nations of the world will prostrate and worship. In the Jews’ understanding, the guarantee of the Messiah’s power lies in weapons and a strong army; in Jesus’ understanding, it is in the cross, suffering, and death. While the mirror of Jewish messianic expectations reflects the figure of an invincible king, the mirror of Jesus shows rather the suffering Servant of Yahweh, whom the prophet Isaiah described.
The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well doesn’t ask Jesus about the details of His messianic mission at all, and He is not keen to reveal them. It was enough for Jesus to see through her past and, like a prophet, talk about worshiping God. It was enough that He spoke of her five husbands and interpreted the symbol of living water. Or perhaps it was enough that he disobeyed Jewish customs and began a conversation with a resident of despised Samaria. After all, the woman wondered: ” How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (J 4,9). It is unclear which moment in the dialogue was the turning point for the woman drawing water. It is unknown at what moment she became convinced in her heart that Jesus was a prophet and the expected Messiah. What is known, however, is that this realization opened a new perspective for her.
The resolute interlocutor thus recognizes in the wandering interlocutor a prophet and Messiah. The role of the prophet is to read current events in light of God’s will. The task of the Messiah is to bring people into the kingdom of heaven by getting them to abandon the path of sin. Jesus reveals himself as a prophet when he reads the woman’s current situation: „You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18). Jesus reveals his messianic dignity when he announces a new beginning for those who believe in him: ” Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:13-14). Jesus, as a prophet, interprets the woman’s current situation, as the Messiah puts her before another chance to change her life.
The supposition that the Samaritan woman began to build her life anew several times is close to certainty. She has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. What happened to those five? It is hard to suppose that the woman was widowed five times. Studies by statisticians prove that at the time of Jesus, the life expectancy of men was much longer than that of women. Women at the age of twelve or thirteen began bearing children. It so happened that at the age of thirty, a woman was the mother of eight children. The body was quickly wearing out, and this increased mortality. It was then unlikely that a Samaritan woman would be widowed as many as five times. More likely, it was the men who risked the condition of widowhood. Or perhaps a woman from Samaria received divorce letters from her subsequent husbands for lack of offspring? The most common reading of the text of the Law’s provision was along these lines: ” When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deut. 24:1). The „something indecent” was infertility. So might it be that the Samaritan woman could not have children and was therefore sent away by subsequent husbands? And such a possibility is difficult to allow. If a woman was once deemed infertile and dismissed, no one else wanted to take her as a wife anymore. So why did as many as five men leave her? The probable answer is one: she was unable to remain faithful. The schools of Rabbis Shammaya, Hillel, and Akiba, which differed in many views, agreed on one thing: marital infidelity is a sufficient and even compelling reason for divorce.
So if one assumes that the Samaritan woman was dismissed by her respective husbands for infidelity, it becomes clear that her world collapsed as many as five times. Each time, however, she tried to pull herself back together. Each time she got back on her feet and believed that she would make it. She did not lose hope and continued to try to put her life together on her own merits. She had a relationship with other men. The last one was already cautious enough to prevent the marriage. For Jesus’ interlocutor, this was the sixth attempt to build everything anew. Building with human strength. Arranging life with one’s own efforts. And it is at this important moment in the life of the Samaritan woman that a seventh man appears – Jesus himself. He appears to say: man by his own strength cannot overcome his sin and put his life together. However, this can be done by the Holy Spirit. He is the water of life that washes away sin, brings cleansing, and gives refreshment. Whoever receives Him will not thirst forever. He will become a source of water ejaculating toward eternal life.
Rev. Prof. Dr. Mariusz Rosik – biblical scholar, professor of theological sciences, director and research, and didactic employee of the Institute of Biblical Sciences at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Wroclaw, Poland. He specializes in the theology of the New Testament, exegesis of the Synoptic Gospels, and ancient Jewish history. Author of numerous scientific, popular science, and pastoral publications.