The discussion could transfer from here to whether religions, in general, are the cause of women being disrespected and abused. Women may be poorly treated by Christian men, by Muslim men, by Buddhist men, by Hindi men, by men in any cultural setting or religion…and by men, without regard to any religious reasoning, whatsoever. Genuine religious endeavors result from human efforts to reflect a truthful ordering (if there is one…) within a cosmic reality that predates us and human historic & contemporary relationships. False religious endeavors result from human efforts to maintain a status quo or counter-create a false ordering by unjust and inequitable means, and all religious endeavors succeed or fail according to the integrity or its lack in the humans who propagate them. If indeed there is a truthful ordering, one which justly perpetuates life, healthy communities and relationships, religions may be in accord or discord with that deeper reality. (An atheist in this framework would not be one who intellectually doubts the existence of a Deity or deities, but one who actively works against or lives in ways that counter life, community, relational reconciliation and justice.) Legal systems are derivative of religious understandings of appropriate and just ordering.
Chicken or egg? What came first, the religion-based ill-treatment of women, or men's ill-treatment of women which they seek to justify according to some religion, or according to purported intellectual, physical, emotional strengths in men or weaknesses in women? (I'd heard it said that women were incapable of handling finances, when I began working in financial markets & economics 30+ years ago. There have been endless debates over purportedly innate feminine weaknesses, throughout our lifetimes.) Insofar as humans anthropomorphically project their flawed understandings onto religious and legal systems, justice and truth are not served.
Yet, that question of where alienation began might seem irrelevant to the situation in which we find ourselves, now – the endless loop of relentless justification of alienation, devaluation and polarization between genders and belief systems.
The crux of the problem doesn't lie in our gendered differences, but in our non-gendered human abuses of power. Historically, men have held more power and women were among the permanently disenfranchised underclasses of sub-humans (still are, in many regions, and to many men). One obvious form of power can be physical strength and size. But, women aren't the only members of the underclasses. Power-abusers may abuse other families, classes, races, ethnicities, cultures, the physically different, the diversely gifted, as well as the other gender; they may abuse and bully any person with whom they don't identify. Most certainly, a power-abuser will abuse and seek to destroy any person or group who threatens their power base. Consider all the contemporary historical situations within our lifespans where those who have previously been oppressed have turned into power-abusers and money-hoarders, themselves. Proverbs 29:13-14 reads, "The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever."
Returning to the gospel of John, consider the literary situation of the Samaritan woman's story within the text. Chapter 3 presents the story of Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews" who came to Jesus "by night." Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, and chided him for his lack of understanding when Nicodemus expressed his puzzlement at Jesus' words. The dark night is surely linked to the darkness in Nicodemus' ability to comprehend and his unwillingness to be seen by fellow Jews with him (cf. Jesus' words in 3:19-21). The scene shifts to John, the Baptist, whose disciples are in discussion with another "Jew" about ritual purification. Who is clean? Who is not clean? Who is "allowed in"? Who is excluded? [The gospel writer uses "Jew" or "Jews" and the place, "Judea" to depict those who are in power, in positions of worldly authority, and which authority is too frequently not congruent with the authority by which God moves.]
The response of John, the Baptist, to his disciples' concern that people were leaving him to follow Jesus offers us a key to Nicodemus' darkness, and the light in the responses of John, the Samaritan woman, and the royal official to Jesus. John responded with the humility. First, he recognized that the real authority he possessed was given by God, in the first place. Second, John knew the Source of all true authority, and he knew himself in God's light: "You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah,
but I have been sent ahead of him.'" (3:28) Finally, that was enough, and John rejoiced in that awareness. John didn't seek to grasp more than God had given to him. (cf. Phil. 2:6) "He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease." (3:29-30)
So, let's revisit the story of the Samaritan woman in the light ("It was about noon." 4:6) of John's responses to Jesus, and its literary situation in the text. As a woman, a Samaritan, and one who – for reasons completely irrelevant to the purpose & message of the story the gospel writer was telling – had been married to 5 men, she came to draw water, joyfully received Jesus' prophetic words and mission, and went immediately to tell her village about him. Just as John's disciples first believed Jesus because of John's words, so the villagers first believed Jesus because of her words (4:39-40). Then, they believed Jesus because of his own words, and just as John decreased, so did the Samaritan woman (4:41-42). We sense the joy among the villagers to know Jesus, as "the Savior of the world." (The subtext is that Jesus is not chosen to be the Savior of the worldly, powerful insiders.)
Too often we wrongly believe that reconciliation comes at the cost of our selves. Perhaps we may recall the childishness of our youth when we rarely commended other children, for fear that commending them diminished us. Actually, reconciliation will come at the cost of our false selves, the selves that are perpetuated by lies and abuse of whatever power we possess or seek to exert over others. That power misleads and blinds us to Godself and to God's signs in and mission to the world, when that power is based in our flesh – whether gender, ethnicity, race, economic, political, educational, or religious situation, to name some examples. In order to know Jesus, who Jesus is and to accept God from whom Jesus comes,
- we recognize the gifts we possess are not from/in/of ourselves,
- we know ourselves and know how to discern wisdom in humans around us (Aside: there's hope here for Nicodemus! Cf. 3:2),
- and finally, we joyfully allow ourselves to decrease and be replaced by God and God's Son in others' sight.
Other posts in this series: Part 1