“So in traveling through Samaria and seeking out conversation with the woman at the well,” I said, “Jesus makes clear that this new abundant life he offers is for all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, social class, political or national affiliation.” It was a Sunday morning at my home church in the Pacific Northwest, and I was preaching out of John 4, describing Jesus’ radical encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in our series on heroes of the faith.
“Jesus demonstrates that not only is he welcoming outsiders into this new life, but he is making space for them to participate fully in leading others to encounter him. The woman in search of a well and some water discovers that the Spirit could transform her life into a well. Jesus affirms that she belongs, that her voice and her testimony matter, and that she could be a part of bringing other people into that place of belonging.” I went on to describe how in 1st century Israel, a woman’s testimony held so little value that it wasn’t admissible in a court of law. Jesus’ interaction with this woman set her patriarchal culture on its head, revealing his Kingdom to be a place where the last are first, leaders wash feet, foolish things shame the wise, a place where the outcast finds their voice and place.
“If we are a community attempting to model our lives after Christ,” I urged the congregation, “we must actively and intentionally seek out the marginalized, the weak, the voiceless, and invite them to the table with us, to share a bucket of water, to be full, valued participants in this Kingdom life, to be people whose voices matter in our church.” I closed the message with this exhortation, and joined the prayer team at the front of the auditorium as the worship team brought the service to a close. I took a few deep breaths as the guest worship leader approached the microphone, strumming his guitar.
“Lord,” he prayed, “we ask that your Holy Spirit would go with us to our homes. And may the men continue to be priests of their home Lord, and rightly share your word in their families.”
My eyes shot open, unable to contain my shock. I quickly searched for my sister’s face in the third row; she and the people sitting around her were equally stunned at his clear attempt to undercut everything I had just preached; to somehow make up for or cancel out my asking the congregation that we rise up and be a community that values the voices of women. Shake it off, Sarah, I said quietly to myself. You’ve still got to pray for people. I tried to focus on my breath as the song continued, hoping my already red cheeks weren’t giving away my surprise at his comments. After a few moments had gone by, one of the church elders, a man roughly my father’s age, approached me quietly.
“Sarah,” he whispered. “Will you pray for me?”
“Of course,” I responded, breathless, perhaps as surprised by this request as I was by the commentary leading up to it. I laid my hand on his shoulder and whispered a few words to the Father on his behalf. We closed with a joint amen; he thanked me, and returned to his seat.
When people ask me about the difficulties of being a woman in ministry, I think of this Sunday morning and the thousand other stories I have like it, stories of those who respond to the scandalous good news of the necessity of men and women’s voices in this beautiful Kingdom with fear, trying ever so hard to justify their systems of who can and who can’t, who gets and who doesn’t, who leads and who follows. But when asked what keeps me going, I think of this same Sunday, and the small gesture of a kind church elder, who, much like Jesus in his interaction with the Samaritan woman, treated me like someone whose voice and ministry matter. It is small moments like this, and the knowledge that many women have yet to be told of the value of their own voices, that keeps me getting up on Sunday mornings to tell of living water.
Sarah Schwartz grew up in McMinnville, Oregon, where she began preaching in the local church the age of 16. She earned her undergraduate degree in Communication Studies from Biola University, where she helped found the school’s first chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. Currently, Sarah is pursuing her M.A. in Biblical Exposition from Talbot Theological Seminary. Some of her favorite things include Stumptown Coffee, her siblings, poetry, and spending summers on her childhood farm. You can tweet her @SarahSchwartz and enjoy her writings @http://www.sarahchristineschwartz.com