The Woman with Five Husbands

Though I sense I am a minority among Oblates on this score, statistically there are a great number of women and men over 30 who are not settled in a marriage, yet not called to a vocation of celibacy, and not always easily classifiable as “single.” Those of us who move every number of years in our 20’s and 30’s (for graduate school and/or for work) may date someone for a few years, then transition to friendship as we move to another place or as we sort out what each of us most wants in that particular relationship,and how willing each of us to move (or not move) for the sake of a relationship.  For a variety of reasons, we find ourselves in a life of serial monogamy that may or may not include marriage in the mix of relationships.

Where do we find ourselves in the Bible?  It’s easier to find examples of married folks and of solitary prophets and apostles than of women and men like ourselves.   Should “single” women among us see ourselves in the lives of the prostitutes?  We don’t exactly fit with the biblical image of a widow, either, even if we might happen to be one.  In the Bible, we are no more visible and “placed” than we are in the church of today (the former is not surprising; the latter should be).  Singleness is supposed to settle swiftly into either a commitment to celibacy of some sort, or a marriage.

It is true that single people can easily enough enter long-term marriages (even Gloria Steinem married in her later years); singleness isn’t usually a vocational sort of calling for most.  And insofar as there is a sense that those of us long unmarried somehow have a dangerous status–one not publicly acknowledged as such, certainly not celebrated–it does get easier and easier to elide our lives most with those of prostitutes, the only group in the Bible besides the wandering band of Jesus’ disciples whose lives aren’t centered on married family life.

But then there is the Samaritan woman who had five husbands.  As I’ve grown older, she is the biblical character I instinctively relate to the most.  And I suspect she’s not like that heroine of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata–she’s not like Draupadi, who had five husbands AT ONCE, all of them brothers.  Presumably she had them one after another.  And more happily still, she’s currently “living with a man” who is not her husband.  Moreover, she’s interacting alone with Jesus at a well–always a scene with erotic connotations (his disciples are explicitly nervous), for lots of matches are made at wells in the land of Rebekkah and Rachel.  Jesus is in effect her seventh husband, some say:  a number of completion.  Jesus offers her a spiritual marriage:  living water that will spring up and produce eternal life.

The story is rich with symbolism, some of which I’ll share in another column.  But for now I am taken by the way Jesus doesn’t condemn her, but works with the momentum of her life and adds a new dimension to it.  Her vocation in the community–announcing Jesus as a prophet–flows out of the whole of her life:  “Come and see someone who told me everything I have ever done!”

I wonder how readily the church can lift up this woman’s story as a way of naming the reality of those of us whose lives have flowed not through a long-term marriage, but through a series of intimate companionships?  I suppose the church cannot readily do this wherever it is unwilling to publicly accept the reality of adults who form non-celibate dating relationships.  But Jesus seemed to have no difficulty naming the reality of a woman quite like us.  He worked with what others knew about her as a way to draw a whole community of outsiders (Samaritans) to his living water:  “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus on the strength of the woman’s testimony.”  Instead of being an invisible ghost, she had a public and honored place, one that embraced her actual history, one intertwined with salvation history.

2 thoughts on “The Woman with Five Husbands

  1. It feels like you’re on dangerous ground here, but it is certainly well trodden, and ultimately solid, I think. I’m reminded of Ruth, who would probably fall in the “widow” category, but she was so young widowhood wouldn’t stick. There was also Rahab, the heroine nobody wants to mention–except Jesus’s geneologist and Gospel writer. Bathsheba and Gomer played significant parts as did Hagar. Mary Magdalene…and those just from the Bible. The history of the Church just is as broad in it’s recognition of hard to peg women. (We won’t even start on “hard to peg men.” That’s a whole ‘nother story.


  2. Yes, hard to peg people are present–if not lifted up so often in our family-values-oriented worship spaces. Thanks for adding the list of specific women’s names. Rahab is another favorite.

    I had meant to add that the woman’s “five husbands” can refer also to the five gods worshipped in the region she lived. But that point distracted from the gender focus per se.

    I just read this morning in The Lutheran magazine about the significance for women in Papua New Guinea of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (the woman with the five husbands). There women are working with gospel stories like this one to begin to resist the public sense that women are unclean while on their periods, and to refuse to accept bride-prices for their daughters. (Men who refuse to avoid contact with menstruating women are taunted by other men: “Do you have your period, too?”)

    Unclean and unpeggable women, unite! (And with their male allies, too.)


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