By Roberta Karchner
Homily given at Tri-County Ministries, Missouri, on Sunday, March 22, 2014, in response to the author's visit to the 58th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women
Today, we read from John 4:7-26:
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans). Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Do you ever wonder about this unnamed women—simply known as “The Samaritan Woman”?
What brought the attention of Jesus to her? He knew who she was before she ever arrived, I can’t help but wonder if he chose to wait there for his disciples just for this encounter. He knew who she was, and he sat waiting, knowing she needed him.
If you read further, you will read that the disciples were amazed, not at the fact that Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan, but that he was carrying on a conversation with a woman!
In the days of Jesus, women had no status within the community. They had no rights. A husband could divorce them simply by saying so. They could not divorce their husband even for abuse. They could not own property, they could not hold a job. Their only identity was based in who they were married to. If their husband divorced them, they had limited choices. They could be accepted by another man as a wife, they could return home to their family in shame, or they could become a prostitute.
This woman had been rejected seven times by seven men. She was hanging on by a thread, living with a man who would care for her, even if she wasn’t married to him. And as she walked to the well that day, Jesus was sitting there waiting for her.
The last two weeks [during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, thousands of concerned women and leaders of advocacy for women] have emphasized issues that still exist around the world when it comes to women just like the Samaritan woman.
First of all, while we are greatly privileged in the United States, we have far to go. Looking quickly at our senate, we discover that 80 percent of our senators are male. Only one is Black. Our Congress is slightly better, with 100 females serving (out of 435), making it 77 percent male, and 43 minority members, or 10 percent. That imbalance impacts every law, every treaty, every agreement we make.
At the state level, only four states have more than 30 percent female representation in their legislature.
Why does it matter? When decisions are made for females by males, when women don’t sit at the table when it comes to actions, our voices and our concerns are not heard. We are the woman at the well, living in a world outside of our control.
Since we speak loudest by joining together, during the last two weeks, 20 faith-based organizations who are members of Ecumenical Women at the UN (that includes Presbyterian Women from the PC(USA)) joined 6,000 other women to speak, not to Congress, but to the international community. What concerns did ecumenical Christian women have?
The first was poverty and hunger. Like the woman at the well, millions of women and children live in a world filled with poverty. Here in the United States, 49 million people live below the poverty line. More than 16 million of them are children still attending school. They are at risk every single day because of not having enough food to eat.
The second issue was access to quality education, employment, and decision making. While we have made strides in this area in the United States, there are still many areas of discrimination, the issue of political careers being only one of them. Women have jobs, but there is still a glass ceiling—an area beyond which women aren’t invited to participate.
Like the woman at the well, women often aren’t allowed to possess the land they work, receive pay for the work they do, or have fair representation about issues that impact them, including whether their children go to war.
The third issue advocated by our group involved the right of people to health care. I know this has been a hot issue in the United States concerning access to health insurance, but the larger issue is more fundamental. I became very aware during my visit to the UN of maternal health care needs around the world.
Every two minutes of every day, a woman dies giving birth to a child. While we are in worship today, 30 women will die in childbirth. In South Sudan, a 2012 report entitled says that one in seven women will die in pregnancy or childbirth.*For nearly 3,000 infants who are born today, today will also be their only day of life. They will be born and die in a single day. More than four million children a year do not survive their first month of life.
Why, in today’s world, does this happen? It goes back to our first discussion, that of poverty. Both political and social boundaries, as well as economic ones, leave women on their own to bear children. One group I connected with at the United Nations is now creating what is called birth kits. The most important items in these kits are a piece of plastic for the woman to lie on so the baby isn’t born in the dirt. A bar of soap to wash the hands of the person delivering the child, a sterile knife, and strings to tie the cord so the baby and mother won’t hemorrhage are next. Finally, a simple receiving blanket and cap to keep the baby warm increases their ability to survive.
There are other programs that extend this care, but we could turn the world around with these simple kits for every woman who needs a safe way to bear their children.
Of course, we have focused often on the issue of violence against women and children. Jesus knew what it was. He saw the inequity in his own world. He knows about the violence in our world.
One of the hardest side events for me to sit through at the UN involved protecting women and children during natural disasters. Following typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, while much of the world is struggling to bring relief to the people impacted, there are those who step in and use the devastating event as an opportunity to enslave those who have been made vulnerable by the event. The opportunists come in with promises of jobs for torn families or adoption of little girls, and they prey on those whose lives lie in ruins; they take advantage by ensnaring vulnerable human beings for human trafficking.
Imagine being seven years old, losing your entire family. Someone comes in claiming to be there to help. You are sold into conditions where you are routinely subjected to acts that you as a seven-year-old shouldn’t even know about.
As a pastor, I am also aware of the issues of domestic violence, both here in our country and in countries around the world. It is a sad world, and women and children still need protection in every country.
What did Jesus do? He reached out to women, He called the children to come to him. To Jesus, every person is a valued child of God.
And so we find him waiting for the woman at the well, approaching her when she didn’t approach him. Ministering to her, not in words about religion, rather in words that had meaning because he chose to talk to her in spite of her issues, in spite of her failures, in spite of her being a woman who had seven husbands die or reject her. He knew who she was, and yet he offered her the water of life.
What can we do?
- We can listen, we can talk, we can share.
- We can be the hands and feet of Jesus reaching out to every woman coming alone to every well.
- We can let them know that every human being, both male and female, are valued children of God.
- We can give them hope, when hope is gone.
- We can share of our bounty, we can advocate for them to give them justice.
- We can be the people that God called us to be.
Whose side will YOU sit at today?
- Presbyterian Ministry at the UN (on Facebook and https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/un.
* “Women’s Security in South Sudan: Threats in the Home,” by Geneva-based think-tank Small Arms Survey (SAS), which says a national survey carried out in 2006 indicating 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births may have been an underestimation.
Roberta Karchner is pastor of three Presbyterian churches in Missouri.