Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
19 March 2017
Despite the fact that I am now well into adulthood, even middle-aged, I still occasionally do things that are bad for me. I binge on junk food. I stay awake reading until 3 am. I spend an entire working day listening to the live-streaming from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
That last was what I did on Friday the 10th of March. The Uniting Church was going to be appearing, and I didn’t want to miss it, so I tuned in to the Royal Commission from 10 in the morning. Before the representatives of the Uniting Church appeared, the Royal Commission questioned representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and what I heard from them disturbed me so much that I ended the day by breaking my Lenten fast and eating two bars of chocolate.
There were many elements of the evidence of the two Jehovah’s Witnesses that disturbed me, but the one I want to mention today is their apparent attitude to women. The Royal Commission had sent them a long list of questions to respond to, one of which was about women being excluded from participating ‘in the making of a decision about the credibility of an allegation of child sexual abuse’. The response offered in writing and again at the Royal Commission was that Jehovah’s Witnesses are bound by the Bible to allow only men to make decisions.
I don’t know how many other religious institutions have made similar statements; that women cannot be involved in decision-making because the Bible says so. I assume that at some point the Royal Commission will report on that. I found listening to the evidence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses deeply disturbing for two reasons. The first was primarily selfish. I’m not sure that the wider world distinguishes between types of Christianity. The Uniting Church has had women ministers and elders since before the Uniting Church was created, but I suspect that all churches are seen as sexist institutions by secular Australians. That doesn’t help our preaching of the gospel.
My second, and much more serious concern, is that children are in more danger of being abused in institutions that are run solely by men. We’ve seen that in the Uniting Church, because what seems to have been our worst case of abuse happened in a boys’ school. I spent the last four years of high school in a girls’ school, and loved it, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that institutions with greater gender equality are healthier and safer than those without. I think Royal Commission is providing us with the evidence of that.
You may be wondering what on earth all of that has to do with today’s gospel reading. My answer is that the various interpretations of today’s reading provide us with an awful warning about the ways in which we can misread and misinterpret scripture, and particularly about that ways in which the church has used Scripture to oppress women. Yes, this is going to be another one of my feminist sermons. You have been warned.
Today’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourite stories in the entire Bible, with one of my favourite characters. But throughout history the Samaritan woman has been defamed.
The story starts with Jesus sitting alone by a well, when a woman approaches to draw water. John tells us that it’s about noon. Immediately we know that there is something wrong in this woman’s life. She’s coming to the well in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool of the dawn or early evening. She’s coming alone, rather than with the other women of the village. This woman is an outsider, isolated from her community. And yet Jesus asks her for a drink. Jesus, a Jewish man, asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.
The woman is unsurprisingly astonished and asks: ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ The answer, which the woman isn’t given explicitly but which is implicit in the story, is that Jesus is talking to 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’. We don’t know her name, but Jesus is speaking to her by name, as God knows us by name.
Jesus doesn’t answer the woman’s question. Instead, as he does in the conversation with Nicodemus that we heard last week, Jesus moves immediately into teaching. He tells the woman that he is able to offer her ‘living water’, water that will become a spring gushing up to eternal life. The woman responds: ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Like Nicodemus, who responds to Jesus’ statement that one must be born from above by asking how anyone can re-enter the womb, the woman misunderstands and takes Jesus’ metaphorical language literally. Jesus uses metaphors and parables to teach, and we miss the meaning if we try to understand symbols literally.
Then comes the part of the story that I identify with most, when Jesus tells that woman that he knows she has no husband, but that she has had five in the past and is now living with a man who is not her husband – and the woman instantly asks him a theological question. This woman has obviously been pondering how to worship God properly for a long time: where is the right place to worship?; are the Samaritans or the Jews right? Suddenly, she comes across a prophet, someone who might have the answer, and so she immediately asks him.
This is one of the reasons why this story is my favourite; because of the eagerness of this woman to learn, an eagerness that leads her to ignore the strangeness of the whole encounter or anything Jesus says about her personal life. And Jesus answers her question. He doesn’t say anything more about her private life, that doesn’t seem to be important to him, either. Instead he talks theology with her, taking her desire to learn seriously: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.’ Then he announces to the woman who he is; he is the Messiah that the woman has been waiting for.
‘Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that [Jesus] was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”’ It’s interesting that the disciples are more shocked that Jesus is talking with a woman than that he’s talking with a Samaritan. Their response reminds us just how extraordinary Jesus’ interactions with women were in the world in which he lived. Jesus had women disciples, who accompanied him and supported him and were present at his death. Jesus allowed Mary of Bethany to sit at his feet in the position of a student. And Jesus had his longest theological discussion with this Samaritan woman.
My final reason for liking this story is because it tells us of one of the first Christian evangelists. The Samaritan woman had been isolated, shunned by the people of her city. Maybe no one would marry her because she was seen to be bad luck – a woman whose husbands have all died. 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. We don’t know the full story of her life; we only know that she is shunned by her community, to the extent that she needs to come to the well in the middle of the day. And we know that none of that matters when she returns to the city to tell her community about Jesus and to begin the process that brings them to faith. They listen to her; they meet Jesus themselves; and finally they tell her: ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
This is a wonderful story. Jesus’ interaction with this woman is not restricted by her gender or her faith, and so she gets an answer to her theological question, and an entire Samaritan village comes to faith. This is something to celebrate, and the Samaritan woman is remembered as one of Christianity’s earliest evangelists.
Or not. Often the story has not been read that way. The Samaritan woman is not seen as a theological seeker and evangelist. She’s seen as a prostitute, because surely only a prostitute could have had five husbands and now be living with a man who is not her husband. One commentator describes her initial approach to Jesus as ‘mincing and coy’. Another commentator says that when the woman asks Jesus ‘Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ she is speaking with ‘mocking surprise’. When her response to discovering Jesus is a prophet is to ask him a theological question, commentators suggest that she’s changing an embarrassing subject.
One sermon on this passage that I read this week, admittedly one from 1984 but which the preacher still has available on his website, imagines Jesus’ inner monologue to be: ‘Yes, even now, just now, I will seek someone to worship God – a harlot, a Samaritan adulteress. I will show my disciples the worship that my father seeks and how he seeks it in the midst of real life from the least worthy. She is a Samaritan. She is a woman. She is a harlot. Yes, I will even show them a thing or two about how to make true worshippers out of the white harvest of harlots in Samaria.’ Basically, this woman, described later in the sermon as ‘enslaved to the flesh,’ is only of value as an object lesson to the disciples.
Why is the story read this way? Because if this is not the story of a mincing and coy harlot who is trying to distract Jesus from her sins, then what we have is a story of Jesus seriously engaging with a woman who asks a theological question. And if that is what we see in this story, the church might need to take women seriously, too. The church might not be able to restrict women to particular roles, while allowing men to make all the decisions. As I think the Royal Commission is showing us, for some churches that is still a terrifying prospect.
I’m going to end with someone who said all this long before me, the author Dorothy L. Sayers. Today she is best known for her mysteries with Lord Peter Wimsey as the detective, but during her life she was also known as an Anglican theologian, and in a talk she gave sometime between 1935 and 1945 (my collection of her speeches doesn’t give the date) she described the way Jesus interacted with women. The talk was titled ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ and I’m going to leave you with what Sayers said:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature. (Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’, Unpopular Opinions, London: Victor Gollancz, 1951, p.p 121-2.)