Twice (John 4:29, 39), the Samaritan woman is said to have reported to her townspeople that a man had told her ?everything? she did. One may surmise that those whom she told knew rather well precisely what the things were that she had done, for they followed her urging to see this remarkably perceptive stranger. Precisely what did Jesus tell her that so moved her and others, and how did he go about it?
Jesus is regularly supposed to have told the Samaritan woman (John 4:17b-18) that she was married five times and was now living with someone she had not married. This assumption renders it unlikely that Jesus is challenging her morality. Instead, it centres the theological issue in v. 18 on Jesus? revelation to the woman of the supernatural knowledge he possesses. Accordingly, his reason for ?abruptly? changing the subject at v. 16 remains unexplained. Nor does it become clear how the fact or nature of his supernatural knowledge effectively bears on the subsequent half of his dialogue with the woman. If, however, one attends to word-play in Jesus? reply that specifies her illicit relationships, one can behold the whole dialogue opening up like a flower. Various related elements become much more coherent: Jesus? giving her ?the story of her life?; the reasons for the apparently abrupt change of subject at v. 16; the telling effect of Jesus? self-identification in v. 25.
When reading Jesus? dialogue with the woman from its outset (4:7) to v. 15, one becomes aware of the fact that this conversation is going nowhere. Jesus is repeatedly trying to bring the woman to ask for what he himself mysteriously has to offer. He has presented his ?gift? as a kind of secret by indicating that, if she knew the gift of God and who it is who is asking her for a drink of water, she would have made a request of him, and he would have given her living water. She then challenges his power to draw the water: he has no bucket, nor is he likely to be the equal of Jacob, who gave her people this well in an originally dramatic way, namely, with an artesian surge that nourished his children and his flocks. Jesus then characterizes the water he offers to give as quenching thirst forever and becoming an effervescing source for everlasting life. Finally (v. 15) the woman mockingly asks for the lasting, internal water that Jesus offers (touto to hudor) so that she will not thirst or have to come this way to draw. She fails to understand the kind of water that he promises, for she speaks of it as a kind of water that differs only by quenching (physical) thirst permanently and by not having to be fetched by walking to a well. She seems, moreover, to be ?humouring? Jesus with a tinge of sarcasm. Surely, she is not asking seriously for the kind of water that he has been talking about. The reader should readily perceive that there is no communication here on the level of religious dialogue.
Jesus, however, turns her ?apparent? request to his advantage. He pretends that it is genuine, although his language soon shows that he knows it was not. He places a condition on her acquiring the water he offers, namely, that she call her ?man? (ton andra sou), here readily construed as ?your husband?. This deft change of topic (ostensibly introducing a third person, related to the woman addressed) provides a new point of departure for the conversation between these two individuals. As soon appears, Jesus? ploy in probing for a moral nerve enables him to raise the level of communication to dialogue about religious issues.
Jesus? change of topic at this point is not altogether abrupt. It should be construed as quite consistent with his line of conversation thus far, for two reasons. First, at the outset of their conversation, when the woman had expressed surprise at his request, he introduced the note of a secret he could and would disclose: ?If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you . . . you would have made a request of him, and he would have given you living water (4:10).? In v. 15, the woman apparently makes that suggested request, however sarcastically, and thus provides Jesus with the opportunity to pick up the note of mystery by offering to let in on his secret her ?man? too (scil., her husband). Second, the circumstances of a lone woman?s coming to a well at high noon, given the customs of the day that John?s reader (and surely Jesus himself) can be assumed to know, suggest that Jesus may be trying gently to entice her into a moral and therefore religious level of discussion.
The specific details of her life are by no means clear, but her conduct does arouse one?s curiosity. The woman?s dissembling yet honest reply, ?I have no man (ouk ekho andra)?, which she means to be construed as ?no husband?, receives an immediate response from Jesus (vv. 17b-18). The term ?man? (aner), an adult human male (whether a single man, a lover, or a husband) provides the basis for his play on words. Jesus frames his riposte with paired, ironic compliments on the skilful aptness of her response and its truthfulness: ?Nicely said . . .; this you have said is true.? He then interprets her reply as he sees through it: ?You had five men (andras - in the sense of ??lovers, co-fornicators??) and now the one you have is not your man (ouk estin sou aner - in the sense of ??your husband??).? In short, she is not married and never was. She has lived with five men and the one with whom she now lives is not her man (scil., husband), but belongs to some other woman. Jesus is hardly speaking about five stages of widowhood and one of fornication. Rather, he pointedly indicates that she never was and is not now married. Instead, she had spent her life with five lovers, and is currently living, as the emphatic ?your? shows (kai nun hon ekheis ouk estin sou aner), in an adulterous relationship.
The woman responds appropriately enough. For she sees that it must mean at least the fullness of God?s revelation: ?When he (the Messiah) comes, he will tell us (reveal to us) everything.? In identifying himself, Jesus also tellingly redirects the dialogue to centre on his personal contact with the woman. He returns the dialogue to the singular: ?I am he, the one speaking with you [sg.].? At this point, one may sense that a light-bulb goes on in the woman?s mind. For, subsequently, she makes her confession to the people in the city by inviting them to come and see a man who told her everything she did (4:29). In John?s narrative, of course, the moment of illumination finds dramatic expression. By leaving her water-jug as she departs for the city, she shows that she has set aside her original concern. In disclosing her whole lifestory, Jesus has revealed to her personally that he is the Messiah. She phrases her message to the Samaritans in the city as a cautious assertion (meti, v. 29b). Nevertheless, as becomes clear in v. 29, they take it quite positively and integrally as ?testimony?. Under the circumstances, her confession hardly means that Jesus is merely one with preternatural knowledge about ?morally neutral data? of her past life (as would be the case if he had told her among other things that she was married five times). Rather, it implies a moral confession about this stranger?s prophetic knowledge and rebuke concerning a sinful way of life that her Samaritan hearers already knew she had led.
One may sense the importance of her testimony as a personal recognition of Jesus from the Samaritans? reference to it in vv. 39 and 40. Actually, they do not ?put her down? by saying that they no longer (ouketi) believe because of what she said (v. 42). Rather, they declare a new basis for their own belief in Jesus through having heard personally, for themselves, what he has to say (v. 41b and 42b).
With John 4:15, it becomes clear that the Samaritan woman does not really comprehend the kind of water Jesus has offered her. Jesus? dialogue with her has not reached the needed level of communication. Jesus takes her somewhat mocking request, however, as the occasion to press the hidden gift he would offer. He asks her to call her ?man? (ton andra sou), readily taken in context to mean her ?husband?. When she replies that she has none, Jesus ironically commends her frankness and discloses to her the story of her life: she has lived with five men (all instances of fornication) and is now living with a man who is not her man (ouk estin sou aner), scil., her husband (the current adulterous relationship).
She then acknowledges him as a prophet, but at the same time alters the focus in ?a religious discussion with a prophet? from the moral issue to the cultic one. This she tries to render less immediately personal by switching to the first and third persons plural. Jesus pursues the topic, moving from her concern with the place of the cult to the Father?s immediate temporal concern in seeking genuine worshippers. This concern requires worship on the level of the spirit and of Jesus? personal revelation (truth). She responds in a not alien way that she (and other Samaritans) expect the Messiah who is coming will tell them everything. When Jesus identifies himself to her personally, she realizes that he has indeed told her ?everything?, namely, the story of her life. She then has reason to share with her countrymen her own experience in recognizing Jesus as the one whom they all await.
From Charles H. Giblin, NTS 45 (1999)