By Helen Fairbank Goodkin
Last Advent, my three year old granddaughter and I set up the crèche together. As I placed the three wise men with their camels, she said, “But Granny, where are the three wise women?” I was about to say that there were only wise men, when I realized that she was talking about Mary, along with Elizabeth and Anna, the three women who surround Jesus’ birth in Luke’s narrative. Emma made it quite clear that we had to find more figures for the crèche!
Even though these three women open the gospel in Luke, and other faithful women close it with Jesus on the cross and as witnesses to the resurrection, in between, the contributions of women to the Gospels are generally considered insignificant and their presence marginal. Their roles are demeaned; their voices muted. Even though we know from Paul that women were vital to the early development of Christianity, the Bible and the church have down played women’s roles throughout the centuries. Why, indeed, does it take a three year old to point out that there are three wise women who recognize Jesus in addition to three wise men?
Yet, there are several women in Gospels who jump out, shouting their stories, proclaiming a unique relationship with Jesus, a relationship that the apostles didn’t appear to share. These women create a relationship with Jesus based on listening and responding, upon conversation, upon respectful dialogue. On many fronts, it is this dialogue and conversation that is missing in the world today, yet here two thousand years ago, we have our models.
Let’s start with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. She is preceded by Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews who wants to speak to Jesus, but he is so afraid of what others will think that he comes in “the dark of the night.” He is mystified by what Jesus says, but instead of asking questions, he disappears from the narrative, silent until Chapter 7. Following the meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus travels home, and on the way he meets a poor Samaritan woman, alone at a well at high noon, in the brightest light of day. Despite the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus asks her for a drink of water. She is startled by this request from a Jewish man, and says so, and the two engage in what is the first Christian theological debate. Each knows well the tenants of their own faith tradition, but Jesus urges her to believe that he has a “new way,” that cares not whether one worships in Jerusalem or at the Samaritan temple, but that all “worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” Through this conversation, the woman is converted to faith in Christ, to belief in “the living water gushing up to eternal life” that Christ brings. She returns to her village and calls her neighbors to believe as well. The first woman to engage in ecumenical dialogue becomes the first Christian missionary. Yet, when is her feast day?
Tradition has not been kind to her. Instead of praising her for her knowledge, her curiosity, her willingness to be open to dialogue, she has been maligned as a “tramp,” a “prostitute,” a “five time loser” because she has had five husbands. Nothing in the text says anything about loose morals or divorce; she may have simply been widowed many times over. Yet for centuries, her remarkable dialogue with Jesus has been overlooked, while folks have built up conjectures about her “background.”
A second woman, a Canaanite or Syrophoenician, appears in Matthew and Mark. A gentile, she asks Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus has healed women and gentiles so why he chooses not to heal this child, we will never know, but he tells the poor mother he came only to serve the “children of Israel.” They must enjoy the fruits of the Kingdom before “food is thrown to the dogs.” One doesn’t have to be a parent to understand her rage, but she calmly presses her case. “My Lord,” she says, using a title of honor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In her own way, she takes Jesus to task, and he responds to the rightness of what she says and the faith with which she says it. The daughter is healed. This woman stood up to an injustice; she reminds Jesus that he came to heal the sick, all the sick, to help the poor, all the poor. She engages in dialogue with Jesus, a dialogue that causes him to change and to grow, to expand the scope of his mission. It is Jesus’ ability here to change and to grow that provides a model for us to recognize our own mistakes and change as well.
Finally, there are Mary and Martha. In Luke, you will recall, Jesus says that Mary has “chosen the better part” because she sits silently at Jesus’ feet and listens to the word. Yet, in John’s Gospel, when Jesus arrives at their home late, after their brother is already dead, both sisters greet him independently with the words, “Lord, if you had been here [sooner], our brother would not have died.” Martha, like Jesus’ mother at the wedding at Cana, knows that God will give Jesus whatever he asks. She is respectful, but she too questions him, and the ensuing dialogue expands and empowers her understanding of Jesus’ message of new life. On the other hand, Mary’s deep sadness is movingly felt by Jesus. Together, the two sisters model the life of Christian faith, struggling with life’s hardships, while engaging in conversation and questioning in order to embrace the fullness of God’s glory and promise.
Perhaps because these women were not “chosen” to be apostles, but were simply folks trying to grapple with their faith, they were not afraid speak their minds, to question, to struggle with the true meaning of Jesus’ message. In doing so, their understanding of Jesus’ message increases, and their faith grows. Dialogue such as this helps us all to clarify, to expand, and to enrich our own faith. It enables us to know and to love one another. This is the gift of conversation.
This dialogue, this conversation, is often absent today. In the church, in the nation, in the world as a whole, it is increasingly difficult to bring folks to the table for civil conversation that recognizes the complexity of situations and strives for resolutions that honor all parties, while furthering justice and peace. The world is not lacking for issues, but humankind often lacks the willingness to engage in open and honest dialogue. These women teach us that healing and reconciliation happen only through engagement with one another.
For further reading: Samaritan Woman: John Chapter 4; Canaanite/Syrophoenician Woman: Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30; Mary and Martha John Chapter 11 and Luke 10:38-42
After retiring from a career in healthcare, Helen Goodkin earned a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies at GTS, receiving the Greek Prize and the Sutton Prize for her thesis on the healing stories in Luke-Acts. She is a regular Bible study and conference leader in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast, including the Center for Christian Spirituality at GTS and the Adelynrood Conference and Retreat Center of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, and she has also been an EFM Mentor.