Jesus and the Ministry of Women

by Roberta Hestenes | October 31, 1990
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"Then leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 'Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?' They came out of the town and made their way toward him... Many of the Samaritans from the town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything I ever did'." (John 4:28-30, 39, NIV)

Her name is lost. We do not have the name of the first public evangelist in the Christian movement. We have the names of Peter and Andrew and Barnabas and Stephen and Paul, but we do not have her name. We only know her as the woman at the well, the woman of Samaria.

She had come to draw water. Then Jesus asked, "Will you give me a drink?'

And the woman said, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?"

She had a question. She was curious. Jesus had broken the norms of the culture and she pushed forward to find out why. She was not passive. She was not pondering inwardly. When she wanted to know something, she went for it.

Now this woman knew that she had three strikes against her. The first one was that she was a Samaritan, a minority person within the majority Jewish culture. Strike one: wrong race.

Secondly, she had five previous husbands and was living with a man now to whom she wasn't married. Strike two: wrong morals.

Thirdly (and three strikes and you're out), she was a woman. Wise men – teachers, rabbis, men who cared about their reputations – didn’t talk to women in public. It wasn't the thing to do. Besides, to have a serious conversation with a woman in public was a waste of time because generally speaking a woman was considered incapable of really understanding the deeper things. So you might talk to her about the house and the children and the water. But about God?

Nonetheless, this woman wanted to know about God and so she pushed Jesus. Jesus answered her: He revealed himself as the sent one, the anointed one, the Messiah of God.

How did she respond? The text tells us that she became an evangelist: She left her water jar and went back to her village. Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Christ because of her testimony, "He told me everything I ever did."

There are many models of ministry. Women are as diverse as men in the patterns of ministry they follow. But let's look at the response of this one woman to Jesus to learn more about the place of women in ministry.

She left her water jar. Sometimes when you engage in the service of Christ, you can't continue on with business as usual. This woman had come out to draw water, but something more important happened.

So she left her normal afternoon activity and went into town. But she didn't carry her water pot back with her; it would have been in the way.

Apparently she wasn't what we call a "Superwoman." That's the woman who tries to do it all – the traditional and the new. She's the one who works 18 hours a day so that no one will be offended and so that her work outside the home won't interfere with anything her husband wants to do. And pretty soon she has droopy wings because she is exhausted.

Not so the Samaritan woman. She left her water pot because she has something else on her mind.

She went back to her own village. That's important because sometimes the most difficult place to do ministry is the place where you know the people and they know you the best. We think that it would be easier to make a fresh start some place where people won't know us or have preconceptions about us. We carry around the baggage of our reputations and fear that people couldn't possibly take us seriously in our new callings because they have known us for years.

But this woman went back to her village. That was the place of her ministry. It was the place where she would have the most impact because her changed life would be most visible in the context of her reputation. There you could really tell whether or not what she was saying had the ring of truth to it

She issued an invitation. The form of this invitation was "come and see." She didn't impose what she had found on others; she invited.

And then she gave a witness: "Here's a man who has done something different, who has told me everything about myself, who has broken through all the stereotypes and misconceptions. Could this be the Christ?"

That's good persuasion. Give a witness, issue an invitation, and leave the audience with a question. That's the best kind of evangelism. A good evangelist is a person who introduces people to Jesus Christ so they can get directly related to him as they find out for themselves the truth of what He says.

Stereotypes Challenged

As we look at the story of this first evangelist, this woman of Samaria, we find that it challenges several stereotypes about women in ministry. Even though the New Testament is permeated throughout with a diversity of models for women in ministry, all too often when we look at our congregations there is the assumption that all women would fit into one mold, one box.

In Scripture, however, we have everything from the team ministry of Priscilla and Aquilla and the prophetic ministry of Phillip's daughters to women who were leaders of house churches, those who left their families and itinerated with Jesus, and those who were businesswomen and seamstresses.

One of the common misconceptions about women in ministry is that all women's ministry should be centered in children. However, this Samaritan woman spoke to the adults of her community, to men and women, and both responded to her ministry.

There's also the assumption that women's ministry should be primarily centered in the home, with the possible exception of the congregation as an extension of the home. But this women's particular ministry was to the community, to the broader network of social relationships. She spoke to the townspeople, not just to family members.

A third assumption is that all ministry of women is to be hidden and quiet. Yet this woman's ministry was public and verbal. In fact, she substantially disrupted the normal routine. There was nothing  quiet or hidden about what she did!

A fourth assumption that is often made about women is that their ministry should always be indirect or through others. But this Samaritan woman had a direct ministry. She had an experience with Jesus Christ and it was changing her life. It was challenging her and she shared that experience immediately and directly and, as a result, she had an impact on her whole community.

No Place for Our Gifts

I know a young woman who is the fastest rising executive in her large bank. She is a senior vice-president at the age of 34, now in charge of marketing for the Southwest. That means she has Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and California as her territory for this large, multiple chain bank. This woman handles millions of dollars every day and makes decisions which affect thousands of people.

Several months ago she went to the annual meeting of her local congregation, at which they were debating whether or not the first woman could be elected as a deacon in that congregation and sit on the governing counsel.

In that debate, five men stood up and commented on why women could not be elected to the office of deacon. One noted that women cannot think as clearly as men. A second said that women are not used to working with money and are not competent in that area and therefore cannot handle decisions about the church budget. The third charged that women who were "real" women and not "women's libbers" wouldn't want the position anyway. A fourth man observed that women never have been leaders and decision makers in the history of the church, so why start now? Finally a man who acknowledged that women were really important in the life of the congregation and said the church surely couldn't go on without them, wondered why there were trouble makers now trying to bring up this issue.

That night the congregation voted not to elect women as deacons, and my executive vice-president friend came to talk to me. "I love my church," she said, "but apparently they do not believe that I as a woman have anything to give them. I can't use my gifts there. What shall I do?"

The Gifts for Women as Well as Men

One of the challenges to the church today is to have the eyes to see and the heart to respond to what God has done in calling and gifting women as part of the body of Christ. As you read the passages in Scriptures on gifts (Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Peter 4), you don't find a word that suggests that the spiritual gifts which God gives to the church for the common good, for the building up of the body of Christ, are to be divided along sexual lines.

And as you look at the evidence in the New Testament church, you see that the gifts – from prophecy to evangelism, from teaching to helps and exhortation – were being used by women as well as men.

But will the church today acknowledge what God by the Spirit has done and is doing: calling, gifting, empowering and sending forth women?

Among the challenges facing the church today is that of the changing woman within the church. Some years ago I had opportunity in a congregation of 1800 members to speak to each of the eight fellowship groups. I talked about the changing woman and expected to find the most interest in the younger ages, because this issue has impacted those under 40 the most.

Surprisingly, that was not what I found. It was the 50-year-old woman, whom sociologists characterize as the "re-entry woman," who expressed the most interest and who evidenced the most stress. Her children have grown and left home and, at age 50, her life expectancy is at least 25 more years. So what can she do with her life?

One woman I know went to her pastor after her children had left home. This is a woman who had taught Sunday School for 20 years, been president of the woman's association three times. She had done everything that she knew how to do in her church.

So she went to her pastor and said, "My children have left home, we have enough income so that I do not have to work and I would like to give my life in meaningful service. What could I do in this church?"

Do you know what he said to her? "Every Tuesday we have a need for someone to lick the envelopes for the church mailing and we could really use some help with that."

That woman walked out of her church very depressed. Is there nothing that the church has for an older woman to do but win the cook-off contest at the church potluck? Did God put minds and energy and gifts in these women, only for it to be wasted?

There's a ministry in the home which is a valued and important one. In fact, the New Testament church is founded upon it: house churches meeting in front rooms, doors open wide. Come on in – sit down – no worry about what things look like, or how much they impress other people. But the focus is on people, relationships.

And there's a ministry in the neighborhood, in the congregation and in the community. The location of ministry is not the crucial factor. It is vocation within the location. Why am I where I am? And what am I going to do in that place?

The church needs to deploy its women in ministry. It is impossible to grow in the Christian life if you are not involved in Christian service. Ministry is essential for Christian growth. It is a response to the love of God, and gives meaning and dignity to life. To fail to use women in ministry is to shut them out of the path of growth as followers of Christ.

Another challenge facing the church today is the fact that the woman outside the church has changed and is changing. By and large the church is in danger of losing the working woman and this loss is one of the great tragedies of our age.

Over 58 percent of all American women are working for pay outside the home. Yet our women's associations, our sermons, our programs are built on the assumptions that the woman who sits in the pew is the "traditional" woman. Sadly, as long as that is our assumption, the other women won't be there.

There's no place in all too many churches for the career woman who is committed to her career, the young career-committed couple, the couple who has decided not to have children, the woman on welfare, or the poor woman who has always had to work and for whom the idea of deciding whether or not to work is only an upper-class dream.

Notice Jesus and the Samaritan woman. When the disciples came and saw that Jesus had been talking with her, the text says they were astonished but they didn't ask any questions. I think the gospel writer wants us to see the contrast between Jesus' ministry style and that of the disciples.

Jesus listened to the woman of Samaria, heard her questions, took them seriously. He didn't ridicule them, he didn't talk down to her. He listened to her, and in listening he helped her know herself better than she ever had before.

The disciples wouldn't even ask the Samaritan woman a question. They wouldn't dialogue with her. They didn't think she was important enough for that. But Jesus engaged in a conversation with a woman who was an outcast in her culture. He saw her for what she really was: A

In Luke 11:27 and 28 there is an interesting passage in which a woman in the crowd cries out to Jesus as he is moving along: "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." She wants to affirm the ministry of Mary so she affirms Mary's maternity. However, Jesus' answer in the Greek form is adversarial. "He replied, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it'." (NIV)

Mary is blessed, Christ said, because she obeyed the word of God after hearing it. She is honored because she was an obedient disciple of Jesus Christ. That's what is important.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Jesus calls a man He bids him come and die." I wonder what Jesus bids a woman do when he calls her? Bake more cookies? Lick the envelopes? Work in the nursery? Sew curtains?

There's a world out there, a world full of hurting, needy, lost and lonely people, and the ministry of women is part of God's answer to that hurting world. So when Jesus calls a woman, he calls her to come and die as well: to take up her cross, to follow, to serve.

When the church truly follows Jesus, it will call women to the fullness of what God has called them to: to all the diversity, to all the possibilities of service that are there.