Jesus, the Woman at the Well, and the Meaning of ‘Man’ by Stuart Dean

 Stuart WordPress photoThe story in the Gospel of John of the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman (hereafter, ‘the Samaritan’) at Jacob’s well (4:7-29) has attracted considerable scholarly attention.  For an overview of some of the interpretive issues raised by it there is a video of a conversation about it between H. W. Attridge and D. L. Bartlett of Yale Divinity School available on Youtube here.  I intend to focus primarily on only four verses, John 4:16-19.

Here is my translation (the underlying Greek and links to interpretive resources can be found here):

16 [Jesus] said: “go tell your ‘man’ and come back here.”
17 The Samaritan answered, “I do not have a ‘man.”’ Jesus said to her “Beautifully you said ‘I do not have a man.’
18 You have had five ‘men,’ and the one whom you have now is not your ‘man.’  You spoke truthfully.”
19 The Samaritan said to him: “Sir, I see you are a wise listener.”

My translation is intended to bring out what I take to be a play on the meaning of the underlying Greek word for man.  Before I explain exactly what the play on meaning is about I want to justify the assumption that there is some sort of play in the first place. Some have argued that the reference to the bride and bridegroom at John 3:29 foreshadows the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan as a spiritual wedding.  The theme of a spiritual wedding is arguably also foreshadowed in how John starts the book itself, for ‘beginning’ is a feminine noun in Greek and ‘word’ is masculine, making ‘in the beginning was the word’ sexually symbolic; that, in turn, suggests that the well before which Jesus and the Samaritan stand, or the water in it, symbolizes God, or at least the spirit of God.

Because of that context the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan has been characterized as erotically charged banter.  For example, when the Samaritan asks Jesus if he is ‘bigger’- at John 4:12 -it would seem she wants that word to be taken in any number of ways.  That resonates with how the groom at a Greek wedding would, with sexually charged humor, be compared to a god in wedding songs.  The title of the famous short story by J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, is a quote from a fragment of one such song attributed to Sappho: the dimensions of the bridal chamber need to be expanded to make room for the exaggerated ‘size’ of the excited groom, who she compares to a god.  In making that comparison Sappho uses a form of the same Greek word John has the Samaritan use in her question to Jesus: the groom, Sappho says, is “much bigger than a big man.”

As Sappho uses it in the line just quoted, ‘man’ (the same word used in John 4:16-18) clearly has primarily a biological meaning: it refers to a male adult.  But as in English, the word man could take on more or less specific meanings.  Sappho plays upon the multiple meanings in another poem where she juxtaposes the word man next to the name Helen (of Troy), for the juxtaposition of noun and name associates Helen with masculinity, whereas the noun by itself also has a legal meaning: it refers to Helen’s husband.  Modern English has a parallel: in the formulaic expression “I now pronounce you man and wife,” man means husband rather than simply ‘adult male,’ yet man can have an almost psychological meaning.  Phrases such as ‘be a man’ or ‘man up’ can even be spoken to or about women.  Also in Greek, as in English, notwithstanding its legal meaning, man could be used to refer to a sexual partner or paramour to whom one is not legally married.

The Samaritan’s play on ‘bigger’ anticipates the play on the meaning of ‘man’ that follows.  When Jesus first uses the word it clearly means husband or partner.  Yet, when the Samaritan responds she is picking up on the biological meaning.  She is telling Jesus she is a lesbian.  His acknowledgment and acceptance of this fact is brought out in the way he frames his response by complimenting how the Samaritan spoke and by his own use of the word man in both senses.  It is correct to say the Samaritan had five ‘men’ (sexual partners) but not correct to say she has a ‘man’ as a partner.

Other aspects of the story suggest John intended to portray the Samaritan as a lesbian.  She appears at an odd time of day with no one else around and manifests an inquisitive, independent mind.  Given prevailing attitudes at the time, those elements alone would be enough to raise the suspicion she might be lesbian.  Confirmation that we are to think of the Samaritan as lesbian, though, is in the reference to the five ‘men’ (here meaning sexual partners).  Lesbianism was associated with any form of sexuality not related to procreation–in particular, oral sex performed by a woman on a man or another woman; the recognition that procreation was not the purpose (or even possible) led to its association with promiscuity (perhaps because family law issues related to children – for example, inheritance – that ostensibly mandate monogamy are not implicated).  Such associations could lead to exaggeration and ridicule: Sappho was characterized by some Romans at the time of Jesus as having been a slut who had a hundred lovers.  By contrast, the reference to the Samaritan’s prior five (probably a generic number meaning ‘more than one’) partners should be taken to be a polite acknowledgment of what was deemed customary of a lesbian lifestyle.

To my knowledge no one before has argued for such a reading of this story.  It seems to me, however, to make sense of otherwise confusing Greek and has important implications I hope are given consideration.

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.   

Categories: Bible, General, Scripture, Textual Interpretation

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. I love this reading the passage in John. Makes sense. Wish I had read your essay before treating that scene in my novel The Passion of Mary Magdalen. Brava!


  2. Thank you very much. If you want, I have additional explanatory notes to my reading on my Sappho blog:


  3. When I was writing a page (yes, just a simple page) about Sappho, I was overwhelmed with the amount of scholarship available. Most of the those “scholars” spoke with an arrogance that I found hard to swallow. In truth, we don’t “know” a whole about her, and we only have smidgens of her poetry left to remind us of her genius. I found your blog so well written, and so compassionate in its perspective, that I have linked to it on my Sappho page: . And, while I am anything but a Biblical scholar, my gut tells me that you are spot on with your study of the Sumarian woman. Wonderful perspective. Thank you for your post.


  4. I enjoy Sappho’s poetry on so many different levels, yes the love poems, but also her philosophy of life. Remember also that Sappho was a true mom with a daughter she loved dearly named Cleis. And as regards nature there is something truly embracing of unconditional love in her heart. Her most moving lines to me are these (reminiscent of Jesus as Shepherd), and translated in a Japanese poetry collection by Kure Shigeichi — who connected her, I think quite rightly, in terms of form and content, to the Japanese tanka and haiku tradition:

    Sappho says:
    The evening star brings home
    to their beginning
    all that shining morning scattered
    in the eight directions.
    It brings back the sheep,
    brings back the goat,
    brings back the child to her mother’s hand.


    • The lines you quote are fragment 104a. It comes from a wedding song that may manifest mystical astronomical/astrological meaning. Very influential in antiquity, possibly including Vergil’s famous 4th ‘messianic’ eclogue (actually a wedding song). On ram and goat cf: Dan. 8:2ff. On mystical marriage associated with the morning star cf: Rev. 22:16.


      • Here’s the Greek:
        Ἔσπερε, πάντα φέρων, ὄσα φαίνολις ἐσκέδασ’ Αὔως,
        φέρεις ὄιν, φέρεις αἶγα, φέρεις ἄπυ μάτερι παῖδα.

        The entire fragment seems to hinge on the idea of that first word in the poem, Hesperus — the evening star, the first light that appears in the night — a kind of unknowing to begin with— as the key to “return” or to enlightenment.

        There is enormous depth of meaning in the poem also for feminism and religion. Jesus brings back the lost sheep to safety. Sappho’s poem brings back a patriarchal society to a world where the mother is equally of value as a leader, or shepherd, or guide, or priest. Another parallel is that deeply moving image of Jesus actually carrying the sheep in his arms. The Greek “φέρεις” (phereis) repeated three times, not only means to bring back, but also to carry back (to carry the responsibility of compassion on one’s own shoulders).


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