The Samaritan Woman’s Immoral Lifestyle
By David Wright
One afternoon when I was preaching in Mississippi, my home phone rang. When I answered, a stranger introduced herself and then went straight to the point of her call. She wanted me to perform her wedding ceremony. Since her voice had the husky sound of a longtime heavy smoker, I suspected that the proposed marriage would be her second or third. “Have you been married before?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m divorced.” And why had her previous relationship ended? Her ex-husband had committed adultery. I explained that, according to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:9, a betrayed spouse was free to divorce and remarry. One important question remained unanswered, though. “What about you?” I said. “Did you keep your marriage vows?” The answer was no. The caller admitted that she had committed adultery too.
The Gospel of John describes an encounter between Jesus and a woman in Samaria guilty of living the same lifestyle. When the Lord asked her to go and get her husband, she said, “I have no husband” (John 4:17). Jesus agreed with her. “You have had five husbands,” he said, “and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (v. 18).
The Samaritan Woman’s Race
Jesus was tired and hungry. He and his disciples had walked long, dusty miles along the mountainous main road leading from Jerusalem to Galilee. At noon they arrived at the Samaritan village Sychar, a town located on the eastern slope of Mt. Ebal. The tomb of the patriarch Joseph was in the immediate vicinity.
While their Teacher rested by himself at Jacob’s well, the disciples went into the village to buy something to eat. But Jesus was alone for only a short time. A Samaritan woman, coming to draw water, soon joined him at the well. Though exhausted, Jesus refused to let fatigue stand in the way of evangelistic opportunity. In fact, he was in Samaria for the very purpose of bringing good news to the Samaritan people.
Jesus initiated conversation with the woman of Sychar by asking for a drink of water. This request startled her because “Jews have no dealings [no social contact] with Samaritans.” So she asked Jesus, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9).
A brief history of Israel’s divided kingdom may help to explain the hostility between Jews and Samaritans suggested here. The great schism, which separated north and south, occurred after the death of David’s son Solomon. David’s descendants retained control over the southern territory, Judah. Several of Judah’s kings were righteous men, but the nation repeatedly forsook God for the idols of surrounding nations. Finally, the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, ravaged Judah, burned Jerusalem, and carried away thousands of captives, leaving only “the poorest of the land” (Jer. 52:16).
After 70 years of Babylonian exile, the people of Judah returned to their homeland, where they continued to live until after the time of Christ. During all those centuries, the people of Judah maintained their racial integrity by intermarrying and keeping careful genealogical records. And so the Jew of Jesus’ day was able to prove direct descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The experience of the Jews living in the northern territory, Israel, was markedly different. Jeroboam son of Nebat, the first king, introduced idolatry in Israel, placing golden calves at Dan and Bethel. None of his successors sought to abolish this disgrace, and some of them encouraged God’s chosen people to bow to other deities as well. Therefore, after only two centuries, God delivered the northern tribes into the cruel hands of the Assyrians, who deported some of the Jews and then replaced them with foreigners who had been vanquished elsewhere. The remaining Jews intermarried with these Gentiles. Their mixed descendants, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, became the “Samaritans” occasionally mentioned in the New Testament.
Mutual disdain characterized the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans in the first century. This is evident in an encounter recorded by Luke. Jesus sent messengers ahead into a Samaritan town, notifying the villagers that he would pass through, “but they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). When the hot-tempered young brothers James and John learned of this insult, they begged Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven and burn the Samaritans to a crisp.
No doubt, the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel had interacted with Jewish people on numerous occasions. She was well aware of their contempt for her people and of her own dislike for them. This is why Jesus’ request for water surprised and annoyed her. Why would a Jewish man want to put his mouth on a Samaritan woman’s water jar?
The Samaritan Woman’s Religion
Jesus ignored the woman’s question about his disregard for racial distinctions. His gracious offer of salvation would prove that her race was no barrier to his love. “If you knew the gift of God,” he said, “and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). The mysterious expression “living water” piqued the Samaritan woman’s interest, but she understandably failed to grasp what the stranger meant.
The only water in her experience was the clear liquid that her life depended on. How could this peculiar Jewish man give her water when he plainly had “nothing to draw with” (John 4:11)? The Lord’s response was both beautiful and profound. He told her that “whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:13-14).
What did these eloquent and intriguing words mean? Jesus communicated his loving offer more directly when he said that “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The source of that life was Jesus himself. On one occasion he assured the apostle Thomas that he was “the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (14:6).
So when Jesus offered the Samaritan woman “living water,” he was offering himself. “Come to me,” he was saying, “and I will give you life – not only future life in heaven but also a rich and full new life in the present.” But her religious training stood in the way of her accepting this gracious offer.
After the Babylonian exile, the people of Judah began returning home. They arrived in 538 BC and finished the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem about 20 years later. The people of Samaria volunteered to help with this project. “Let us build with you,” they said, “for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here” (Ezra 4:2). True, the Samaritans did give lip service to God, but they also practiced idolatry (2 Kings 17:24-34). Having just spent 70 years in captivity for this very sin and therefore wanting no help from idolaters, the Jews flatly refused any aid. Angered by this rejection, the people of Samaria sought in various ways to frustrate the work.
Nearly a century later (in 445 BC), when Nehemiah organized and supervised the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s damaged walls, the people of Samaria again acted as adversaries. While privately devising schemes to interfere with the project, they publicly scoffed at it. Tobiah, for instance, told the “army of Samaria” that “whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall” (Neh. 4:2-3).
In the time of Christ (some five centuries after the rebuilding of Jerusalem), Samaritan religion still retained pagan influences. And the Samaritans had a shortened, corrupted Bible, the Samaritan Pentateuch, which consisted of the five books of Moses. They viewed Mt. Gerizim (a mountain southwest of Mt. Ebal) as sacred. They ascended it whenever it was time to observe the Passover and other festivals. The Samaritans had even erected a temple on Mt. Gerizim. Probably, the woman at the well gestured toward her people’s holy place when she told Jesus that “our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (John 4:20).
Jesus answered that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Samaritan worship was uninformed and corrupted. Mt. Gerizim was not a true holy place and never had been. The temple approved by God was built on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. And dismissing so many inspired books of the Old Testament was wrong. But Jesus assured the woman that the controversy over the two mountains would soon be irrelevant. What mattered was not where to worship, but how. He explained that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
The Samaritan Woman’s Relationship
Perhaps the woman in Sychar was willing to overlook racial differences with Jesus and even accept his challenge to “worship the Father in spirit and truth.” But giving up the man she lived with and financially depended on would be more difficult. After Jesus had aroused her interest in his life-giving water, he asked her to go, call her husband, “and come here” (John 4:16). The woman answered that she had no husband. Jesus acknowledged the accuracy of this statement, but he knew that she was withholding something. “You have had five husbands,” he said, “and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (v. 18).
Not another word about this immoral relationship appears in John’s story. He merely recorded that the woman at the well began to suspect that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. When she voiced her suspicions, he confirmed them. The woman was so excited that she forgot her water jar and hurried into the village to tell her neighbors: “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:28-29).
The people of Sychar came to believe that this testimony was true. “Now we believe,” they told her, “not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him, and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). The Bible implies that the woman at the well herself moved from strong interest and curiosity to full conviction. After all, why would a woman invite everyone else to know Jesus if she had no intention of following him herself? No doubt, she confessed her sins and asked the disciples of Jesus to baptize her (vs. 1-2).
That John says nothing more about the woman’s sinful lifestyle in no way suggests the Lord’s acceptance of it. Twenty-first century Americans, seeing Christ through the fog of their own moral laxity, may think that he was so meek and gentle that he never required his disciples to make painful and difficult choices. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mob gathered at Golgotha was not there to torment a butterfly. Although Jesus was humble, gentle, and loving, his words stung like a wasp. He exposed sinful habits and attitudes, confronted the guilty, and threatened those who refused to listen with the fires of hell. And so Jesus raised the issue of the Samaritan woman’s live-in boyfriend because it was a problem. She would never be a true disciple if she clung to a relationship that clearly displeased and dishonored God.
Heather, who has gone down the aisle three times, perfectly understands the Samaritan woman’s predicament. Tommy, a high school sweetheart, was Heather’s first husband. They married when they were both only 18. Heather’s parents begged her to wait until she was older, until she had finished college. She had stubbornly refused to listen, thinking they disliked Tommy and were trying to persuade her to find someone more acceptable to them. The marriage lasted two years. Heather and Tommy argued bitterly the entire time, finally separating after a terrible fight that nearly became violent.
Heather married the second time on the rebound. Divorcing Tommy had left her crushed, depressed, and vulnerable. She was willing to marry the first man who came along. His name was Jeff. Heather made his life miserable. Her unresolved anger and bitterness toward Tommy battered Jeff like the fierce winds of a thunderstorm. After only nine months, he filed for divorce. Heather, age 21, was single again.
Heather’s parents recommended that she seek help at a nearby counseling center. This time she meekly accepted their advice. Heather gradually learned to forgive Tommy and to identify the shortcomings in herself that had contributed to the two divorces.
Six years passed before Heather married again. She wanted to be absolutely certain that she was emotionally ready to marry and that her third husband would be Mr. Right. She met Don at a high school football game. He was there to watch his younger brother play, and Heather was volunteering at the concession stand. Heather and Don dated for a year. Then on a lovely Saturday evening in June, they said their vows in front of their families and a few friends.
Almost five years have now passed since that happy day. Heather and Don love each other. They have two beautiful children together. But uncertainty has begun to erode Heather’s peace of mind.
Don’s maternal grandparents, both dedicated Christians, invited Heather to attend worship with them. She accepted the invitation and immensely enjoyed the service. The church was friendly and warm, and being in God’s presence met a deep need in her heart that she had never allowed herself to acknowledge. But the preacher’s message was very disturbing. Kindly but boldly he explained the teaching in Matthew 19:9, where Jesus said that “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
An intelligent young woman, Heather is able to see that Jesus’ words condemn her third marriage as an adulterous relationship. She had no scriptural reason for divorcing Tommy. They were simply too immature to get along. Jeff was not guilty of infidelity either. She had never loved him. Her bitterness from the first marriage had poisoned the second. To her dismay, Heather realizes that she and Don are living in sin.
Heather could easily find a book or sermon that would relieve her anxiety. Unscriptural remarriage is so pervasive in American society that many church leaders not only accept it but also defend it. Taking the biblical stance on the divorce and remarriage issue is becoming increasingly unpopular. It risks the good will of friends, close relatives, and even some brothers and sisters in the Lord’s church.
The unspoken assumption that what is legal cannot be entirely wrong seems to undergird the defense of adulterous marriages. Heather’s situation, some would argue, is completely different from the Samaritan woman’s. The woman at Jacob’s well was living with a man without marrying him, whereas Heather is legally married.
But the cloak of legality fails to cover the sin of adultery. The marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias is a biblical case in point. John the Baptizer, the Lord’s forerunner, died for having the courage to say that the king’s relationship was immoral.
Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, had a brother named Philip. Philip’s wife, Herodias, left her husband and married her brother-in-law. The way Mark describes the conflict between John and Herod is significant: “For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife'” (Mark 6:17-18).
Mark’s wording demonstrated that Herod’s relationship was legal yet impure. The king “had married” Herodias. The marriage was a legal agreement, officially approved by the government. As far as the inspired prophet John was concerned, though, Herodias was still “Philip’s wife.” So Herod Antipas had legally married a woman rightly bound to another man. When John said, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18), he was surely referring to the law of God and not the laws of the land. Herod was sleeping with his brother’s wife, and the wedding ceremony failed to change the immoral nature of their relationship.
Same-gender marriages, legalized for the first time in U.S. history on May 17, 2004, offer an unhappy illustration of this point. The Bible strongly denounces homosexuality. The Law of Moses condemns the offender to death by stoning. The apostle Paul calls the sin a perversion and warns that those guilty of it will miss the eternal kingdom (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Legalizing same-sex marriage has no cleansing effect on the perverted behavior. Married or not, two men or two women sleeping together will be under judgment.
The parallel is striking. The Law of Moses condemns adulterers to death by stoning. The apostle Paul warns that those guilty of this sin will be excluded from God’s eternal kingdom. If legalizing same-sex relationships fails to legitimize them in God’s sight, why would legalizing an adulterous relationship sanctify it?
Heather is in a terribly difficult position. She loves Don and knows that terminating her relationship with him would be extremely painful for everyone involved – especially the children. How could a loving God expect her to do such a thing? Two vital truths demand attention here. First, God is not to blame for Heather’s predicament. Jesus plainly says that sexual immorality is the only legitimate reason for ending the sacred marriage bond. Heather’s own sinful and disobedient choices have created the dilemma she now finds herself in.
Second, obeying God, though sometimes extremely difficult, is always ultimately best for the obedient person. The Bible says that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). “Crucified” suggests pain. Dying to self hurts, but the reward of living a pure, God-pleasing life more than compensates for the loss of any worldly pleasure.
The Samaritan Woman’s Immoral Lifestyle
1.A century ago preachers in most American religious groups agreed that remarriage after divorce (except for the spouse victimized by infidelity) was adulterous. Now it is difficult to find a preacher who upholds this standard. How has America’s moral decline influenced the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching? Discuss whether Christians should knowingly allow cultural influences to guide their interpretation of the Scriptures.
2. What attitudes characterized Jesus’ treatment of the woman at the well? Knowing that she was sexually immoral, why did he not shun her? Did his kindness suggest that he approved of her lifestyle? Did the Samaritan’s impurity weaken Jesus’ evangelistic interest in her? If you know that a friend is living in an adulterous remarriage, does this knowledge affect your evangelistic interest? Why or why not?
3. In this chapter the author suggests that making an adulterous relationship legal fails to make it right. Do you agree or disagree? Name several sinful practices that are perfectly legal in the U.S.
4. In this chapter the author compares the legalization of homosexual marriage to the legal cloak of marriage for two adulterers. Is this a fair analogy? Have you ever had a close friend whose husband left her for another woman? How would you describe the pain she felt? Did the ex-husband’s remarriage heal her broken spirit or make matters even worse?
5. Most church-goers believe that God would never expect an adulterous marriage to be ended if the union had produced children. After reading Ezra 10:1-3, discuss whether this common belief can be biblically sustained. If adulterers stay together for the sake of their children, could their immoral relationship hinder the spiritual development of the very ones they want to protect?