When you tell a Bible story to your class, how many editorial comments do you make? Why do you choose to make those particular comments? Most likely, it is in an attempt to help your young students better understand the story. Here’s the tough question, though. How accurate are your editorial comments? If they aren’t accurate, are they helping or hurting your students?
Often, as Bible teachers, we tend to automatically pass on the editorial comments we have heard many times from preachers or adult Bible class teachers. If we don’t carefully consider them, however, we may be passing on inaccurate information – often based on assumptions. Case in point – the woman at the well.
How many times have you heard it taught that the woman was sinful – having divorced many times and now living with someone to whom she isn’t married? Yet, I recently heard a historian make some interesting points that call that interpretation into question.
If you notice, many incidents in the life of Jesus are followed by Jesus explaining what the Apostles should be learning from the experience. Notice that this particular incident isn’t followed by an explanation of how God can forgive any sins or that people can repent and turn from enmeshed sin. Rather, it ends with talking about the harvest being ready, but not having enough workers. Also, read the passage in John 4 again carefully. At no point does Jesus tell her he has forgiven her sins or that she needs to repent. Rather their conversation is a more general theological one about where to worship and the Messiah.
The speaker pointed out that from primary source documents at the time, we know that women in the first century were often widowed multiple times. Marriages were often very short and ended with the death of the man. What if some or all of the woman at the well’s five husbands had died? She also pointed out that culturally, there were multiple reasons why the man with whom she was currently living may or may not have involved a sexual relationship. As were there reasons other than societal rejection for the woman being at the well during the heat of the day. (Perhaps, a second trip for an unforeseen need.)
Her final point was the reaction the woman received when she told the townspeople about Jesus. Would they have listened to a woman of “ill repute”? Would they have followed her to see Jesus? Maybe. Maybe not. This speaker could be right in questioning the typical editorial comments about this story, or the traditional interpretation could be correct. A careful reading of the story in the Bible, however, just doesn’t give us absolute proof of either theory. What we do know is that Jesus wanted his Apostles – and by extension, us – to learn that many people want to learn about God and there just aren’t enough people willing to teach them. Any other interpretation is guesswork at best.
The next time you prepare for a Bible lesson, read the story carefully. Look at it with fresh eyes. Which editorial comments can be made that are actually supported by the text? Which can be supported by other scriptures? Which comments may be theologically accurate (God can forgive any sin), but are perhaps unfair to the person in the story. (Now that you can see the other possible interpretation, doesn’t it feel like gossiping to assume she had divorced all of those men?) Be careful how you editorialize when teaching the Bible. It makes a difference.