Women: Know Your Limits!
“The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth.”
Sue Monk Kidd
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
In the early ‘90s, Harry Enfield produced a comedy sketch named “Women: know your limits!” It parodied a 1920s infomercial demonstrating the perils of women having their own opinions. As with all satire, it works because it exposes something problematic in society: the idea that women should be treated as inferior to men.
In many ways, women are still expected to “know their limits.” There are certain ways of looking, behaving and relating that we are supposed to adhere to: not too fat, not too loud, not too clever.
From early on in life, women pick up on the subtle messages that they should not be too assertive or opinionated either. We learn that our intellect can be threatening and should be played down. We also learn that to throw, run, cry or generally be like a girl is the worst possible insult.
The church has not been immune to placing limitations on women either. Many of our faith traditions have subjected us to “The whole women-can’t-do-such-and-such-and-here’s-what-a-biblical/true/real-woman-does or submit-and-stay-home-and-have-babies subtext,” as Sarah Bessey puts it (Jesus Feminist, p. 47).
Women often receive the message that their value lies in being a wife and mother. We are expected to be compliant, nurturing, submissive, and the grateful recipient of male approval and attention.
We soon find out that if we comply with the social and cultural expectations imposed on us, life goes well, but that if we don’t, either through choice or circumstance, there are consequences to be paid.
For some women, the consequences are severe and involve threats, violence and even death. For others, the consequences are more subtle: we are judged, shamed and excluded. We are shouted over and talked down to. Our perspective is dismissed as too emotional, too irrational, too female.
In the story of the woman at the well, we meet another woman who is bound by social and cultural limitations. She is female, so seen as inferior, and a Samaritan, so hated by the Jews. She’s also had five previous husbands which makes her appear to be of dubious character. These are all good reasons why Jesus should have nothing to do with her at all, according to the prevailing culture.
Set against this backdrop, however, and our own culture’s attitudes to women, the way Jesus treats the woman at the well sweeps in like a powerful thunderstorm clearing away an oppressive atmosphere.
She is inherently valued as a person
…Jesus, tired as he was from his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:6-7)
By ignoring social convention and initiating a conversation with this woman, Jesus shows her dignity and respect. In asking for a drink, he is emphasising their common humanity, their shared need for water. He treats her as someone with value, someone worth his time and attention, someone who can give to him, as well as receive from him.
As their conversation continues, Jesus takes her seriously. He doesn’t dismiss her questions but answers them, assuming her intellect is robust enough to cope with theological and metaphorical concepts they talk about.
By the end of their discussion, this woman is beginning to understand Jesus as the Messiah. In valuing who she is, Jesus opens the door for the Samaritan woman to recognise who he really is.
She is known and loved
“You are right in saying, “I have no husband,” for you have had five husbands and the one you are now with is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:17-18)
Traditionally, these verses have led to the assumption that the Samaritan woman was promiscuous and is being called out by Jesus on her behaviour. However, several commentators suggest that, as women at this time were not able to initiate divorce proceedings unless they were being abused, it seems more likely to suggest that she had either been abandoned, widowed or treated badly by her previous husbands. Perhaps she is not such a ‘fallen woman’ after all.
However we decide to interpret these verses, this woman is more than likely to be broken, hurting and disappointed. She has probably been shamed, judged and ignored by a society that only values her in relation to the men in her life.
Jesus, though, doesn’t bring up her circumstances to shame her or expose her. He wants her to understand that he knows everything about her and accepts her as she is. He sees her as significant where others have dismissed and overlooked her. He calls her into a relationship with himself – the only one who can truly quench her thirst.
This moment becomes the turning point in the whole story. Being known and loved is the key that releases this woman from the limitations of her shame.
She is returned to herself
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?” (John 4:28-29)
At the end of their conversation, Jesus gives the woman no instructions. He allows her the space to choose her own response and to shape her own future. With her newly restored sense of self-worth and self-confidence, the woman returns to her town to lead many of her fellow Samaritans to follow Jesus; and with that, the ministry of the first female preacher is begun.
The Samaritan woman is not named by the biblical text, but according to church tradition, she was called Photini, which means light. She is mentioned in 4th century sermons as being first among the apostles and evangelists and was responsible for the wide spread of the gospel, before eventually being martyred at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in the year 66.
In the story of this woman who met Jesus at the well, we are presented with someone who left behind her water jar and, with it, left behind the limitations placed on her by her society and culture. In Jesus, she found that there were no limitations, only the glorious freedom to be fully alive and fully herself: fully known, fully loved, full of significance and purpose in the kingdom of God.
What are some of the limits you have found society/culture placing on you? How might Jesus want to lead you into greater freedom?