The latest Grove Biblical booklet is Meeting Jesus in John’s Gospel: Seven Encounters with Women by Bridget Baguley, a curate in Ely diocese. It offers a fascinating set of explorations which could be used as a basis for preaching or small group study.
This is the first part of Bridget’s introduction.
The Gospel of John is remarkable in the prominence it gives to encounters between Jesus and women, both in the frequency with which these stories occur and in their theological importance. In this booklet we will explore the stories of these women, who stand as witnesses to the identity and character of Jesus, and as examples of developing belief in him. Five of the seven episodes appear only in John.
At a time when women were generally not accorded public roles, were not accepted as reliable legal witnesses, were not to be directly taught (in particular not Torah), and were defined largely by their roles of mother and wife, it is notable both that Jesus models such an inclusive and affirmative attitude to them, and that the author of John chooses to include these episodes in his gospel. He presents the Samaritan woman as the first evangelist, Mary as an exemplar of devoted service, and Mary Magdalene as the first resurrection witness. This countercultural prominence accorded to women in John gives many scholars reason to explore attitudes towards women in the church today through the medium of these stories.
The self-declared purpose of John is given in 20.31: ‘These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ It sets out to elicit and build faith in Jesus the divine Son, the source of eternal life for those who believe. The gospel’s central focus is the person of Christ, who he was and who he is, and some of its most dominant themes are those of belief, glory and eternal life. Discipleship (knowing Jesus) is a key idea in John, and throughout the gospel people are measured by their responses to the Word made flesh. Both the characters in the narrative and readers are challenged to respond in faith to Jesus’ word (ideally without needing a sign) and to witness to his word.
Bridget then explores Jesus’ encounters with his mother Mary, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Martha, Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala. This extract from the study of Jesus and his mother in John 2 gives a good flavour.
Jesus’ apparent initial dismissal of his mother’s request may sound rude, both in addressing her just as ‘woman,’ and in refusing to do what she asks. Whilst Jesus customarily addresses women in this gospel simply as ‘woman,’ it was an extremely unusual form of address from a man to his mother. On deeper examination, it seems here to serve a theological purpose: it holds truths about Jesus and about his mother that release him into ministry and her into faithful discipleship. By calling her simply ‘woman,’ and appearing to rebut her intervention, Jesus shows himself to be under the direction and timing only of his Father in heaven; his earthly family are no longer his primary reference point.
In releasing himself from Mary’s maternal authority, he also releases her to be more than his mother—to be his disciple. His apparent refusal to answer her request is therefore neither a reprimand to her nor a refusal to get involved with a practical task such as finding more wine; rather it is an opportunity to make a distinction between the work and authority of his earthly mother and his heavenly Father.
In response, his mother acts with faith, supposing Jesus will save the situation, telling the servants to ‘do whatever he tells you’ (2.5). Her faith is a catalyst for Jesus’ action, as the disciples’ is the consequence of it. The miracle is accomplished by the word of Jesus, and his mother witnesses to the power of his words before she sees the evidence.
Here, then, is the launch of Jesus’ public ministry, with the first of his signs that reveals his glory and elicits a faith response in disciples. The colloquialism ‘On the third day’ gives a general time frame for the wedding banquet (‘…after a couple of days’) but also sets it in a context of Old Testament messianic hopes, and looks forwards to the final wedding banquet of heaven (Isa 25.6; 54.4–8; 62.5; Hos 6.2). Jesus’ identity is revealed through his glory—‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (1.14). It serves as an announcement to those who have ears that the new age is beginning; the Messiah has come. The water that Jesus changes to wine is held within jars used for purification rites; the new wine of God’s kingdom transforms the old ways into some- thing new (Hos 14.7; Jer 31.12; Amos 9.13–14). Jesus will revisit this with the Samaritan woman, as he talks about a new way of worship, and a new and living water that is the life-giving Spirit. At the end, the wine that gives life will be the blood of the vine himself. In the unnecessary extravagance of this miracle—six huge jars of the very best wine— Jesus demonstrates the abundance of the life he brings. This abundance is repeated both in later actions (12 baskets of leftovers, 153 fish caught, a pound of perfume and 100 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus’ body) and in Jesus’ teaching about his own purpose (John 6.13; 21.11; 12.3; 19.39; 10.10).
Until now, Jesus’ ‘hour’ had not come. By the end of this episode, his glory has been revealed, and his disciples believe in him. But the full revelation of Jesus’ glory and identity have yet to come—his ‘hour’ will find its fullest expression and completion in the cross, where again his mother is present.
Bridget’s conclusion offers some fascinating reflections on these encounters, including observations about the function of gender here.
In all of these ordinary meeting places, and in the extraordinary, God meets with women. He meets them as individuals—not as someone’s wife, daughter or mother (not even his own) but as potential disciples—and he expects them to respond just as he expects men to respond. John does not present Jesus as offering a special gospel for women, and nor does he offer such a thing himself. Rather, John chooses to recount episodes that show Jesus including women in the places and roles of God-encounters traditionally reserved for men (as catalyst for God’s transforming work, witness to the power of his word, theological discussion partner, responsible for sin and repentance, proclaimer of Christ’s divine identity, equal member of the household of God and apostle sent to proclaim the Lord). He uses the stories, words and experiences of women to serve as his own teaching material, as his own evidence for witness to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. John uses both women and men as paradigms of discipleship and witnesses to the offer of eternal life in Jesus. There is no division of place into domestic and public according to gender; there is no division of who may witness to whom according to gender; there is no exclusion from being sent to ‘tell my brothers’ according to gender.
The Samaritan, the woman caught in adultery, Martha, and Mary are prominent amongst the individual conversation partners where Jesus reveals his identity, vocation and the nature of faithful discipleship. At a time when human gender was most often noticed when it was female—when the norm was assumed to be male—so John’s positive portrayal of women counters negative perceptions, allowing these women to function paradigmatically for genuine disciples in general. We can confidently claim that John chose to include these encounters for a reason, as a skilful and theologically rich author. What we can only come to an informed opinion about is why he chose them. It is reasonable to suggest that in part they were included in order to highlight the gospel’s power to transcend gender restrictions.
The booklet is well worth getting hold of, and can be ordered post-free from the Grove website.
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