Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

Sermon: Meeting God at Wells

In honor of Vice President Mike Pence not eating alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, I decided to repost this sermon about when Jesus hung out all by himself with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well. I originally preached this sermon in Lent, 2008.

Meeting God at Wells
3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
John 4:4-30, 39-42

Water. Life is dependent on it. In biblical times this meant wells and springs were life. And life was dependent on them. Women were the ones who drew water. They were at wells…a lot. Women not only drew water for their households. They also herded animals mostly sheep, to the wells to water them. Jan Richardson notes this about women and wells:

In God’s lexicon of water, wells have a particularly interesting place. Women at wells: more intriguing still. See a woman near a well, something momentous is bound to happen. It usually involves a person of the male persuasion, and it augurs a major change in the woman’s life. Genesis gives us a rich trinity of woman-at-the-well stories. In Genesis 21, God provides a well to a desperate Hagar and her son Ishmael, who lies near death in a waterless wilderness. Genesis 24 tells of a servant who finds Rebekah, Isaac’s bride-to-be, at a well. Another well serves as a signal of matrimony in Genesis 29, when Jacob meets Rachel at the well where she waters her father’s sheep. The matrimonial symbolism of wells finds a striking resonance in the Song of Songs….Particularly given the intimate, fertile link between women, wells, marriage, and motherhood, one might rightly wonder what the heck Jesus is doing, hanging out by a well with a lone woman, as he does in this week’s Gospel lection, John 4.1-42. I’s a curious thing for a single rabbi to strike up a conversation with a woman he finds at a well. But Jesus is a curious sort of rabbi, and so he wades into an exchange with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw her water at noonday.

Although wells have matrimonial links, two women did not meet husbands at wells: they met God. Richardson notes one of those times in Genesis 21. But Genesis 21 isn’t the first time Hagar had a rendezvous with God at a well or spring, our reading from Genesis 16 is.

Hagar was the first woman to meet God at a well. She was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. She had no say over what happened in her life or her own body. Sarah, desperate for a child, gave Hagar to Abraham as his concubine. After she became pregnant, Hagar may have thought Abraham would make her his second wife. After all, she was the one who would give him his long awaited heir, not Sarah. Hagar apparently started looking down on Sarah. Sarah complained to Abraham that Hagar looked at her with contempt. Abraham said Hagar was her slave, and she could do whatever she wanted to rein Hagar in. Sarah started treating Hagar harshly. Hagar ran away from Abraham and Sarah and ran into God.

God simply wants to know why Hagar is at the spring, and she tells God: she is running away from Sarah. God instructs her to go back and promises her that she will multiply Hagar’s offspring, so that they cannot be counted. God also instructs her to name her son Ishmael, for God has heard her affliction. God extends the covenant promise to Hagar and her son. Hagar is the first woman, and the first person, in the Bible to name God. She calls God, the One who sees. God has seen her pain and affliction, and she has seen God. Hagar goes back and bears Ishmael. She remains in slavery to Sarah until 14 years later, after Isaac is born and weaned. Sarah wants no competition for her son and has Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. In the desert with no food and water, Hagar once again sees God, who reveals a well to her. God reassures her of the promise before Ishmael was born: he will grow into a great nation.

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Bishop-Abbess and Homemaker: St. Brigid of Kildare

St. Brigid icon by Katherin Burleson

February 1 is the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare. Brigid is one of my favorite saints. The primary reason she is one of my favorites is because we can’t separate history from legend when it comes to her story. She’s part woman, part saint, and part goddess. Throw in a few miracles and Brigid time traveling to be Mary’s midwife and the foster-mother of Christ, himself, and you just have one good story (and I love a good story).

Here is what we do know about Brigid: she created the first monastic community that grew into the most renowned monastic city in Ireland, Kildare. Brigid was the abbess of the convent and church and the leader of the town that grew up around Kildare. She was known for her piety, her hard work, and her hospitality. She worked side by side with her nuns tending sheep and milking cows, along with weaving and cooking. Gifts given to the monastery by the rich were given to the poor or sold for food. No one was turned away from her convent, and she provided for all. One of the legends say that Brigid could speak to a cow and get her to give milk three times a day when she needed it for visitors. Here is a table grace attributed to Brigid:

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God embrace.

Kildare grew so big that Brigid could no longer run it alone. A local bishop, Cloneth came to the monastery to help her and he brought monks with him. The monks were master silver and bronze smiths who created beautiful silver and metal ornaments to go with the nuns’ woven and embroidered tapestries throughout the monastery and church. One of her biographers, a monk who lived at Kildare during Brigid’s life, said this about the monastery and town:

But who could convey in words the supreme beauty of her church and the countless wonders of her city, of which we speak? “City” is the right word for it: that so many people are living there justifies the title. It is a great metropolis, within whose outskirts–which Saint Brigid marked out with a clearly defined boundary–no earthly adversary feared, nor any incursion of enemies. For the city is the safest place of refuge among all towns of the whole land of the Irish, with all their fugitives. It is a place where the treasures of kings are looked after, and it is reckoned to be supreme in good order.

Cogitosus also hinted in his biography that Brigid functioned as a bishop preaching, hearing confession, and ordaining priests. The lines between laity and clergy, and the roles between men and women, were not as fixed in Ireland as they were in other places in Europe. It is possible that abbesses as powerful and influential as Brigid did function as bishops (this would quickly change once the Roman Catholic church gained a foothold in Ireland).

Roses Kildare Ireland by hugh.carlow/Flickr

Now it’s time for the fun stuff. As I mentioned before, the Celtic tradition honors Brigid as Mary’s midwife, Jesus’ wet nurse, and his foster-mother. “Time” was not a fixed, linear progression for the Celtic people. The material world and spiritual world intertwined in and out of each other. There were thin places were one could cross from one world to another with time running differently. This is why the legend of Brigid at the birth of Jesus was entirely believable for the Celts. The material and spiritual were not separate worlds in their thought. I also like this legend because, being the post-modern that I am, I like the idea of putting yourself into the story. Where am I in the grand story of God’s people? How is this story, my story? How is my story now becoming a part of the whole story? Brigid went on to become the spiritual mid-wife to Celtic women giving birth, and the midwife called Brigid into the house to assist in the birth.

Back before the stories of Brigid helping Mary and hanging her cloak on a sunbeam to dry out, Brigid was a goddess in the Celtic pantheon. She was the goddess of poets, blacksmiths, and healers. She was a triple goddess revealing herself as maiden, mother, and crone. The fair maiden to poets, the mother creating new life to blacksmiths, and the old wise woman who knows how to heal. She has long been the symbol of spring coming to the land and the arrival of more light during this time of the year. February 1 is her day, and she was called on to protect the sheep who at this time would be carrying lambs. In the Christian tradition she is remembered for being able to coax cows into milking, and for being able to churn butter for everyone who needed it.

Milking cows and churning butter brings us back into the everyday realm. There is a strong domestic atmosphere in the stories of St. Brigid. Brigid’s life revolves around the home: giving away food to the poor, churning butter to feed all those who lived in the area, sweeping the floor, sewing, and herding both cattle and sheep. She kept her monastery in good order for visitors. Her love for domesticity naturally led to her generous hospitality. There was always food, clothing, and a bed in her house for those who needed it. Like so many women, Brigid wanted a well-run house where her family (her nuns) would have a nice home, and those who visited would find refuge. I am surprised at how domestic I’ve become in the last few years. I’ve realized I’m becoming more like Brigid. I want a clean, orderly house that can be a home and refuge for my husband and I. I also want to extend hospitality to our friends and give them a place to come eat, drink, and be merry. I want them to find a refuge for awhile, rest and have fun while they are under our roof.

As the light comes back this spring, let us remember Brigid: a woman committed to her God, to helping the poor, and to taking care of all who came to her. She established a community that became a light to all who wanted to come pray, learn, work, or needed shelter and food. She believed that everyone was part of the realm of God, and for that reason alone should be treated with respect and cared for. Everyone should have a home they can come to. There is room at the table for all. There is enough food to go around. And if not, Brigid will be seen whispering in the ears of her milk cows.

A Collect for the Feast of St. Brigid:

Everliving God, we rejoice today in the witness of your servant Brigid of Kildare, who served as courageous leader and mentor, faithfully shepherding both men and women in her monastery and guiding them into holiness of life: Inspire us with life and light, and give us perseverance to serve you in our own day. This we ask in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (From The Saint Helena Breviary, Personal Edition, 281).

Here are two other wonderful posts about Brigid:

A Habit of Wildest Bounty: Feast of St. Brigid at Jan Richardson’s The Painted Prayerbook.
Celtic Prayer: Brigid, Comrade-Woman by Elizabeth Cunningham at The Virtual Abbey.

Originally posted February 1, 2010.

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Dame Wisdom in Action

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Dame Wisdom in Action
Proverbs 31:10-31

Ah, the Proverbs 31 woman, let me count the ways I hate thee. I grew up hearing about this woman every Mother’s Day. How she was a good and submissive wife who obeyed her husband and took care of her kids and was happy with her life in the home. If you come from a conservative or fundamentalist Christian background like I did, you know what I’m talking about. Every single Mother’s Day the male pastor brushes off this passage and preaches how a good Christian woman ought to act. She’s the best wife, mother, and homekeeper of them all. She eschews the public sector to take care of her home and family. She keeps her house clean, obeys her husband and submits to him. She is a wonderful mother, and gets the meals on the table on time. She’s SuperWifeMom.

By the time I hit my teens I was groaning and tuning the pastor out. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was single, not too sure if I wanted to get married, and I knew I didn’t want do the whole kids thing. I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day. If there was one Saturday I conveniently forgot to set my alarm clock and not make it to church, without feeling guilty about it, it was Mother’s Day.

Unfortunately for the conservative evangelical background I grew up with, it was beat into my head that every good Christian reads the Bible for herself. She sees what is there, so she won’t fall into error. This backfired where I am concerned. I did read my Bible. I wanted to know what it said, and how I should act. And I noticed something. I noticed that what I heard all those years about the Proverbs 31 woman was not all of the story. In fact most of what I heard wasn’t even in the story! This woman was not restricted to her home and family. I got to know an entirely different women when I read her story for myself.

This woman is a household manager, industrious, produces and sells textiles, brings in income for the family, oversees planting of a vineyard and uses her own money to set it up. She has servants she oversees, she gives to the poor, and her household is a small business that provides for her family, and her husband is praised for it. This is not the picture of the stay-at-home mother that is normally depicted in sermons. She works both inside and outside of her home.

I learned there is a big difference when the Bible talks about a wife and how we talk about a wife, particularly a housewife. Carole Fontaine said this about that difference:

In the Bible, the term wife encodes a set of productive and managerial tasks that, along with a woman’s reproductive role, were essential to the existence of the Israelite household. There is no equivalent understanding of “wife” as a social category in the modern West, where women’s household work does not usually contribute to the family economy and tends to be ignored, trivialized, minimized, or otherwise degraded. The often insulting idea of “just a wife and mother” would have had no meaning in the biblical world.

Or as Rabbi Rosenfeld said at the beginning of his lecture on Proverbs 31: “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Women have ALWAYS worked outside the home, and EVERY mother is a ‘working mother!” Women’s work was necessary for the survival of the family, and she generated income for the family. Textiles—the spinning, weaving, and making of fabric goods–drove the ancient economy for 20,000 years. Women’s work was the backbone of the ancient economy and the ancient household. And I will love Deirdre McCloskey forever for pointing that out to me. So this woman was much more than the imaginary 50s housewife some segments of Christianity hold up as the good Christian wife. I’m not hating her as much.

Then I discovered something about her this week that I never knew, and I may just be darn close to falling in love with her. While reading up on this passage one of the writers pointed out that this poem is filled with military imagery. In fact the word translated as capable in “a capable wife who can find?” is hayil. When it’s used for a man it’s translated as “strong” or “mighty,” and it’s normally used in the context of war. It also means the power that is able to acquire strength through gaining money and raising an army. Right off the bat, we are told this is a strong woman who knows how to get things done.

Then verse 11 says: “[her husband] will lack no gain” or spoils or booty. The writer, Raymond Van Leeuwen notes that using this word here is strange because it “suggests the woman is like a warrior bringing home booty from her victories.”

In verse 16 she “considers a field and buys it.” Here the word “buy” may not the best translation of the Hebrew. Literally, she “takes” the field, and this word is normally used of an army taking a city or a region. It means to conquer and subdue a territory. This verse shows the woman looking at a wild field and figuring out how to tame it and subdue it into a vineyard. In the Judean highlands turning a plot of land into a vineyard took a massive amount of work. The soil was rocky, and all of the rocks had to be removed, then the land terraced, and the rocks built into a wall, so that the vineyard didn’t wash down the hillside at the first good rain. It also had to be terraced to make sure that enough water stayed in the vineyard so the vines could grow. Like a general this woman surveys her battlefield and plans her attack. Anyone who has ever gardened knows this is not an over-exaggeration.

Verse 17 has the most obvious military language: “she girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong” or in the good old King James Version, she “girded up her loins.” Men normally girded up their loins in the Bible for a heroic deed; a deed that involved fighting. Having a strong arm is another Biblical metaphor for being battle ready.

The end of the poem comes back to where we began with the word hayil. In verse 29 the woman’s husband tells her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Here hayil is translated as “done excellently.” The woman has done deeds of strength and power that again refer to warfare and gaining wealth. “Surpass them all” is another idiom for military activity–as in the army met the enemy and bested them.

So we see that this woman is not only pictured as a manager, entrepreneur, and merchant, she is also pictured as a military leader. There is nothing submissive or docile about this woman. She makes textiles, buys, sells, and fights for her family’s survival and good. And yes, she still sounds like SuperWoman. But there is a reason for that. Just as this woman is not the fictional housewife of the 50s, she is also not just a woman either.

I’ve always wondered why Proverbs 31 ended with this poem about this woman. So have others. It seems odd. And after all the focus on wisdom and gaining it, why does this book end with a woman going about her mundane daily activities? Part of the answer to this is how the Jewish sages defined wisdom. Wisdom was not just knowledge gained for knowledge’s sake. Wisdom was knowledge that was to be applied to everyday life. In the Bible God created the world and set boundaries and laws to govern what she created. Wisdom sought to define those boundaries and apply those laws to their daily lives. This woman is living wisdom.

But there is another reason why this book ends with a woman. It began with one. At the end of Proverbs 1 we are introduced to Dame Wisdom. We find out that Wisdom was with God when God created the heavens and earth. In fact, She was the master designer and architect of creation. She watched God bring order out of chaos. She rejoiced in creation, and calls out in the public square and city gates for men and women to follow her. She wants us to learn Her ways, so that She can give us good lives. She builds a house, prepares a feast, then goes out again to call everyone to come into Her house, eat Her feast, and learn Her ways. She continues to create and bring order to the world. After the tabernacle and temple are finished in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are huge feasts for all the people to celebrate. Wisdom does the same. She builds Her house then invites everyone over to celebrate. The last thing we hear about in Proverbs 9 is Dame Wisdom.

And the last thing we hear about in the book of Proverbs is the Wise Woman in the 31st chapter. The reason Proverbs ends with this woman is that it is showing us Dame Wisdom in action. This woman does everything Wisdom does in earlier chapters: she creates, brings order to chaos, feeds and clothes her family, and takes care of the poor. She doesn’t just live wisely, she is Wisdom Incarnate. These verses do not describe what the typical woman of that day is like. They are showing us Wisdom hard at work in the everyday world.

She shows us what we are called to do. Just like Dame Wisdom and the Wise Woman of Proverbs 31 we are called to live wisely in our everyday, mundane lives. We are called to learn what God wants, where our boundaries are and live by that everyday. For ancient Israel the boundary was there is only one God, YHWH, and YHWH alone will you worship and obey. For us as Christians our boundary is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is our boundary. Day by day we have to figure out how to live that love at home, at work, in the store, on the sidewalk, and at church. Within the boundary of that love, we are called to create, to order the chaos around us, to build God’s realm and to celebrate God’s reign here on earth. Or as Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:

And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,–
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.

Our call is to see God in our world and then live what we see. When we follow Wisdom and listen to Her, our eyes will be opened, and we will see the holy in everything. When we see the holy all around us then we will know how to live our own lives and show that holiness, God’s love, to others.

Originally posted on September 22, 2009.

Related Posts
Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman
Proverbs 31: A “Capable” Wife, Huh?
Poem: In the Beginning Was

The Last Shall Be First: The Women at the Cross and Tomb

footofthecross2The past few years I have been on a mission to write, preach, and teach the women of Holy Week back into our Holy Week liturgies, practices, and Scriptures. In this post we’ll learn about the women at the cross and tomb in Mark.

Women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. They had followed him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. That evening, because it was the Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea came. He was a prominent council member who was also looking forward to the reign of Godde. He dared to go to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was amazed that he might already be dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had been dead long. When he confirmed it with the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. He bought a linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been cut from rock. He rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Joses’ mother Mary saw where he was laid (Mark 15:40-47, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

Mark’s Passion Narrative began in chapter 14 with the female prophet who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his burial. Mark’s Passion ends with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, and “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” bearing witness at the cross, and the two Marys holding vigil in front of the tomb. Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denial, trial, and crucifixion are held in the embrace of the women who “had followed him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee” and followed him to Jerusalem.

In Mark those who follow Jesus are disciples. Minister comes from the Greek word group from diakonos, which means to serve (and the word we get our word deacon from). Originally meaning “table service,” in the New Testament it becomes a specialized term which means ministers of the Word and Eucharist. In Mark the only other times minister is used are when the angels minister to Jesus after his temptation, when Peter’s mother-in-law ministers to Jesus and the disciples after Jesus heals her, and when Jesus says “the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to liberate many” in Mark 10 :45 [DFV] (which means the only man serve or minister is used for in The Gospel of Mark is Jesus. The other times the words are used refer to angels or women). Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes “Not only does Jesus take up women’s work, but women take up Jesus’ work. Women, from near the bottom of the hierarchy of power, have served and remained faithful followers to the end–although even they are ‘looking on from afar’….It is striking that Mark chooses to emphasize the presence of women followers in the absence of the male disciples at the crucial moment of Jesus’ death. Those with power can learn from those with less power” (“Gospel of Mark,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 491).

Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, and the other women continued to faithfully minister to Jesus until the end. The did not run away, they did not hide. Even if it was at a distance, they stayed with Jesus. They bore witness to his death, and they made sure he did not die alone. Mary Magdalene and Mary watched Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus then remained at the tomb holding vigil. On Sunday morning they would be the first ones back at the tomb to finish anointing Jesus’ body for burial. We come full circle: at the beginning of the Passion Narrative the female prophet anointed Jesus to prepare him for the days ahead, and now Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus from Nazareth (and the prophet could have been one of their number) now come to finish anointing Jesus’ body.

Their tenacity, perseverance, and faithfulness is rewarded: they are the first to hear of the resurrection and see the risen Jesus. As they bore witness to the death and burial of Jesus, they now bear witness to the resurrection of Christ and are commissioned to tell the rest of the disciples that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

The Last Shall Be First: The Women of Holy Week

james-c-christensen-the-widows-mite1

The past few years I have been on a mission to write, preach, and teach the women of Holy Week back into our Holy Week liturgies, practices, and Scriptures. In this post we’ll learn about the first two women we meet during Holy Week in Matthew and Mark.

When I decided I wanted to write a blog post on the women of Holy Week, I started flipping through the Gospel accounts, and I was surprised to find the first woman mentioned in Holy Week was the widow who gave her last two pennies as an offering in the Temple. For some reason I never connected her story with Holy Week. And for good reason: before her story is a list of controversies and debates Jesus was having with the religious leaders in the Temple. After her story Jesus described the Temple being destroyed, and what would happen before his second coming. Big stories with lots of drama are on either side of this humble, generous widow. First let’s look at her story:

Jesus sat down across from the treasury and watched the crowd throw money into the treasury. Many who were rich threw in large amounts. A widow who was poor came and threw in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. He called his disciples and said, “Believe me when I say that this widow who was poor gave more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, because they all gave out of their abundance, but she, poor as she is, gave everything she had – all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

This happened right after Jesus finished criticizing religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and show off with long prayers” (v. 40). Normally this woman is praised in stewardship campaigns as a person who gives unselfishly to God, trusting God will provide. But that interpretation does this woman a great disservice.

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes: “The poor widow is unlike the self-centered scribes and instead like Jesus–one who gives all. The last words of her story could well be translated ‘but she from her need cast in all of whatever she had, her whole life.’ Perhaps we are to assume that the poor widow has been victimized by the greedy scribes and by the authority of traditional religious teaching. But in this again she is like Jesus, who teaches with ‘authority, and not as the scribes’ (1:22), yet is victimized by those who hold authority in the temple and in the broader religious tradition” (Women in Scripture, 432).

Jesus’ praise of this woman who lived the life he called his disciples to live is the last thing Jesus said before he left the Temple for the last time. In contrast to the religious leaders who went after fame, wealth, and a good reputation at the cost of the poor and destitute (like this widow), she is shown to be humble, generous, and like Christ. Her offering of everything she had prefigured Jesus’ own offering of his life on the cross. Instead of being praised for stewardship campaigns this woman should be praised for pointing the way to Christ and for living the same kind of life, that Jesus himself lived: an all-encompassing sacrifice to God.

After Jesus praised this woman and left the Temple, he described the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and what would happen when he returned to institute fully the reign of God. In chapter 14 we discover this end of times discourse is nestled between two stories of women and their Christlike generosity. In Mark 14:1-11 we meet the woman who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his death and burial the day before he celebrated the Last Supper and would be betrayed by Judas (for her story see my sermon, Anointing the King). Again a woman’s story is surrounded by religious leaders who are now seeking a way to arrest and kill Jesus without having an uprising on their hands.

Once again Mark contrasts the thoughts and actions of corrupt religious men with the Christlike actions of a woman:

When he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the house of Simon who had leprosy, a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it over his head. But some got angry. “Why has this ointment been wasted?” they said to one another. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to those who are poor.” They scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you bugging her? She has done a good deed for me. You will always have people who are poor with you, and you can help them whenever you want to; but you won’t always have me. She did what she could. She poured this ointment on my body to prepare me for burial. Believe me when I say that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will be talked about in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9, DFV).

This the first scene in Mark’s passion narrative. This woman who acted as a prophet (or priest) and anointed Jesus as king began Jesus’ journey to the cross. Like the widow we see another selfless act of generosity. Whereas the widow’s offering was ignored by all but Jesus, this woman’s offering was criticized as wasteful by all but Jesus. Jesus rebuked the critics and praised the woman for preparing him for his burial. Jesus knew his road to being king went through the cross. He promised that wherever the Gospel was proclaimed this woman would be remembered, and she has been. After this woman’s extravagant gift Judas decided to betray Jesus and went to the religious authorities who paid him 30 pieces of silver to lead them to Jesus when crowds wouldn’t be around to protest his arrest.

In comparing these two women Malbon notes: “One woman gives what little she has, two copper coins; the other gives a great deal, ointment of pure nard worth more than three hundred denarii; but each gift is symbolically or metaphorically priceless. The irony that the poor widow’s gift occurs in the doomed temple is matched by the irony that the anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, takes place not in the temple but in a leper’s house (14:3), and not at the hands of the high priest but at the hands of an unnamed woman” (Women in Scripture, 433).

The widow and the prophet: these two women close Jesus’ public ministry and begin his journey to the cross. The both foreshadow Jesus’ coming death, and they both live the life of sacrificial faith that Jesus himself entered through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. They won’t be the last women we meet this Holy Week. In fact in Matthew and Mark, the entire passion is enclosed within stories of women: The prophet who anointed Jesus opens the passion, and the women who stood vigil at the tomb close the narrative. As Jesus lived through betrayal, arrest, denial, the agony of the cross, and death he was embraced in the arms of the women who followed him, obeyed him, and did not forsake him.

How will we follow these women’s Christlike examples through Holy Week and through the rest of the year? What do the widow and the prophet have to teach us about living Christlike lives?

Early leaders in the Christian faith: Dorcas, Lydia, & Phoebe

Lydia-st-lydias-261x300A friend on Facebook reminded me that today was the commemoration of Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe. Who you  may ask? Let me tell you all about them:

Dorcas

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the [Christ] (Acts 9:37-42).

You almost miss Dorcas’ story. After all most of Acts 9 is taken up with Saul’s conversion (later to become the apostle Paul) to Christianity after leading the persecution against the early church. So after God literally threw Saul off his ass (sorry I just cannot resist that one), he went blind, was healed and started preaching, the focus of the story quietly changes to Dorcas. By the time we meet her, she has died. This is a great lost to her community because she took such good care of them. And she took very good care of those who were considered the least of these: widows. Woman without a husband had no social standing at this time. They were normally destitute women who were forced to beg or to become prostitutes to support themselves and their children. If a woman did not have family at this time, she was in a very precarious place. Dorcas made sure these women had clothes. Now when the story tells us that Dorcas made the clothes, it means a little bit more than she cut some material and sewed it. First she would have to spin the fiber into thread then weave it on her loom for the tunics and clothing she made. This was truly a labor of love on her part to make sure those in her community were at least dressed. She may have also weaved pieces for local merchants to sell in order to support herself (there is no mention of a husband). As long as a woman had a loom and access to wool or flax, she could make a living. Apparently not all the widows Dorcas knew had their own looms to make their own clothes or clothing to sell. Dorcas made sure they had the clothing they needed to survive.

Her illness and death was a big loss to the community, so they sent messengers to a nearby town because they heard Peter was there. Peter came, and the widows showed him the clothing Dorcas had made them. Peter responded to their grief. After sending everyone outside, he prayed and then said to her, “Tabitha get up.” She rose from the dead and was restored to her community. News spread. More people believed in God.

Lydia

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. [God] opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to [God], come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:11-15).

Paul and his traveling companions arrived in Philippi. There was no synagogue for them to worship at, so they decided to go to the river on the Sabbath where there was a place of prayer. Lydia was at the river. She was “a worshiper of God,” and listened to Paul’s teachings. In fact, we are told God “opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” In the next verse she and her household were baptized, and she urged Paul and his travelers to stay in her house. Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in Europe.

Lydia was a businesswoman, “a dealer of purple cloth” from Thyatira. Purple dye was a symbol of power and honor in the ancient world, and it was the most expensive and sought after dye in the Roman world. Thyatira was the capitol of the industry and renowned for its purple dyes. One had to have plenty of capital to deal in purple dye and the making of purple garments for sale. Lydia was a career woman, rich, the head of her household, and Acts 16:40 implies that by the end of Paul’s stay in Philippi a new church was meeting in Lydia’s home. All of this could mean that Lydia was the overseer or pastor of the first church plant in Europe.

Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the [Christ] as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1-2).

Paul highly commended and respected Phoebe. He called her a “sister,” “deacon,” and “benefactor” to the church at Cenchreae as well as a sister and benefactor to Paul.

The odd thing about diakonos or “deacon” being used to describe Phoebe is that it is the masculine form of the word used to describe a woman. It is the same word Paul uses when he calls Timothy and Titus “servants” or “deacons” (or pastors) of their respective churches. Another thing that makes this phrase odd is that Phoebe is called the “deacon of the church of Cenchreae.” This is the only place in the New Testament where diakonos is followed by a specific congregation. This is the only place linking a specific person’s ministry with a specific church. This seems to indicate that Phoebe served as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.

Paul uses another word to describe Phoebe: prostatis. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. This word is normally translated so that it’s main meaning is not obvious. The normal translation is “helper” or someone who has helped. The basic and most obvious translation of the word from classical Greek is “patron” or “benefactor,” and women in this role, are well attested in the Greco-Roman world. In the Greco-Roman world wealthy women sponsored the arts, philosophers, writers, and politicians. They paid them and gave them the social standing they needed to succeed. Phoebe was a wealthy woman who served the church out of her means as the women in Luke 8 served Jesus out of theirs. For Paul to say that Phoebe was a benefactor to him meant that she had probably helped to support his missionary travels financially. It’s also very likely she was known in Rome, and she has the appropriate social status and clout to introduce Paul to the churches in Rome. Churches Paul had not had any dealings with, nor had he helped plant them.

Phoebe was a woman who had her own means, and served the church in a leadership role. Paul comes very close to commanding churches he had no hand in planting, and Christians, most of whom he had never met, to welcome her and provide anything she needed. She was not only a deacon and a benefactor in the church, but Paul himself had also benefited from her generous leadership.

Prayer: “Filled with your Holy Spirit, gracious God, your earliest disciples served you with the gifts each had been given: Lydia in business and stewardship, Dorcas in a life of charity and Phoebe as a deacon who served many. Inspire us today to build up your Church with our gifts in hospitality, charity and bold witness to the Gospel of Christ; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen” (from Satucket.com).

My guest appearance on the Talk Gnosis podcast

hermaphroditeOn New Year’s Eve I joined one of my best friends, Bishop Lainie Petersen, on the Talk Gnosis podcast, in which we are our usual feminist and irreverent selves. I can’t beat the description that’s already been written up about the show:

We have a very special guest in the Rev. Shawna Atteberry for our After Dark podcast on the Gospel of Thomas’ Saying 22. She helps unpack the mysteries of GoT with Bishops Lainie and Ken and our director Father Tony. You’ve got to check out our free-ranging discussion that goes everywhere from the gender politics of evangelical movement to Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

That’s right: gnostic theology, gender politics, AND Hedwig and the Angry Inch. You have to listen now, don’t you? You can do that by clicking here: Make the Above Like the Below. Please let me know what you think.

The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament Is Now Complete

DFV 2I am happy to announce that a project I’ve been an associate editor on for the last five years is now complete! The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament can now be downloaded free as a PDF or you can buy a paperback copy. In addition to translations of the Bible that use masculine and non-gender metaphors for God, there is now a version that uses feminine metaphors for God. I hope The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament will help expand your vocabulary and experience of the God who created both men and women in her own image.

You can download the free PDF copy at The Christian Godde Project.

You can buy the paperback version here.

Sermon: Not Taking No For an Answer (Part 1)

I preached on the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman twice this summer. Once for a conference and the second time at my church. With the two different audiences I needed two different applications. Here is how I took the same Scripture passages and interpretations, but came up with two different applications specific to each audience.

This sermon was preached at the Christian Feminism Today’s biannual conference The Gathering 2014 on June 29, 2014.

Not Taking No for an Answer
Matthew 15:21-28 (Mark 7:24-30)
Year A, Proper 15 (Year B, Proper 18)

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman came out. “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of Bathsheba and David!” she cried. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”

But he didn’t say a thing.

His disciples came and begged him. “Send her away,” they said, “because she bothers us.”

He answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of Israel.”

But she approached and bowed to him. “Lord, help me,” she said.

“It is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs,” he answered.

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, your trust is great! What you want will be done for you.” Her daughter Was healed that very hour (Matthew 15:21-28, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version).

4.2.7We read about two women in the Gospels who talked back to Jesus: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician Woman in this passage. That these two women stood up to Jesus and talked back to him is usually explained away, if it’s even acknowledged. In one scene, Martha was tired from cooking; in the other, her brother had just died: of course she’s snippy, and Jesus is patient. In this scene, the Gentile woman knows that Jesus is just teasing her, and she plays along. Martha and this woman’s backbones are covered up, their nerve shoved into a corner. Neither of these women thought silence and submission was the way to go.

We have two very different stories about this women in the Gospels. We heard Matthew’s version, now let’s look at Mark’s:

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre. He went into a house and didn’t want anyone to know it, but he couldn’t escape notice. A woman whose little daughter had a corrupting spirit heard about him and immediately came and fell down at his feet. She was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children eat first, because it’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

He said, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found the child lying on the bed. The demon was gone (Mark 7:24-30, NT: DFV).

What is the biggest difference you see between these two accounts? Matthew adds the disciples. They don’t appear in Mark’s account. After seeing the way Jesus comes off in Mark’s account of this story it’s not hard to see why Matthew added the disciples and made them the bad guys. After all when you trying to convince a Gentile audience that Jesus in the Savior of the world, it doesn’t look good for that Savior to ignore a Gentile in such great need.

In Mark’s account Jesus had been healing and teaching. He fed the multitude of 5,000. He had been debating (fighting) with the religious leaders. He came to a totally pagan, Gentile area to get away from everything. He was here for a break. He was not here to teach, to heal, or to fight. No one knew him here. He could sneak in, get some rest, and sneak out again. Or so he thought. Since Jesus was trying to stay incognito, we don’t know how the woman knew he was in the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, so my guess is she heard it through the local grapevine. She found out a great healer was in town, and she decided to act. She went to the house where Jesus was keeping a low profile, and there she fell at his feet begging him to heal her daughter, who was demon-possessed.

Based on everything we’ve previously read about Jesus in the Mark, we expect Jesus to act immediately. We expect him to get up and go with this woman to her daughter, like he did with Jairus in the previous chapter. We also know from chapter 5 Jesus had no qualms about healing Gentiles in Gentile territory: he healed the Gentile demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes. His first healing in Mark was healing a man with leprosy by touching him. But what we expect does not happen in this story.

Instead he told the woman, “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” At this point (if we are honest with ourselves) our jaws drop, and we wonder “What happened to Jesus?”

A dog. Jesus called her a dog, a term of derision for Gentiles. But this woman is quick-witted, and she’s not going to take no for an answer. She let the insult slide over her with this incisive retort: “Yes, but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs on the floor.”

Because this woman did not take no for an answer, because this woman did not submit–even to the Son of God–because she stood her ground, Jesus changed his mind. He had not come here to heal. He didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. But in the end he did heal the daughter. He did because of the woman’s retort. This woman’s daughter was healed because she talked back to Jesus, and didn’t assume her place was one of quiet submission. She didn’t take no for an answer, not even from the Son of God himself.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is passive, but he’s not the only one who is telling her no. The disciples—the representatives of the church are. And thanks to a man I met a few years ago who grew up in the Middle East, we have a different way to interpret this passage where Jesus uses the woman to help teach his disciples, his church, a few lessons.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest, grew up in Syria and went to school in Lebanon. He now lives in London. There is a very cultural thing he grew up with that explains perfectly what is going on in Matthew if we know Middle Eastern culture. In the Middle East when the eldest son marries, he still lives at home with his parents, and his wife comes to live with the family. This is because as the main heir, the eldest son is expected to take care of his parents in their old age.

When the mother-in-law doesn’t like something the daughter-in-law is doing, or doesn’t think the daughter-in-law is treating her with enough respect, the mother-in-law does not tell the daughter-in-law. She complains about it to a neighbor in the daughter’s-in-law hearing.

“Miriam, do you know how my daughter-in-law treats me? I tell her every night, dry the dishes with a towel, don’t air dry them! But does she listen to me?”

“Abraham, have I told you how my daughter-in-law doesn’t respect me? I told her to water the garden this morning. Bah! Just look at my poor tomatoes withering away in this harsh sunlight!”

You get the idea. Now take this idea and apply it to the story. Jesus is the mother-in-law. The disciples are the daughters-in-law. The Canaanite woman is the neighbor. So what does that mean Jesus is doing in this story? In Mark’s story Jesus is the one who’s being exclusive, showing the members of Mark’s community that even Jesus was corrected when he thought the gospel was just for the Jews. In Matthew, the disciples want Jesus to send the woman away, and he takes a minute to teach the disciples (Matthew’s community) the gospel was not just for the Jews.

Jesus: “Look at my daughters-in-law thinking God is just for them. You called me ‘Son of Bathsheba and David.’ You know I can’t take the kids’ food and feed it to the dogs who come wandering in.”

Woman: “Oh you poor thing. Such disrespect. But you know even the dogs get the crumbs the children leave behind.”

Even in this context I think the woman surprises Jesus with her retort. Jesus: “Woman you have great faith. Go. Your daughter is healed.”

(Exegesis and interpretation is taken from my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down, ch. 3.)

I like this interpretation because it uses women’s roles and experiences to interpret Scripture. How often does that happen? Even about women in the Scripture? I always wondered what Matthew’s female listeners felt when they realized their life experiences were being used to proclaim the gospel.

But in the end two things remain constant in these two stories: Exclusivity is the first. Jesus, the disciples, and people in Matthew and Mark’s communities thought that God’s grace was limited, that it wasn’t for everyone. The other constant in this story is this woman telling Jesus, the disciples, and the Christian community NO—grace is always inclusive, and God’s healing power is for everyone. This woman does not take no for an answer when that no marginalizes her and limits God’s grace. In Mark she doesn’t take no for an answer from Jesus. In Matthew she doesn’t take no for an answer from the church. My sisters in Christ, we have a lot to learn from this woman.

Intelligent daughters of God. Strong daughters of God. Inspired daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Loving daughters of God? Presevering daughters of God? Gifted daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Can I make a confession? I take no for an answer far too often. In my ministry. In my writing. In my life. After all we have been brainwashed into believing that’s what, we as women, should do. Basically anything beyond marriage and children: we are told no. And all too often we accept that answer and adjust our lives accordingly.

I’m ashamed to say I do this everyday.

Yes, we have a lot to learn from our Canaanite sister. We have a lot to learn from this incredible spiritual foremother who stood her ground, looked the son of God in the eye, looked at the church standing behind him, and said, “No” back.

“No. I am not a dog.”

“No, I am not worthless because I’m a Gentile.”

“No, you cannot ignore me because I’m a woman.”

“No, you will not walk away. You will heal my daughter.”

No.

There are two things we as women are taught about the word no. The first is we should take it as an answer. The second is that we should never say it. It’s amazing how one little two letter word can rob us of our agency. Our autonomy. Our sovereignty.

My challenge for us as we leave this holy place and journey back to our daily lives is that we will take the Canaanite Woman with us, and we will let her teach us two very important lessons: How not to take no for an answer. And how to say no in response to those who would limit us.

Where do you need to stop taking no for an answer? Where do you need to start saying no to those who would limit your choices? Your career? Who you are?

As we get ready to return to our normal, everyday lives, I challenge us, yes me included—I challenge us to let this incredible woman walk with us and teach us how to stand up for ourselves and stand up to those who would limit us. I pray she will teach every, single one of us how to stop taking no for an answer.

My Guest Appearance on Talk Gnosis

Earlier this month I was a guest on the vlog Talk Gnosis with my good friend Bishop Lainie Petersen (Independent Gnostic Church). We talked about why women are leaving churches and other organized religion for groups like the Gnostics as well as Pagan and Wiccan spirituality.

 

We followed that up in the one hour After Dark Podcast you can find here.

What about you?

Are you still in church? Or have you found another home for your spirituality where you don’t feel like a second-class citizen at best and a glorified slave at worse?