Jesus on the Gospel and Gender Equality (John 4)

This week we celebrated International Women’s Day. The same day the UK government announced they would be funding more football sessions in schools for girls to improve gender equality in sport. I remember when our daughter wanted to play football at school she found it difficult to get picked for the team. The assumption then was that boys played football, while girls played netball.

But as you know sexism on the playing field is tame compared to the gender discrimination women face in career opportunities, in promotion prospects, in pay differentials, in the stereotype roles expected of men and women, even within such a liberated and enlightened society as ours.

One female executive put it like this, “To get anywhere in the corporate world a woman has to do the same work a man would do in the same job, but she must do it twice as well.” Then she added, “Fortunately, that is not difficult.” Another said, “We deserve more pay than men. After all, anything Fred Astaire could do, Ginger Rogers could do backwards and on high heels.”

But that all changed for me when after three daughters, our son was born. At least that’s the impression some people gave when they asked how I felt to have a son and heir… My reply was “I already have three heirs but am delighted to have a fourth.”   These assumptions about gender inequality also infect churches.  

I sometimes hear the comment that women outnumber men in many churches. The implication is that the church is failing to relate effectively to men.  It might actually be an encouraging sign of something very different.  Look at it from the opposite perspective, and ask why women, given a free choice of faiths, are attracted particularly to Christianity? Perhaps women have discovered something men haven’t.

How do we follow Jesus without embarrassing God?  By emulating the radical way Jesus Christ treated women and men.  Today I want us to discover how Jesus related to women – and in particular the Samaritan woman in John 4.  In our gospel reading, besides learning how Jesus shared the good news of the kingdom with her, we also find out what Jesus thinks about Gender Equality, Complementary Roles, and Shared Ministry. 

1. Jesus on Gender Equality

“Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) “Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:4-10) 

Imagine the scene. Gien Karssen observes “Reluctantly, she lifted the empty water pitcher up to her shoulder and, under the scorching noonday sun, set out along the dusty road from Sychar. She hated the very idea of this journey, but she had no alternative. She was too poor to pay a servant and being a woman of dubious reputation, she didn’t dare go to the well at a later hour when the air was cooler. She could not run the risk of meeting the other villagers when they went to the well to draw their daily ration of water. She was paying for it daily, an outcast without friends… While still a long way away, she saw a man sitting by the well. As she approached, she saw from his clothes and features that he was a Jew. She wondered what had brought him to this place. Jews had such a deep-rooted hatred of their half-brothers, the Samaritans, they avoided passing through Samaria at all costs. When travelling from Judea to Galilee, they usually made a wide detour across the River Jordan into Gentile country. But her amazement increases when the man gently asks her for a favour. So how does Jesus demonstrate gender equality? 

1.1 Jesus speaks to her

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) (John 4:7)

She is uncomfortable, ill at ease for he, a man, a stranger, a Jew is talking to her, a woman and a Samaritan, in public. It was simply forbidden for a man to talk to a woman in public. A Jewish man wouldn’t dream of doing so, even if it was his wife or daughter. But Jesus was also a rabbi which created an even greater barrier with someone of another race, another gender and another lifestyle. But that didn’t get in the way for Jesus. He spoke to this woman as a human being. He demonstrated equality.

1.2 Jesus is vulnerable with her

He asked her for a drink. Here was a man asking a woman for help, admitting he needed something. Jesus was vulnerable and open about it.  Does that make you feel uncomfortable men? Jesus was honouring her, treating her as an equal.  She was shocked that he didn’t curse her. Instead, he asked her for help. He was prepared to break traditions and taboos to bring some humanity into a potentially tense situation. Not surprisingly, she feels threatened and asks “How can you ask me for a drink?” But he doesn’t answer her question. Instead, he arouses her curiosity even further.  He not only speaks to her. He not only makes himself vulnerable.

1.3 Jesus discusses theology with her

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)

Jesus respects the fact that both women and men have God-given brains and are capable of theological inquiry. Again, Jesus is very radical here. The Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Pentateuch, taught that it was immoral to teach a woman the Law.  Jesus did not regard his Jewishness or being a man as superior. Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as having a strong character, clear convictions, courageous actions, but also gentleness and tenderness toward women. Jesus terminated the curse of the Fall and reclaimed for his Kingdom community the original creation blessing of gender equality.  All who trust in Christ are equally God’s children, without distinction or discrimination based on race or gender. In Christ there is neither male nor female. We are one in Christ. Jesus on Gender Equality. 

2. Jesus on Complementary Roles

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” (John 4:10-16)

Although man and women are equal. Equality and identity are not to be confused. Men and women differ in every cell of their bodies. Medically for example, women have been shown to have greater vitality and invariably live longer. On average men are 10% taller, 20% heavier and 30% stronger, but women are more resistant to fatigue. So, the longer the race the more likely they are to win. Since 1964, women’s marathon running times have dropped 32% compared with only 4.2% for men. If the trend continues, female marathon runners could be leaving men in the dust sometime in this century. Men and women are clearly different, not to compete but to cooperate. It is our uniqueness that gives vitality to relationships. That is why we must be careful not to accept the stereotypes our culture has inherited. 

2.1 Jesus Acknowledged the Existence of Roles  

This Samaritan woman was at the well collecting water. Jesus chose not to draw water for himself. Inevitably women bear the greater part of the burden of child bearing and rearing, and in many countries, they also collect the water. But when roles become based on gender they invariably suffer abuse and exploitation. There is no question or any hint of there being superior or inferior roles in the Bible. Scripture is equally silent about this kind of division of labour. While Jesus recognised roles,

2.2 Jesus Accepted Flexibility in Roles

The disciples had gone into Sychar to buy food. Shopping or cooking is not ‘women’s’ work, any more than it is men’s responsibility to go out and earn a living. And that is another thing that Jesus did that would embarrass many men. We read in Luke 8 that: 

“Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many other women were helping to support [Jesus and the Apostles] out of their own means.”  (Luke 8:3)

So there’s nothing new about the idea of a wife going out to work while the husband looks after the home, or in this case, gospel ministry. Jesus recognised the existence of cultural roles, but also the flexibility of roles. Our own roles should depend on gifting and talent, circumstances and mutual agreement, not cultural prejudices or stereotypes. 

2.3 Jesus Fulfilled the Ultimate Role 

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)

Jesus disregarded her question because he knows her greatest need. Gien Karssen again, “He aroused her curiosity by speaking about living water. If only she knew who it was speaking to her, she would have asked him for a drink. That would truly be the answer to her problem. No more daily journeys to draw water.

She didn’t realise that the water from all the world’s oceans could not quench her thirst. Her deepest need was in her soul. 

That is why he had come to Samaria. Remember verse 4 says “Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria”. Jesus had to, in order to meet her.  She didn’t understand Jesus, engrossed in her daily problems, she had neglected the needs of her soul. “Give me some of this water so that I will not be thirsty again.” His answer was a simple, “Go call your husband and come back.”

 “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.” (John 4:17-19)

“This was so embarrassing… Were there no secrets from this man? Her life was an open book to him. And yet he neither despised nor blamed her. He made her acutely conscious of her sin without condemning her. “I see you are a Prophet” is all she could say. Then, she began to talk about religion and how it divided people. This was safe territory in which to hide.

But Jesus would not be diverted from the purpose for which he had come. God is looking for his lost sheep. He comes searching for them as surely as Jesus did that day. And Jesus simply asked her “Woman, believe me.” (4:21).

A longing for the Messiah filled her heart. The Messiah would clarify everything that remained ambiguous and obscure. Jesus said ‘I am the Messiah’. For her, and only for her, he had come to the much-hated Samaria. For her, he had bypassed Jewish rules and regulations. The Messianic hour had come. Time for discrimination based on race or gender was past. Every human being, however sinful, was welcome in the presence of God – on two conditions: First, we must acknowledge our sin and confess it. Second, we must trust in Jesus Christ – that is, believe in him. He is the Mediator between God and man. He bridged the chasm between a holy God and fallen world. In that split second, it seems, she saw it all so very clearly. She was sinful. He was gentle, compassionate, forgiving, redeeming. And it seems she received him into her heart. 
She said ‘yes’ to Jesus. We know from what happened next. We’ve considered Jesus on gender equality and complementary roles.

3. Jesus on Shared Ministry

Jump forward to the evaluation, when the disciples return, they are astounded Jesus is speaking with a woman. Jesus replies,

“I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.” Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:38-42)

Let me ask you, whose ministry was more effective? The Apostles or this woman? The apostles, twelve men, the twelve personal representatives of Jesus Christ, had been sent into Sychar to buy food. What did they do? They bought food. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to tell people in Sychar that the Messiah was near by their well. Jesus sent the woman back to get her husband. What does she do? She brings back the entire village!  What does this teach us?

3.1 Ministry Grows on Relational not Terminal Thinking (4:27)  

The Apostles were thinking simply of the food that would make them hungry again. She wanted to share the compassion and the forgiveness she had experienced in Jesus. When the Apostles returned they were shocked that Jesus was even speaking to a woman. “What do you want?” “Why are you talking to a woman?” they thought (John 4:27). We need to be imaginative in ministry, thinking about possibilities and not just prescriptions. Ministry grows on relational not terminal thinking. 

3.2 Ministry Flows from Experience not Theory (4:28-38)

Notice that this woman didn’t have all the answers. She didn’t even know who Jesus really was, but she had begun to experience the love of God. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29) That was enough. That’s what mattered. Her shyness was gone. She could acknowledge her past without hesitation or fear. The people, seeing the remarkable change in her, hurried from the village to Jacob’s well. There they met the Messiah. And Jesus did for them what he had done for the woman. He set them free. By contrast the Apostles earn a gentle rebuke from Jesus. The Apostles may have been sent to buy food but clearly Jesus thought they were short sighted for failing to recognise Sychar was ready for revival. So ministry grows on relational not thinking, it flows from experience not theory. 

3.3 Ministry is Functional not Positional  (4:38-42)

Jesus hadn’t ordained this woman. She never been to theological college. She didn’t have a Bishop’s licence to preach in Sychar. The Apostles were the ones who had been commissioned. 

“I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.” (John 4:38)

This woman was Spirit led and that’s all that mattered. She didn’t need to be told to witness.

“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:39)

The New Testament pattern for ministry is functional not positional.  The giving of titles followed the recognition of ministry. Not the other way round. In our Gospel reading we have discovered Jesus’ view on Gender Equality, Complementary Roles, and Shared Ministry. Jesus spoke with this women, was vulnerable with her and discussed theology with her. Jesus led her to a saving faith which became a joyful, liberating, infectious faith, which brought many other people to recognise Jesus as their Lord and Saviour even among the despised outcasts of Samaria. 

So how can we be positive about women without being negative about men? How can we follow Jesus without embarrassing God? By treating women and men the way Jesus did – with dignity and respect. By respecting gender equality, by recognising complementary roles and by encouraging shared ministry. As both women and men, we like the Samaritan women, also learn to say ‘Yes’ to Jesus.

Recommended Reading

Gien Karssen, Her Name is Woman (FisicalBook)
Bruce Milne, The Message of John (IVP)
St Helen, Bishopsgate, John’s Gospel: Read Mark Learn (Zondervan)
Merrill Tenney, John, The Gospel of Belief (Eerdmans)

Questions for Group Discussion or Personal Reflection

  1. Jesus encounter with the Samaritan women follows his meeting with Nicodemus. What are the similarities between the two episodes?
  2. What are the striking differences between the two?
  3. What point is John making by placing one encounter after the other?
  4. What underlies Jesus’ request that she fetch her husband? 
  5. What does God seek according to these verses?
  6. What does God give? 
  7. How are his purposes fulfilled in Jesus?
  8. What do these verses teach us about eternal life?
  9. What do they teach us about true worship?
  10. How does this encounter challenge the disciples’ assumptions and prejudices?
  11. What basic realities of his and their mission does Jesus share with his disciples? 
  12. How do the women and villagers show they have understood what Jesus was teaching? 
  13. What is so significant that the Samaritans call Jesus ‘Saviour of the world’?