This is the fourteenth message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4. I apologize for the break last week due to travel.
- Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (Jn 4:27).
This is a direct, in-depth conversation between Jesus and the woman. No one else’s fingerprints are on it. Jesus speaks to her with a directness that respects her dignity as a woman and a daughter of God. He knows all about her past, her failed relationships, struggles, loneliness, and “the put-downs” that she endures daily. He honors her intelligence by listening to her and responding with caring honesty.
This is the way that women and men hope it will be with Jesus–a real, intimate relationship in everyday life–not a power contest to dominate or be dominated in the name of virtue. Jesus brought ethical reform to a society and a religious culture that made divorce so easy and advantageous for feckless men that women and children were turned out into the streets in droves, suffering and powerless.
In every encounter with a woman, whether poor or wealthy, married or single, Jew or Gentile, Jesus broke with patriarchal tradition to give righteous respect. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, Jesus “treated women like human beings.”
Since, by Jesus’ own confession, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing,” this respect for women originates with God the Father.
While the disciples were out running their errands, Jesus was sticking to his mission which is reconciling men and women to God. He makes no distinction between them in offering them full citizenship in his kingdom (Gal 3:28).
The disciples have followed Jesus seeking change through his teaching, but the thought that his teaching and the hoped for change might include women apparently has never occurred to them. This reduces them to speechless confusion. They can’t decide whether to ask the woman or Jesus what is going on. Writing sixty years after-the-fact, John keenly remembers the awkwardness of the moment.
I wish that the disciples had asked their questions on this hot noonday. Jesus would have had opportunity to address the great and wounding silence regarding the place and role of women that has afflicted Christendom for 2,000 years and denied the world half of the voice that could be publicly proclaiming the message of Christ.
Some might say that he could have read the disciples’ unspoken questions the way that he read the woman’s real thirst and he could have given a definitive answer on the role of women. But Jesus was answering their questions by speaking with the woman and listening to her with great care. He’s heard her out on issues ranging from the practical to the deeply spiritual and responded to her with gracious dignity.
Soon he will receive the people from the town of Sychar that she, a former social pariah transformed by his grace, will introduce him to as their Messiah. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39a). There is only one other example in the Gospels of such powerful evangelistic witness following an encounter with Jesus (Luke 8:26-39).
Women have been influential in leading me to Christ and encouraging my walk with him. I am amazed, humbled and eternally grateful for the devotion of female spiritual guides, preachers and leaders who persist in their God-given gifts and Spirit-led ministries in the face of antagonism, abuse and stolid rejection.
The disciples are learning something new that is from God and of God in watching Jesus with the woman. They may have their questions but they have a choice to make between what they see Jesus doing and what they have believed all their lives. If there is some belief in our human hearts and minds that Jesus cannot soften and cannot change, then at best we are only devoted to our idea of him, and at worst we are entrenched in our strongholds of proud rebellion. Will we embrace Jesus’ example or attempt to explain it away?
Even as the boundaries and walls occupy the attention of those who would preserve and strengthen them and those who would eliminate them, we must remember that “Something greater than the temple is here” and he desires “mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 12:6-7). Construct carefully and slowly or tear down as we may, it is Jesus who will stand and live when it is all said and done (Jn 2:20-22). Against all other competing voices, thoughts, preconceptions and demands, Jesus is the one to whom we must pay attention.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,