The Spiritual @dventures of CyberCindy, but now Margaret Barker – whose perspectives on Scripture often are as refreshing as they are unconventional – has added impetus to this interpretation:
The woman is often presented in commentaries as having a dubious past, but she may well have been a victim of her own society. She had had five husbands, and in a society where it was not easy for a woman to leave her husband – divorcing a spouse was usually a man’s prerogative – this means she had been abandoned five times; or she had been widowed five times and married in succession to her brothers-in-law (Deut. 5.5-6; Mark 12.18-23 and parallels). In both cases the reason for the multiple marriages would have been that she was childless: bearing no child was grounds for divorce, since a man was obliged to father two children; and for the same reason, a childless widow had to marry a brother-in-law in order to give her first husband an heir. These were the Jewish customs, but something similar in Samaria would account for the woman’s having five husbands, and then coming to the well alone at noon, to avoid the other women who would have seen her childless state as a punishment from God.Margaret Barker, King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel (London: SPCK, 2014), p. 216
I’m no Johannine scholar, but I have to say that Barker’s interpretation – that the woman of Samaria was repeatedly divorced because she had not been able to conceive – seems reasonable to me. So why do the (male) authors of the commentaries on John that I own seem to accept almost without discussion that the woman’s effectively a slut (Kruse is kinder in his commentary than, say, Beasley-Murray)? One of the things I find interesting here is that, if correct, Barker’s interpretation shows how easy it is, even in scholarship, (a) to assume the worst about others, and (b) to treat people as objects whose worth lies in their utility to us. What does it say about us, even today, when we’re more inclined readily to assume the woman of Samaria’s immorality than to probe harder (no innuendo intended) and consider alternative, perhaps more charitable, readings of her story?