Jesus the Bridegroom in John 4: The Samaritan woman at the well
The sun was high, and it was hot. It was the middle of the day—not the usual time of the day for a woman to gather water at the local well. She came alone. This was also not usual; just as gathering water was done in the cool of the day, it was also done with the other women from the village. This was part of the social fabric that held the tight-knit community together. It made the heavy daily chore of hauling precious water more bearable. But she was an outcast, spurned by the others because of her complicated—some would say disgraceful—marital status.
But that day, she was surprised to find out that she was not alone. A strange man was sitting on the edge of the well. He looked tired and thirsty, and contrary to the usual custom of such encounters, he did not move a respectful distance away so that she could draw water. He sat there, letting her approach. And then he spoke to her. This was not the last surprise in this remarkable encounter.
Before we examine the incident further, we need to call to mind the rich literary, geographical, historical, cultural, and theological threads that form the warp and woof of this beautifully woven story. John’s audience would have known this background; we have to work at it.
John is a literary genius and a master storyteller. In his gospel he uses irony, and words with double meanings that lead to misunderstandings, many of which won’t be cleared up for the disciples until the Holy Spirit has been poured out at Pentecost. John also presents the events from Jesus’ life in a way that intrigues his readers and opens up to them various aspects of Jesus’ identity. Just before this incident with the woman at the well, he relates that Jesus has left Cana in Galilee to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (John 2:13; we learn here that Jesus is a faithful Jew). While there, he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple precincts (2:13–25; Jesus has authority over the Temple). He encountered Nicodemus, a powerful Pharisee who had come to him at night (3:1–21; here a leader of the people came under cover of darkness because he was afraid, whereas the Samaritan woman will come to Jesus in the light of day). Then Jesus spent time with his disciples in the Judean countryside, where his disciples were baptizing many who have come to him. This sets up the testimony of John the Baptist. He referred to Jesus as the bridegroom. Here are the Baptist’s words: “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.' 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled” (John 3:28–29). Readers are now well prepared to further recognize the bridegroom in the company of the woman at the well.
Geographical and historical threads
John’s audience would have been familiar with the history of the Samaritans and the reason Jews would go out of their way to avoid passing through Samaria when they traveled between Jerusalem and Galilee. They would have known that the Samaritans were descendants of two groups: the remnant of native Israelites who were not deported after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and foreign colonists brought in by the Assyrians who brought their own gods with them (see 2 Kings 17:24–31).
The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans could be traced back to the time of the separation of Israel in the north from Judah in the south (922 BC). The northerners refused to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, and set up rival temples in the north. To make matters worse, when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon in 538 BC, the Samaritans actively resisted the restoration of Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 4). To make matters worse, in the second century BC, the Samaritans sided with the Syrian king against John Hyrcanus, who ruled Judea from 134–104 BC. Around 113 BC, Hyrcanus destroyed Samaria and the temple on Mount Gerizim. Finally, a few years before the birth of Jesus, the Samaritans retaliated by scattering the bones of the dead in the Temple precincts on the eve of Passover in order to defile the complex and make it impossible for the Jews to keep the feast.
John’s audience would have been familiar with the fact that the Samaritans, like the Sadducees, accepted only the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, as sacred Scripture. Further, in the Samaritan book of Exodus, there was an 11th commandment: to build an altar and worship on Mount Gerizim. One more abomination to the Jews
Our focus in this short series of reflections is on Jesus as the divine bridegroom and the Samaritan woman as a bridal figure. Jesus’ encounter with her reveals his intention to bring all nations into a spousal relationship with him. He welcomes saints and sinners. He offers the gift of living water and salvation to all who will receive him. The woman represents the new Israel, who will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. Once transformed, she becomes the first female evangelist. This is a foreshadowing of the women who will be the first witnesses to the resurrection. We see in this story both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity; his willingness to break down gender barriers; and his respect for all women.
Finally, Jesus is revealing himself as Lord and savior. There is an important context to these titles. Samaria was a city rebuilt by Herod the Great to flatter his Roman overlords. He built a temple there in honor of the emperor Augustus. After his death in AD 14, Augustus was deified by the Roman Senate and given the title “Divus Augustus.” Like many other emperors in the ancient world, he was known as sōtēr, or “savior.” Augustus and other emperors also took the title “Lord.” Their hubris expanded over time, until each one was called “savior of the world.”
The customary use of these terms makes it all the more remarkable that the Samaritans were soon to declare to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world" (4:42).