19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
There are things in the text that are jarring to ancient ears that seem perfectly innocent to us: that Jesus should speak to a woman in public; that a Judean would ask a Samaritan for a drink; that Jesus should discuss this woman’s her sexual life when she is not a relative.
We catch a hint of the scandal of all this when the disciples come back: “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?” (v. 27) But since we don’t find it shocking, the audacity of Jesus often eludes us. It’s like listening to Holst’s “The Planets” without a brass section; you can still get the melody, but you are missing all the drama.
There is another shocking element in the text we no longer hear: Jesus discusses theology with this woman. Theology was the domain of men. It was men who gathered to dispute questions of the law and prophets. It was men who held a synagogue service. Theology was part of the public square not the domestic one. For Jesus to discuss the proper location of worship with a woman was remarkable. Astonishing.
This is a narrative like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, or Paul declaring there is now “neither male nor female.” This is Junia (a woman’s name) called an apostle by Paul. This is Paul discussing the scriptures with the women in Philippi or Lydia being the head of the church in her home. This woman of Samaria is not only a hearer of Christ, she is treated as a student – and becomes a teacher. She gathers the men of her village and brings them to Jesus. She is their first witness.
We misunderstand Paul’s injunction that women should be silent in the churches because we miss the dramatic and wonderful thing that women are present in the worshipping assembly. (That a woman should be cautioned not to shame her husband in public shouldn’t make us hear Paul through the lens of the medieval church. It is good advice still – for men and women.)
Women’s leadership in the community of the church is no shock to us now, but it is another element in this audacious reality of Christ Jesus in whom the day promised through the prophet Joel dawns and God’s spirit is poured out on all people, men and women, young and old, freeborn and slaves – a radical idea from an audacious God.