As Jesus spoke to “a woman from Samaria,” he asked her to bring her “husband” with her for a meeting (Jn. 4.7, 16). However, she said: “I have no husband;” to which Jesus said: “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (vv. 17-18).
First, Jesus employs the term, “husband,” in an accommodative fashion (her perceived husband — not her actual one). The law of the land may have endorsed the marriage, but God had not (cf. Mt. 19.9)!
Second, the Lord broached the subject of her present unlawful marriage as a tactical measure. His aim was to demonstrate his own supernatural ability to know a stranger’s hidden past at will, thereby engendering faith in his audience (4.29, 39-42; cf. Jn. 2.24-25).
Third, the word-order given in the original language is insightful.
While the woman said, “I have no husband” (ouk echo andra), Jesus, sounding a bit like Yoda, quotes the woman (note the first person) as saying, “A husband, I do not have (andra ouk echo).”
Some scribes, copying this text, have mistakenly assumed that a copyist’s error must have occurred somewhere down the line, since Jesus’ quotation was not identical to the woman’s statement. Thus, in Codex Sinaiticus (as well as the Ephraemi Rescriptus & the Bezae), the scribes noticeably switched the word-order to make the statement and the quotation harmonize with each other.
However, instead of changing Jesus’ quotation (“A husband, I do not have”) — for they refused to believe that Jesus simply misheard the woman’s statement and got the order wrong — these manuscripts alter the woman’s statement from “I do not have a husband” to match the Lord’s subsequent quotation: “A husband, I do not have.”
Unfortunately, these sincere, but overzealous scribes, failed to appreciate the subtlety of the syntax. By placing the term, andra (husband), first in the quotation, the Lord was adjusting the point of emphasis in the woman’s statement.
While she simply said: “I do not have a husband” — with no emphasis; Jesus was placing emphasis on the husband aspect of her statement. His point to her was this: It is not a husband that you have; but you do have a man at home, who should not be there!
The Lord was not interested in merely quoting her verbatim; he wanted to emphasize the aspect of her statement that demanded some urgent attention — namely, that she was living with a man out of holy wedlock (who was not her divinely-sanctioned husband — cf. v. 18; Mk. 6.17-18). The woman understood this in theory (as evidenced by her admission), but hadn’t placed enough stress on the immorality of it (or the need to get out of the relationship).
Jesus’ task, then, by placing the word, husband, first in his quotation of her statement, was to provide her with that emphasis, to rouse her into doing what she already knew was right, but, for whatever reason, had failed to do. If she wanted “living water” (v. 15), she was going to have to give up her present sinful life in order to embrace one which only Jesus could provide (cf. 13-14)!
No wonder the next words out of her mouth were: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (v.19)!