In honor of International Women's Day, I was invited to offer a feminist, Christian reflection on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I invite you to read my reflection below or at the original post on the Sophia Network. I remember growing up with the story of the woman at the well: the woman was 'bad' because she had five husbands, and Jesus decided to save her from her sin by offering her living water, which was obviously the water of baptism. Pretty straightforward: she changes who she is, accepts baptismal water, and she’s saved from her sinful ways.
Something niggles at me when I hear this story these days. Questions crop up all over the place, and I’m ready to accuse Jesus for daring to approach her the way he does. Why is Jesus, a Jewish man, talking to a non-Jewish woman? Isn’t this act of intimacy just as scandalous to any observer’s eye as the woman’s five husbands are? Jesus’ act would have been like a man of European descent approaching a woman of African descent during the 1950’s in the Deep South of the United States. It simply wasn’t done. And if it was done, anyone who saw it would immediately ask why. Why is Jesus risking his reputation to talk to this woman? From a different angle, one might ask why Jesus is exercising his power over this woman in this way (for he is indeed in a position of power over her)? He could compromise her at any moment and probably get away with it, because he is a clever man living in a patriarchal world. I find myself angry on the woman’s behalf, that Jesus would presume to talk to her as he does, risking her reputation further. He could be any man with any intention, as far as she knows.
I imagine myself in the woman’s position for a moment. I look at the foreign face of this person who stands at the place that quenches my thirst and the thirst of those whom I love, and I wonder why he’s in my way. Why is he talking to me? Is he going to try to take something from me? Am I safe? I am nervous and I am prepared to run if he tries to touch me.
Instead of reaching toward me in power or gawking at my feminine figure, he looks at my face. Recognition alights in his eyes. If he’s like the others, he will regard me as nothing, a piece of flesh, an unholy other. I wait, preparing to make my hasty retreat, wondering if my bucket can help me fend him off if he tries to attack me. He doesn’t move. He continues to look at my face, as if I am the living well and he is refreshing his parched lips and mouth with the story of my life. He takes time, setting aside his ego to make space for my story—and then he tells it to me as he has perceived it.
It is strange, because no grown man has ever made the effort to learn my story. It is always the man’s story that matters, that needs to be told. I am a woman, and therefore I am a thread in a man’s tapestry—many tapestries, in my case. Why is this stranger bothering with me? What does he want?
Again, the threat of harm puts fear in my heart, but still, he takes nothing from me—not even my bucket for claiming a drink. He offers me a gift instead—no favors required.
As I become the woman in this story, I am able to ask the myriad questions that lead to greater understanding about Jesus - the Christ. I perceive that this Christ is one who offers rather than takes; this Christ is one who silences his heart in order to hear the stories buried in the heart of a complete stranger.
Is this what the follower of Christ is called to, then? To take risks, to cross boundaries, to silence egos? To listen so I might learn from this other who has almost nothing in common with me, religion and societal rank included?