1.1 State of the Question. For some, much is "wrong with this picture" of the Samaritan woman. Certain critics focus on the marriage or sexual aspects of the story (Carmichael 1980:336-40). Eslinger (170-71), for example, identifies many double entendres regarding wells, living waters and springs as metaphors for sexual intercourse. These double entendres suggest that something is "wrong with this picture" in that the woman and Jesus appear to be engaged in a sexual game in violation of the cultural conventions for shame-guarding females in antiquity.
Others attend to "what is right with this picture" (Schüssler-Fiorenza 327-28; Seim 69-70; Schneiders 1991:186-94). Sometimes they focus on the role the woman plays in bringing the word about Jesus to her village, thus suggesting that she assumes the role of a "missionary" or "apostolic witness." Conversely, they often argue that nothing is "wrong with this picture": the Samaritan woman should not be construed as a whore nor should females be reduced to their sexuality; her "five husbands" need not be males in the village, but false gods worshipped by the Samaritans.
Are the different readings of John 4 merely a reflection of the gender of the commentator? It is easily verified that male critics tend to accentuate the sexual and marriage allusions in the story, while feminist readers focus on aspects of the story with potential for liberating Christian women. Nevertheless, if the aim of biblical criticism is the recovery of the communication of the sacred author, the conversation about John 4 must continue. As we become aware of the gender perspectives of authors ancient and modern, we should likewise take into account the cultural background of the ancient writer. Admittedly this ancient Mediterranean, pre-industrial cultural background might well clash with our modern Western, post-industrial world. And this will raise difficulties for contemporary males and females in their appropriation of biblical materials. But a full and honest reading of John 4 must take into account the ancient cultural expectations concerning males and females. Such cultural matters may even be part of the "good news" of the story.
When we recover the general cultural expectations concerning gender in antiquity, we must ask "what, if anything, is wrong or right about this picture?" In light of prevailing gender customs, does the author perceive a violation of them in the story? What is the author's rhetorical stance toward this? a re-imposition of gender rules? a transformation of them? Merely to point out how John 4 accords with or violates gender expectations is only part of this investigation. We must investigate what rhetorical stance the author takes in regard to this issue. What is needed, then, for a full conversation on John 4 is a more accurate description of the general cultural expectations for males and females in antiquity as the appropriate background of the narrative.
1.2 Hypothesis of This Study. We argue that the basic rhetorical strategy in John 4 requires of us an appreciation of the cultural stereotypes of females in the ancient world. Knowing this, as did the males and females in that world, we can observe with them how the author plays with "what's wrong with this picture?" Initially, from a cultural perspective, everything appears "wrong with the picture" in John 4: unrelated males and females are meeting in the "public" world. As we shall see, the ancients construed the world as gender divided: males in the "public" and females in the "private" world. Males in that culture, moreover, were expected to be sexually aggressive, whereas females were deemed virtuous in terms of their defense of their sexual exclusivity (Malina-Neyrey 1991:41-44). In John 4, all social taboos customarily separating males and females into separate worlds are systematically recognized, but broken and transformed. This upsetting of cultural taboos, moreover, is conscious and intentional; it constitutes an essential part of the communication of the author. We must, then, initially assess "what is wrong with this picture."
But finally, all may not be "wrong with this picture," if modern readers attend to several more pieces of the cultural background of John 4. First, the author intends the scenario described there to be perceived as the "private" world of kinship groups. It may be narrated as occurring "out of doors," but the meetings of Jesus and the woman (4:7-26) and the woman and the villagers (4:39-42) should ultimately be seen as the formation of fictive kinship groups, and so they are governed by the customs of the "private," not the "public" world. Something, then, may take place "out of doors" and yet be "private," not "public." And thus nothing may be "wrong with this picture," if the space is considered "private," not "public."
We recall the fact that the early church never attempted to form a "public" ekklesia, but gathered in households and modeled itself after the "private" institution of the family, household and kinship group (Elliott 165-207; Verner 27-81). If the "private" world of the kinship group is what the author has in view, then nothing is "wrong with this picture." But this judgment will depend on whether we perceive the events as part of either the "public" or the "private" world.
Second, how are we to assess the male/"public" and the female/"private" world? Most of our ancient documents were written by males and often portray the "public" world positively; conversely, they view the "private" world as a less important arena. With our dearth of female evaluations of the "private" world, we are generally left with only one voice in the matter: the "public" is better than the "private" world. This viewpoint is reinforced in some modern discussions of the place of males and females in our world. In the eyes of many, the "private" world of today's household can mean second-class status for females, lack of respect for their talents, and numbing drudgery. Thus, if we argue that Jesus invited people into the "private" world of a kinship group, this might appear to some to be a reactionary statement, that Jesus would resist welcoming females into the "public" world. Such a view would misconstrue the narrative in John 4. There was no "public" Christian world for males or females. They met in "private" space and adopted the customs appropriate for households and kinship groups.
What seems to be needed is a more culturally sensitive evaluation of the "public" and "private" worlds in antiquity. Some ancient writers reflect that the "public" world was characterized as an agonistic place where males engaged in constant honor challenges (Malina-Neyrey 1991:35-38, 49-52). Hierocles, admittedly a male voice which may idealize the "private" world, questions the prevailing myth of the "public world":
[T]hose gloomy circumstances of life which involve the forum or the gymnasium or the country or, in general, all our anxieties while we are occupied with our friends and spend time with our associates are at the time not obvious to us, since they are obscured by inevitable distractions. . .But when a wife is present she becomes a great comfort in these circumstances by asking her husband about non-domestic matters or bringing up and considering together with him matters concerning the home, thus causing him to relax, and she cheers him up by her unaffected enthusiasm" (On Duties, On Marriage 4:22.21-24 = 4.502, 1-507).
Yet, if nurturing, security, and mutuality for females and males can be found anywhere in antiquity, they are more likely to occur, not in the "public" world, but in the "private" world of the kinship circle. Thus, further appreciation of the "private" world of the fictive kinship group may be necessary to appreciate what the author of John 4 is doing by welcoming the Samaritan woman into a new network of social relations.
We should, then, attend to the cultural clues in the narrative. To do this, we must recreate the cultural world of the author and begin to see things as he and other males and females saw them. In true reader-response criticism, how would ancient readers hear this story? What aspects of their culture are inextricably embedded in the narrative, which we of another culture cannot readily see? What do modern readers need to know of that culture to be informed and respectful tourists in another country?
We recognize that the ancients viewed the world and everything in it as gender divided. This implies consequent cultural expectations about honorable males and shame-respecting females. To grasp this, we need knowledge of the typical and ordinary cultural expectations about the behavior of males and females in antiquity. In short, we need to develop a stereotype of that gender-divided world, the cultural expectations of males and females in it, and notions of what constitutes a shame-respecting or shameless female. Implied in all of this is a clearer assessment of what constitutes a "private" world and what social dynamics are appropriate there.
2.0 Cultural Expectations: Gender Division of Society
Cultural anthropologists argue that the ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean viewed all reality in terms of gender division, that is, in terms of honor and shame, especially as these apply to males and females. We examine, then, the ancient distinction between "public" and "private," with the attendant focus on the kinship network as the prime example of the "private" world. This is best illustrated by reference to ancient topoi on the topic in which the cultural stereotypes of male and female are described.
Philo offers a summary of what we call the gender division of society. He distinguishes both male and female space as well as male and female tasks:
Market-places and council-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action -- all these are suitable to men both in war and peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house, within which the middle door is taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door by those who have reached full womanhood (Special Laws 3.169).
The proper place for males is in public, doing public things, whereas females belong in private space. Although Philo does not spell out what women do "in private," in another place he comments on the popular perception of male and female physiology: ". . . how unlike the bodily shapes of man and woman are, and each of the two has a different life assigned to it, to the one a domestic to the other a civic life" (Philo, Virt. 19). Thus we learn that females do tasks associated with private space or the domestic life ("the house"), namely, food preparation, clothing production, and child rearing.
Philo's description of the gender-divided world of antiquity is itself a topos easily traced back to classical Greek writers, who themselves only reflect common opinion on the topic. Xenophon's summary is worth noting:
[H]uman beings live not in the open air, like beasts, but obviously need shelter. Nevertheless, those who mean to win store to fill the covered place, have need to someone to work at the open-air occupations; since plowing, sowing, planting and grazing are all such open-air employments; and these supply the needful food. Then again, as soon as this is stored in the covered place, then there is need for someone to keep it and to work at the things that must be done under cover. Cover is needed for the nursing of the infants; cover is needed for the making of corn into bread, and likewise for the manufacture of clothing from the wool. And since both the indoor and the outdoor tasks demand labour and attention, God from the first adapted the woman's nature, I think, to the indoor and man's to the outdoor tasks and cares" (Oeconomicus 7.19-22).
Space is divided according to gender: males in "open air" space (hypaithron) and females in "covered" space (stegnon), males "without" (exô) and females "within" (endon). Their respective tasks are gender-divided as well: males work at "open-air occupations" such as plowing, sowing, grazing, etc. and females at "indoor occupations," such as child rearing, food preparation and clothing production.
A third example of this commonplace illustrates how the ancients generally perceived the world divided according to cultural notions of gender:
Before anything else I should speak about the occupations by which a household is maintained. They should be divided in the usual manner, namely, to the husband should be assigned those which have to do with agriculture, commerce, and the affairs of the city; to the wife those which have to do with spinning and the preparation of food, in short, those of a domestic nature (Hierocles, On Duties (4:28.21ff).
The world of the ancients, then, was divided according to cultural perceptions of gender into "male" and "female" space. In male space (market places, public squares, open fields), males did male occupations, whereas in female space (houses, wells, ovens), females did female occupations. Objects, moreover, were likewise classified as male or female, depending on whether they are for "public" or "private" use: agricultural implements, and weapons of war were male, whereas domestic implements, cooking utensils, and looms were female. We must next ask about the implications of ascribing to females "private space" and how this contributes to a stereotype of ideal female behavior.
2.1 Private Space = Female Space. This commonplace in the gender division of the world invites a closer examination of female space. As noted above, females are perceived as part of the "private" world, that is, the house and spaces related to household duties, such as ovens and wells. From our research we have discovered a number of specific terms for male and female space; inasuch as our interest is in female space, we focus on the most common of these terms, gynaikônitis or "women's quarters." What we learn from a series of examples aids our reconstruction of a stereotype of ideal female behavior in antiquity.
What are the cultural expectations about a typical female space? The three topoi quoted above indicate that females are expected to dwell in "private" space, primarily their homes and secondarily places where female tasks are performed. But even in regard to homes or "private" space, Xenophon describes the typical household in which women's quarters are separated from men's and bolted to maintain that important cultural division: "I showed her the women's quarters (gynaikônitin) too, separated by a bolted door from the men's quarters (andrônitidos), so that nothing which ought not to be moved may be taken out, and that the servant may not breed without our leave" (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 9.5). He observes that male and female clothing is itself carefully separated and stored in its proper gender-specified place: "After that we put together the women's holiday finery, and the men's holiday and war garb, blankets in the women's quarters (gynaikônitidi), blankets in the men's quarters (andrônitidi), women's shoes, men's shoes" (Oeconomicus 9.6). Women's quarters might be on the second story of a house (Lysias, On the Murder of Eratosthenes 9) or in a part of the house guarded by a strong wall (Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans 230C).
Infants and children were kept in these quarters. Plutarch, writing of Charon, describes how his son resided in the women's quarters: "He (Charon) brought his son from the women's apartments (gynaikônitidos), a mere boy as yet, but in beauty and bodily strength surpassing those of his years" (Pelopidas 9.5). Lucian likewise describes the women's quarters as the place where children are raised: "You come in too, Micyllus, and dine with us. I'll make my son eat with his mother in the women's quarters (gynaikônitidi) so that you may have his room" (The Cock 11).
Our survey of this term for women's quarters indicates that it: (a) describes the living arrangements of Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans and Jews (see War 5.198-200, esp. 199) and (b) covers at least the period from 400 B.C.E. through the first century C.E. Cornelius Nepos indicates that gender expectations about females in the Greek East were modified somewhat in the Latin West, at least by some elite females:
Many actions are seemly according to our code which the Greeks look upon as shameful. For instance, what Roman would blush to take his wife to a dinner-party? What matron does not frequent the front rooms of her dwelling and show herself in public? But it is very different in Greece; for there a woman is not admitted to a dinner-party, unless relatives only are present, and she keeps to the more retired part of the house called "the women's apartment" (gynaeconitis), to which no man has access who is not near of kin (Cornelius Nepos, praef. 4-7).
In her recent book, Kathleen Corley discusses the prevailing cultural expectations concerning "private" women at "public" meals, the relaxation of those rules for elite Roman women, and the subsequent social reaction to those changes (1993: 24-66). Although she focussed on the presence of women at meals, her data confirm the general stereotype of a gender-divided world described here. Appreciation of the cultural expectations for females in a gender-divided world should help us to grasp the intended shock in John 4 of a noonday meeting between Jesus and the woman in public space.
2.2 House and Household Tasks. Ancient discussions of female tasks tend to compare and contrast what is proper to them with what is expected of males. Xenophon provides a useful example. Males, whose proper gender space is the "open air," do tasks appropriate to that space: "plowing, sowing, planting and grazing are all such open-air employments." But females, whose proper gender place is "covered," do the basic tasks which support the household: "Cover is needed for the nursing of the infants; cover is needed for the making of corn into bread, and likewise for the manufacture of clothing from the wool" (Oeconomicus, 7.21; see Aristotle, Oeconomica 1.3.4, 1343b 30 -- 1344a 9 and Keuls 228-65). The remark of Hierocles quoted above repeats the commonplace that males engage in public affairs, whereas females "have to do with spinning and the preparation of food, in short, those of a domestic nature." The Mishnah likewise lists tasks appropriate to females (m. Ket. 5.5; see also m. Shab. 7.2).
2.3 Female Chastity, Shame-guarding and Dealings with Males. One corollary of the gender division of space and labor is the inevitable separation of males and females who are not kin. Below is a sampler of the cultural expectations of females vis-à-vis males outside the household or kinship group.
Although further historical studies are needed on the antiquity and pervasiveness of the veiling of females in public, Dio Chrysostom speaks about it as an ancient custom still valid in his time:
Many of the customs still in force reveal in one way or another the sobriety and severity of deportment of those earlier days. Among these is the convention regarding feminine attire, a convention which prescribes that women should be so arrayed and should so deport themselves when in the street that nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body, and that they themselves might not see anything off the road (Ora. 33.48-51).
The veil replicates the wall or barrier which spatially enclosed the "women's quarters" discussed above.
If the purpose of the veil was to keep men from gawking at women (Leyerle 159-65), then one might expect that other strategies of separating the genders were intended to keep women not only out of the gaze of men, but out of their speech as well. Although Plutarch disagrees with Thucydides, he witnesses to the conventional view of that older historian:
I do not hold the same opinion as Thucydides ["Great is your glory if you fall not below the standard which nature has set for your sex, and great also is hers of whom there is least talk among men whether in praise or blame" 2.45.2] that the best woman is she about whom there is least talk among persons outside. Regarding either censure or commendation, feeling that the name of the good woman, like her person, ought to be shut up indoors and never go out (In Praise of Women, 242E).
Yet even Plutarch notes other cultural norms concerning male talk about females:
But to my mind Gorgias appears to display better taste in devising that not the form but the fame of a woman should be known to many. Best of all seems the Roman custom, which publicly renders to women, as to men, a fitting commemoration after the end of their life (In Praise of Women 242F, emphasis added).
We note the expectation that males will talk about the "form" of a female, with all its sexual overtones. Plutarch, however, would restrict any talk of females until after their death, when their sexual exclusivity cannot be threatened (see also Plutarch, Camillus 8.3 133A; Livy, Ab Urbe Cond. 5.50.7; and Cicero, De Orat. 2.11.44). But the general rule was: "There ought to be no random talk about fair and noble women, and their characters ought to be totally unknown save only to their consorts" (Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans 217F). And again, "In regard to a woman's endowments, there should be absolutely no talk among those outside the family" (220D). Since female sexual exclusivity was a primary value in the ancient gender-divided world, whatever kept women from seduction or the mere threat of it was valued and became constitutive of the stereotype of the ideal female and her proper place and behavior. How anomalous, then, would seem the triple mention of the Samaritan woman's sexual "past" in the presence of males not her kin (John 4:16-18, 29, 39).
2.4 Female Public Silence. If it is deemed shameless for a male to talk about a female not of his kinship circle, it goes without saying that females should not speak to unrelated males, especially in public space. This aspect of the gender expectations of females seems to be true of Rome as well as Greece, and for all periods of history. "What have women to do with a public assembly? If old-established custom is preserved, nothing" (Valerius Maximus, Fact. et Dic. 3.8.6; see Philo, Spec. Leg. 3. 174).
For females to speak with unrelated males in public spaces would be interpreted as their "putting on men's airs," as Plutarch notes:
[T]heir women, it is said, were too bold, putting on men's airs with their husbands even, to begin with, since they ruled their houses absolutely, and besides, on public occasions, taking part in debate and the freest speech on the most important subjects. But Numa, while carefully preserving to the matrons that dignified and honourable relation to their husbands which was bestowed on them by Romulus. . .enjoined great modesty upon them, forbade them all busy intermeddling, taught them sobriety, and accustomed them to be silent; wine they were to refrain from entirely, and were not to speak, even on the most necessary of topics, unless their husbands were with them (Plutarch, Lycurgus and Numa 3.5).
The flip side of this cultural prescription of female silence in public is found in the stereotype of ancient females as gossips and busybodies. Juvenal provides a convenient example of this derogatory stereotype:
Better that your wife should be musical than that she would be rushing boldly about the entire city, attending men's meetings, talking with unflinching face and hard breasts to Generals in their military cloaks, with her husband looking on! This same woman knows what is going on all over the world: what the Chinese and Thracians are after, what has passed between the stepmother and the stepson; she knows who loves whom, what gallant is the rage; she will tell you who got the widow with child, and in what month; how every woman behaves to her lovers, and what she says to them. . .she picks up the latest rumors at the city gates, and invents some herself (Sat.6.398-409).
The cultural expectation of female silence in public should provide modern readers with an adequate scenario for assessing the potential impropriety of the conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus, as well as her subsequent colloquy with the men of the village.
2.5 The Stereotype: Content, Constancy, and Validity. It goes against the grain for historically trained commentators to deal with stereotypes (Burke 13-14), for the prevailing scholarly paradigm instructs us to look at what is unique and different. Yet study of cultural stereotypes should have an important place in the study of a culture which itself relies on commonplaces, topoi, gnômai, sententiae, doxographies, and other types of summary statements. Edward Hall, moreover, has called our attention to cultures where stereotypes play an important role. He distinguishes between "low context" and "high context" societies (1976:91-101; 1983:59-77). "Low context" societies, such as the industrial West, produce detailed texts which spell out matters in considerable detail and leave little to the imagination. One thinks of legal contracts with all their fine print. "High context" societies, however, produce sketchy texts, leaving much to the reader's imagination. For example, 2 Sam 11:1 tells us that kings go out to war in the spring; what it presumes is our knowledge of a culture which divides the year into rainy and dry seasons. Hence kings go out to war after the late rains. So, too, with gender expectations. They are presumed as part of the cultural context. It is, then, an appropriate piece of historical and critical inquiry to ask about general cultural expectations, especially in regard to one of the prime values (honor and shame) and its structural implications (gender division of society).
In brief, all reality was divided according to gender. Males belonged in public places, performing male tasks, using male instruments and animals. Females belonged in private places, attending to female tasks, and using female implements. Cultural notions of honor and shame dictated that males be sexually aggressive, but that females be shame-conscious and defensive of their sexual exclusivity. Hence, all intercourse between non-related males and females should be viewed with suspicion and rigorously controlled.
Although historians note some relaxation of these rules in Rome during the late Republic period, it is safe to say that the cultural expectations regarding females remained constant throughout antiquity. Furthermore, what was expected of elite, urban females was likewise expected of non-elite, rural females insofar as space and wealth allowed. The very documents of the New Testament, which are klein Literatur or non-elite documents, witness to the pervasiveness of gender expectations among urban artisans and village peasants (e.g., 1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15; 5:10-14). The stereotype, then, can be said to have validity for Greeks and Romans as well as elites and non-elites.
3.0 What's Wrong With This Picture?
From the perspective of stereotypical female behavior for this cultural world we initially ask "What's wrong with this picture?"
3.1 Time and Place (4:6-7). Jesus encountered the woman "at the sixth hour," which was roughly midday (Walker 69). This seemingly innocuous detail, however, indicates that the woman come to the well at an unusual hour -- for females, that is. Women at wells were a common phenomenon, but only at certain hours, namely, morning or evening (Gen 24:11; see Gen 29:7); midday is a culturally "wrong" time for females to be at a well for domestic purposes. The woman, moreover, appears not to be in the company of other women, as would have been the custom (see 1 Sam 9:10).
What's wrong with this picture? (1) She comes alone at an unusual hour (2) to a place, which, when many women are gathered is appropriate, but at midday and alone would label her as a deviant. The anomalous time, her isolation and the public nature of the well at midday suggest might suggest that she has been shunned by the women of the village for some deviant behavior (4:16-18), and so she acts alone when other women are dutifully at work elsewhere.
3.2 Speech with a Strange Man in Public (4:7-26). The characters themselves tell us how strange this encounter appears. The woman remarks to Jesus: "How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?" (v 8). The narrator dilates on this issue with the remark, "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (v 9). But more is at stake than ethnic differences. When the disciples return from the village and see Jesus conversing with a female, they react with astonishment: "They marveled that he was talking to a woman" (v 27a). Their shock lies in the fact that a male and a female were conversing alone in public (Seim 59). The narrator then voices the questions that should, but were not asked by the characters: ". . . but none said, 'What do you (Jesus) wish? or 'Why are you talking with her?'" (v 27b). They are asked nonetheless.
What were Jesus and the woman talking about? Although it is not the whole of their dialogue, they spoke about the woman's sexual shamelessness. When Jesus told her to go and call her husband, she responds that she has no husband (v 17a), when in fact she has had five husbands already. So we learn that she is no maiden, but a seasoned woman. Her current male companion is not her husband and so has no responsibility to guard her shame or to defend her sexual exclusiveness, which is the only basis for her honor in the village. Although she might have been widowed five times (see Mark 12:20-23), her current non-marital relationship with a sixth male suggests either adultery or concubinage. In any case, she clearly lacks the exclusivity upon which her reputation and honor depend in a gender-divided world. Moreover, when the woman recounts her conversation with Jesus back in the village, she focusses on one point alone, his remarks about her sexual history: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done" (v 29). The villagers were impressed with her testimony that "He told me everything I have ever done" (v 39), which can only refer to Jesus' remarks in vv 17-18 about the six men in her life, i.e., her lack of sexual exclusivity.
What's wrong with this picture? It is bad enough that a female is conversing with an unrelated male in a public place at an unusual hour. Worse, the reader is told that she considered the most significant item in this conversation Jesus' remarks on her shameless sexual behavior (Pazdan 148).
3.3 Speech with Other Men in Public Space (4:28-30). Although Jesus commands her to go and call her husband (v 16), she goes into the village marketplace where all the men are gathered. The narrative does not say "marketplace"; but from our knowledge of that culture, we would be culturally accurate in imagining males gathered together in an open-air space, such as a marketplace (see Philo and Hierocles, cited above). She did not go from door to door, interrupting the private lives of her female neighbors; she did not go to her own house. She did not return to private space at all, but went into public space, to the one place where males would be expected to congregate.
From our knowledge of the gender division of space, females should not be present in this public space when males are there. Rather they should be with the other females of the household attending to household matters in appropriate private space. Moreover, she speaks to these males and tells them of her conversation with another strange man. And as we noted above, she tells the village males that this new male knew about her sexual shamelessness, ". . . a man who told me all that I ever did" (4:29, 39).
What's wrong with this picture? Absolutely everything. The details of this narrative are at odds with the commonly expected behavior of shame-guarding females in the ancient world of honor and shame. And as 4:9 and 27 indicate, even the characters in the narrative are aware of these breaches of gender rules. So the readers and hearers are carefully reminded of the impropriety of the conversation. Only by attending to the stereotype of expected female behavior can we engage the narrator's craft in treating these cultural conventions. The story loses its power and punch if these critical details are ignored and dismissed.
3.4 Other Women at Wells: A Comparison (Conventions Confirmed). A comparison of John 4 with other narrative scenes at wells confirms that we should attend to cultural customs regarding females in this context. Hall's remarks on "low context" are appropriate here, for much is presumed concerning women at wells. The Scriptures narrate three scenes of males and females meeting at wells (Gen 24:10-49; 29:4-14; Exod 2:15-22); and the Protoevangelium of James (11.1) records another. In all of these, the narrators present prospective brides either to their husbands or their agents. And since the key element of a worthy wife is virginity or sexual exclusivity, the narratives all make a point that the social intercourse at the well is strictly in accord with cultural customs (Alter 51-58). The females are shy and defensive of their virtue; they speak respectfully to the males and obey when commanded; they seek the shelter of the "private" world as soon as possible. In short, the narratives record that everything is "right with this picture." Yet from other sources we know that females risked being molested at wells (m. Ket. 1.10; Aristophanes, Lysistrata 327-31; see Keuls 235-40). These data confirm that scenes of females at wells normally contained a sexual component which required viewers to attend to what was "wrong" or "right" about the picture.
4.0 Rhetorical Criticism.
Feminist scholars pay close attention to rhetorical criticism, by which they mean the ideological context of authors and their intent (Schneiders 1991:185). What, then, is the rhetorical stance of the author of John 4 in regard to "what's wrong with this picture?"
4.1. The Rhetorical Shape of the Narrative. The narrator recounts the dialogue part of the story (4:7-26) according to a recurring pattern characteristic of this gospel, namely, "statement . . . misunderstanding . . .clarification" (Neyrey 1988a: 42-44, 234).
statement 3:3 6:41 8:21 11:11 12:27 14:4
misunderstanding 3:4 6:42 8:22 11:12 12:29 14:5
clarification 3:5 6:43-48 8:23-30 11:13-15 12:30 14:6
Jesus makes a statement, which is misunderstood and which leads him to speak again in clarification of his original remark. This dialogue may function either as an invitation, so that addressees are led to insight and so to a change of status as "insiders" (4:6-15; 11:20-27), or as a distancing mechanism, so that addressees are proved to be ignorant and blind and are confirmed as "outsiders" (John 3:1-21); they experience no status transformation.
4.1.1 John 4:7-15. The pattern functions here as an invitational dialogue describing how the Samaritan woman is led progressively into insight and to a change of status, from radical "outsider" to consummate "insider." It might be said to have a cyclical movement, in that Jesus' "clarification" of the woman's "misunderstanding" regularly serves as his new "statement" for her further "misunderstanding" and his added "clarification":
statement 4:7 4:10 4:13-14
misunderstanding 4:9 4:11-12 4:15
clarification 4:10 4:13-14 ------
Jesus states: "Give me to drink" (v. 7). She responds with surprise that a Jewish male would ask a Samaritan female for a drink, thus misunderstanding Jesus. He confirms her misunderstanding, remarking "If only you knew . . ." (v 10). If she were "in the know," the issue of who gives whom a drink would be irrelevant, and she would ask him and he would give her water: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water" (4:10). Thus the dialogue already encodes gender expectations, but treats them in terms of "misunderstandings" which need "clarification."
Jesus' clarification in 4:10 of her misunderstanding becomes a new statement which provokes another cycle of conversation. She misunderstands him when she comments about buckets and deep wells. Jesus clarifies that "those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty" (v 14). This clarification serves as a new statement, which is again misunderstood. The woman asks Jesus for his water, rejoicing that she will "never have to keep coming here to draw water" (v 15) from this well.
Her "misunderstandings" are portrayed as progress in insight, not confirmation of obtuseness. In terms of rhetorical patterns, she moves from the position of asking questions (vv 9, 11, 12), to that of speaking imperatives ("give me," v 15). Indeed she now mouths the original words of Jesus.
Jesus: "Give me to drink"
Woman: "Give me this water"
Jesus remarked earlier, "if you only knew, you would ask. . ."; she comes to know and so she asks him for his water. She is progressively being enlightened by Jesus' remarks. Hence, her character is portrayed as one which changes, from "not in the know" to "in the know" and from radical "outsider" (Samaritan) to consummate "insider" (one who shares Jesus' foods).
Is this a "public" or a "private" scene? Ostensibly it begins in public and is played according to public rules. The woman's "saucy" speech has all the trappings of a challenge-riposte exchange; she and Jesus meet at a public place in male time. But the rhetorical pattern suggests that a transformation is taking place, not just of the status of the woman who becomes an insider in Jesus' circle, but of the nature of the space that they occupy. Inasmuch as Jesus is recruiting her, he welcomes her into a "private" world, the sphere of fictive-kinship. There males share food and beverage with females ("give me to drink") and exchange information ("are you greater than..."); there honor challenges as well as "saucy" speech are absent. The change in the rhetorical patterns of the woman's speech and her asking Jesus for a drink are indications that the space in which she and Jesus have intercourse is ceasing to be "public" and becoming "private." She is transformed into an "insider," whom Jesus receives into his fictive-kinship circle, which is a "private" world.
4.1.2 John 4:16-26. Jesus again makes a statement, in this case, a command that the woman "Go, call your husband and come here" (v 16). Something new happens, for she neither questions Jesus nor misunderstands him. The modification of the form indicates that the period of misunderstanding is over (vv 7-15). When she states openly "I have no husband," Jesus praises her twice for speaking the truth:
"You are right in saying 'I have no husband'. . ." (v 17)
"What you have said is true" (v 18).
From now on, the woman speaks from clear knowledge: "I see. . ." (v 19) and "I know. . . " (v 25). Truthfulness, praise, free exchange of information all characterize this "private" world, whereas verbal challenges belong in the "public" world.
In light of Jesus' extraordinary knowledge, she now remarks with insight, "I perceive that you are a prophet." She invites him to settle a thorny issue: "Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem" (v 20). Jesus freely gives her special knowledge that worship in the future will not be "public" worship at civic shrines, as is customary for Jewish and Samaritan males, but "private" worship, namely, worship in households which are traditional "at home" space for females. It is not accidental that the only mentions of "houses" and "households" in the Fourth Gospel include prominent women such as Martha and Mary (11:20, 31; 12:2-3). Jesus' new revelation prompts the Samaritan woman to remark that the "Messiah will announce all things to us." Jesus' clarification is a formal revelation of his special identity: "I who speak to you am he" (v 26).
There are gender considerations here. First, the topic is about males, her current male companion (not her husband) and her five previous husbands. She talks of prophets, traditional male prophets because the topic discussed is the correct place of worship (vv 19-20). The only extant records of a discussion of this type come from male prophets. She comments about "Messiah," who is male. It might also be the case that political topics such as the correct place of worship and the coming Messiah are male subjects of conversation (see Plutarch, Lycurgus and Numa 3.5, cited above), since they pertain to the "public" world of males. Yet she engages in them unreservedly. Thus her conversation is always about men: this Jewish man (Jesus), our father Jacob, husbands, prophets, and the Messiah. If this were a "public" forum, these remarks would be improper for they violate the cultural expectations of females in the male sphere. But since this is now the "private" world of Jesus' kinship circle, astute cultural readers would not perceive them as inappropriate.
The rhetoric of vv 16-26 contrasts with that of vv 7-15. As noted, the pattern of "statement. . .misunderstanding. . .clarification" yields to truthful answers to questions (v 17) and to claims such as "I see. . ." (v 19) and "I know. . ." (v 25). She now queries him for information, and of a remarkable sort: "the place where people must worship" (v 20) and "Messiah will tell us all things" (v 25).
The rhetorical exchange in 4:16-26 is proper to the "private" world. Information is freely exchanged; no challenges are issued; no questions are asked; no "saucy" conversation occurs. We characterize the dialogue here in terms of greater mutuality and self-revelation, which are proper to kinship networks. The woman, then, has been fully incorporated into the "private" world of Jesus' circle as a full "insider." She has found a new home and new honor.
4.2 Clues in the Rhetoric. Our investigation of the rhetoric of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman yields many thematic points. (1) The narrative begins by calling attention to a sharing of vessels that contravenes cultural expectations about ritual purity (Daube 137-38), thus indicating the breaking of a boundary. (2) The narrative explicitly attends to cultural expectations about ethnic boundaries (4:9), which are likewise broken. (3) This Samaritan female, moreover, is perceived by other characters in the narrative as violating the gender expectations of that culture (4:27), thus breaking a gender boundary. (4) At one point the narrative indicates a certain role reversal; the male figure who asks this female for a drink (v 7) becomes the serving figure who offers water to the woman (v 15). More breaking of gender boundaries.
(5) Although Jesus commanded her "Go, call your husband" (v 16), she did not obey him. Cultural expectation of ideal females would celebrate their obedience to males, not such a strange performance as hers. Indeed the woman went and spoke, but her action is hardly what Jesus commanded.
Jesus' Command (v 16) Woman's Actions (vv 28-30)
So the woman left her water jar,
Go, and went away into the city,
and said to the men:
call your husband 'Come, see a man who told me
all that I ever did.
Can this be the Christ?'
And they went out of the city
and come here. and were coming to him.
Since she "left her water jar" at the well (v 28), she did not go home, but to the public square, the agora, where all the village males would be gathered. Instead of entering her house (i.e. private space where females may speak freely with the males of their kinship group), she enters "the city" (i.e. public space), and speaks with the males there. Instead of "calling her husband," she speaks enthusiastically about still another man, namely, Jesus. She insists, moreover, that "he told me all that I ever did," which contextually refers to her five previous husbands and her current male companion; and so she keeps referring to her sexual history, and that to other men (see also v 39). Yet the narrative does not censure her for this, but endorses her behavior (4:37-38). Again cultural expectations of female behavior are being ignored or transcended.
(6) The form in which the dialogue is cast indicates that the woman undergoes a change of status. Not only is she transformed from "not in the know" to "in the know," she moves from being a true "outsider" (Samaritans have no dealings with Jews) to a genuine "insider." The rhetoric, then, supports the conclusion that the woman has moved from "public" space to the "private" world of Jesus' kinship circle. Behavior, which in the "public" world might properly be considered "wrong with this picture," becomes appropriate within the "private" world of discipleship. Thus the transformation narrated is also that of the space where the characters meet, no longer viewed as public, but as private.
The rhetoric, therefore, aids the reader in appreciating "what's wrong with this picture?" From the perspective of cultural expectations of gender space and behavior, the woman is portrayed as violating and at variance with all gender expectations regarding time, place, tasks, and persons insofar as this is public space. But, as the rhetoric indicates, the dialogue reflects the transformation of the scene at the well into "private space"; and so from the viewpoint of Jesus' kinship network, nothing is "wrong with this picture."
Since the narrator consciously calls attention to the gender issues and their impropriety, we argue that his treatment of them is part of the communication. Such cultural conventions do not restrict Jesus' mission (vv 7-26) or that of the Samaritans (vv 28-29, 39-42); their transformation is itself part of the message. No person is excluded from kinship with Jesus because of gender, ethnicity or social status. Discipleship is a matter of the "private," not the "public" world, where different social dynamics are appropriate.
5.0 The Author's Agenda: How to Think About This Woman?
What, then, is being communicated there? How are we to think about this woman? It has been maintained that the Johannine dramatis personae can be seen as "representative figures" (Collins 37-40; Neyrey 1988b:70-71, 78-79), which asks us to think about their stereotypical nature. Of what might they be types? How should we think about the Samaritan woman?
Gentile. Ethnic boundaries are broken (4:9); non-Jews become insiders. This aspect is evidently highlighted when the narrative climaxes in 4:42 with the proclamation of Jesus as the "Savior of the world." Then follows an episode in which Jesus bestows a benefaction on an "official's son" (4:47-54), figures often considered to be gentiles. This gospel, moreover, formally proclaims Jesus as available to Jews, Greeks and Romans (12:20, 32; 19:20). This editorial thrust, moreover, resembles the traditions in the synoptic gospels about the impartiality of God's blessings to all peoples and their inclusion in the covenant community: e.g., the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15:21-28) and the commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).
Unclean, Polluted. Jesus expresses willingness to drink from the same jug as the woman, risking ritual uncleanness. When he discourses on the proper way to worship, he sets aside issues of the right place (Jerusalem/this mountain). As the new Jacob, who was known as "the supplanter" (Neyrey 1979:421-25, 436-37), Jesus regularly supplants the purity rules of his world by working on the sabbath (5:17; 7:23; 9:16) or by using the jars containing waters for purifying hands for wine (2:6). Thus Jesus is portrayed as disregarding the purity system of his Jewish culture (Neyrey 1991:274-89). This material resembles Jesus' touching of a leper, spitting on the eyes of a blind man, being touched by a menstruating woman, and taking a corpse by the hand. Furthermore, the synoptic gospels indicate that he "ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners" (Mark 2:15-17, Matt 11:19; Luke 19:7). Commensality with the unclean was a flagrant violation of the purity code. Yet he offers the woman a drink of his water, and is willing to drink from her jug.
Sinner, Even Adulteress. Piggybacking on Jesus' breaking of purity regulations is his studied unconcern for the "sinful" status of the woman, who appears to be either a concubine or an adulteress (the sixth man with whom she is living is not her husband). Yet Corley (1993:152-58) has shown that according to the tradition, Jesus was also the friend of "courtesans." Hence, up to this point, the Samaritan woman could be the Johannine "representative" of Jesus' inclusion of gentile disciples, even those culturally labelled unclean, including "sinners" and even "courtesans." She would, then, typify the most radical inclusivity of membership in the circle of Jesus disciples.
Female. If the cultural background of John 4 has any bearing on our understanding of the social dynamics of the story, we might ask a further question concerning the representative nature of the Samaritan woman. She speaks about Jesus to others, presumably males, and leads them to him. In this does she embody a typical role recognized by the Johannine group? If so, is this a role uncharacteristically given to a female in this culture? We can compare her with two other Johannine characters, Mary Magdalene and the first disciples of Jesus, to see if she is "representative" of anything further.
In making comparisons, we are guided by sociological theory of "role" as a "set of expectations for interaction" between a person who holds one position in a group and another person who holds a reciprocal position (Hare 283). A "role" is commonly defined as "the socially recognized position of a person which entails rights and duties." Roles might be formal (i.e., king, priest, teacher, mother) or informal. Paul, for example, claimed the formal role of "apostle" (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8-11), which entailed certain "rights" (1 Cor 9:4-12) and "duties" (9:16-17). Can the Samaritan woman be said to have a socially accepted "set of expectations"? does she have "rights"? "duties"? Is she recognized by the other characters as having these? If she has a "role," is it one in the "public" or "private" world.
5.1 Formal Spreading of the Word. Form-critical studies show that appearances of the Risen Jesus function as explicit commissionings of certain male disciples as leaders within the group and as spokesmen to the "public" world (Hubbard 102-12). This is also the case with John 20:25 and 21:15-18 (Neyrey 1988b:76-91). Compared with these narratives, John 4 should not be read as a formal commissioning. Although the author knew the rhetorical form of a commissioning, he did not cast the narrative of the Samaritan woman in it.
Yet this gospel contains another appearance of the Risen Jesus, this time to a female, Mary Magdalene. In her case (20:11-17) we seem to be dealing with a formal role, but not necessarily one in the "public" sphere. When we compare Mary with the Samaritan woman, we learn the following. (1) In both cases, Jesus initially appears to solitary females outside of the city in public space, apart from their private space, namely, their houses (see also 11:20, 28-30). (2) In both, the women struggle with incomprehension or misunderstanding: Mary thinks that Jesus is a gardener; the Samaritan woman takes his words too literally (see also 11:23-26). (3) To both Jesus gives a special revelation of his identity (see 11:25). (4) He issues a command to both women to go and speak (see 11:28):
4:16 Go (deute) call your husband
20:17 Go (poreuou) say to my brethren
He gives Mary specific, significant lines to speak, "Say,'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (20:18). In terms of the high christology of this gospel, she conveys a remarkable piece of information to the group (Neyrey 1988b: 73-75). In contrast, he told the Samaritan woman: "Call your husband"; yet when she speaks, she emphasizes certain words of Jesus, which he did not authorize her to speak: "He told me all that I ever did" (4:29, 39), which we know to be her sexual shamelessness. (5) Mary made clear pronouncements ("He told me 'thus-and-such'"), which differ formally from the Samaritan woman's questions ("Can this be the Christ?").
(6) Mary obeyed Jesus' command; she "went and said to the disciples. . . 'He said thus-and-such to me'" (20:18). The case is less clear with the Samaritan woman, who went and spoke to the men of the village and wondered "Can this be the Christ?" (4:30). Recall that Jesus commanded her, "Go, call your husband, and come here"; but she went to the village square and spoke to the men there. The rhetorical form of a commissioning of Mary urges readers to recognize her as having a formal role within the fictive-kinship group. Mary's "commission/fulfillment," however, contrasts with the Samaritan woman's "command/quasi-obedience." Not every command entails a formal commissioning to a role.
(7) Both are sent to the "private" world to speak: Mary to Jesus' "brethren" and the Samaritan woman to "your husband." Neither is formally commissioned to speak to the "public" world. In terms of gender-specific behavior, Mary's actions comply with what we have come to know as the cultural expectations of shame-guarding females in the "private" sphere. It is permissible for a female to speak with the males of her household or kinship group (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Cor 14:33-36). Mary does not speak in public to strange men, but speaks in private to members of Jesus' fictive-kinship group ("my brethren"). She is not sent to "public" space, i.e., strange countries or villages, to speak to strange men. In comparison, the Samaritan woman likewise operates in the "private" world. As I have argued, she does not go as commanded to her house or kin, but to the village square; she speaks to whoever is there, which in that culture would mean the males of the village. Her relationship to at least six men of the village might position her as a person with contacts to many households, and thus aid the networking. As a person who has lost her sexual exclusivity, she is not an anomaly in this "public" world. Although she appears in the marketplace or "public" space, we are not to imagine that she remained there. After all, Jesus told her that true worship would occur, not in "public" space ("this mountain or Jerusalem"), but in "private" space, namely, households where kinship groups gather. The direction, then, of the woman's speech is not to create a "public" forum where she would have a "public" role. Rather, she moves from "private" space (her household) to "public" space (the marketplace), but then back to "private" space (the circle of Jesus' disciples).
The story about Mary was cast in terms of a formal commissioning narrative, and so she might be said to be a "representative character." But the same cannot be said of the Samaritan woman, who was not formally commissioned by Jesus to say specific words to a specific group of people. Nor was she recognized by the townsfolk as having a role with duties and rights. If the Samaritan woman had a "duty," it was to obey Jesus' command to "call your husband." She has no duty to say specific words to other people. Thus it cannot be maintained that she was sent, much less into the "public" world.
5.2 Informal Spreading of the Word. Yet does she have an "informal" role? In the rhetoric of the narrative, her conversation with the villagers is told with approval (4:31-38; Seim 70). Is this indicative of a new, even an "informal" role? If so, is it a role which belonged only to males? is it a role in the "public" or "private" sphere? Is her "rushing to bring the news home" a convention of typical well scenes, as Alter describes them (Alter 52, 58)?
In two rhetorically significant places in this gospel, readers are told of disciples spreading in an informal manner the news about Jesus. Both at the story's beginning and ending, those who have come to know Jesus tell others about him and even lead them to him for purposes of joining his circle. In the gospel's beginning, John the Baptizer tells two of his disciples about Jesus (1:35), who then "follow" him to learn "private" information: "Where do you stay?" He tells them "Come and see" (39), and so they enter his "private" world. Subsequently they find others, tell them about Jesus, and invite them to "come and see." John tells Andrew, who tells Simon; Philip tells Nathanael (Neyrey 1988a: 122-23). Thus, a clear pattern emerges, which is repeated again and again in the Fourth Gospel (Schüssler-Fiorenza 327-28): (1) Martha tells Mary about Jesus (11:28); (2) Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks seeking Jesus, and both tell Jesus (12:21-22); (3) the ten disciples, to whom the Risen Jesus manifests himself, tell the absent Thomas: "We have seen the Lord" (20:25). Jesus never authorized any of these folk to spread news about himself; no formal role is indicated by this pattern.
Noteworthy, however, is the fact that this spread of information always occurs among kin-group members and thus within the "private" world of the family. Although the narrative location of the story may be in "out of doors," the communication occurs between persons whose primary social locale is the "private" world of kinship. Valuable information such as that about Jesus is always shared first among family members.
In a world without media, news is spread informally in a "gossip network," a technical term used by anthropologists to describe the spread of information in a media-less world (Jones 1980; Handelman 1973). Spreading news does not seem to entail any formal role; there emerges no recognized system of rights and duties, which are characteristic of "roles." But let us note how in the passages we are investigating certain gender expectations continue to prevail: men speak to men (1:35-46; 12:20-22; 20:25) and women to women (11:28). The speakers are either kin (Andrew and Simon are brothers; Martha and Mary are sisters) or members of the same village ("Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter," 1:44) or fictive kin (the ten and Thomas, whom Jesus calls "my brothers" in 20:17). This suggests that the informal network we are observing reflects village social dynamics, as well as customary gender expectations, and occurs fully within the conventions for kinship-related persons. Again, the dominant institution is the "private" world of the household where valuable information is shared, not the "public" world where unrelated males contest with each other for prestige and honor.
These observations pertain to John 4 as well, but with some variation. The woman spreads the "gossip" about Jesus. Yet she went to but one place, her village. Once she spread the news, her place in the network vanishes. At first the Samaritans believed "because of the word of the woman" (4:39); but as the circle of disciples grows, they believed "because of his word" (v 41). After Jesus stayed with them, moreover, they remarked to her: "It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world" (v 42). Like the male figures illustrative of this pattern, she too ceases to play a part once the "gossip" about the Messiah is delivered.
We should look more closely at 4:39-42. I have maintained that Jesus and his disciples gathered others into fictive-kinship relationships. We should, then, consider 4:39-42 in terms of a new Jesus discipleship circle, even a fictive-kinship group. "Many Samaritans," we are told, "believed in him" (v 39), and so join the woman as the immediate circle around Jesus. When the text says "they asked him to stay with them" (v 40), we should understand "stay" as a characteristic Johannine term indicating close affiliation with Jesus, namely, membership in his circle (1:28-29; 5:28; 8:31; 12:46; 15:4-7). Then "many more believed" and joined the group (v 41). This gathering, then, is not a "public" group in a "public" forum; it is a fictive-kinship group and so must be considered "private."
Thus the woman is really engaged in "private" speech to newly related males in the emerging kinship group (4:39). If the appropriate scenario is one of kinship, then the woman brings her non-related male associates into a new social relationship which is not "public" at all, but the "private" world of the fictive-kinship group. In that context, nothing is "wrong with this picture."
Of what might the Samaritan woman be a "representative"? Looking at 4:6-26, we argue that the narrator has concentrated in this one figure many of the characteristics of marginal persons with whom Jesus regularly deals in the synoptic gospels. She is an amalgam of cultural deviance. In terms of stereotypes, she is a non-Jew, who is ritually unclean; she is a "sinner," a publicly recognized "shameless" person, even someone with whom Jesus has commensality. As a shameless woman, she embodies most of the social liabilities which would marginalize her in her society. At a minimum, she represents the gospel axiom that "least is greatest" or "last is first." Ultimately, she represents inclusivity into the Christian group in a most radical way. The stereotype of gender expectations serves to portray her precisely as the quintessential deviant, the last and least person who would be expected to find favor with God (see 1 Cor 15:8-9). Her status transformation in 4:6-26 is basically that of a person moving from "not in the know" to "in the know" and from outsider to insider.
Does it matter if we note "what's wrong with this picture?" Throughout the story, she violates the cultural expectations of her society. But, this intentionally and continually casts her in a deviant role as the most unlikely person on the cultural horizon to be welcomed into Jesus' kinship network. The initial violations of gender expectations (4:6-17) as well as the latter ones (4:27-30) consistently stereotype the Samaritan woman as a deviant, but this deviance does not matter to the narrator, which is the rhetorical point of the story. The gospel goes to unlikely people; it might even be spread in the gossip network by unlikely persons (see Acts 4:13; see John 4:36-38). By noting "what's wrong with this picture?" the Samaritan woman becomes that much stranger and that much more unlikely a candidate for inclusion. Then how much more extraordinary is she as an example of God's inclusivity and Jesus' reform of social conventions!
"What's wrong with this picture?" Gender stereotypes, then, initially work in the narrative to label the Samaritan woman as the ultimate outsider: non-Jew, unclean, sinner, shameless. The author, then, has created a stereotype of the ultimate outsider and the quintessential deviant, only to have the stereotype broken, but basically in the direction of the inclusivity of outsiders and deviants.
Looking at 4:27-30 and 39-42, however, we are told more about the Samaritan woman. Here she functions as a mediational figure in the spreading of the news about Jesus to the Samaritans. Although Mary Magdalene may accurately be said to have a formal role as the bearer of a sacred formula to specifically designated persons, we saw that her role still conforms to the gender expectation of that culture and it occurs within the "private" world of the kinship group. The Samaritan woman may occupy a structural place in a "gossip network," but this entails no formal role. Even if on one occasion the Samaritan woman speaks to non-kinship-related males, we should not conclude that this is a new pattern, for it is not confirmed by the gender dynamics between characters in the "gossip network," i.e., Martha and Mary (11:28) or the Ten and Thomas (20:24-25).
Do gender considerations play a part in how we understand the Samaritan woman vis-à-vis her townsfolk? As we have seen, gender considerations must be nuanced in terms of "public" and "private" worlds. What is appropriate in one sphere is not in the other. At the beginning of the story, the woman is clearly in the "public" sphere and relates to Jesus in a fashion that tells us much is "wrong with this picture." But as Jesus leads her into his "private" world of fictive kinship, her behavior become less and less competitive and more typical of the "private" world. Thus less and less is perceived as "wrong with this picture." Not only is the individual transformation of the woman narrated, but the nature of the social relationships between her and Jesus is also changed. As the woman is welcomed into Jesus' "private" world, she sheds her "public" sauciness and speaks truthfully and receives intimate communications. She then begins to model behavior appropriate to the "private" world of Jesus' fictive-kinship circle, and so she represents much that is "right with this picture." But "wrong" and "right" are contingent on whether the space is "public" or "private." Thus gender considerations remain important throughout.
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