“Holding Her Own”

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” — although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized — he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

But he had to go through Samaria.  So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”

 

Two days ago, much of the world celebrated “International Women’s Day.”  March is “Women’s History Month” in the United States.  So it seems appropriate that this morning we examine an encounter between Jesus and a woman – specifically, the Samaritan woman at the well, one of my favorite Biblical stories.  One reason it’s among my favorites may be because it’s been so often misinterpreted in ways that defame this very special woman, and the feminist in me wants to stand up for my sister of old.

Today’s reading tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed woman (like so many in the Bible). The passage begins with Jesus, tired and thirsty from his journey, sitting alone by a well. Someone comes to the well, and she’s not only female, she’s a Samaritan.  In the ancient Middle East, men and women who were strangers to one another simply didn’t speak to each other, and Jews and Samaritans definitely didn’t get along.  So this woman is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she asks him point-blank, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” he replies by offering her living water.  Confused, but curious, she asks about this miraculous water.  He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Strike one: she’s a woman.  Strike two: she’s a Samaritan.  Strike three: no husband.  And that’s it:  “the one you have now is not your husband.”  That’s the sentence that has branded her through history.  Preachers and scholars have used words for her like “sensually-minded,” “unspiritual harlot,” “prostitute,” “scandalous,” “adulteress” and a “loose woman.”

But there’s actually nothing in this passage that makes this an obvious interpretation.  Jesus at no point invites her to repent.  In fact, he doesn’t mention sin at all.  The writer of the Gospel makes no assumptions, assertions, or statements either about her character, lifestyle, or personal history.  We are the ones who’ve done that.

The woman at the well very easily could have been widowed.  She could have been abandoned or divorced (which at that time was pretty much the same thing for a woman).  Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.  She could have been in what’s called a Levirate marriage – where a childless woman was married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir.  Maybe as a childless widow she had no choice but to live with a man who wasn’t her husband if she wanted to survive.  Rather than scandalous, we could imagine this woman’s story as tragic.

While we’ll probably never know the exact historical circumstances behind the Samaritan woman’s domestic situation, it’s clear that Jesus paid no attention to social constrictions that diminished her.  While it is astonishing that Jesus speaks to the woman, it is equally astonishing that instead of immediately getting up and leaving, she engages in conversation with Jesus. This woman is no shrinking violet. Their exchange is personal and deep.  After Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet.”  She sees who he is.  They discuss matters of great importance.  They speak of God and the subject of water, living water.  She responds to Jesus’ questions, and she asks him her own.  Her daring, courageous willingness to break taboos creates the possibility for the transformation that will come from the conversation that follows.

Jesus converses with her because neither her gender nor her nationality matter in this encounter.  Jesus speaks to her as a human being, an individual, not as a “Samaritan woman.”  Throughout their encounter, she holds her own with this famous rabbi.  He sees her plight, which is one of dependence, even tragedy – but not immorality.  He recognizes her, and speaks with her – she fully exists in his eyes.  She has worth, value, and significance.  And because he sees her for who she is, she realizes she’s in the presence of a prophet, and ultimately she leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life, and to share with others what God has done for her.

Even though we never know her name, I still find myself wanting to cheer her on, applauding her audacity and her assertiveness.  You go, girl!

Today at CCoL, we also celebrate the audacity of another woman – Amelia Frost.  Born Amelia Adelaide Betts on January 2,1854 in Nova Scotia, she attended school in Salem, Massachusetts.  She married George Frost in 1881, and most of her life was devoted to assisting him in his ministry in New York, North Dakota and Massachusetts.  George struggled with poor health, and Amelia would attend his ministerial classes at Andover Theological Seminary with him and take notes;  in the process, she herself “thus took the full theological course.”  As reported in a local publication in 1894, “After Mr. Frost was settled at Littleton he found himself often unable to preach and at such times his wife took his place in the pulpit.  She did her work so acceptable that recently the church voted unanimously to invite her to become associate pastor.”  On February 14th, 1894, she was ordained as assistant pastor of CCoL – becoming the first woman to be ordained by a New England Congregational Church.  Pretty radical at the time.

In the journal Turner’s Public Spirit dated March, 1894, the following notice appeared, citing the Christian Register:

That a woman can answer back effectively (imagine that!) was shown recently at the ordination of Mrs. Amelia Frost of Littleton, Mass.  One of the council asked, “Does the bible point to women’s preaching?”  “Apparently so, in my case,” was the reply.  “But,” said the questioner, “I had hoped you would answer by some quotations from the bible.”  Instantly Mrs. Frost replied, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”  This answer was greeted with tremendous applause, and the examination was ended.

Another publication at that time, The Congregationalist, stated, “We do not suppose that this precedent will cause a great incoming of women into our ministerial ranks, but where such an ordination seems to be demanded by providential indications, we presume that it will not be refused.”  Other accounts noted that “this event is decided uniquely in this denomination anywhere in the land, and the circumstances of today were decidedly out of common, and everything made the event more than ordinarily interesting.”

“Unprecedented,” “unique,” “uncommon,” “more than ordinary” – these were the words used to describe the beginning of an exceptional woman’s ministry during one of our church’s most flourishing periods.  And the words “demanded by providential indications” certainly sounds like God was at work in both the church’s life and Amelia’s.

After more than six years of exceptional ministry, Amelia tendered her resignation.  Recognizing “the societal forces” that she and the church “withstood in taking such unprecedented action,” she thanked the congregation for having “courageously faced the current of public sentiment,” and she noted that “never have I been permitted to feel that you recognized any distinction in my ministry on the ground of sex.”

Jesus didn’t recognize any distinction in the Samaritan woman on the ground of her sex either.  I like to think the woman at the well and Amelia Frost had a lot in common.  Both shared the same assertiveness of spirit and bravery, and the willingness to cross borders of various kinds.  Both were willing to break taboos, to defy societal expectations, and to step out of their presumed roles in the world.  Both accepted the full identity and dignity that Jesus offered, and both went out to seek others to tell them about Jesus.

Each of them, in their own time – these women were among the first female proclaimers of the good news of the healing, wholeness, and life that Jesus brings. They held their own, surviving and even thriving in a society that privileged male power. Their stories are about eliminating boundaries and breaking down barriers in the name of Jesus. They are stories to celebrate!  May we all follow in their footsteps.  Amen.