A sermon preached on Sunday 12 March 2023 (the third Sunday in Lent) in the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine.
Last Thursday was International Women’s Day, and we are at the end of the week which has both celebrated women and called for true equality. We learnt that women still earn a million dollars less than men over their lifetime and retire with $136,000 less superannuation, according to research from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.
This research also noted that men still have higher average salaries than women in 95% of all occupations, even in female-dominated ones such as midwifery. Women also suffer more from gendered violence, with around 30% of women worldwide subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
All religions tend to subjugate women and view them as lesser mortals. Many forbid women to become leaders or to preach, and see women’s religious duties as almost domestic. This includes Christianity, with many denominations and churches not allowing women’s ordination or meaningful leadership. Look, they say as they point to 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”
This verse has taken on an authority and power that apparently trumps many a story of women leading, teaching, ministering and preaching in the Old and New Testaments. It has coloured the view of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and many an evangelical church. And not only have women been seen as lesser in these traditions, they have also acquired reputations as sinners, temptresses and Jezebels, to be feared and not trusted.
In today’s bible reading, we meet such a woman. She has been frequently cast as an outsider, a prostitute, an adulteress, despite the text neither saying or even inferring she is any of these things. I find myself getting increasing annoyed at this view of the unnamed Samaritan woman. Many of these accepted views of her originate with male biblical scholars.
I think these views are usually quite moralistic and border on misogyny. They are also applied to other New Testament women, leaders of the early church who have been besmirched and relegated to an inferior status.
I invite you to join me in the redemption of the Samaritan and other NT women, and to explore their stories from a different perspective. I hope this will lead you to different conclusions.
The Samaritan woman is the antithesis of Nicodemus, who we met last week seeking Jesus under the cover of night in a private location. She is not skulking about in the dark, she talks to Jesus in the full light of noon, in a public place. Further, her journey to belief doesn’t take the whole gospel as Nicodemus’ did, it takes one chapter, and she is well on the way in this encounter – so much so, that she convinces the people of her town to come and meet with Jesus as a potential messiah. Due to her missionary efforts, everyone ends up believing Jesus is the Saviour of the world.
This woman has frequently been called an outcast and a adulteress and occasionally a prostitute, due to her coming to the well at noon (an unusual time of the day) and the fact she has had 5 husbands and is currently with a 6th man who is not her husband. It is highly unlikely a serial adulteress would still be alive and not stoned, let alone find 5 men to marry her. Nor are 5 men likely to marry a prostitute. The 6th man may well be her protector or goel (a word we met in Ruth) as women could not manage alone in the ancient world. Whoever he is, Jesus offers no condemnation on the arrangement.
Further, an outcast would not have been listened to by the village folk in the way she is listened to and believed. Lastly, this is the gospel of John, where light and dark and day and night are highly symbolic. The author is deliberately contrasting her with Nicodemus and she is the one represented as grasping the truth and passing it on – in broad daylight.
I also want to mention some other women who led in the bible, who have either been tarnished by the moral brush of sexist scholars or had their roles downplayed. To begin, the feminine is undergirded by the Old Testament view that all the characteristics of God are feminine – the Spirit, ruach, present at creation and in all creation, Wisdom, hochma, also present at creation and something to be highly desired, the shekinah, the glory of God, and finally, the voice of God, the bat kol. These feminine characteristics permeate the work of God and the very essence of God, undermining the idea that the being of God is male.
Next, we have the wonderful women of the Old Testament. Deborah the judge, leading Israel to victory in battle. Prophets Miriam and Huldah, the latter confirming that the book that had been found was indeed God’s law. Tamar, Sarah, Ruth and Naomi and the woman of Endor, all who changed their’s and Israel’s destiny by their resourcefulness and courage.
In the New Testament, we find Mary Magdelene (another women accused of being a prostitute without a shred of textual evidence), devoted follower of Jesus; Phoebe, a deacon highly commended by Paul; Priscilla, a co-worker of Paul and a teacher so famous she is mentioned in no less than four different books in the NT; and Lydia, a merchant in her own right who ran the house church in Philippi.
An important figure is Junia, imprisoned alongside Paul and called prominent among theapostles. Junia actually had her sex changed to male by later scribes who couldn’t countenance a female apostle. We also have Tabitha, called a disciple as she ministers to poor widows in Acts; and Martha, sister of Lazarus and faithful follower of Jesus, who like the Samaritan woman, confessed him as Messiah.
There are many others, including the women who ministered to Jesus and the disciples and who supported Jesus’ ministry with their resources, including Mary of Bethany who sat at Jesus’ feet as a male disciple would to learn from him. All were highly esteemed by Jesus, their peers, Paul and the writers of the gospels. All have been relegated to lesser roles by later male Christians, with a number standing accused of immoral behaviour or having their status relegated to cooks and assistants.
It is this sort of relegation that has led to the subjugation and poor treatment of women in many countries. Christianity has a lot to answer for in terms of its missionary and cultural heritage that taught girls were to be domesticated and boys educated. The notion that woman must subjugate herself to a husbandand unquestioningly obey a male leader has led to much violence and abuse, even in churches.
Recent research in Australia by Julia Baird found that domestic abuse in churches that taught male headship was prevalent in Australia churches and it is now widely accepted that gender inequality is a contributing factor to violence against women.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies in a study concluded that in terms of violence against women “the vital element to consider is the gender norms and beliefs surrounding male dominance and male superiority, created by power hierarchies that accord men greater status.”
This is confirmed by global research. A study published in the Lancet in 2015 analysed data from 66 surveys across 44 countries, covered the experiences of almost half a million women. It found that the greatest predictor of partner violence was “environments that support male control”, especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour”. Many of these unequal environments are supported by religions, including Christianity.
It does say something about such teachings and beliefs that the plight of abused women was acknowledged literally decades after many countries had established laws to prohibit the abuse of animals.
In contrast to this narrow role-related view of women, we find that Jesus clearly elevated women to a position of equality with men in a way that must of astounded his audiences.
Jesus defied Jewish custom and spoke to women directly and in public, as we see in our story today. The Samaritan woman is the first person he reveals his messiahship too. He disclosed to her deep truths about his role in human history and salvation. She was not just a passive recipient of what Jesus offers to her. While aware of the potential barriers and boundaries created by her society, all of which make sure that she stays in her place, this does not stop her challenging Jesus’ authority and tradition: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:12).
The concept of “living water” becomes intertwined with what Jesus knows about her; she herself becomes a vessel of living water because of the relationship she has formed with Jesus, and his insight into her identity gives her insight into his. As a result of this, she leaves behind her water jar, going into the city, and invites the people to encounter Jesus for themselves.
As her enthusiasm spills out, she enacts what Jesus says later in this Gospel, where he speaks about an overflowing of enthusiasm as he quotes Hebrew scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). This living water is not simply a gift which Jesus offers to the woman; it became a gift to others who she encounters in her village. This first missionary is dynamic. Could a man have done a better job? I doubt it.
This story, and indeed all the pages of Scripture, reveal women being used by God in practically every imaginable way – prophets, judges, negotiators,leaders, teachers and disciples.
Phyllis and James Alsdurf in their paper, The Church and the Abuse of Women (from the Journal, The Priscilla Papers) say, “For Christians, the liberating message of the Gospel is that a redeemed social order is possible because in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). The good news the church is called to proclaim is that Christ’s transforming power ends injustice and oppression, and that within the Body of Christ discrimination and abuse based on sex, race, or class is no longer permitted.”
So let us pray that we continue to remember the women of silenced generations, whose names have been lost to time, and whose roles were lost to power.
Let us remember those who led churches, healed the sick and opened up their houses to the faithful, but who have been downgraded to helpers in historical patriarchal oppression.
Let us also speak out, leaving a legacy of equality for our grandchildren.
We will be the waves at their back, their encouragement and voices crying for true fairness. We will not lose hope.
May we support each other in our resilience, our strength, and our resistance.
May we recognize that we are all uniquely beautiful and powerful. May we honour each other, and challenge each other. Then together, we will recover the bones of justice from the archaeology of inequity.
Go forth, women of worth, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams. Amen.
The featured image is a depiction of Jesus and the Samaritan woman painted by Mackey Dickerson for the cover of What Jesus Learned from Women, by James McGrath (Cascade, 2021)