Five husbands: Taking another look


It was a fine Bible scholar who made me realise I was interpreting some passages of Scripture out of their cultural context.

I suppose it’s okay to do that, if I’m reading Scripture as parable and letting the Holy Spirit connect the words with my life.

However, if my literal understanding of a story is wrong, it can lead to error.

Take for example, the woman at the well.

She is generally regarded as a woman who likes men.

Five husbands?


And that’s why other women despise her, forcing her to go to the well by herself.

Then along comes Jesus to correct her wanton ways.

Isn’t that the general understanding?

Well, here’s another view.

This woman was barren.

If a woman could not bear children, she was thought to be cursed by God.

Other women would shun her, lest they too, be cursed, and her husband would be mocked.

If this Samaritan woman had children, they would be at the well with her, helping her draw and carry water.

That’s what children did.

Besides, a mother would not leave her children alone while she walked from the town to the well.

So this woman had no family.

And yes, she probably did come to the well in the heat of the day, to avoid other women who shouted insults.

And the five husbands?

Note they are called husbands, not men-friends or lovers.

If a wife was not fertile, her husband could divorce her.

It was a very simple process.

This suggests that this woman had been rejected five times.

Imagine how she felt!

And the current man who was not her husband?

He was probably being cautious.

He knew the woman’s story, and while he didn’t doubt his own ability, a child would have to begin before he made the commitment.

That would be practical.

So there she was at the well, no doubt believing she was cursed by God.

After all, there had to be some reason why she was a failure.

Then along comes this Jew who asks her for water.

The rest of this story is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels.

He not only tells her about herself, he also talks about himself.

This Samaritan woman is the first person to whom he confides that he is the Messiah. Then he bids her to go and tell.

What effect that had!

We can picture the change.

She forgets the goatskin bags she intended to fill from the well, and runs to the town, shouting at anyone who will listen.

That’s what happens when we encounter Jesus.  We get the living water he mentioned. It fills the heart and overflows.

This woman couldn’t contain the good news.

She talked about Jesus from one end of the town to another and aroused such curiosity that this Jew was welcomed to preach to the Samaritans.

It’s an amazing story of increase.

We don’t know the Samaritan woman’s name, but spiritually, she had extraordinary fertility.

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.
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