Today is a Sunday set aside in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for celebrating the gifts of women. Throughout the week a few people here and there have asked me why we’re doing that. My short answer has been, “Because we believe women should be celebrated.” The longer answer is more complicated than that.
The tradition in which we stand is one that has, at times, marginalized and forgotten the importance of women to the Christian faith. We can trace this tendency all the way back to the Bible, where we read things like, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). The New Testament has some equally challenging texts, like:
Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1 Timothy 2:8-15)
There are more, but I think you get the point. What are we to do with passages like these? On the one hand, there’s the danger that we will interpret them as being prescriptive statements for how we are to treat women. That would be a mistake. On the other hand, there’s the danger that we will tune them out altogether, as if they had never been written. That, too, would be a mistake. In the middle there is the possibility that we can live within that tension, recognizing that at times our tradition has marginalized and dehumanized women, but it has also at times been a wonderful model for proclaiming the giftedness of women in leadership roles in the church. Today, we do both.
Now this will not come as a surprise to any of you, but I feel very strongly about the extraordinary gifts that women share with the family of faith. I’m married to a very intelligent, outspoken, understanding, compassionate, and faithful leader who also happens to be a PC(USA) minister. I’ve seen first-hand how God is glorified through her ministry, but I’ve also seen many ways in which her ministry is a challenge to those who aren’t entirely used to female leaders in the church.
Many years ago right after we graduated from seminary, Heather did a year-long internship at a church in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a church that had employed seminary interns for decades, but Heather was the first female intern the church had. This wasn’t really a problem, except for the fact that one of the duties of the seminary intern at that church was to lead the Men’s Prayer Breakfast. When the group of men who attended the breakfast learned that the intern was a female, they began to ask each other if she should be allowed to lead the breakfast. One of them answered, “Well, I guess so, just as long as she doesn’t bring any friends.”
As our time in Columbia was coming to a close, Heather was in conversation with a number of Pastor Nominating Committees, one of which informed her that they would consider calling her as their Associate Pastor, but she needed to know that she already had two strikes against her. The first was that she attended Union Seminary, and the second was that she was from “up north”. Through her discussions with that search committee it became apparent that there was a third strike as well: that she was a woman.
A couple of years later Heather was serving a large church as an Associate Pastor, and was contacted by the family of a church member who was in the hospital. She was asked specifically not to come and visit, because the person having surgery didn’t believe that women should be pastors. Heather politely assured them that she would not visit, but after that phone call Heather immediately remarked to me, “I think they’ll be disappointed. I’m the only pastor at the church who doesn’t faint at the sight of blood.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the other two pastors there were men. And yes, they really did faint at the sight of blood.
Unfortunately it isn’t that uncommon, even in this day and age, to find those who view women as less-than, those who are far too used to men enjoying favored status, those who believe that it’s a man’s world, and women are just along for the ride. Think about this for a second. We are currently worshiping in a chapel sanctuary with stained glass windows that recognize the wives of some of the faithful male leaders in our church’s history. It’s wonderful that the wives are remembered. It’s not so wonderful that their names are not. Many of the women who have led our communities of faith in so many vital ways become nameless apparitions. Just the other day someone reminded me that throughout the cemeteries that surround our church, it’s rather common to see headstones that name the husband but not the wife.
We are literally surrounded by nameless women here! We thank God for them today, for mothers and daughters, sisters and grandmothers, teachers, leaders, supportive spouses, faithful Christians whose names are forgotten. And we promise them that even though their names have been lost to us, their gifts have not. We celebrate them today, and recognize that we now stand upon foundations of faith that they built.
If you think about it, this is exactly what scripture calls us to do. In our New Testament reading for this morning, we encounter another unnamed woman. She is only called “the woman at the well” or “that Samaritan woman” by those who hear her story. It’s actually a wonder that we hear about her at all. We meet her as she is drawing water from a well in the middle of the day. She lives in a small village, out in the middle of nowhere, and the possibility of anyone coming to that well in the heat of the day is remote. But then this stranger named Jesus comes by. He comes up to the well, next to the woman, and suddenly we have a very interesting situation on our hands.
This woman is, of course, a Samaritan, and for centuries there had been a deep-seated enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and openly expressed their racial and religious conflict with each other. So here we have Jesus, a Jew, standing at a well with a Samaritan woman. And the fact that she’s a woman is significant – the laws of the day were clear that males, particularly religious ones, were not to have anything to do with women, other than their wives, in public. You could say that this particular woman already has three strikes against her: She’s a Samaritan, she’s an outcast, and she’s a woman.
But instead of turning around and high-tailing it back to Judah, Jesus does a remarkable and astonishing thing: he asks her for water. She objects, of course. “You know better than that. You’re not supposed to have anything to do with me,” she says. He replies, “If you knew who I was you would give me a drink and in turn I would give you ‘living water.’” And we can sense the woman wondering, who is this man? Who is this, that comes to her out in the middle of nowhere, bringing no bucket to the well and yet offering to give her living water? Besides all that, he seems to know about her dark side, the skeletons in her closet that she’d rather not talk about. “You had five husbands,” he says, “and you’re living with a man now who is not your husband.” This woman might not be deaf or blind, but there is something incredibly hopeless about her. She’s a Samaritan and a woman and a sinner. She is coming to the well in the heat of day instead of the cooler evening hours when women ordinarily visit the well. It’s obvious that she’s an outcast, a nobody, even among her own people.
But here, perhaps for the first time in her life, is a man who has simply come to her out in the middle of nowhere, a man who sees that she’s a Samaritan and knows that she’s an unrepentant sinner and comes to her anyway. He talks to her. He accepts her for who she is. It was undoubtedly the most shocking experience of her life, so astonishing in fact that she drops her water jar and runs back to the village to tell anyone who will listen about this amazing stranger named Jesus.
It’s been said that this woman is the very first Christian. Here is a woman who goes back to her own village and even though she is an outcast she proclaims the good news, invites the village to come and see Jesus, and the scripture tells us that many believed because of her witness. And here we are, heirs of the gospel many generations later, hearers of the good news. We follow Jesus because someone first told us or taught us about Him, and in a very real way that tradition of good-news sharing can be traced back to a Samaritan, an outcast, an unnamed woman standing beside a well. We may have lost her name, but scripture is clear that she is to be celebrated as a model of faith. Jesus’ conversation with her is his longest recorded conversation anywhere. Furthermore, John describes her using the very same language with which he begins his gospel. The Greek text says simply that she spoke “the Word”.
Today, brothers and sisters, we give thanks. We celebrate women, named and unnamed, who shared the faith, and taught, and listened, and cared, and sang, and spoke, and prayed. They are the women who surround us daily with their gifts of compassion and understanding, their leadership and their fellowship, their vision, and their voices. Brothers and sisters, rejoice! Celebrate! Because through them we have heard and will continue to hear the very Word of God!
Thanks be to God. Amen!
Rev. Lee A. Koontz, March 2014