So I'm back from the Emerging Women East Coast Gathering and getting ready to go to the Emergent Gathering. Life is crazy, so I haven't had much time to reflect on the experience. I posted a bit over at the Emerging Women blog, and hopefully a few other participants will post there as well.
The gathering was a great time of learning and growing. I really enjoyed the panel presentation/discussions of women of the Bible. The stories of women from the old and new testaments were retold in fresh and relevant ways. While I had heard all of those stories before I had never heard then told in a way where the women were the focus nor in ways that gave a message to women at all. Among others we heard of the Caananite womans passionate love and protection of her child from a mother whose child had faced cancer, we looked at Lydia and explored systems of power and authority, we heard the lament of Tamar after her brother raped her, we saw the strength of Vashti to say no to a controling man, and we heard of Lot's daughters and mourned for children who are victims of the sex trade still today. My contribution to the discussion was a re-imagining of the story of the woman at the well told from her perspective. In the tradition of Jewish Midrash I explored her story and her cultural context to give her more of a voice and to challenge our default understanding of who she was. I'm posting it here for anyone interested in reading it:
The Woman at the Well
It was during the heat of the day when I finally made my way to the well. Trudging through the dust during that time of day is a pain, but over the years I had just grown too weary of the gossip and sidelong glances of the younger women who come during the cooler hours. I was tired of the “accidental” bumps which caused me to spill my water and the subsequent laughter. I’ve been through enough – I didn’t have to put up with any more.
Once I was like them. Laughing and coming to the well for a social hour. I was accepted. I was one of them. But that was before I was married 5 times. FIVE TIMES! Oh, it’s perfectly acceptable to marry twice, sometimes even three times, but five – no way. With five comes the gossip and the condemnation. They talk behind my back; they look at me as if I had a curse. What? Do they really think it was my fault?
I would have done anything to prevent my first husband’s death. I was young and I loved him. And it wasn’t my choice to marry his younger brother – the creepy one with the heavy hand. But I had to keep the family line pure and all that. It was my misfortune that I gave directions to that passing traveler. I know that as a woman I wasn’t supposed to talk to men outside my family – but he asked. Of course my husband didn’t see it that way and divorced me for speaking to him. They couldn’t of course really accuse me of adultery – I’d have been stoned if they had (Levitical law being so important to my people) – but I was tainted and the gossip began.
I was desperate then. I needed a place to live and food to eat. My family rejected me and as a woman I had no way to earn my own living – well, except by doing that, but I wasn’t that low no matter what everyone said. My next few husbands thought they were doing me a favor by marrying me – and I guess they were. I had food and shelter. By being married I didn’t have to pay the exorbitant Roman fines for being single. But those marriages ended miserably as well. They all divorced me and gave some reason – my barren womb, my poor cooking… and the gossip grew. Now I can’t deny I wasn’t relieved to be released from those marriages. They wore me out and used me – if women were permitted to divorce men I would have done it. The next guy wouldn’t even marry me – I was so tainted. But it’s food and shelter and he can be nice from time to time. But I had learned not to expect too much from men.
That’s why he surprised me that day at the well. I was wary when I approached the well that day and saw him there. I was alone and if he had heard any of the rumors about me, well, I wasn’t sure what he would do. Others hadn’t been too kind. But I needed water so I decided to ignore him – I’d learned my lesson about talking to strange men. So, when he spoke to me, I was shocked – and even more shocked to realize he was a Jew. What was a Jew doing slumming it here with the Samaritans? Most of them usually traveled 60 miles out of their way to avoid us. Well, at least I knew he wouldn’t try anything – he wouldn’t risk making himself unclean by touching me.
But he asked me for water and that blew me away. What was he up to? Jewish men did not talk to Samaritans, much less Samaritan women. Nor did they take drinks of water from us. My first thought was that he must be a Roman collaborator – corrupted by their loose ways – away from following the standards of the Law. But he started talking about religion – about living water and true worship. I’d been around long enough to know a few things about religion – or at least, the things that separated us from the Jews. This man was a Jew, but he was different. He talked about a bigger faith, about worshipping in spirit. It was all new to me and the passion with which he talked about it intrigued me. But then he reached out to me – he showed me pity. Not the controlling pity that men had shown before – he seemed to truly feel sorrow at my lot in life and sympathized with my current need to live unmarried. It hit me then that he loved me – not in the ways that others have claimed to love me – but in a way that resonated with the love mentioned as a part of worship. A love that heals instead of hurts.
And then he said the words that had been whispering though my mind – he claimed to be the Messiah. The Messiah, the Anointed One, the hope for all of us! And here he was, talking to me, a woman, about worship.
But right then the men he was traveling with returned and most of them couldn’t hide their shock at seeing him converse with me. I was afraid they would drag him away – but I wanted to hear more from him. I wanted others to hear more. So I ran back into town, completely forgetting my water jug, to tell whoever I could find about him. It didn’t matter who I talked to – man or woman, the gossips – I just had to tell them about this man, the Messiah.
It makes me laugh looking back at those first attempts at telling others about Jesus. I’m sure my incoherent ramblings blurted to people who had shunned me for years must have seemed crazy – but I had to get the news out. Oh sure, some of the townsfolk made it a point to tell me that they chose to follow Christ because they saw him themselves and not because of anything I said. But old prejudices and fears die hard.
It was from that point that my life changed. No matter what the cost, I had to tell others about Jesus the Messiah. And after that first bumbling attempt my confidence grew. I broke free of my culture and as a woman talked to whoever I could about Jesus and his message. Of course, not everyone approved of my choice – John didn’t even include my name in his telling of the story. But after the resurrection I was baptized Photina – a name meaning “enlightened one”, and I was hailed as an equal to the apostles. I traveled far and wide to spread the way of Christ. Once even, when Nero had imprisoned me, he sent his daughter to pull me away from my faith with the temptation of luxury and riches. But instead, I shared the good news with her, and she chose to follow Jesus too.
It is amazing to look back at how Jesus changed my life. I was hopeless and outcast and he gave my life a purpose. He freed me from the place I as a woman had been condemned to, and gave me permission to tell others about him. Yes, I know some hear my story and take comfort in Jesus’ ability to forgive and change notorious sinners; but I know the change that occurred in my life was bigger than that. He gave me hope and a purpose and he turned our world upside down in letting me, a woman, have a prophetic voice in spreading his message.
Who am I? I am the Samaritan woman at the well. The first evangelist.
Labels: Emerging Women, Reflections, Theology