On Jesus and his disciples’ way from Jerusalem to the Galilee, as described in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, they traveled through Samaria, a region whose inhabitants had a tense relationship with Jews. Jesus sat down to rest at the well outside a Samaritan village and met a woman. They spoke at length, with Jesus ultimately convincing her, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
The woman reported Jesus’s words to her community, leading the village to profess faith in Jesus: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of that woman’s testimony,” the gospel reads.
Caryn Reeder, a professor of New Testament and co-coordinator of the gender studies program at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., explores this version of the story in her new book, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo (IVP Academic, Feb. 2022).
But the story is rarely interpreted in such empowering terms. Instead of a woman’s word leading her community to faith, the Samaritan woman is typically hypersexualized—referred to at times, Reeder explains, as a prostitute, as “stuck in sexual sin,” or as a shamed, multiple-times-divorced woman.
Assumptions about the Samaritan woman, and subsequently, female sinfulness, kept coming to Reeder’s mind as the #ChurchToo movement—a part of the #MeToo movement that revealed patterns of widespread sexual harassment and assault within the church community—came to light.
“I spent several years so angry at the state of the world that allowed the sexual assault of women in the workplace, in the family, in schools, and also in religious institutions,” Reeder says. Then she had the realization that led her to write The Samaritan Woman’s Story: “The Samaritan woman connects so clearly with this crisis of sexual assault in the church.”
The historical reading of John 4 is not a complete explanation of sexual assault in some church communities, Reeder says. “But I would say that John 4 is representative of a pattern of how the church has read stories in the Bible about women, and then taught men and women what women’s roles are in the world, what women are for, and how to view women.”
Female interpreters of the Bible have also been largely left out of conversations about the Samaritan woman. “Their voices have been lost through time,” Reeder says, “drowned out by the overwhelming focus on the woman’s sexuality as the central concern of the story.”
Reeder will speak about her findings on women readers of scripture at the AAR/SBL meeting during the in-person panel, “Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible.”
Anna Gissing, an associate editor at IVP Academic, says that in The Samaritan Woman’s Story, “we learn her story is not primarily about her sex life or marital status after all—it is about her discipleship.” She adds, “I had no idea that the oft-repeated claim was based on scant evidence.”
The book inspired Gissing to reexamine the text, and she hopes it has the same effect on other readers. “The Samaritan woman’s story is one to recover in our day.”