Published by IVP Academic on February 15, 2022
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Theology
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Most Christians have heard a familiar description of the Samaritan woman in John 4: she was a sinner, an adulteress, even a prostitute. Throughout church history, the woman at the well has been seen narrowly in terms of her gender and marital history. What are we missing in the story? And what difference does our interpretation of this passage make for women and men in the church? Caryn A. Reeder calls us to see the Samaritan woman in a different light. Beginning with the reception history of John 4, she pulls back layers of interpretation entangled with readers' assumptions on women and sexuality. She then explores the story's original context, describing life for women and expectations regarding marriage and divorce in the first century. With this clarified lens, Reeder's exegesis of the passage yields refreshing insights on what the Gospel says―and does not say―about the woman at the well. Throughout the book, Reeder draws connections between interpretations of this text and the life of the church. The sexual objectification of the Samaritan woman and minimization of her positive contribution has ongoing consequences for how women are seen and treated―including in the failure of many Christian communities to respond well to accusations of abuse. In the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, The Samaritan Woman's Story offers a bold challenge to teach the Bible in a way that truly honors the value and voices of women.
I don’t remember when I first realized that the interpretation of the Samaritan woman of John 4 that I’d heard my whole life was wrong. I do remember that it was after I had been a pastor for several years, meaning that neither a lifetime in the church or a seminary degree had corrected my “traditional” thinking—or even forced me to think through the text critically. Because once you see it, you see it. It’s obvious. There’s no going back.
The first part of The Samaritan Woman’s Story is historical theology, focusing on how her story has been considered throughout church history. One chapter is spent on early Christianity. one chapter covers the Protestant perspective from the Reformation to the 1800s. Those two chapters set the foundation for the third chapter, which explores how the Samaritan Woman has been interpreted today—and how that might have implications for the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements.
The cultural purpose of The Samaritan Woman’s Story is unapologetically a response to these movements that have highlighted sexual abuse in the church and the culture at large. Reeder’s intention in the book isn’t just to correct our exegesis or our theology, but to indict a church culture that has overlooked and covered up sexual abuse. She draws connective threads from those abused by or in the church today back to the Samaritan woman in order to show how the “traditional” interpretation has been used to subjugate and silence women—but also to show how Jesus’s view of the Samaritan is so utterly different.
The second half of the book offers a robust, thorough, and compelling reinterpretation of the story, one that not only redeems the Samaritan woman from the reductive sexualization of the traditionalists, but one that speaks to the healing and safety that Jesus brings to all who have been abused or silenced by religion. Reeder outlines what the life of a first-century woman might be like, citing extensive historical and archaeological records to make her case. Along the way, she offers glimpses into the lives of other biblical women and gives insight into their stories that are often ignored.
The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo isn’t just an academic text that explores a compelling exegetical interpretation of a key biblical text. It is a book that speaks out against the dominant church system that problematizes women, exonerates men, and covers up abuse. As I read this book, news broke that John MacArthur, a popular pastor, covered up the fact that one of his staff pastors raped his daughter repeatedly over the course of many years. In a letter to the victim, MacArthur wrote: “Your dad is really sad about it all…He has been a faithful part of our staff and will continue to be in the future.” This is the situation that Reeder is trying to prevent—one where women are silenced and marginalized even as their abusers remain in power.
And since, as of the time this review is being written, MacArthur has suffered no consequences for his coverup, it’s clear that we still have a way to go. The Samaritan Woman’s Story is not only her story. It’s the story of so many women in the church. Perhaps even people you know. For some, this book will be an indictment of a systemic failure to listen to or value women. For others, it’ll hopefully be a redemptive note that proves that the way women have been viewed in Scripture isn’t the view of Jesus. It’s a valuable, important, timely work.