Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Samaritan Woman: Engaging the Gospel of John in a Gendered Mofif

The Samaritan Woman: Engaging the Gospel of John in a Gendered Motif
By Qiyamah A. Rahman

Most biblical scholars depicted the Samaritan Woman in the Gospel of John as “sinful and deceptive” prior to the first wave of feminist biblical hermeneutics in the United Sates. However, after the second wave of feminist biblical hermeneutics many feminist scholars reconceptalized the story of the Samaritan Woman as a disciple of Christ. The purpose of this brief essay is to examine the motif of the Samaritan Woman in the Gospel of John and its contemporary meaning using the lens of feminist theology.
The rationale for this dramatic shift in the interpretation of the Samaritan Woman is based on the following factors: 1) She (the samaritan woman) came to accept the Gospel through Jesus’ knowledge of her (4:18, 29); 2) She engaged Jesus in a theological discussion; 3) Jesus invited her to believe and she accepted the mission of calling others to the word; 4) Like a true disciple, she dropped everything (her water jar) and assumed her role as disciple to invite others to Christ (4:29; 4:39, 42); 6) and 5) She is viewed by some scholars as one of the sowers into whose work the disciples were entering (4:38).
The changing perspective of the Samaritan Woman’s discipleship has led to speculation that the Johannine community accepted women as equals. Furthermore, some believe the Samaritan people may actually have been evangelized by a woman according to Adeline Fehribach. Fehrbach moved beyond the now commonly held notion of the Samaritan Woman’s discipleship and proposes a rather unique metaphor of the Samaritan Woman as a “fictive betrothed and bride of the messianic bridegroom on behalf of the Samaritan people, as a symbol wife to Jesus who plants the seeds of life in her. . . the Samaritan Woman represents the whole Samaritan people with whom Jesus desires to establish heavenly familiar ties.” The question one might rightfully ask is, “If Jesus is the messianic bridegroom, then who is the bride?” The likely candidate is the Samaritan Woman. The symbolic marriage of the Samaritan Woman and Jesus and her portrayal as a “field sown with seed” that produces an abundant harvest is consistent with the motif as the symbolic representative of the Samaritan people, thus portraying the Samaritan Woman as the betrothed and bride of the messianic bridegroom.”
Still another metaphor equally plausible pertains to the “meeting at the well. Because of her lowly status, the Samaritan woman goes to the well during the hottest time of the day in order to avoid the judgmental townspeople. While most were taking siestas she was out in the intense midday sun preparing to draw water. The Samaritan woman is surprised that Jesus, a pious Jew asks her, a lowly man of questionable character for water.
A more typical story line is the formulaic depiction that typically plays out in the following way: male foreigner + woman + well = betrothal. This formula is also present with the following characters and chapters: Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24:10-6 ) and Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:1-10). Some scholars such as Calam Carmichael believe that the words “well” or “fountain” in the story of the Samaritan Woman refers to the physical features of a female. Furthermore, some sources interpret the verbal discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman as verbal intercourse. The rational is that the imagery of the field is a sexual symbol with the “harvest” representing the offspring that the Samaritan Woman produced as a result of the “living water” that Jesus provided her springing up within the well of her being. The story also shows that a wel of grace is ready to refresh the soul parched by sin and suffering and that Jesus comes to save the sick and to serve those who still need both physical and spiritual healing – not only the converted.
But if the metaphor translates into a sexual one by some scholars, the living water is viewed by others as Jesus’ attempts to elevate his conversation to a higher level using additional literary allusions with the Samaritan Woman like “living water” and “below” such as follows:
Everyone who drinks of this water will b thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (4:13-14).

Apparently, it was common in ancient cultures such as Greco-Roman/ Judeo-Christian tradition for a woman to be symbolized as a field that a man plows with seed. This imagery is present else where in the Bible, for example, Jeremiah 3:1: “If a man sends away his wife and after leaving him, she marries another man, does the first husband come back to her? Would not the land be wholly defiled.” Thus, the sexual act is often symbolized by a man, or God portrayed as a man, sowing seed in the land/woman. The sexual allusion is frequently depicted in the Hebrew Bible as fertile land and Israel is depicted as the “offspring of a divine union between God and Jerusalem, the notion that God sows in the land.” The timeless norm of viewing women as a “field” of males portrays women as the property of males, thus, portraying the nation as a woman, vulnerable to conquering by masculine power. Upon closer examination one can locate a continuing and disturbing parallel of women’s bodies that has survived changing social norms depicting women as the property of males. A more contemporary iteration of this motif is the concept of honor killings. Honor killing is motivated by the belief that women’s bodies are possessions of males and thus easily become the source and site of male struggles of power and privilege. This is particularly the case during war which commonly acts of rape and ethnic cleansing are rampant. Such actions seek to humiliate not the woman but the male opponents. Thus, women’s moral conduct, including their sexuality and use of their bodies is closely guarded and monitored. In societies that routinely portray narrowly defined gender roles and expectations, a woman’s “dishonor” of the family might be prompted by the woman stepping outside the narrowly defined boundaries of normative gender roles imposed by social norms, thus bringing dishonor to the family. When this happens she is expected to kill herself. If a woman does not take her own life then the family members do so. The United Nation Population Fund estimates that the annual worldwide number of women killed in honor killings each year is approximately 5,000.
Additionally, women presented as gifts to males, a tradition noted in the Bible, is a further depiction of women’s status. Such actions reflect still another expression of women’s oppression. While this custom was considered an act of diplomacy among males to secure relations in biblical times, it is not such a leap in contemporary times to sex trafficking today when women are available to males for their sexual gratification. While these acts of violence against women might appear to be unrelated, on a continuum of violence against women they both constitute the “buying and selling” of women as property in the interests of males. However, to deconstruct the view of women as property and to exegete a positive interpretation, some Johnnine scholars interpret this same incident by turning it on its head, thus bestowing the title of gift to humanity upon Jesus. Jesus is the object of exchange that creates familial bonds. His male gender removes the element of property that haunts women during biblical times and instead, creates a sense of agency that allows Jesus to give the gift of his life/his body to the world. And thus he makes the ultimate sacrifice.
The Samaritan Woman’s marital history was viewed as a moral compass of her life and therefore, one of the reasons that she was perceived so negatively in past times. However, if we focus on her multiple marriages then we might fail to note the fact that Jesus passed no judgment on her. Thus, who are we to do so? Fehrubach, utilizing numerology, notes that the Samaritan Woman had five husbands, her de facto husband being her sixth and thus Jesus is her seventh. Seven is the number of completion and perfection in numerology. Thus, the Samaritan Woman identifies Jesus as the “man” she has been waiting for. Every religion has teachings and beliefs that pertains to humans seeking God’s forgiven for wrongdoings. God forgives sin and most doctrine acknowledges that repentance is always possible. The Jewish feast of Yom Kippur and Islam’s Ramadan are also examples of seeking forgiveness and showing atonement for sin.
To continue the feminist critique of the Samaritan Woman one readily notes her nameless status. Is her nameless status intentional? Does she represent all women? Fehribach maintains that the Samaritan Woman is nameless to represent the fact that she is not important in her own right and that only two identifying factors are significant to the telling of the story, that is, her status of “woman” and that of “Samaritan.”
The Samaritan Woman doesn’t appear again in scripture, but for centuries afterwards, numerous spiritual writers, theologians, and scholars pondered her encounter with Jesus. Augustine (AD 354-430), used her to describe the spiritual thirst the human heart has for goodness and truth and represents a thirst that is never quenched.
The Samaritan Woman is an example of feminist theologian’s efforts to challenge and interpret biblical texts that contain both potentially positive and negative depictions of women. Prior to the second wave of feminist theologians the Samaritan Woman was often depicted as a “fallen woman” who was saved by Jesus. Reading biblical text in a manner that expands the interpretation allows us to view her as so much more and to create new stories based on the traditional biblical stories about an expanded image of her role as an early disciple. The Samaritan woman brought her empty jar to the well to be filled. She also brought her empty self to be filled. Utilizing the biblical narratives in order to make the text yield laws and teachings not apparent in a surface reading of the text is an important and necessary part of feminist theology and exegesis in retrieving women’s lives in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. This essay has captured the retelling of the Samaritan Woman and the subtle historical view of women as property, as “fallen women” and critiqued the story in ways that extracts a more egalitarian and non-hierarchical paradigm that provide lessons in contemporary living. Like the Samaritan woman where do we need to be filled due to the emptiness in our lives? Today, what is the living water that Jesus referred to? How can we experience this “living water” in today’s busy and complex times? Thus, this writer has hopefully examined the presence of the Samaritan Woman in the Gospel of John as a motif and its contemporary meaning using the lens of feminist theology.

1 comment:

womanist63 said...

Thanks for your thought provoking essay. I am writing a sermon for Black History Month using the text of the Samaritan woman and your words have definitely given me ideas to ponder.