I’ve sat through numerous sermons on the woman at the well (John 4) and in every case she’s portrayed in, let’s say, not the most flattering terms. This portrait rests on three primary reasons. 1) The time of her visit. It’s during the middle of the day which may suggest she was a social outcast. The implication is she’s avoiding other women. 2) Jesus said she’s had five husbands. 3) The man she was currently living with was not her husband.
In her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic, 2009), Lynn Cohick takes a second look at this woman. She offers the following observations. 1) The conclusion that she was a social outcast based on the timing of her visit is “not based on any parallel description or implication within the Greco-Roman world” (123). 2) What about five husbands? Cohick suggests “it is entirely credible that she was a widow several times, given the high death rate in that area. According to Josephus, the Herodian princess Berenice had been widowed twice and bore two children by age twenty-two” (125). 3) What about the man she was living with who was not her husband? By all accounts this is different from her previous relationships, but it doesn’t necessarily imply immorality. She could have been a concubine which was “not an unusual situation within the larger Greco-Roman world” (125). It’s possible the man was a “Roman citizen and could not legally marry beneath his social rank” (125). There are other scenarios that may have been possible which would preclude any connotation of immorality. Finally, Cohick notes the reaction of the villagers who accept her testimony that a prophet is among them. “Hardly a reaction one would imagine if she was without any moral scruples” (128).
I’ve only sketched Cohick’s treatment here, which is well worth reading. I think she offers enough evidence to warrant a second look at the lone woman at the well.