The Samaritan Woman. A Character Analysis

General Information. The Samaritan Woman appears and can be located only in the Fourth Gospel, specifically chapter 4 verses 4 to 42 (Jn 4, 4-42 NAB). Obviously of a female gender, though concretely unnamed, aside from ‘Samaritan woman’ [v. 9 (2x)] she is given titles like ‘woman of Samaria’ (v. 7) and simply ‘woman’ (vv. 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 25, 27-28, 39, 42). She lives in Sychar, Samaria “near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (v. 5). She has no husband but had five husbands and is presently living with a man not her husband (vv. 17-18). No particular and close relatives living are mentioned but only the legacy of Jacob as her ancestor (v. 12). Information about her age and occupation are not provided.

The Narrator’s Portrayal of the Character. The Samaritan woman is unnamed and merely referred to as the ‘Samaritan Woman,’ ‘woman of Samaria,’ ‘woman,’ or simply as ‘her.’ This depicts her unimportance in the society that is patriarchal (cf. vv. 5-6,12). This is heightened still by the fact that she is not only a woman but also a Samaritan who belongs to the people marginalized and despised by the Israelites. Thus, with this portrayal, her arrival at the well to draw water signifies her need probably not only of the literal water but of something deeper, that is deprived to her and that she longs and waits for. Being a Samaritan Woman, she is not only different but also affects a sharp contrast to those who Jesus met before her. Furthermore, set in the well (vv. 6-7) some Old Testament images (I Kgs17, 10-11; Gen 24, 10-61; Exod 2, 15b-21) are evoked which in turn foreshadow the vital role that the Samaritan Woman would later have in the mission of Jesus, a role parallel but beyond the Old Testament.

The Actions and Speech of the Character. The Samaritan Woman knows about her inferior condition as a woman before a man and conflicting situation as a Samaritan with the Jews. A knowledge which explains her astonished reaction and unbelief (v. 9). She does not know who Jesus really is and therefore misses the point and what he offers her by understanding him literally and seeing him as subordinate to Jacob (vv. 11-12, 15). However, her responses show her openness and desire to converse with Jesus and recognition of her need for water and what Jesus can offer her. With this attitude plus her precise and straightforward response (v. 15), she opens her deeper self to Jesus which will lead to her deeper knowledge and experience of him who will not only answer her ‘physical thirst’ but also her thirst for truth (v. 20). In verse 25, we, too, can infer that she has heard of the eschatological promise but overlooks the fact that her expectation is already being fulfilled right there and then. At this point she still fails to fully recognize and might not believe Jesus completely yet, but she was not close to her own thinking. Rather, she allows herself to be touched and moved by her conversation with Jesus and by Jesus’ self-revelation that eventually will lead her to forget her need and rather proclaim Jesus and call others to share in her experience (v. 28) and finally experience Jesus by themselves. She becomes a witness, a missionary and a model of openness and of growing faith and probably without knowing it herself. By responding to Jesus actively in words and action, she is able to transcend her society’s confinement and expectation in a childlike manner – she knows of realities and traditions, asks questions about deeper truths, is not totally convinced at first but is open and believes.

The Reactions of Other Characters to the Character Being Examined. Jesus treats the Samaritan Woman as somebody neither sinful nor inferior but at par with others and as a human person to and with whom he can reveal the truth of himself. Jesus’ gradual responses and self-revelation on the one hand, affirm the Samaritan Woman’s failure to understand him and on the other hand, underscores her need, longing for the truth, lack of indifference and profound and willing openness to Jesus. She is worthy of all graces especially to experience Jesus and bear witness to him. In contrast, the disciples further emphasize the religious and social restrictions of talking to a woman and thus the Samaritan Woman’s inferior place and condition. In addition, the Samaritans or the townsfolk’s reaction (v. 30) implies that she is not morally outcast in their community and confirms her faith experience (vv. 39, 42) as well as her effective and true witness.

The Movement of the Character within the Gospel as a Whole. The Samaritan Woman’s reaction in verse 9 highlights the unacceptability of Jesus’ action and therefore the fact that Jesus transcends human laws and norms and offers himself to all including the outsiders and discriminated against. Her responses (vv. 11-12, 15) heighten the ironic mood of their conversation. Verses 16-19 especially verse 17 lay the ground to push the supernatural knowledge [‘omniscience’] of Jesus. Her responses and questions exhibit and blend with Jesus’ control of the dialogue and situation. The abruptness of her action (v. 28) responds to the immediacy of eschatological fulfillment and conveys that faith is an active activity. The jar that she left smoothens the plot line but most importantly signifies the joy of experiencing and knowing Jesus that the water in Jacob’s well cannot and fails to satisfy. The Samaritan Woman’s growing faith clearly portrays the moment of experiencing and receiving Jesus’ offer of life and salvation. With openness to Jesus’ invitation and call, she moves from unbelief to seeing, hearing and knowing, to believing and faith, to union with Jesus, to bearing witness, to life where all divisions, longings, needs and emptiness are filled. Her witness leads people to believe Jesus, confess that he is the ‘savior of the world’ and to have newness of life and underscores John as a gospel of mission and life. Foremost, the Samaritan Woman’s experience strongly conveys the irony of the truth that the one who is asked receives from the One who asks. Furthermore, with all these, Jesus’ humanity is not neglected (v. 7) as well as his way of relating with persons, revealing himself and calling them to faith and mission. He starts with the concrete human situation to a very personal level to the truth that he wants to bring about. The Samaritan Woman can mirror to us our own experience of how Jesus reveals himself and how we respond to that revelation. Do we entertain and open ourselves to Jesus? Or do we shut the door of our hearts out of fear, societal convention, and spiritual blindness?

Primary Reference

Bourke, M. et. al. The New American Bible. Manila: Philippine Bible Society, 1991.

Secondary References

Flanagan, N. “The Gospel According to John and the Johannine Epistles.” In Collegeville Bible Commentary. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989.
Keck, L. ed. New Interpreters Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press,
Perkins, P. “The Gospel According to John.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Quezon City: Claretian Publication, 1990.