Another View of the "Woman At The Well"

Is There Only One Reasonable Understanding?

Timothy S. Morton

A "Fallen Woman"?

The account of the Lord meeting the woman at the well in John chapter 4 is a well known and often referred to story. The Lord encounters a Samaritan woman there and reveals truths to her that He had not yet revealed to anyone else. We are not going to look at the whole account of what happened in this article, but only concentrate on one aspect—the character of the woman—and present an alternative understanding to what is commonly promoted.

Essentially every commentary you read concerning the "Woman at the Well" will present her as a prostitute, adulteress, or a general "fallen woman." They presume this idea from verses 17 and 18,

17, The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:
18, For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

They surmise that the woman is "whoring around" and jumping from man to man or husband to husband and is currently "shacking up" with a guy who is really not her husband. With just these few and somewhat vague words of the Lord they condemn the woman as a "floozy." Here is an example of their thinking from,

"...she was an outcast and looked down upon by her own people. This is evidenced by the fact that she came alone to draw water from the community well when, during biblical times, drawing water and chatting at the well was the social highpoint of a woman’s day. However, this woman was ostracized and marked as immoral, an unmarried woman living openly with the sixth in a series of men."

What a list of assumptions!

Is this the only scriptural understanding of this passage one can hold? Must the woman be considered an adulteress even though the text does not specifically state or even really imply as much?

A Couple Words Defined

First we need to look at a couple of definitions with the first being "husband." The first husband we find in the Bible is, of course, Adam. In Genesis 3:6 it says Eve "gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat." The Lord confirms this designation in 3:16 where He says, "and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." A "husband" is generally defined as "A man contracted or joined to a woman by marriage" (Web. 1828). A "wife" would be the other side of this union. In Adam and Eve's case it is not said that they come together as "one flesh" until Genesis 4:1 ("knew"). In the case of Joseph and Mary, they are considered "husband and wife" long before Joseph "knew" her. Look at Matthew 1:18-20,

18, Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was ESPOUSED to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
19, Then Joseph HER HUSBAND, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
20, But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary THY WIFE: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

Notice how Mary was "espoused" or contracted to Joseph in vs. 18. Then note how Joseph is called "her husband" in the next verse. Verse 20 verifies the contract by calling Mary "thy wife." In verse 25 the Scriptures confirm that this husband and wife relationship existed before they ever came together as "one flesh" when it says, "And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS." Also, notice even though the marriage was not physically consummated, Joseph is the one who named Jesus because He is the "husband." For another account of how people can be contractually married before flesh joins flesh see Deuteronomy 22:22-24.

Thus a man and a woman can be considered "husband and wife" before they actually come together as "one flesh" and consummate the marriage. In fact, they can be considered married even if they never "consummate" the marriage. Some people are physically unable to consummate it while others refrain by mutual agreement. Today, as in any other time throughout history, there is a considerable number of married couples (especially among the elderly) who have never physically become "one flesh." Yet, how can anyone say they are not married? Even if not consummated, they are married both scripturally and legally by mutual agreement.

Does "One Flesh" Make a Marriage?

Since people can be "husband and wife" apart from becoming "one flesh," what about the inverse? Do people become "married" if they become "one flesh" apart from a mutual marriage contract or commitment? The Bible indicates they do. Probably 1 Corinthians 6 shows this most clearly,

15, Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.
16, What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

Paul here is linking a man going unto a harlot with the marriage relationship between Adam and Eve. He is quoting what Adam said in Genesis 2,

24, Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

Notice it is when they "cleave" together they become "one flesh," yet we saw above they were considered husband and wife before they are said to become "one flesh" with Adam "knowing" Eve.

Another example of this is the marriage of Jacob and Leah in Genesis 29:23-28. Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah who he thought was Rachel. Even if Jacob made a vow in marriage he would have made it to Rachel, not Leah. But Leah is the one he was deceived into marrying. If Jacob would have discovered "it was Leah" before he "went in unto her," he would not have been married; but he didn't discover that until it was too late. Nevertheless, since he did go in unto her, all of the parties involved knew they were married (notice the "also" in vs. 28). So one can be married in the Biblical sense even if he is deceived into it! (See also Genesis 38:8)

These passages prove beyond any doubt that the physical union of a man and woman is a marriage. It may not be a legal marriage or a social marriage, but it is a marriage of two people none the less.

Throughout history, if there ever was a defining act of what marriage actually is, it is when a man and woman become one flesh in sexual union. This is actually the essence of a "common law" marriage.

Concerning contracts or commitments, with a man going in unto a harlot, the whole purpose of harlotry is one can go in unto them without any commitments. The man and the harlot do not have any mutual marriage commitment, nevertheless Paul claims they are still "one body."  This "one body" designation originates with Adam when he said a man is to "cleave" or join with his wife making one flesh or body (Gen 2:24)!

What are we to conclude from this? It is really pretty simple considering all the relevant passages. The man and the harlot are physically married while they cleave together and then are divorced when they separate since they have no agreement or commitment to remain together. What if the man and harlot decided to remain together as a couple and be true to each other from then on, would they remain married? Of course. Intent plays a big role in becoming husband and wife. When would the marriage have begun? When they initially came together as "one flesh."

Thus, according to this marriage principal, many have been married and divorced in a matter of minutes when they came together AS man and wife without the desire or commitment to BECOME or REMAIN man and wife. They went through the actions of marriage without the desire for marriage. Were they considered legally or even socially married? No. They are not even scripturally considered as "husband and wife" because the Bible never identifies a man who goes unto a harlot as a husband of the woman, nor does it call the harlot his wife. (It appears, as we saw above, a couple can only become "husband and wife" by mutual agreement.) However, since the man and the harlot have appropriated upon themselves the defining essence of marriage, in that sense they were married, if only for a moment.

In view of these facts, lets apply them to the account of the Woman at the Well.

The Simple Facts

While the Lord was talking to the Samaritan woman he tells her to go "call thy husband" and come back. He is the one who brings the husband/marriage subject up. (Those who insist the woman is an adulteress claim it was because the Lord wanted to bring up her sins. However, it may have only been so he can reveal His identity to her by revealing her past.) The woman replies "I have no husband," and the Lord responds, "Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband...." The standard interpretation of these words is the woman has either been legally married five times and is now "shacked up" with a guy she is not married to or the woman wasn't married to any of them and the last man is actually legally married to someone else.  These contentions are so widespread and parroted by so many of the brethren that one would think they are settled fact, but there is another way to consider these words that your author contends explains the whole account even better.

The key word here is "husband;" the woman HAD five husbands. She is not a wife to any of them anymore. Now how did she get these husbands? As we saw above,

One thing could not be true if we retain the biblical definition of "husband:" the woman would not be a harlot. Remember, one can marry simply by having sexual relations with a person, but he/she can only become "husband" or "wife" by agreeing to live together as such. A prostitute's "John" is never considered her husband in the Bible or anywhere else, so since these men in John 4 are called "husbands," the woman cannot be a harlot to them! She agreed to be espoused or married to them.

What Does She "Hast"?

Now you may rightly ask, "What about the words '...and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband.'" These are the words that people think insist the woman is in an illicit relationship, but do they? The words say the woman "hast" (has) a man who is not her husband and everyone assumes this requires she has the man in a sexual, "sleeping together" manner. That is nothing but assumption; the text does not say that at all. It merely says she has the man in some way. This could be no more than the two are living together in the same house in a mutual companionship because they are too poor to live separately. They have no desire to formally marry (or at least not both), and they never had any sexual relations. The two are just dwelling in the same place as friends mutually helping each other. It is today called "cohabitation" and it by no means insists on a sexual relationship.

There is a well known example of male/female cohabitation in the Scriptures themselves. In 1 Kings 17:9 the Lord directs Elijah to go dwell with a "widow woman" He has commanded to "sustain" him. Elijah obeys and lives with her and her son for an extended period of time. He had his "bed" in a "loft" in her house, and Elijah specifically stated that he "sojourn(s)" with this woman (1 Kings 17:19-20). During this time the woman could rightly say she "hast" a man living in her house cohabitating with her and her son, and, of course, there is no "sex" or marriage involved or implied.

This kind of arrangement occurs more than some realize, but none can argue that it does not appear to those outside the home as a "shacking up." It would be no surprise, human nature being what it is,  if some of the neighbors of the "widow of Zarephath" (1 Kings 17) had "raised eyebrows" over the Elijah situation: "Do you see the scraggly bum who is living with the widow woman down the road! How low can she go!"

Once your author assumed an elderly couple he was acquainted with were either married or "shacking up" when in fact they were brother and sister still living together in their old "home place." He knows of others who lived together much the same way who were not siblings but long time friends and simply wanted to share expenses and help each other. They care for and may even love each other in a "brotherly" sense but for one reason or another do not wish to marry and have never had any "relations." The reader may know of similar relationships. As recently as the 20th century it was common for people of the same gender to live together in the same place while working away from home, going to school, or other reasons. Sometimes it was done for years. Some mixed genders did this as well.

Doctrine Based on Assumption

So concerning the woman at the well, it is only assumed that the woman was in an illicit, sexual relationship with the man not her husband. The evidence for it is only circumstantial and pretty weak at that. It cannot be proven and is not really even inferred. As we noted above, many make several nested assumptions in regard to this woman, some based merely upon what they think was cultural behavior at the time, to arrive at their conclusions. For instance, the claim is often made that the reason the woman was by herself at the well in the middle of the day was because she was shunned by others in the community because of her "lifestyle." Think for a minute, dear reader. Is that not a huge leap of speculation at the expense of the woman? If you did something out of the ordinary from society should it be assumed you are in gross sin and an "undesirable" person?

What if in Samaria the supposed "Bible times" customs were not always followed. What if the woman does normally go to the well with the others but that day she couldn't or she needed to make a second trip? There are a dozen reasons why she would be there at that time. The fact is no one knows why because the Bible doesn't tell us, and for believers to assume the worst about her with such flimsy evidence is not a sound Christian practice. The Bible says "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (2Cor 13:1), and here there are no witnesses to what the commentators suggest.

Furthermore, in John 4:28-30 it says, "The woman...went her way into the city, and saith to the men, Come, see a man...Then they went out of the city, and came unto him." When the woman went into the city she was not shunned by the men and told "Get away from us you hussy. No Christ would even talk to you!" They did not treat her like the men in John 8:4 treated that adulterous woman, instead they eagerly listened to her and believed what she said enough to go see for themselves! She apparently had a reputation to be truthful among them! This fact strongly goes against her being "ostracized and marked as immoral" by the community.

Keeping the Definitions

As we mentioned, considering the rest of what Scripture has to say about marriage and husbands and wives, one could easily reason the woman could NOT be having sexual relations with the man because to agreeably do so would scripturally make them married AND him a husband! If they were "living together" they would be considered in that sense husband and wife much like Jacob and Leah in Genesis 29. Jacob physically married Leah by going in unto her (even though he was tricked into it) and and became her husband by not immediately crying "foul" and forsaking her. (Gen 29:32, etc.). Thus a couple who physically marry, even by dubious means, yet remain together, they are considered a common law husband and wife even if there was no "legal" ceremony.

Since the Lord said the man was not the Samaritan woman's husband without any qualification, if one is going to assume something, it would then be best to assume he was not a husband to her in ANY sense! If they were having sexual relations even without being publicly married, the man would still be a common law husband. But the Lord said he was NOT her husband. Thus she would NOT be a harlot or "loose woman," just an unfortunate woman with five past marriages that ended for one sad reason or another who is now living with a male friend which is helping her survive in this "present evil world." She may be so beat down with life that she doesn't much care what anyone thinks of her.

Many of the Bible Believers and Fundamentalists who teach a couple becoming "one flesh" causes a marriage have a dilemma with the Woman at the Well account. Since essentially all teach that the woman was in an illicit, sexual relationship with the man, and them becoming "one flesh" makes a marriage (even if but for a short time), the man must be considered a "husband." Yet the Lord and the woman both clearly state the man is NOT her husband. Thus being in a "pickle," the Bible believers are forced to change the definition of "husband" in this case. Instead of insisting any man in a current sexual relationship with a woman is scripturally deemed her husband, in this case they say the man is not her husband because he is not legally or socially deemed as such. They try to have it both ways in saying doctrinally the man is a husband but practically or socially he is not. They claim the Lord is condescending to "her street language" in agreeing she has no husband.

If one considers the man she is currently with as only a live-in companion she never married or "knew," then one does not have to play these word games. The term "husband" can retain its biblical definition throughout. Is that not the best way?

The Implications

When the woman heard the words "whom thou now hast is not thy husband," she had an epiphany. She realized the man speaking was a prophet who knew things no one else knew. Now let's consider what is actually unknown comparing the two theories.

With the claim the woman is a harlot, jumping between six different men, what is actually unknown about that? First, the woman has had five husbands and unless she has been betrothed and put away she has been married five times. All these events were almost certainly public knowledge. Marriages are almost always public knowledge; "everyone" in the local area is aware of them. For instance, do you know who in your church is married and who is not? Unless it is a quite large church or you haven't been there long you probably do. Do you know if your neighbors are married, etc.? That information often gets out just in casual conservation. Have some people in your church been married more than once? You probably know some. The point is unless a person lives as a hermit, many facts of their life are open to all, and the same is true with this woman.

Some of the busybodies who lived near the woman probably knew each husband she had and what happened with them. Imagine if a private investigator went into Samaria to inquire about the woman. If he/she was very good at it they would find out quite a bit about her in a little time. They could just find a local gossip and they would likely spew all kinds of personal garbage about the woman like,

"Well...let me tell you something. My sister-in-law does this woman's neighbor's hair and she told me the neighbor said this woman has been married five times and she is now living with old man Smith without even marrying him! The shameless hussy... the gall of her...."

In short, if the woman was a "shameless hussy" as the commentaries portray her it would be common knowledge and no big revelation that a stranger to her (the Lord, here) would or could know that.

Those who claim she was not married to any of the men, she was whoring around with them all without a public marriage, are adding their ideas to the text. Apart from a betrothal, there are no husband and wife relationships in the Bible without a marriage.

However, what if our idea as presented in this article is closer to the facts? Then the words of the woman and the Lord take on a different and richer meaning. The knowledge of the fact that the woman was married five time does not change. As we said, that likely could have been found out by anyone. The great revelation is the Lord knowing what was and was not happening BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! He knows that the woman did NOT have sexual relations with the man and he was in no way a husband! The Lord KNOWS the truth, and that is what amazes her. The Lord knows something that is IMPOSSIBLE for others to know, and that proves He is no ordinary man and has a connection with the God of heaven who knows all. Hence her words in vs 19, "Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet." It does not take a prophet to know something that can easily be found out by asking around. But it does take one to know what happens behind closed doors when only two people on earth know about it!

Nearly all claim the Lord brought up the "husband" topic to expose the woman's sins so she would confess them and repent, but there is not a hint in these words of sin or of a rebuke. On the contrary, the Lord complemented her for telling the truth! Not once, but TWICE! Read the passage! He said she "hast well said" and was speaking "truly" in her remarks. To read a rebuke in the passage is a baseless invention. (If you want to read how the Lord rebukes people see what He said to Peter in Mat 16 or the Pharisees in Mat 23). Here the Lord was simply relaying the facts of her situation without a hint of criticism or rebuke.

As for the woman confessing her sins, she never did confess or admit she did anything wrong. Again, read the passage! What she confesses is Jesus as the Christ, "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?" Notice, there is not a hint of her admitting she did anything wrong in the marriages or with the man she is cohabitating with at present. She didn't repent or say she was going to change her "lifestyle" or leave the man she is currently with. She simply says the Lord told her apparently secret things that no one else could know.


The position your author has presented above is original with him. He has not heard or read it expressed this way by anyone. Your author has read many words where the woman is considered a "harlot," "adulteress," or other "fallen woman," but the words of the text do not confirm any of that. Yes, that analysis of her may be true, but the fact is it cannot be proven. The same can be said for your author's idea. It may be true or partially true, or may not be the case at all. The Lord only knows. However, it always seemed an overreach to your author to brand this woman with such unflattering and condemning terms without clear proof from the Scriptures. The fact that a person may be married multiple times is in itself not a sin. The woman's husbands all could have died or legally put her away. Plus, there is no sin in cohabitating with a person just to try and get by in this world. Without any clear statements of sin, guilt, confession, or repentance, how can we so harshly judge and malign that poor woman?

There is assumption involved in both scenarios presented. One assumes much, changes word definitions to make their idea work, and harshly judges the unfortunate woman. The other assumes little, keeps the words in their biblical meaning, and gives the woman the benefit of any doubt. Without any clear proof of the former, your author prefers the latter.

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