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The Good News of a Crown of Thorns

Derek Caldwell





Left. She plods along under the piercing rays of the sun, inhaling the hot, stale air en route to Jacob’s well. Dust lingers in the back of her throat. She makes this journey daily under the cover not of night, but in the exposure of light and heat of noontime day. This is when other women will not be around the well. She’ll take the cruelty of an unrelenting sun over the cruelty of unrelenting taunts and side-eyes. To the Torah-abiding eyes of others in Samaria, she is a harlot. Unclean. Permanently stained. Persona non grata. Step by heavy step she makes her way with the sun’s scorching eye upon her, reminding her of the attention she sought to escape.

While I haven’t experienced the same type of rejection as the Samaritan woman, I have always felt a certain kinship with her because of my first few months in middle school, which I remember with painful vividness. I had been funneled in with kids from three other elementary schools. It wasn’t until then that I found out I had come from the “poor” school. My clothes did not have designer names on them. I tucked my t-shirts into cotton shorts from the local department store. Apparently, I had stumbled upon the surest way to become persona non grata around teenagers. My goal each morning was to escape notice in the common areas by hiding in plain sight among the lockers, where people stopped only briefly before meeting up with friends. I didn’t really have any friends yet. Most of the time, hiding in plain sight did the trick. I was an easy person to overlook, and sometimes, like the Samaritan woman, I was glad for some anonymity.

The Shame of the Past in the Present

Years of living under an ever-expanding yoke of shame must have weighed heavily upon her. The hardness of hearts around her no doubt led to a callus over her own heart, protecting it from further stings and barbs. She needed rest and refreshment. And on this day, like every other day, she needed water. Imagine her shock when a Jewish man approached her and openly spoke to her. His eyes did not tell of judgment but compassion. A Jew, her people’s enemy; a man, who should not have been speaking to a woman not his wife; a rabbi, who should have known of the rabbinic wisdom about not wasting one’s time, energy, or breath by speaking to an “inferior” gender. This man asked her for water, but He was there to offer it to her.

Too often when we hear about the Samaritan woman, we hear it as a simple morality tale. The story is told that Jesus, in His great love and mercy, would love even a five-time divorced woman currently cohabitating with a man who was not her husband. Wow, we think, what great love to show toward such a sinner. Well, perhaps, but that’s not quite the point. Everything we know about divorce in that era tells us that it was typically only men who could instigate it, often for extremely petty reasons, and it left women destitute and vulnerable, like wounded prey left for the picking of other scavengers.

The truth is, we don’t know if the Samaritan woman was divorced five times, widowed five times, or some combination of the two. We’ve imported much of the condemnation into the text, playing the part of the other Samaritans from whom she sought a reprieve in the mid-day desert. Everything we do know leads me to think that Jesus’s approach is out of compassion for one who may be largely a victim of her time and culture.[1] And like many victims, the scorn heaped upon her probably became shame internalized within her.

The Approach of Jesus

For perhaps the first time in the Samaritan woman’s adult life, someone was speaking to her in a humanizing way. Regardless of why she had five husbands, Jesus approaches in kindness. She has been wounded, and she doesn’t need anyone to describe to her the depths of her pain and loss. She doesn’t need anyone to explain to her how she may have contributed to this pain and loss. The shame in her life would have been a constant reminder of the whole situation, like a boot pressing into the joy of her heart. There are times in our lives when our trembling and battered selves just need our wounds dressed.

New Testament scholar Colin Kruse explains that when Jesus addresses her relationships, His intention “was not to create a sense of guilt, but to confront the pain in her relationships with men. This would accentuate her thirst for a meaningful relationship with God and make her receptive to the revelation he was offering her.”[2] It may have been the case that all of her life, people only took from her. And yet here is this Jewish teacher, the Messiah, God in the flesh beckoning her to drink of His living water to quench her parched thirst for requited love. She is not His ancient enemy, she is not an inferior person; she is chosen, she is loved, and He wishes to adorn her as His bride for all eternity.[3]

The place of this meeting was no mistake. Jesus had led the disciples through this area to meet a particular woman at a particular well. The well, not the tavern, was often where Jewish men went to find eligible women for marriage, as Jacob did with Rachel (Genesis 29).[4] It is no mistake that this Samaritan woman—given the name Photina in Eastern Christian traditions, meaning illuminated one—meets Jesus at the well of Jacob, for it is Jacob who had a vision of the ladder from heaven to earth (Genesis 28:10-17). Here she was experiencing heaven’s permeation of earth and standing face to face with the One through whom both heaven and earth were created. Jesus is not there to exhort her to shape up so that she may become the bride of Christ. He doesn’t need to. No, He is there to proclaim her the bride of Christ. She asked Jesus if He is the anointed King returning to save the people of God. He responded, “I am he” (John 4:26). Leaving her water jar behind, she hurried to share the Light of the World with everyone she encountered, her new light burning bright. 

As a Samaritan, a mixture of Jewish and Gentile blood, the Samaritan woman represented far more than herself. She represents a whole world awaiting relief from their groanings. She arrived in shame, but now she—and the whole world—may dwell under the words of Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”[5]

Life Among the Thorns

In Scott Harrower’s book God of All Comfort, he describes different types of horrors. In one illustration, he describes trauma as one long run through a thicket full of thorns, slowly but surely tearing away at our souls.[6] From the beginning, human sin has produced thorns and thistles that tear and press into us the futility of life (Genesis 3:18). From our mid-day wanderings to avoid a crowd or to wanting to be invisible in middle school, our trajectories are often mapped by the pain of those thorns, some that just barely nick us and others that pierce us with paralyzing force.

Isn’t it quite telling that on Good Friday, Jesus is crowned with thorns, placing our terrorized and traumatized lives upon His head, proclaiming Himself King of the pierced, wounded, and abused? When the Romans dressed Him in purple robes to mock His claims of kingship, do they know they have made Him the King of the belittled, of the sinful, of the damaged?[7] And in allowing this public mockery, Jesus inaugurates that new order in which the last becomes first and the pain of this world is not the final word.

The Samaritan woman shows us that Jesus sees all of us in totality, in what we were meant to be and what we have become: beautiful but broken-winged creatures fluttering in overlapping circles. He approaches the Samaritan woman and us gently, calmly, with real proximity and intimacy; He gives us the living water for which we thirst, the living water that ends all thirst, the “giving gift” of the Holy Spirit,[8] Who is “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”[9] He is the One who has looked upon the overlooked and undervalued and said warmly, lovingly, and longingly, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”[10]

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[1] Indeed, even Jesus’ teachings on divorce are rightly understood in their context as methods of protecting women from the callousness of certain first-century divorce traditions.

[2] Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 134.

[3] Revelation 19:5-8.

[4] Brian Pitre, Jesus and the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told (New York: Image, 2018), 61.

[5] Isaiah 12:3.

[6] Scott Harrower, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of this World (Lexham Press, 2019), 39.

[7] The color of royalty was purple/violet, and this dye was quite expensive. The reason it was a royal color was because it was so expensive—only royals could afford it! You may recall in the Book of Acts that Lydia was a Christian convert who had her own house where she encouraged Christians to gather and stay, including Paul and Silas after they left prison. Her independent wealth was probably because she was a “dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14). Some have noted that certain Gospel authors mention Jesus in a purple robe while another says the robe was scarlet in color. This is not a contradiction. Soldiers most likely did not have purple robes, and if they did they would not have put them on a man sentenced to crucifixion. The robe was most likely actually scarlet in color—close enough to royal colors as representatives of the royal regime, but without causing the Empire to go bankrupt. The combination of the crown of thorns in place of a real crown of gold, and a scarlet robe in place of a purple robe, was meant to mock the claim that Jesus was a king. They dressed Him up as a cheap imposter king. The reason that Jesus’s robe was listed by Mark and John as purple was to make the mockery clearer to later audiences. The Romans were making fun of His claim to kingship (perhaps even more clear by the “King of the Jews” placard placed on a cross typically reserved for slaves, thieves, and false emperors). So, while the robe was most likely actually scarlet, a more affordable dye that soldiers would have worn, they placed it on him as if it was the purple robe of a king. Some of the authors of the New Testament, then, would have just simply said “purple” in order to make the mockery clearer to the readers and hearers of the words. [See Michael Wilkins, “Matthew,” and Craig Evans, “Mark,” in Jeremy Royal Howard (ed.), The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2018), 252, 244.] Matthew is the only author who states that it was, in fact, a scarlet robe. This may be both literally true and used in order to make a theological point. Matthew, whose Gospel was written primarily to a Jewish audience, may have decided to retain the actual color of scarlet in order to highlight the cleansing aspect of Jesus’s ministry, as scarlet is associated with the color of blood and with cleansing in the Old Testament (see Numbers 19:2, 6). As the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible states, “For the New Testament believer, the red heifer and cleansing rites are instructive because they point out the corruption of death, which is the result of sin and is contrary to the Lord’s holiness. But Christ, having died, has taken the sting out of death (1 Cor. 15:52–55). He has sanctified the grave and removed the spiritual and moral defilement of death. Believers therefore do not have to fear touching the body of a dead person as it awaits its resurrection at the Lord’s return.” [See Gerard Van Groningen, “Numbers” in Walter Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 97.] This is, to my mind, a reasonable meaning gleaned by Matthew behind the scarlet robe. Now, it could be that it was merely different perspectives, either due to one’s eyesight, or the sun hitting the purple robe in such a way that it looked scarlet, or the scarlet being shaded in such a way that it looked purple. God could also have used that—the fact that, depending on light or lack of light, the robe could be both scarlet and purple—to inform particular truths. The first truth is that, on the ground, the robe was meant to mock Jesus’s claim of kingship. But the deeper truths were that Jesus really is the King and that Jesus takes the sting out of death and transforms death into the occasion for life.

[8] A phrase borrowed from Tom Smail’s The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004). The Holy Spirit is the Father and Son’s gift for us, and the Holy Spirit is also a gift-giver to us.

[9] John 4:14. Note that the woman went to a well to retrieve water; Jesus offers water that needs no retrieving but instead does the retrieving.

[10] Jeremiah 31:33.