Theologians interpret the word of God, and in John’s Gospel, women consistently function as theologians.
The first woman John mentions is “the mother of Jesus” (2:1). At the Cana wedding, she tells Jesus that the wine has run out. While his response — “what to me and to you, woman? My hour has not yet come” (2:4) — does not directly address the problem, she interprets it correctly. Knowing that he will provide wine, she orders the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5).
The Samaritan woman also interprets Jesus’ words correctly, although commentators misunderstand her role. Some judge her negatively because of her five husbands and current living arrangement. We do not know the circumstances of her family history. We do know, however, that the setting anticipates a wedding, for wells are where Abraham’s servant met Rebecca and Moses met Zipporah. Not only has John the Baptist identified Jesus as a bridegroom (3:29), but also the setting is Jacob’s well, and it was in “broad daylight” (Genesis 29:7) that Jacob met Rachel. Jesus will prove most unconventional bridegroom, and the Samaritan a most unconventional bride.
Some claim that she comes to the well at noon because the villagers disdained her, but were she held in contempt, they would not have listened to her. Rather, she is the opposite of Nicodemus who met Jesus at night (3:2). Since Jesus, the “light of the world” (9:5), states, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world” (11:9b), the woman, who is clearly in the light, functions as a symbolic bride who unites the bridegroom with her family, the Samaritans at Sychar.
In Matthew 16:16, Peter proclaims Jesus the “Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In John’s Gospel that honor belongs to Martha, who hears Jesus say, “I am the resurrection and the life” and correctly interprets, “you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:25-27).
Martha then tells her sister Mary that Jesus is calling her (11:28), although Jesus had not done so. Martha realized that was her role, just as Jesus’s mother summoned the servants and the Samaritan evangelized her village.
In the next chapter, Mary uses a “pound of costly perfume” (12:3) to anoint Jesus’s feet. John tells us that the “house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (12:4) and thus draws the contrast to Lazarus’s tomb, where Martha speaks of the “stench” of the corpse (11:39). Mary’s action anticipates the cross as she symbolically anoints Jesus for burial (12:7). Her generosity contrasts with Judas’s theft of community funds. And her action anticipates Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet.
On the cross, Jesus tells his mother, “Woman, behold your son”; he tells the Beloved Disciple, “Behold your mother” (19:26-27). The mother of Jesus, whom John never calls “Mary,” thus becomes the symbolic mother of all disciples. While commentators frequently note that the Beloved Disciple, who takes the mother of Jesus to his home, will care for her, that care is mutual, as she will continue to remind him of what Jesus taught.
Finally, when Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’s tomb “while it was still dark” (20:1), we know that she will soon see the light. She summons Peter and the Beloved Disciple, and they believe her words. Although she initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener, she recognizes him when he calls her by name. Jesus then commissions her to become the apostle to the apostles; we know that they will believe her again.
Listening, questioning, interpreting, and calling others, the women in John’s Gospel are not only theologians. They are also disciples, apostles, teachers, evangelists, and role models.
by Amy-Jill Levine