The Samaritan Woman at the Well
Some people still use passages of Scripture as evidence that women should not be priests or pastors. Women, like me, who believe that they are called to ministry, find support for that conviction in several of the gospel stories in which we see women inspired by Jesus to act as ministers and leaders.
Today we have heard one such story. After her transforming encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman goes out to testify to her community, and to evangelize – to bring people to Jesus. She leaves behind her water jug, having been offered the gift of living water springing up within her, the gift of the Spirit, the gift of God’s grace which brings her new life, and satisfies the thirst for understanding and love which has gone unsatisfied through a series of relationships with men.
Even though this promiscuous lifestyle has meant that most people don’t want to associate with her, she goes in public and alone to speak to people in the town, testifying to Jesus, and asking whether or not he might be the Messiah.
She is one of several women in the gospels whose stories provide the Scriptural authority for women to be priests and ministers, at least in the opinion of many who support women’s ministry.
Admittedly, those stories are set against some of the statements in the Pauline letters, that women should not teach in church, or be in positions of leadership, but even the Pauline literature provides examples of women who appear to have been leaders of house churches and evangelists, Priscilla, Lydia and Junia amongst others.
Women in the gospel stories perform various roles included in the job description of a minister: proclaiming the good news in public, bearing witness, testifying and evangelizing, debating with Jesus publicly about theology and healing, learning at Jesus’ feet along with the disciples, being called by the risen Christ to an apostolic task, and enacting a priestly ritual.
Let’s put the Samaritan woman’s story into the context of the experience of these other women. The woman in Mark’s gospel who anointed Jesus’ head with oil was led by the Spirit to perform this priestly and prophetic rite. Jesus said that she was preparing his body beforehand for burial, which would be enacted prophecy. Anointing of the head with oil by a prophet or a priest is the way in which kings and priests were acknowledged as the ones chosen by God. People present were angry with her, supposedly for her extravagance, but also I imagine for putting herself forward to perform this anointing ritual in public. It must have seemed both embarrassingly intimate, and trespassing on priestly prerogatives. Yet, Jesus said she had performed a good service for him, and that she would be remembered for it wherever the gospel is told. We don’t know if this was the same woman and the same incident as that described in John’s gospel, chapter 12, when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped them with her hair, in thanksgiving for the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead. We know that this Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, learning from him as a disciple, despite the disapproval of her sister, Martha, who wanted her to do women’s work instead. Later, Martha herself joined the ranks of women leaders among Jesus’ followers, publicly proclaiming Jesus as Messiah just as Peter did, and receiving important teaching about the resurrection.
Other women speak out in public places of worship, proclaiming Jesus and praising God. Luke in chapter 2, verse 38, tells us about Anna, the prophet in the temple, who greets Jesus as a baby and goes “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. The woman healed of a spirit of bondage in the synagogue stands up straight and begins praising God publicly, a symbol of what Jesus did for all women, giving them a voice and releasing them from bondage, in religion and in society. Mary Magdalene was commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to the resurrection, acting as the apostle to the apostles. Women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, are part of the group in the upper room to whom the Spirit comes at Pentecost, to prepare them for leadership in the early church.
As for the Samaritan woman at the well, some commentators call her the first Christian missionary. It seems clear that the woman, after her life changing encounter with Jesus, goes back into her community and tells everyone about him, causing crowds to come out to see and hear him for themselves. We are told in verse 39 that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony: “He told me everything I have ever done.”’ Actually in Greek it says that the people began to believe because of the “word” of the woman. The word for “word”, “logos” is significant, because it also refers to the Wisdom of God, and Jesus himself. Usually in the gospels the only person to speak “logos” is Jesus, but two women do as well – the Samaritan woman in her proclaiming of the good news of Jesus to her community, and the Syro-phoenician woman, who argues with Jesus to get him to heal her daughter. Jesus says to that woman that it is because of the word or “logos” which she speaks, that her daughter is released from the demon possessing her.
The Syro-phoenician woman and the Samaritan woman have much in common. Both would normally be ignored by a Jewish religious man like Jesus because of their gender, because of their ethnic origins, and because of their life style. Jesus interacts with these women on an equal footing when they speak out and challenge him, rather than rejecting them as his society would have expected. In fact, he sets up a situation in which they are given the opportunity to speak to him as an equal. With the Syro-phoenician woman, he acts at first according to his society’s religious and social prejudices, saying that food is to be given to the children, that is the Jews, and not to the dogs, such as this Gentile woman. It’s a pretty confronting comment, but then she has come in from the streets, a woman travelling alone in public and accosting him in a private house. Also she comes from a place known for its licentious behaviour, and she speaks in the elegant cadences of a courtesan. The woman does not accept his harsh statement, which is perhaps a challenge to respond rather than a brush-off. She answers him cleverly, saying that even the dogs under the table get the crumbs. He seems to value her cleverness as well as her courage and faith, and he empowers her by attributing the healing of the daughter to her word, not his power.
With the Samaritan woman he asks for a drink of water, which breaches two taboos of his culture. A Jewish man on his own should not speak to a woman in a public place. A Jew would not share a drinking vessel with a Samaritan, because they were held in contempt for their religious differences. The woman challenges him on both these points. Like the Syro-phoenician woman, this woman is alone in a public place. She has gone to the well alone at noon, rather than joining with a group of women going there in the cool of the day. That in itself is an indication that she does not live by the accepted standards of propriety in her society. It seems that the Samaritan woman is a promiscuous woman by her society’s standards, therefore an outcast. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to name the situation: “You’ve had five men, and the one you’ve got now isn’t yours.” The word translated “husband” in our version can mean either man or husband in Greek.
As with the many tax collectors and sinners who sat at table with him, Jesus offers hospitality to this woman. Instead of the drink he asked for, which she is uncomfortable about giving, he offers her living water, the Spirit of God, the source of eternal life. Instead of her attempt to contrast Samaritan ideas of right worship on the mountain with Jewish temple worship, he offers her a new way of worship in spirit and in truth, a way that does not exclude those of diverging backgrounds but rather includes even someone like her. Perhaps the gift that makes the most difference to her, the thing that stands out in her testimony about him , is his knowing of everything she has ever done, and the fact that he still values her and wants her to understand his truth. He understands fully who she is and yet he does not hide who he is from her. When she speaks of the Messiah who is coming, he answers “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” He wants her to know him, and the Samaritan woman receives what he offers, and is she transformed. She goes to the people who have excluded her, and she tells them that she has met a man who knows her fully and yet includes her. She asks them the question to which she already knows the answer, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They have to go to find out for themselves. He stays with them for a while, and they listen and relate to him as she did. They come to accept, first on her word, and then on his word, that he is truly the Saviour of the world.
Are we as ready as the Samaritan woman was to know Jesus fully and to be fully known, and to receive the gift of grace, the living water that satisfies our deepest longings?