At the end of one of our mission trips to Ghana in my last congregation, we were on our flight home to New Jersey. We were tired, hot, and ready to go home. It had been a great trip and our delegation, mostly women, were excited about the work we had done to promote women’s health and bring the community that much closer to a clinic that would serve the women and children of the village for years to come. But, as is common when you do mission trips, we ran into another group. They, too, were excited about the work that they had done, and we began to exchange notes.
As members of the other group were talking to a couple folks in our delegation, I watched as one of my female congregants began to turn red. So, I began to listen into their conversation at the point the man said, “We were so proud of the women who stayed back and cooked for us. They really allowed us men to do great work for the Lord.” Knowing this person, she was doing everything she could not to explode! I know what she wanted to say, and I’d seen her do it before. But this time, and during this trip, she really had a connection to God, so she took a moment to collect herself, smiled and said how much she enjoyed the hard work and long days along with the guys. It was a kind way of letting him know that we do not see women differently than men in our tradition.
One of the interesting things about the Christian tradition is the role of women. Contrary to what many of the more conservative communities might say, the role of women in the gospels was both radically countercultural and crucial for the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus only treated women differently to the extent that he probably preferred them, because time after time, the stories show it is the women who are able to have faith when the men could or would not accept him.
Much is made of the women in the Bible being on the fringe, but when you begin to read about anyone in the Bible, apart from Jesus, they are all flawed. You need not go any farther than Paul, who boasts about his ineptitude. Notably, women in the Bible do something that the men don’t, at least right away: they accept Christ as Christ, and then are seen in positions of witnessing to others!
Just think of the stories of the Marys. Mary, the mother of Jesus, accepts him, keeps him, and supports him in his ministry. Mary, of Mary and Martha, shows her passion and understanding by celebrating Christ in the most honored way. Then there is Mary the Magdalene, the woman rumored to be the closest, possibly even the beloved disciple (but that is another letter), who is always in the position where she is present with Christ and shows understanding when the disciples don’t.
But one of the stories that provides strongest evidence that the role of women in the New Testament was countercultural for the time is the story of the woman at the well. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is very interesting. First, the story clearly shows that Jesus is in the “wrong” place. As a Jew, he is at the well of the “dirty” Samaritans, and thus, should not be there. But Jesus obviously knows that they are not dirty. Moreover, of all the people he could have tasked with the promise of his grace is a woman of ill-repute! Yet, he also knows that it is exactly this woman who would be the one to know him and be able to spread his word. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony (John 4:39a). ”
It is too bad when traditions get in the way of the inclusiveness of the Bible. Not only does it make us look bad, it goes against the real message of Christ. It is things like this that give the deniers fodder for questioning the truth. But more importantly, it is the misogyny found in many Christian traditions that forces the wedge between the truth and love of Christ and the ability of all people to have a relationship with Christ.
For us, it is always important to remember that we have a witness to Christ not because of the disciples, but despite them. Just look at the story of the Resurrection. In most of the stories, who is it that first witnesses to the Resurrection? We must recognize that, we must stand for them, and we must stop looking at one person as different or lesser because of their gender, because we need all of us to witness and celebrate Christ in this world.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen