Impropriety or missionary leadership?

In the meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus he turns the male dominated worldview on its head. We see a powerful woman with theological acumen go on to be an inspired missionary leader. Her nonconformity presents no obstacle to her acceptance and leadership in Jesus’s network.

May I speak in the name of God whose Creator creator, Redeemer and Saviour, Amen. Please sit down.

In other news: this week, Harvey Weinstein was given a 23 year sentence for his abuse of women. And meanwhile in Mexico, millions of women went on strike to highlight the rising levels of gender based violence. An average of 10 women a day are killed in Mexico. There are some very powerful images online of pink crosses, marking the lives of women who have been lost, Being carried by some of the 80,000 demonstrators. In our own society, shockingly, one in four women will face gender based violence that some point in their lives.

As Bishop Richard Harris said on Friday in his Thought for the Day on Radio 4 such levels of violence reflect the fact that almost every society throughout history has been patriarchal. That is controlled by men.

The New Testament reflects this bias, of course, written by men and reflecting a male dominated world. But there is one important difference. The New Testament is underwritten by the belief that God came amongst us as one without power. As a vulnerable God, whose very vulnerability became the agent for change, and the force for good.

Our Gospel reading today is a prime example of that. Jesus turns the male dominated worldview on its head in his engagement with the Samaritan woman Sadly over the years commentators have missed this subversive and disruptive element of the story.

Rather than highlight the Samaritan woman’s inspired missionary leadership, too often, there is a focus on her five divorces and assumed life of sin. As one commentator stated, this is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.

While different scholars have offered numerous interpretations of this text. There’s no real consensus. But there are historical contradictions that make taking it at face value, a dubious enterprise at best. This is because in first century Palestine, a woman could not initiate divorce except in extremely rare circumstances. And therefore the Samaritan woman’s five former husbands must have either divorced her or died and this would have spelled disaster for her, since women relied on the patriarchal household to survive. Whatever else she may have been, the Samaritan woman was as not a profligate divorcee.

While Jesus at first affirms the woman’s reply that she has no husband and he then enigmatically implies that she does have one. But before branding her as an adulteress we need to remember that Roman marriage laws stipulated that only the freeborn could marry and then only to another freeborn person. So the millions of former slaves who were free people, but not free born, were not entitled to marry. Living together unmarried could have been the Samaritan woman’s only option if she and her partner were both freed persons or if one was free born and the other freed. While we will probably never know the exact circumstances
underpinning the Samaritan woman’s domestic situation.

It’s clear that Jesus paid no attention whatsoever to social rules that diminished women. A solitary Samaritan woman approaches Jesus at a public well, at the wrong time of day. Since village women normally drew water only at dawn and dusk, a woman appearing alone at noon would have been considered improper. Jesus speaks to her and the lengthy conversation ensues. The woman herself remarks on Jesus’s impropriety, Jews disliked and shunned Samaritans, and it was considered inappropriate for men to speak to women outside their kinship circles in public. But Jesus is not deterred.

The woman exhibits remarkable theological acumen In her discussion with Jesus. Unlike the respected Rabbi Nicodemus, who in John 3, meets secretly with Jesus at night and departs still doubting, the Samaritan woman meets him in broad daylight, and departs a true believer. John’s Gospel portrays her as the privileged recipient of Jesus’ revelation that he is the Messiah. And on her word, many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him.

For John, the Samaritan woman represents the outsider, who after her encounter with Jesus becomes not only an insider, but also a leader, publicly proclaiming Jesus the Messiah to both men and women. Along the way, the narrative deliberately highlights and then discount stereotypical female behaviours to which she does not conform. Yet her nonconformity presents no obstacle to her acceptance and leadership in Jesus’s network.

So what does this tell us? These differing interpretations of this biblical view and this biblical story? It tells us that throughout history The Bible has been used to subjugate people, has been used to justify slavery, violence against women, the oppression of women and children.

It has been used to feed systems of hierarchy, power, and control. How often have we as a church interpret the Gospels according to our own cultural views of hierarchy and power? How often have we missed the cues that Jesus gives us time and time and time again.

But our Gospel is one of vulnerability and not power. How often must we be reminded that Christ lived and died to demonstrate unconditional love? Not rules and regulations. And how long must people of colour, people of different physical and mental abilities? people of different sexualities, genders, age, and economic status, wait to be treated as valued equals, with a voice in the church. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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