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Women in the Gospels: Jesus Hangs Out with Women You Hope Your Daughter Doesn’t Become

August 27, 2012
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We’re pretty used to the idea that Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters.  We may downplay the unsavoriness of some of them (“tax collector” doesn’t exactly mean “betrayer of God’s people” these days) but the idea that Jesus spends time with people he shouldn’t if he wants to be a nice Jewish boy is pretty well drummed into most of our heads.  We even sing children’s songs about the traitor and thief Zacchaeus.  However, Jesus doesn’t just hang out with unsavory men.  Several stories in the gospels report on Jesus’ encounters with women who were doing the wrong thing.

The first of these is simply a brief mention.  In Matthew 21:31-32 Jesus berates the chief priests and elders by stating that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven while the chief priests and elders are not.  At the very least this requires that prostitutes are listening to Jesus (and, as it is specifically mentioned, John the Baptizer) and that Jesus is taking note of these women.

The next two stories are relatively well-known and both appear only in John.  The first is John 4:1-42 where Jesus has a long and not particularly straight-forward dialog with a Samaritan woman.  This story is often referenced as one in which Jesus talks to “the wrong people” because the woman is a Samaritan (who Jews generally hated1), a woman, and we learn that she has had a number of husbands and is currently in some sort of relationship with a man who is not her husband.  A number of commentators have also noted that the woman is apparently coming to the well alone which may mean that she is not welcome to come when the other women are there.  Obviously, the fact that Jesus chooses to enter into a dialogue with this woman says something about his inclusive attitude.  It’s also worth noting what he chooses to dialogue with her about, or at least why he chooses to dialogue with her.

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is structured like this: first, Jesus asks for a drink.  The Samaritan woman asks him how he, a Jew, can ask her, a Samaritan, for a drink.  I suspect this question is both a statement (“You know I’m a Samaritan, right?”) and a question about how Jesus views Jewish-Samaritan relations.  Jesus then says that actually, the woman should be asking him for water because he has access to flowing water2 that quenches thirst eternally.  There’s a short back-and-forth that ends when Jesus tells the woman to get her husband to get this water with her and then tells her her own marital history.  Perhaps oddly to our modern eyes this isn’t enough to really throw her.  Instead she seizes on the chance to ask a real prophet a pressing question: who is right, Jews or Samaritans, about where one should worship?  Jesus replies that the Jews are sort of right but it won’t matter soon.  The woman says that she has heard that a Messiah will come and straighten this all out and Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah.  The woman then runs off to gather the townsfolk to meet Jesus.

Two things are critical about this dialog.  The first is that Jesus says that he is the Messiah to this woman.  This is the only point in John’s gospel where Jesus comes right out and says this.  In fact, in both John 10:22-30 and John 12:34-36 Jesus refuses to give a direct answer when asked about this very topic.  In most of John’s gospel Jesus demonstrates who he is but does not actually say, “I am the Messiah”.  This break from his usual protocol is well worth noting.

The second thing to note is that Jesus calls this woman to serve as a missionary to her community.  The entire point of engaging her in dialog appears to be aimed at the end of the story when she goes back into town, collects the townspeople, and brings them to meet Jesus.  There would be easier ways to accomplish this.  Jesus could have gone into town himself and done the same tell-you-about-your-own-past thing to a respected community elder who would have great credibility when they responded to Jesus.  The disciples had apparently gone into the same town to buy food and so they could have spread the word.  However, Jesus chooses to place this woman in the position of being the one who leads her community to him.  The community recognizes this.  John’s gospel has a number of themes, one of which is being a witness.  Not surprisingly, John tells us about how the townsfolk of Sychar make a comment about being witnesses, stating that now that they have seen for themselves they believe more strongly than when they just had the woman’s testimony.  However, this comment isn’t made to Jesus or just between townsfolk but from the rest of the townsfolk to the woman who brought them to Jesus.  Effectively, they recognize that they owe her for bringing them to Jesus and thank her.

Now, there are a couple of potential responses to this that I’d like to head off.  One is that Jesus doesn’t intend for this woman to serve as a missionary but, rather, that he is just talking to her because they are both present at the well and Jesus is eternally inviting others to believe in him.  I feel that this ignores some important parts of the text, most notably Jesus’ comments about how it is harvest-time after the woman leaves but before she brings people back.  This certainly suggests that Jesus has seen this whole conversation as part of the ingathering of the harvest.  However, more basically, if Jesus only intended specifically to engage with the woman which just happened to result in the conversion of many townsfolk this still sets down precedent. That precedent is that those who find Jesus should lead others to him regardless of their social status and gender.  That precedent continues to call women as missionaries.

One might also object that this woman is not much of a missionary.  Her missionary activity lasts maybe as much as an hour at which point she brings people to Jesus and he takes over.  However, her activity is still an outlay of some social standing (what if they think she’s just crazy?) and is still missionary work.  She does not bring Jesus into town, after all, but finds people and brings them to Jesus.

Finally, one might object that being a missionary is not leadership.  I’m really not sure how one does this without getting a brain cramp but I’m aware of many churches that draw a sharp line between missionary activity aimed at conversion and preaching activity aimed at continued growth.  At the end of the day both are about people who know Jesus sharing Him, though, whether they are sharing Him with people who don’t know Him or with people who just don’t know Him as well.

Before we leave the topic of Jesus’ interactions with the wrong sort of women we should obviously cover the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11.  This is primarily a story about Law and mercy.  However, it is also notable that the crime of which the woman is accused is one that she must have been committing with a man who is not brought before Jesus.  This doesn’t have to mean that the man was treated more mercifully (he could have been simply killed by the jealous husband on the spot) but it certainly appears as if he avoided punishment.  Moreover, the woman is accused of a crime against a man (her husband) by other men (the scribes and Pharisees).  Jesus is being asked, effectively, to complete the all-male condemnation of this woman.  Instead, he refuses in a manner that accuses the men standing around of sin.  Finally, he addresses the woman herself as a person capable of reformation.

Taken together these stories show what should be an unsurprising level of compassion from Jesus.  He cares not only about women who behave correctly but also those who do not.  This is not because Jesus does not care about the things these women are doing, as if Jesus had some modern view of sexuality in which prostitution, adultery, and serial marriage were just expressions of a different sexual ethic.  Jesus’ own sexual ethic is much stricter than that of his own day (see his prohibitions on divorce) and yet the Kingdom he preaches is open to women with a checkered sexual past.  Indeed, this is probably a good reminder for us who live in an age where much more time and energy seems to be spent on railing against sexual sins than against many other equally important categories.

Not surprisingly, this lack of concern about the “right” markers of piety extends to the Samaritan woman who is handed the gift of becoming a missionary to her own community by Jesus.  Jesus simply doesn’t seem to care that he could be using a socially more appropriate person to bear his message to this town in what is really an important incident – Jesus preaching to a Samaritan town is not anything like Jesus preaching to yet another Jewish town.  Jesus also doesn’t seem to have any sense that sending a woman to tell men about himself would be inappropriate despite the way some later male leaders have read the Bible.


[1] See, for instance the comments Josephus makes about Samaritans.  The Samaritans claimed (and claim) to be the ten northern tribes of Israel.  The Jews said that they were not and that they were actually pagan half-breeds who were faking and distorting Judaism.

[2] Yes, the text says “living” not “flowing”.  However, this is an idiom for flowing water.  Look at Chapter 7 of the Didache for another example of “living water” being used in a context where it is clear that it is nothing extraordinary.  There may be significance to the term “living” here beyond a probable Ezekiel 47 reference but the phrase “living water” is actually the least cryptic part of this dialog.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2012 5:40 pm

    As I’ve said before, Jesus is a game-changer who completely redefines what’s proper and what isn’t, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” what’s appropriate and what isn’t. He spoke about loving all neighbors, and deliberately used Samaritans (hated by “proper” Jews) to do it. The parable of the good Samaritan is a great example in addition to the woman at the well.

    As One who validates what’s “wrong” and invalidates what’s “right,” I always say that Jesus overturned far more than the money-changing tables in the temple. I’m convinced that’s just the physical tip of the spiritual attitude iceburg.

    • Eric permalink
      August 27, 2012 9:22 pm

      Agreed. I’m working (more or less) from small to large in this series.

  2. August 27, 2012 10:59 pm

    It seems to me that the church has frequently been concerned with the “right” markers of piety, and that it has often had a hard time dealing with the outcasts of society. Then again, I’ve often been concerned with the “right” markers of piety myself, and I’ve often had a hard time dealing with people that I judge to be outcasts. I wonder why Jesus’s example of inclusivity is so hard to follow. I suppose it has something to do with pride and indifference, but sometimes that explanation doesn’t seem adequate. Anyway, I think that the stories you wrote about are powerful ones, and I liked what you had to say about them.

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  1. Women in the Gospels: Washing Jesus’ Feet « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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