Reconsidering the Woman at the Well

A “prostitute.” A “harlot.” A “promiscuous woman.” These are all words traditionally used to describe the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Like Mary Magdalene, she is often judged for her past as a sinner and as a person with little-to-no value due to her circumstances. But is this characterization accurate?

John’s Account

At the beginning of John 4, Jesus and His disciples arrived in the Samaritan village of Sychar on their way to Galilee. Normally, Jews traveled for three days around Sychar to ensure they would have no contact with Samaritans, a group they considered unclean; but the Bible says that Jesus and His disciples had to go through the village (but no explanation is given as to why) (Lizorkin-Eyzenberg).

Once they arrived at Sychar, the disciples went into the village to buy food. Jesus, who was very tired, sat beside Jacob’s well (a field near the village) to rest. Shortly after, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water. Although the woman was never named, we know from the story that her interactions with Jesus and the revelation she was in the presence of the long-awaited Messiah impacted an entire village. However, we also learn she was married five times and living with a sixth man to whom she was not married, a discovery that has frequently painted her in a harsh light.

Reconsidering the Samaritan Woman’s Character

Interestingly, the Samaritan woman’s assumed naughty behavior is not commented on directly by Jesus as sinful, unlike the adulterous woman to whom He told to “go and sin no more.” In addition, John, as part of his account, never stated the cause of the woman’s situation either. It seems possible this omission may be on purpose as it is likely not the focus of the story; however, it has traditionally been used as the emphasis. Why do I say her alleged sin is not the primary piece of the story? Let’s take a look at some common scenarios this unnamed woman might have faced that have nothing to do with sinful behavior that could have led to her tragic marital situation.

The Widow

It was not uncommon in the First Century for a young teenage girl to marry a much older man. The life expectancy was short and becoming a widow more than once was a reality for many women of antiquity for that part of the world. Could it be possible the woman at the well experienced the death of at least one of her five husbands? It seems very likely (Crown, Silver).

Marriage Laws

Some Biblical researchers have suggested the Samaritan woman may have been involved in a Levirate marriage; however, this scenario, although possible, was not allowed by Samaritan and Levitical laws (see Leviticus 18:16 and Deutoronomy 25:5-10) and has been strictly followed (most of the time) for what is known from ancient Samaritan historical writings. The Levirate marriage was the practice of a widow marrying the dead husband’s brother to provide financial security and continue the brother’s family line.

History suggests Samaritans may have practiced Levirate marriages at some point since Jewish women, for whom this practice was common, married into Samaritan families upon occasion to reduce the genetic consequences of continuous intermarriage of extended family members. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the rules and laws may have changed slightly over time, but due to poor records on marriage laws and customs from that timeframe, it is difficult to know for sure (Atteberry, Crown, and New World Encyclopedia).

It was also acceptable for Samaritan men to have more than one wife, especially if the first wife was barren. Although the law legally allowed this form of marriage, Jesus’ definition was between one man and one woman only. Some theologians have suggested that perhaps Jesus was not pointing to her sin with the last man she was with but simply pointing to an arrangement that was not recognized by Him (Crown).

Occasionally, it was necessary for a woman who had no dowry to be taken in by a distant male relative (which was common). This is also a possibility as she would have been living with a man to whom she was not married (Crown).


Serial divorce initiated by the woman at the well has also been brought up as a possible reason she had so many husbands, but that situation seems the most unlikely. Since women have to have a male relative help with divorce initiations, it would have been unheard of to have any respectable man help her divorce several different men. It would have been considered extremely taboo in that part of the world during the First Century (Crown).

Is it possible she initiated at least one divorce of the five marriages? Yes, it is possible. It would not be unthinkable that multiple men may have divorced her. It was much easier for a man to divorce his wife than for a woman to divorce her husband (Crown).

The Prostitute

Could the woman at the well have been a prostitute? If she initiated divorce, she may have lost any dowry or other assets to her ex-husband. In that ancient culture, no husband would have meant little or no financial security, personal value, or future hopes. She would have been at high risk for living on the streets, starving, and destitute. It also seems reasonable to assume that if she were a prostitute, no one in her village would have listened to her testimony of her encounter with Jesus because her standing within her own community would have been so low (Atteberry).

Final Thoughts

Honestly, the more I consider any of the scenarios listed above, the more I feel compassion for this woman. Her past seems to indicate she was most likely a victim of her circumstances instead of a sinful, wicked woman. The one fact that stands out the most about the Samaritan woman’s story to me is that Jesus saw her worth. He spoke about her situation which carried a lot of personal significance about her financial situation, standing within her own community, and the likely deep lack she felt. In addition, Jesus, a Jewish teacher, talked to an “unclean” Samaritan who was a woman. Then, He asked to share her water vessel which would have caused him to be considered ritually unclean. Any of those things on their own would have been considered odd by the culture of the day (Atteberry).

It seems the account tells so much more than about a woman at the well. It was a divine appointment which led the first evangelist, a woman, as recorded by John to reach a people separated from God. Jesus offered worth and restoration to a broken woman; she took the same hope and restoration to her community.

Beloved, if you carry shame and unworthiness, consider the story of the woman at the well. Like Joseph, who’s tragic circumstances led to the salvation of his people (by the way, his bones were buried very closely to Jacob’s well), this unnamed woman’s story follows a similar path (Bible Study Tools).

No shame is too great. No brokenness too unworthy for God to look beyond your past and speak restoration over you.



Atteberry, Shawna, The Voice,

Bible Study Tools, “At Jacob’s Well and at Sychar”,

Crown, Alan, Jewish Women’s Archive “Samaritan Sect”,

Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eli and Loden, Lisa, “Reconsidering the Samaritan Woman”,

New World Encyclopedia, “Levirate Marriage”,

Silver, Sandra, Early Church History, “Longevity in the Ancient World”,

Old and New Testament Parallels, Symbols, and Ponderings Series: Joseph as a Type of Christ

The story of Joseph has always been one of my favorites, butegypt I had no idea before I began researching that his life can be directly paralleled with Jesus. In fact, I found over 60 parallels on the web. For the sake of brevity, I’ve included some of the highlights, but you can review the whole list in the “Sources and Resources” links at the bottom of this blog post if you are looking for more information. Here are the highlights…

Beloved Son:

  • Jesus and Joseph are both referred to as the first-born and “beloved son” (or a closely related synonym from the root Hebrew words “ahebh” and “agapao”) (Genesis 37:3, Matthew 3:17). Joseph was the first-born for his wife Rachel. Jesus was the first-born of Mary.
  • According to Bible Hub, “beloved” is used in the Old Testament 42 times. The word is used in both testaments and are derived from primarily two main Hebrew words and their derivatives. “Ahebh” is primarily found in the Old Testament and means “to breathe” or “long for.” “Agapao” can be found in the New Testament and means “to prefer.”


  • Joseph frequently tended to his father’s sheep when he was a teenager.
  • Jesus is called the “Good Shepherd” (Genesis 37:2; John 10:11).
  • A shepherd cares for the sheep and fiercely protects them from dangers like wolves and other animals threatening the flock(s).

Miraculous Birth:

  • Rachel was unable to have children and Jacob was an old man. However, God heard Rachel’s prayers for children and intervened (Genesis 30:22-24; 37:3).
  • Jesus was born to Mary who was a virgin (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:31-33).

Foretold Sovereignty and the Promise:

Hated and Rejected by His Own:

  • Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons because he and Benjamin were the only sons born to his favorite wife Rachel. Joseph’s half brothers knew he was the favorite, became jealous and consipered to murder him (Genesis 37:4,18).
  • Jesus’s brothers were jealous and did not believe He was the Son of God (John 7:3-5).
  • Jesus was despised by the religious leaders and by His own people, eventually leading to His death on the cross (Mark 15:10; Luke 23:21 and John 15:25).

Stripped His Clothing:

  • Joseph’s brothers stripped him of the coat of many colors (Genesis 37:23).
  • The roman soldiers removed Jesus’s clothes prior to his crucifiction (Matthew 27:28).


  • Instead of murdering Joseph, the eldest brother Reuben convinced the brothers to throw him into a cistern (Genesis 37:21-24).
  • After Jesus died on the cross, He remained rejected and alone in the ground for three days (Matthew 12:40).

Sold for the Price of a Slave:

  • Joseph’s brother Judah suggested selling Joseph into slavery. They sold him to the Ishmaelites as a slave for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28). Interestingly, Judah’s name translates to “Judas” in Hellenized Greek.
  • Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (the price of a slave) (Matthew 26:15; 27:24).

Raised to Life:

The Servant:

  • Joseph became a servant to an Egyptian official named Potiphar (Genesis 39:1-2).
  • Jesus “gave up His divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born a human being (Philippians 2:7a).”

Resisted Temptation:

  • Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph to sleep with her, but he never acted upon the temptation (Genesis 39:7-9).
  • Satan tempted Jesus to do wrong, but He did not sin (Matthew 4:1-11).

Falsely Accused:

  • Joseph was falsely accused of trying to take advantage of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7-9).
  • Two false witnesses accused Jesus of wrongdoing, but he remained silent (Matthew 26:60, 62-63).

Became a Prisoner Among Sinners:

  • Joseph was thrown into prison with other prisoners after being falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit (Genesis 39:20).
  • Jesus was crucified beside two thieves for a crime He didn’t commit (Luke 23:33).

Promise to the Condemned:

  • Two other men, who were imprisoned with Joseph, were condemned to die. Joseph promised one of the prisoners his life would be restored to his position (Genesis 40:13).
  • Jesus promised one of the thieves who was crucified with Him that he would go to paradise (Luke 23:43).

Honor and Glory:

  • Joseph eventually became Pharaoh’s highest advisor. This position of authority gave him the second highest level of power in Egypt. Every knee bowed to Joseph (Genesis 41:41-45).
  • God exalted Jesus and gave Him a name above every name. Every knee will bow to Jesus (Philippians 2:9-10).

The Provider:

  • Joseph was responsible for ensuring all Egyptians and people in the surrounding lands had food during several years of famine. If Joseph decided not to allow someone to buy grain, they would likely starve to death. During that time period, he was the source of life (Genesis 41:57).
  • Jesus is the “bread of life.” Those who go to Him will never thirst or hunger (John 6:35).

They didn’t Recognize Him:

  • Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him when they approached him for grain. By this point in the Genesis account, many years had passed and Joseph was likely dressed in Egyptian style clothing and makeup that signified his level of authority, making it difficult for his brothers to identify him (Genesis 42:8).
  • Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah by His own nation (John 1:10).
  • When Jesus resurrected from the grave, He went to His disciples; but they were afraid and didn’t recognize Him (Luke 24:13-35).

Reconciliation and Family Restored:

  • When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, they feared he would have them killed or seek revenge for the terrible wrong they had done to him. However, Joseph wept when he saw his brothers, and he chose to show them mercy even though the didn’t deserve it (Genesis 45).
  • Jesus chose mercy over judgment and restored us when He died on the cross and resurrected from the grave. Through His wonderful gift of redemption, He restored the nation of Israel and adopted the gentiles although none of us deserve it.

Sources and Resources: