Lance Pape, now the Granville and Erline Walker Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School, is one of the original founders and first editor of gal328.org.
The First Female Gospel Preacher
A Fresh Perspective on John 4
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
So begins one of the surprising encounters between Jesus and women recorded in the gospels. “Woman of Samaria” is a phrase that neatly captures the double-edged scandal. Jews did not “share things in common with Samaritans,” but it was her gender that troubled Jesus’ disciples more when they returned to find them talking together (John 4:27).
In that cultural context, the simple fact of Jesus speaking with a woman was enough to astonish his followers. Twenty centuries later we will be astonished too if we actually listen to what he was telling her.
The meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well has long been understood as a story about Jesus cleverly exposing the moral failings of a loose woman in order to get her back on the straight and narrow path. This unfortunate line of interpretation serves to distract us from the story’s more challenging implications. It feels so right to read this narrative as a morality play that confirms our assumptions about women and sexuality. Through this interpretive lens the details of the plot fall ever-so-neatly within the pre-determined categories of a cherished misogynistic stereotype: “Clearly this is an easy woman finally being held accountable for her promiscuity. She has been going through husbands for years and has now forsaken even the appearance of sexual fidelity in order to shack up with a man she hasn’t married. But Jesus has found her out!”
The problem with this reading is that it assumes that, like 21st century women, she had the social power to initiate a divorce. But when we step into the story’s world we stumble onto an important detail: she could not have divorced five men because in that social context only a man had the authority to dismiss his wife with a certificate of divorce. She was on the receiving end of all those petitions for broken covenants.
As a divorcee she found herself in dire straits socially and financially. Each time her best hope was to find another husband, and quickly. By the time we meet the Samaritan woman at the well, her identity seems to be etched in stone. After five divorces, the most recent man in her life won’t make any promises. She is a disposable woman, beyond hope and help. In her shame she goes to the well for water in the heat of the day, preferring the harsh sun to harsh company. The point is not that she was an “innocent victim” (a category completely foreign to the text). The point is that her broken life was ruined in ways that no amount of “clean living” could fix.
With this new perspective, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman comes into clearer focus. He has divined the dirty little secret of her social death, the sordid story of her fall from respectability, the disgrace of her current living arrangement. The barriers of race, gender, and class could scarcely be higher or more intimidating. If he were a “respecter of persons” he would immediately recognize that they have no future together, that she has nothing to offer him but the contamination of his reputation with her own.
But he does not see as we see. In Christ there is no longer Jew or Samaritan, there is no longer respectable and disgraced, there is no longer male and female. He is able to look at her and see just a person. They are two people at a well in the heat of the day. She has a bucket. He is hot and thirsty. And so he says: “Give me a drink.”
So begins a conversation that will quench her thirst. He will not merely speak to her. He will expose and heal her deepest wounds; he will teach her divine mysteries; and he will implicitly commission her as his missionary to a despised people. He sees in the most unlikely of women the possibility of a new identity. He offers her a chance to leave behind the ruins of her broken life and redefine herself as someone with something important to proclaim.
Against all odds she accepts his call and so becomes the apostle to the Samaritans, a role model for twelve apostles-in-training. They have just been to Sychar for groceries. For them the Samaritan enclave was like a supermarket in a bad part of town; their goal was to get their food and move on as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. But after her encounter with Jesus, the woman returns to Sychar with a different purpose; she goes as his witness.
And she is gifted. Her testimony proves so compelling that the villagers come out to see this man at the well for themselves. Jesus does not think it necessary to scold her for breaking accepted standards of conduct with her bold, effective, public preaching. Rather, as the crowd of curious Samaritans approaches the well, Jesus confronts his disciples with this challenge: “Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest?’ But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Ripe indeed. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,” says John as the story of the first female Gospel preacher comes to an end.
Some will argue that this proves nothing since she did not preach from a pulpit, in a formal worship assembly, between the hours of 11 and 12 on a Sunday morning. The reasoning seems to be that it is fine and good for a woman to proclaim the Good News about Jesus effectively, so long as she has the good sense not to do so in church.
All indications are that we are far more concerned with such formal distinctions about time and place than Jesus ever was. A woman by a well once asked him to offer a ruling on a longstanding dispute about worship practice. His response revealed his disinterest in the externals of worship, endless debates about sacred times, spaces, and techniques. Instead he announced a new era in which the focus would rest squarely on the orientation of the worshiper’s heart: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”