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Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well

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WOMAN AT THE WELL
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She is not a prostitute. She doesn't have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms.

Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don't get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband" (4:18).

And that's it. That's the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper's treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as "a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria," and at another point in the sermon calls her a "whore."

Yet there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous, yet most preacher's assume the latter.

The difficulty with that interpretation is that it trips up the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, "I see that you are a prophet" and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic. But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. "Seeing" in John, it's crucial to note, is all-important. "To see" is often connected with belief. When the woman says, "I see you are a prophet," she is making a confession of faith.

Why? Because Jesus has "seen" her. He has seen her plight -- of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her -- she exists for him, has worth, value, significance and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries. This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion; this is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she'd expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man.

So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus' ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her -- Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.

(I recognize this penchant is not unique to Christians. Remember Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code? Given all his celebration of the "Feminine Divine," it's striking to note that he had only two female characters in his lengthy novel -- the love interest of his alter ego symbologist and an elderly nun who survives for all of two pages. So apparently secular humanists can be chauvinists too!)

A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it's about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers -- dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus' ministry as she is the first character in John's gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.

If preachers can rise above the misogyny and moralism that characterizes too much Christian theology, they have the opportunity to tell this woman's story for what it is: a story of the transforming power of love and the capacity to receive and live into a new identity. By doing so, preachers won't just be talking about this woman any more, they'll also be talking to and about us. And that's a sermon I, for one, would like to hear.

Note: My thanks to Karoline Lewis for a very helpful conversation on this passage that prompted this reflection.

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