This article was published in the Gospel Herald in October 4, 1977, pp. 740-41 and appears here with permission. It is an excerpt of my address given to Office ’77, a conference for non-administrative staff of Mennonite institutions held at Akron, PA in June1977.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus intended that women would preach. They would respond to and teach the message that he came to convey. In spite of cultural expectations and prejudices, he was remarkable in his assumptions about women’s involvement in his purpose. Not only was having women accompany a traveling teacher revolutionary. He expected women to comprehend and extend his message.
For the orthodox Jew, the Torah was to be burned rather than explained or taught to a woman. No rabbi would have said that a “Mary” discussing religious truth was choosing the good. Women did not have capacity for such by “nature,” so their ineptness would only hinder the sacred. What women were by nature was unclean. And religion was to be kept pure.
We distort scriptural understanding when we fail to consider such background emphases. Nothing is ever written in isolation from its context. We bring understandings of our own milieu to materials composed in historic times both different from and similar to our own. This does not negate the active presence of God in either writing or interpreting Christian scriptural material. The Source of all is ever-present. Humanity determines to what extent the divine is acknowledged or allowed to be revealed.
Returning specifically to women ministering with Jesus, I would consider in some detail the Samaritan woman talking with Jesus at Jacob’s well. In researching materials about the ongoing Jewish-Samaritan conflict, I was struck by new insights Whereas the story had generally been portrayed from a Jewish, male point of view, it now is much richer through genuine empathy for the woman and broadened understandings of Jesus’ intents.
I see the Samaritan woman as one who knows her Samaritan religious tradition. She is fully aware of the irregularity of this Jew attempting conversation with her. The two peoples had destroyed each other’s temples. They had opposed each other’s claim to truth. The woman knew that Jews considered Samaritan women always unclean, not just for twelve days a month as they “credited” Jewish menstruating women.
Yet, here was this Revolutionary, without a container, asking for a drink of her whose cup was unquestionably contaminated. Can one doubt that her response would be of mockery in return? At the same time, she was bright enough not to fail in comprehending something of living water. Furthermore, she knew about the significance of worship to both Jews and Samaritans and must have been struck by Jesus’ forthright denial of place—of either Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim—as central.
The woman did not deny her multiple marriages. She knew the law’s limit was three. Yet she perceived something prophetic about this Stranger. He knew of her five marriages and her present living arrangement. But he didn’t bother to judge her on that point to the exclusion of crediting her readiness for deeper religious instruction. How many preachers have failed to see her as Jesus did?
He soon sensed that she fully expected one like Moses (whom Samaritans called Taheb) to come to restore those faithful enough to recognize him. So, he also had confidence in her “catching on” to who he was. To this, by cultural standards, but an unclean woman. He for the first time disclosed himself. And she believed! With a blend of pure excitement and doubtful trust that asked, “Can this really be the Christ?” she left her domestic pot and ran to her neighbors with the message.
Jesus’ first messenger of his mission was a woman. I claim her as a model of the first order. Does it matter that she was not of the Twelve? Those who had not yet, in their more frequent exposure comprehended the fullness of Jesus’ mission? Their skepticism on seeing him conversing with a woman, their threat and therefore denial that she could be trusted and endowed with the message of God has been repeated by “leadership” ever since.
In deciding who should be the receivers—the “we four and no more” idea—they had to grapple with Jesus’ further revolutionary inclusion of non-Jews. To include those who have been excluded is difficult. Especially when you think that you are more pure, more electable.
And how did the missionary woman fare? Contrary to societal law that denied the right or capacity of a woman to be a witness, the villagers believed her story. At least enough to return with her to the well. And together they persuaded Jesus to stay on a couple days.
There, in Samaria through which the disciples had hoped to avoid going in getting to Galilee, there the Master agreed to prolong his stay. His mission was to the “field ripe for harvest.” That must have been exasperating! Especially because of that nameless woman.
Another scriptural incident equally significant for seed of a church about to be born, for an example of devotion rewarded for countering cultural prejudice, for declaring “loud and clear” that women will publish the tidings is the fact of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. While my childhood/early adult recollection of the impact of those women at the tomb got lost in emphasis on Jesus’ conquering death, in “sunrise services for the birds,” I now am in contact with new vision.
Care of the dead had traditionally been the work of women. Women, more accustomed to uncleanness, were better “qualified” to handle/give some respect to unclean dead bodies. Inferiority does have its distinct blessing. The servant stance can be ironic. It can prepare one to meet God! To reveal God too.
And so those early women, in their vocation, their pain and loss, prepared to address or redress the divine. After all, they had gained much in personal esteem and a place for themselves through this Jesus.
Through conversations with Jesus, their personal friend and Advocate, the women had perceived personal responsibility. Responsibility to help interpret his cause. Responsibility to provide nourishment for soul as well as body. Responsibility for completing relationship. Had not the Creator, in pure goodness, known that human wholeness came through the interdependence of maleness and femaleness? Though Jesus’ significance was in being human, yet his very maleness was complete only in his communion with like, yet different, bone and flesh. No doubt the women knew the parallel oneness and solidarity of opportunity and responsibility.
To the tomb they went. Prepared to mourn on that morn. Like sheep without a shepherd. Like the disciples, dejected. Yet, unlike them, prepared to respond, to act, to be about their “business.” And what did they encounter? Another dimension of their task! The charge to tell the resurrection story. To publish the tidings. Nothing more, little less.
Note the striking difference in this incident as recorded compared to the story of the Samaritan woman. With her, the Samaritan villagers—those told—ceased their tasks, tea stall conversations, siestas, and followed. Her judgment was trusted enough to find out in person. Toward the resurrection messengers in contrast, there was more disbelief. Confidence that the women had been with Jesus enough to know the difference between a dead and living form could not be mustered. The leaders lingered in their shock and disappointment, in their cultured cultural prejudice.
But I believe that those women believed. As is true with solid faith, they no doubt doubted. Yet, the empty tomb was just that—empty. The women had been given a message. They were commissioned (must have been some ordination!) to tell others that Jesus, who was dead lives. Who among us needs models greater than those of women publishing the tidings?
Even if that had been the extent of such involvement (which it is not), we should not block it out by emphasis on two passages that discuss decorum in worship. There was Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church. And again, every bit as much as men, women actively prophesied, told the story. Joel had said that they would. That wasn’t just a personal hunch. It was part of God’s message.
Truly, the women who publish the tidings are a great host (Ps. 68:11).