There was a Jewish scholar named Ben Sirach who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus. He wasn’t exactly a women’s libber. He wrote that it was a disaster to have a daughter, that it was shameful for a man to be financially supported by a woman, and that a man should never sit with a woman because spite continually comes out of her. He stated his overall gender view succinctly: “Women give rise to shame and reproach” (Sir 42:14).
Ben Sirach wasn’t likely to be invited to serve as a guest host on The View. But his opinions about women were almost universally shared by rabbis in the first century.
I say “almost” because Jesus had an entirely different perspective. He had the audacity to obliterate the chauvinism that dominated his day.
In a world that assumed that only men were worth teaching, Jesus had women disciples. Matthew 12:49-50 says Jesus pointed to his disciples and called them his brothers AND SISTERS. Luke 8:1-3 says Jesus’ traveling band of disciples included women (which would have been considered scandalous), and that those women were the ones bankrolling Jesus’ ministry (which would have made ol’ Ben Sirach shake his head with disgust). Luke 10:38-42 tells the story of Jesus’ friend Mary sitting at his feet in the posture of a disciple; when her sister Martha told Jesus to send her to the kitchen where she belonged, he said she was right where she was supposed to be. A Y-chromosome was not a pre-requisite for disciples of Jesus.
In a world that viewed women as the source of everything wrong in the world, Jesus regularly pointed to female heroes as examples to follow. He used a poor woman as a pattern for generosity (Mark 12:41-44) and a woman with a sketchy past as a model for gratitude (Luke 7:36-50) . He told stories celebrating a persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and wise bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). No other rabbi would have the nerve to tell his disciples, “be like this woman.” But Jesus did it all the time. He even told a story comparing God to a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
In a world that viewed a woman’s testimony as invalid for any legal proceeding, Jesus charged women to be the first messengers of his resurrection. He picked women to be the first to share the best news of all time to their male-dominated world.
Perhaps the scene in which Jesus’ audacious attitude about women comes into sharpest focus is his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4. He breaks every conceivable social taboo in an encounter that produces the first woman preacher in Christian history. The woman is shocked that Jesus, a Jewish man, would talk to her, a Samaritan woman (v.9). When Jesus’ male disciples walk up on the conversation in progress, they are shocked to find him talking to a woman (v.27). Jesus is breaking all the rules.
Not only does he speak to the woman, but he puts himself in a position of weakness and elevates her by telling her that he needs her assistance – he asks her for a drink. And any other self-respecting rabbi would have considered her Samaritan drinking bucket to be unclean; Jesus is like a white guy in the Jim Crow south asking a Black stranger for a sip from a fountain labeled “colored.”
The conversation with the woman is full of audacious claims. Jesus calls himself “the gift of God.” He says he is qualified to quench spiritual thirst and to provide eternal life. He claims to have supernatural knowledge of the woman’s past. He declares the temple in Jerusalem to be obsolete. He says he’s the Messiah. He applies the divine name, “I AM,” to himself.
But we shouldn’t just be shocked about what Jesus said. We should be shocked to realize to whom he said it. The woman’s gender, her ethnicity, and her past moral failures would have been three strikes against her in the eyes of any other teacher. But Jesus treats her as someone competent to have a deep theological conversation. By John’s reckoning, Jesus chooses her to be the first person he tells that he is the Messiah, and the first person with whom he shares one of his remarkable “I AM” sayings that fill John’s Gospel.
Jesus commissions the woman to go and bear witness to her husband, a man, and bring him to Jesus. She expands the mandate and becomes a missionary to her whole town. Her testimony persuades many Samaritans to believe in Jesus. She convinces others to hear Jesus for themselves, and that does the trick for them. John summarizes the results of the woman’s missionary endeavor like this:
“They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” – John 4:42
He’s the Savior of THE WORLD. Not just Jews, but Samaritans, too. Not just men, but women, too.
Want to explore further?
1. Read each of the passages referenced above, and notice the positive portrayal of women in each of them.
2. From your perspective, what is the most surprising thing Jesus does in John 4? What is the most surprising thing he says?
3. Read Galatians 3:28 and ponder how it captures the attitudes Jesus demonstrated with the woman at the well.