Women at the Well
Last Friday was the 2010 World Day of Prayer. Perhaps you missed it. That’s OK. It wasn’t headlined in my local paper, either. 🙂
The World Day of Prayer began in 1922 and is observed today in 170 countries. This annual ecumenical service is written and led entirely by women. Next year’s service will be written by women from Chile on the theme How Many Loaves Have You? Development projects benefiting women in diverse places like Senegal, Haiti and Pakistan are funded by the offerings collected during these services.
This year the World Day of Prayer Service in Wyoming was hosted by the Wyoming Baptist ladies. I was invited to be a representative reader from the Wyoming Christian Reformed Church. I had never attended before, mostly because I was always working during the day. I have always harboured a secret kernel of resistance about worship events that are for women only. For the same reason, I have reservations about those men-only Promise-Keepers conventions. I’m all about egalitarianism in the church. Why would someone like me, someone who longs for visible and genuine partnership between men and women in the body of Christ, support a women-only service? On the other hand, it was ecumenical and global, and that was appealing!
It turned out to be a worthwhile experience for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, the service encapsulated vintage small-town life. I just love that persevering rural spirit. The sixty or so elderly women exited their cars slowly, some painfully. They were arrayed in dignified tweedy suits, dressy trench coats, and woolen sweater dresses pinned with glittery brooches. Their thinning gray hair was appropriately coiffed and sprayed, covering most of the bare spots. There were maybe three women there under the age of fifty, and two of them were the guest musicians!
The ladies helped each other take off their coats and scarves, especially the ones who were struggling with canes and walkers. They greeted one another, and asked about each other’s families. They were a cheerful bunch, looking forward to the luncheon after the service, already set up in the fellowship hall, done up properly, of course, with white tablecloths, real cups and saucers, fresh flowers, and an abundance of baked goods.
The thank you’s at the end of the service took nearly as long as the service itself. Everyone was thanked individually, the soloist, the pianist, the sound guy (one of three men present), the person operating the powerpoint, the speaker, the readers, and the participants. There was a ritualized attention to detail and an unhurried enjoyment of the event, that harked back about thirty years when the World Day of Prayer Service was an important date in the social calendar of church women.
The liturgy was written by the women of Cameroon on the theme “Let everything that has breath praise God.” A slide presentation introduced us to the country of Cameroon, a West African nation wedged between Nigeria and Chad, that encompasses nearly every eco-system on the continent. The scenery was stunning. The women of Cameroon were similarly exotic. Their yellow and blue robes, richly embellished with embroidery and beads, contrasted vividly against their glowing black skin. High opulent headdresses gave them stature and dignity. I smiled to myself. Women are not so different around the world. Fashionistas, baby.
But the visual images and a page in the order of worship also highlighted the poverty and prejudice that Cameroonian women experience. Although there are legal rights in place for women, tradition and cultural practice are still overwhelmingly discriminatory. Only male heads of households have land rights. In the liturgy that we followed, the women of Cameroon praise God for his many gifts, for the beauty of their environment, for their marriages and families and children, for employment opportunities and the freedom to worship. It was an uplifting text. But a darker minor key was present as well: “In Cameroon, women’s voices are not heard. But God listens to women’s voices, whether they whisper or make a voiceless sound.”
Which brings me to the well. Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The World Day of Prayer 2010 caused me to reflect on that passage in John again. Most of the sermons I have heard on this passage have focused on Jesus as the living water. That’s a valid exegesis, applicable for all, accessible to all. But this is a powerhouse of a story for women, one that women should embrace. God does listen to women’s voices!
It’s a revolutionary act when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water. In the context of Jewish tradition, he should not have even asked a Samaritan man for water. He should never have spoken to a Samaritan woman at all! Moreover, he initiates this conversation with a woman who has a sexually compromised past. The note in my NIV says that Jews held that a woman might be divorced twice, or, at the most, three times. If the Samaritans held to the same standard, this woman, having had five husbands, was “exceedingly immoral.” And apparently she had not even bothered to marry her current and sixth “husband”.
John writes that the disciples were surprised when they discover Jesus talking to this Samaritan woman. He adds, almost as an astonished afterthought, that not one of them asked “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” There was obviously something about the interaction that brooked no interference or commentary from the disciples.
The radical nature of this event in the life of Jesus was not conveyed to me in all my years as a child and as a young woman in the church. If there was any nod towards the uniqueness of the situation, it was the fact that the woman was a Gentile, foreshadowing the eventual spread of the gospel, or that she was promiscuous, emphasizing the breadth of forgiveness in Christ. I never saw this story as having something to do with ordinary me, with being female, with being worthy.
It wasn’t until I began to do some background reading and study on my own that I began to grasp what a stunning passage this is for women. It’s not just that she is Samaritan. It’s not just her promiscuity (and who is to say how that came about… there’s no indication that she is solely to blame for her life’s circumstances). It’s that Jesus engaged a woman in conversation at all! And it’s further about the dramatic results of that encounter. (A number of books about Christian feminism have dealt with this topic – see list at the end of this entry).
There is a comical side to this dialogue, too, that escaped me until I was much older. I’ll confess that this is my own original take on the passage. But I am thunderstruck by this woman. She is one brassy sistah! There is nothing submissive in her demeanour. For some reason, I was always given to believe that she was shy, a pariah, a guilty outcast. I guess this supposition was based on the fact that she was alone and that noon was not the usual communal time for women to draw water from the well.
Well, that may be true. Perhaps she was shunned by the women of her village, but I sense no timorousness in her words. When Jesus asks her for water, her answer is simple and direct. “You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan woman.” As if to say, “Are you kidding me?” When Jesus responds that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for living water, her retort definitely has a sarcastic ring. “Uh, you don’t have a pail, buddy. Who do you think you are, anyway? Jacob?”
Jesus persists and claims that the water he gives will well up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman, no slouch, sees a chance here to reduce her workload. “Great! Give me some of that, so that I don’t have to keep coming here every day. I’ve got better things to do.” When Jesus invites her to get her husband, she’s forthright, or perhaps even nonchalant, depending on her tone, which we can’t hear: “I have no husband.”
What follows next is astounding. When Jesus proves that he knows all about her life, the woman drops the sarcasm, and jumps into a serious theological discussion with him about worship! She points out how the Samaritan tradition names Mount Gerizim as the proper place for worship and how the Jews have chosen Jerusalem as the holy place. My NIV footnote suggests that she may have been argumentative here. That could be. It fits. She has a certain spunk. But again, it’s difficult to pinpoint her tone in this section of the story.
Jesus claims that salvation (the Messiah) comes from the Jews, and he points out that the Samaritan religion lacks substance, having only the Pentateuch as a guide for their knowledge about God. He predicts, though, that the time is coming when “true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
In response, the Samaritan woman voices her faith. “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” To us! To us women, to us Gentiles, Cameroonians and Canadians, to us all! My NIV study note says that she might have been trying to end the dialogue, hinting that she and this stranger should part ways. But that is not how the text reads to me. It sounds like faith to me. It sounds like hope. And I think my interpretation of her words is supported by what happens next. Jesus affirms her faith and hope. He reveals himself to her. He announces for the very FIRST time that he is, in fact, the Messiah. He makes this proclamation to an immoral Samaritan woman. It’s a triple! Then he knocks it right out of the ballpark by inviting her to be the first evangelist. She accepts and goes to her town and tells people about Jesus, a whole group of villagers, not just her husband, and many “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Her testimony is heard and believed. In a patriarchal first century culture where women were not permitted to be witnesses in court because they were not considered reliable. The Good News from a slut. Her “going and telling” receives the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, Jesus remains in that town for two more days, ministering to the Samaritans, reinforcing her efforts.
This story rocks. It’s every bit as miraculously transformative as Philip baptizing the Ethiopian: “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” or Peter visiting the home of the centurion Cornelius: “Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Women are worthy. Women belong. Women can, too.
Another enlightening component in this story is the parallel conversation Jesus initiates with his disciples. Again, this is my own spin on the chapter. I haven’t read any particular commentary or explanation of this compelling parallel in my (admittedly limited) research, but it suddenly seems so clear! How could I have missed the significance of this complementary narrative?
Jesus talks about living water with the woman, and then, still at the well, brings up the identical issue with his disciples, substituting the metaphor of food. He says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples take him literally, much like the Samaritan woman originally did, and cast about to shift the blame. “Could someone have brought him food?” (My NIV does mention the similarity of this literalness).
In an impassioned plea that carries a note of rebuke, Jesus says, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, ‘One sows and another reaps,’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
Who is the reaper harvesting the crop for eternal life? The usual interpretation, as cited in my NIV, posits the disciples as the reapers. Jesus is addressing them, so that makes sense. But, wait a minute. Could the reaper not also refer to the Samaritan woman? Why had I never recognized this possibility before? Well, because of the pronouns! The reaper is referred to as “he”, the wages are “his”, so the reference becomes generalized, and the direct line between the reaper and the Samaritan woman is blurred. But, in the very next verse, as soon as Jesus has completed his parallel speech to the disciples about food, the topic of interest immediately returns to the many Samaritans, clearly part of the “harvest”, who have come to believe in Jesus because of the commissioned witness and labor of the Samaritan woman.
Why are the pronouns solely masculine? Well, I’m not a linguistics expert, alas. I have a few hypotheses…the patriarchal influence of the culture during which the gospel was transcribed, or a lack of understanding on John’s part (Pentecost has not yet occurred bringing with it that broader impetus toward inclusiveness), or perhaps it was simply the intent of the Holy Spirit that the text be multi-layered in a way that can also be found elsewhere in Scripture, in the prophecies, for example.
Ultimately, though, there is no competition here. The Samaritan woman and the disciples are planted side by side. Jesus focuses a bright light on their commonality. Their task is the same: to bring the Living Water and the Bread of Life to sinful, broken, thirsty and hungry people. And, finally, to reap the harvest and rejoice and “be glad together.”
The World Day of Prayer 2010 validates the prophecy of Jesus. God the Father has been seeking worshipers, worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth. Worshipers whose praise is not confined to Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. They have been found, and their voices heard. Their skin is white or ebony, their hair is sparse and gray, or thick and black, they live in North America or Cameroon. They are here, in 2010, worshiping. They are women. And they are men.
So, on the first Friday of March in 2010, it was a blessing for me, after all, to pray with the women of Cameroon: “Almighty God, we thank you for being with us in our times of crisis and trouble as women. By your mercies you have created humankind in your image, male and female. May our relationships be based on equality and mutual support. We pray with confidence because these are the things God will do. God will not forsake us.”
What do you think? Do you think segregated worship opportunities are beneficial? Or should we strive to “be glad together?” Do you think the reaper could refer to the Samaritan woman?
Some background bibliography:
The Bible. (NIV) John 4
Clouse, Bonnidell & Robert G. Clouse. Editors. Women in Ministry: Four Views. InterVarsity Press.
Gundry, Patricia. Heirs Together. Zondervan
Hayter, Mary. The New Eve in Christ. Eerdmans
Martin, Faith. Call Me Blessed. Eerdmans
Mickelsen, Alvera. Ed. Women, Authority & The Bible. InterVarsity Press.
Scanzoni, Letha Dawson and Nancy A. Hardesty. All We’re Meant To Be. Eerdmans.
Storkey, Elaine. Contributions to Christian Feminism. Christian Impact, Ltd.
Storkey, Elaine. What’s Right With Feminism. Eerdmans