The Danger of a Single Story: The Case of The Woman at the Well Part 1

Negerian author and storyteller, Chimamanda Adichie, in her now famed, TEDtalks lecture, warns of the danger of a single story. She speaks of how she found and validated her authentic cultural voice – a voice so often drowned out by dominant culture – by those who are powerful and who control the vehicles that get stories told.

Today, I want to echo the warnings of Adichie through the narrative of the “Woman at the Well.” This is an all-to-familiar story. You might have heard many sermons about this woman. A woman assumed to have been morally bankrupt. A woman mocked and scorned and in need of redemption.

John chapter 4 recounts the encounter between this woman (who had no name – no identity but being called a Samaritan) and Jesus:

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a]10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” 27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

There are a few assumptions we make of this woman with no name:

  1. She was a morally loose woman
  2. She was an unbeliever
  3. She was ignorant

We have formed our opinions of this woman without even getting to know and understand her. Perhaps the many sermons that we have heard about her, have prevented us from seeing who she really is (from the passage itself). Perhaps, we have assigned judgment because she was Samaritan. Perhaps we have carried to the passage the prejudice of some Jews against Samaritans (being considered dogs). But does the passage itself assume that this woman was loose? Yes, Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband…” But what does that mean? Was Jesus confronting the woman about immorality or was he reaching out to her in a very intimate way that others have failed to get to know her.

Presumably, she was a loner. The time she came to fetch water was way pass the time the other women would have come. It was midday and the sun would be scotching. The other women would have come by 6:00 a.m. She knew at 12 noon, she’d be there alone – so she thought. But Jesus had need to go through Samaria. He met her there and sought to know her and introduce her to the world beyond the single story. Who really is this no name woman who has been through SIX (6) men?… I can hear the tongues beginning to wag. I can almost hear the opinions we form, as we sit in our bible studies, about this woman who has been through FIVE divorces. But before we got there, did we stop to understand this woman’s context outside of the Judeo-focal lenses through which we view her (a Samaritan)? As a woman in her time, she did not have the autonomy to divorce her husbands. It was the men who held the power to divorce by simply saying, “I divorce you! I divorce you!” But why? Why would they want to divorce her? Was she unable to give them children? The passage never mentioned if she had children. This would be an important bit of information that John would omit. What did Jesus mean when He told her that the man she is living with now is not even her own? Did he leave her too? Have we ever taken the time to sit and ask sister girlfriend at the well what were her hopes and aspirations and expectations of each relationship she entered? Or… are we busy going about our business only to return (like the disciples) and find this woman (in conversation with Jesus) about whom we have assumed many things (often all bad) and thinking that, that is who she really is?

In part two we will take a deeper look at this woman as we further explore the danger of a single story. I hope the next time we are tempted to believe something negative about someone that we pause to try to understand more about that person in an effort to build authentic relationships.

You may view Chimamanda Adichie’s video below