HERspective Part 8 – The Woman at the Well

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(Samaritan Woman at the Well – Painted by He Qi)

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Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39)

(Note: this post is adapted from a much longer, and more boring, paper that I wrote. But if you are weird, and want to read that instead, knock yourself out here)

The Woman at the Well (John 4: 1-42) is the Tamar of the New Testament. If you recall from Part 4, I pointed out the way Tamar’s story is always preached as her being this terrible sinner that God has grace on, which completely misses the point. The same is true with the woman at the well. Of this woman, Kenneth Gangel wrote, “here was a woman who lived outside the boundaries of any religious or cultural standards of her day. A string of five husbands followed by a lover is certainly not unknown in the twenty-first century, but it is hardly common even in our permissive society with its twisted tolerance for evil. In first-century Samaria, such a domestic arrangement was unthinkable.” Likewise, Paul Duke famously described her as “a five-time loser … currently committed to an illicit affair.” But are we missing the significance of this woman? To answer this question, we’ll have to look at why she has so often been read this way, and what a better reading might look like.

The Typical Reading

If you’ve heard the typical ways the woman at the well is preached, you know the drill. We know she is an immoral outcast for two main reasons. The first is that she comes to get water at noon. Apparently, all the women get water at the beginning and end of the day, so she must be trying to avoid the other women. The second reason is because Jesus later tells her that she has had 5 husbands, and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. But do these assumptions make sense?

In regards to the time, there is just not the evidence that women only went to the well at certain times of the day. The assumption that going at noon would help her avoid other women is unfounded. As for her husbands, this again makes no sense when we consider how women functioned in ancient times. If this woman has had five husbands, there are only two possibilities. One is death and the other is divorce. Neither of those things are her fault. Unless we are to assume she is a mass murderer, she can’t take the blame for husbands dying. And divorce? Women in ancient times did not have the power to divorce their husbands. Therefore, if some of her husbands had left her, it would have been their decision, not hers. What about the man she is living with? Well…what else is she supposed to do? As a widow or divorcee, she would need a man to support her. If that man refused to marry her, or took her as a concubine, what could she do about it? People who condemn this woman are reading their modern context into the text. 

It’s also important to consider what the text does not say. In John 8, Jesus interacts with a woman caught in adultery. At the end of the interaction Jesus explicitly says to her, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” However, no similar command is given to this Samaritan woman. Also, after meeting Jesus, the woman goes back to her town and invites the men and women to come and see Jesus. At her invitation, they follow to witness what she spoke of. It is very unlikely that if this woman was a sexually immoral outcast, who could not even fetch water near other women of the town, that the men and women of Samaria would openly follow her to meet Jesus.

A Better Reading

So if the point of this passage is not about Jesus making time for some low life outcast, what is it? To answer this question, we must flip back a page and look at John chapter 3 in comparison with John chapter 4. At the beginning of John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is described as a leader of the Jews. John adds the detail that he came to Jesus at night because he wants to remain hidden. The Samaritan woman is not ashamed of meeting Jesus. She meets him at noon, when the sun is the brightest. 

Nicodemus, an educated Pharisee, is unable to grasp what Jesus is saying. He is a leader of the people of God, yet does not respond to Jesus. Jesus criticizes him saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10). However, the Samaritan woman does begin to understand what Jesus is talking about and, though she is not religious leader, enters into the longest theological discussion recorded in the gospels. 

The Nicodemus narrative continues with Jesus stating “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18). Nicodemus is clearly the one who did not believe, while the Samaritan woman did. 

By the end of John 3, Nicodemus has disappeared from the story. However, the Samaritan woman returns to Jesus, bringing her entire town. Her town comes to know Jesus as the Messiah. The Pharisees demand a sign, yet this woman and her village do not demand one in order to embrace Jesus. This text does not paint the Samaritan woman as shameful, sexually immoral, or as an outcast who requires pity. Instead, the text raises her even above a well respected male religious leader.

Do you see how we’ve missed it? The point of this story is not that Jesus has mercy on a sinner. The point of the story is “Be like this woman!” This story breaks the boundaries of public and private as, not only does Jesus talk with a woman in public space during male time, but then sends her to go speak with the men in her village. The story breaks ritual boundaries as Jesus asks to share a drinking container with a Samaritan woman. The story even provides a role reversal as the male asking for a drink from the female, becomes the one serving water to her.

All of these boundary breaking components are lost when this woman is confined to the boundary of sexual stereotype. She is a model of the ones who truly worship in Spirit and truth, an example to be followed. She becomes a representative disciple of Jesus, a witness through her invitation and her words. 

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).

 

HERspective Part 7 – The Unnamed Women

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(The Syrophoenician Woman – Painted by Consilia Karli)

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If you want to know the best people in [the Gospel of Mark] other than Jesus, to look to for the kind of life that we should live, the nameless women are the ones – Daniel Kirk

If you’ve been in Church very long, you’ve probably heard plenty of sermons on the disciples. Have faith to step out of the boat like Peter. Invite people to Jesus like Andrew. It’s true, sometimes the twelve did some pretty cool things, and no one can deny the huge part they played in the formation of the early Church. However, throughout the Gospels, they actually spend most of their time getting it wrong. Jesus is constantly have to correct and rebuke, and even gets fed up with them at times. We spend so much time focusing on the men that followed Jesus, but when was the last time you heard a sermon on the women?

Recently, I was listening to a scholar speak on the Gospel of Mark and he said, “The nameless women in the gospel [of Mark] come off as ideal disciples in a way that the 12 never end up living up to.” I was surprised because I had literally never heard this before. Aren’t the men in the Gospels supposed to be the ideal followers of Jesus? So I started digging in, and here’s what I found.

1. Peter’s Mother in Law (Mark 1:29-31)

Simon/Peter’s mother-in-law is sick and Jesus comes and heals her. Immediately, without being prompted, she gets up and begins to serve Jesus and the people around her. Yet, Jesus is constantly harping on the twelve that the Kingdom is about serving others while they are arguing about who is the greatest.

2. The Bleeding Woman (Mark 5: 24 – 34) 

A woman who has been subject to bleeding for twelve years goes up to Jesus with so much faith, she knows that just touching his cloak will heal her. When it works, Jesus tells this woman that her faith has healed her. In the chapter right before this, Jesus calms the storm while yelling at the twelve saying, “do you still have no faith?”

3. The Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7: 24-30)

Jesus had just fed 5,000 people from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. However, the twelve still didn’t get what was going on with Jesus. Then the Syrophoenician woman comes onto the scene. First, she is the only person in the Gospel to ever win an argument with Jesus. More importantly, she gets it. She is the only one who can see that, with Jesus, there is enough bread to go around.

4. The Widow with an Offering (Mark 12: 41-44)

Jesus watches this widow give an offering worth only a few cents, however, he says that she put in everything. The Greek here literally means she “put in her whole life.” This woman understands that the cost of discipleship is one’s entire life. Just a few chapters prior, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for refusing to accept this very notion.

5. The Woman who Anoints Jesus (Mark 14: 1-9)

This woman pours oil on Jesus’ head, which is what is done for a King. She recognizes who Jesus is. Jesus points out that she did this to prepare for his burial. She understands what is going to happen to Jesus, even though the disciples still don’t get it. Jesus tells her that her story would continue to be told.

When it comes to following Jesus, I want to be like these women. I want to serve others. I want to have bold faith. I want to be on board with what Jesus is doing around me. I want this Jesus thing to encompass my whole life, and I want to keep Jesus in his rightful place. We may not know the names of these women, and they may not get much play in sermons, but their example is powerful. And it doesn’t stop there. I have so many strong women around me today that I also want to be like in the way I follow Jesus. I’m thankful for their courage, their teaching, their faith, their service, their impact, and so much more. May we follow their example.

 

HERspective Part 6 – You Don’t Own Me

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(Queen Vashti – Painted by Elysium Creations)

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Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

Read Part 4 here

Read Part 5 here

 

Don’t tell me what to do, Don’t tell me what to say                                                                             And please, when I go out with you                                                                                            Don’t put me on display, ‘cause                                                                                                       You don’t own me

-Lesley Gore

The above lyrics first appeared in a song by Lesley Gore in 1963, and the song has been covered by artists many times over. Shortly after it’s release, You Don’t Own Me became an anthem for women. Although it was performed by Gore, surprisingly, the song was actually written by two men; David White and John Madara. Madara explains that much of the song was shaped out of his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. With this in mind, the two decided they were tired of how many songs written for women in the 1960s centered around the women obsessing over men. They decided to try something new stating, “Let’s write a song about a woman telling a guy off.”

However, this 1960s song of female empowerment could have just as easily been taken straight from a story in the Old Testament…the story of Esther.

At the opening of the story of Esther, we are introduced to King Xerxes. This King is extremely wealthy and powerful. To celebrate this wealth, he decides to throw a 7 day long party, because why not? This party was for every person in the kingdom, which shows how much money and power we’re talking here. Although we aren’t given lots of details on this rave, we can get a pretty good idea from this verse:

Esther 1:8 –  “By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”

Seven days of “all you can drink” wine…you get the picture. To add to it, we get told that the Queen, Vashti, has a separate party for the women. If you’re wondering whether or not it was typical for the women to party separate from the men, it wasn’t. My guess is that the men did not want their wives seeing what they were doing during this week long drunkfest.

During the party, King Xerxes decides that, in addition to showing off his wealth, he also wants to show off his Queen. We read,

When King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine (aka, drunk) he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him… to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. – Esther 1: 10-11

What exactly does it mean that he wanted to “display her beauty to the people”? The text doesn’t say. But considering how this party has been going so far, I can imagine that he didn’t want to honor and respect her in front of the people.

Like many women in Biblical times, and throughout history, Vashti finds herself in a situation where the men in power want to use and abuse her. What choice does she have?

But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger. – Esther 1: 12

The opening of Esther goes out of its way to let us know that this King is the richest, most powerful person in the known world, and Vashti just straight up gives him the middle finger.

As most people in power do when someone stands up to them, the King and his associates freak out. Now that Vashti has taken a stand, they fear that the rest of the women will follow suit.

Esther 1: 16-18 – “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.

The men get together and realize that, if one woman won’t let the men walk all over her, the rest of them might band together and really wreak havoc. They can’t have that. So what do they do? They pass law…for real

Esther 1:20 – Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.

If women won’t just do what the men tell them to do, we will make it their legal obligation. Do you see the humor here? Rather than, you know, just treating women with respect, dignity, and equality, they pass a law that all women are required to “respect” their husbands.

They’re scared.

Then comes the second thing that those in power do to “threats”. They neutralize her. What exactly happens to Vashti? We don’t know, but suddenly the King needs a new Queen. He hopes to get it right this time, but the joke’s on him. Enter Esther…

Esther has a relative named Mordecai who has been taking care of her since she has no father or mother. For some reason, Mordecai gets Esther to participate in this “sex competition” the King is holding to find a replacement Queen. Yes, that’s correct. Read Esther 2:12. What else did you think it meant that each contestant had a turn to “go in to” King Xerxes?

For the first half of the story, Esther seems to follow this law of doing whatever the men tell her. Here’s how that goes…

  • Mordecai tells her to participate in the competition – Esther is forced to have sex with a foreign King (that’s a big no no for the Jews)
  • Mordecai tells Esther not to reveal to the King that she is a Jew – The King allows for an edict to be passed to murder all of Esther’s people.
  • Mordecai gets himself into a mess with Haman, then tells Esther to go talk to the King about it, even though that could get Esther killed.
  • When Esther hesitates to go to the King, Mordecai threatens her – Esther 4:13

At this point, Esther has had enough of listening to the men. So far, that has caused everything to erupt into chaos. She embraces her inner Vashti and the story completely changes its tone with one line.

Esther 4:15 – Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai…

Now Esther is calling the shots. She tells Mordecai what to do. She tells the Jews what to do. In fact, she even tells the King what to do. She takes charge. She’s the leader. And guess what happens? All of her people are saved, Haman is removed, Mordecai gets promoted, and the kingdom prospers.

For some reason, even after reading this story, we want to become the Persian King Xerxes (who the text does not view positively) and pass laws that subordinate women to men. So often the Bible is used to limit what women are capable of and silence their voices. But the story of Vashti and Esther is one of many female empowerment songs throughout Scripture.

Esther 4: 16 – When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.