Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus

by Francis Taylor Gench, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004).

In this recent book by the author of Hebrews and James in the Westminster Bible Companion series, Francis Taylor Gench provides a sparkling discussion of six gospel encounters between women and Jesus. This book offers fresh readings of familiar stories by allowing a range of scholarly voices, especially feminist voices, to raise key questions and new perspectives about the meaning of the narratives in their ancient and contemporary settings.

The book begins with Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (or the Syro-Phoenician woman, as Mark refers to her) and Jesus. This story is notable for being the only one in the gospels in which Jesus, who is portrayed in an unflattering light, receives instruction rather than gives it! Gench notes the persistence and ingenuity inherent in Matthew’s presentation of the woman who changed Jesus’ mind regarding his mission to the Gentiles.

In chapter two, Gench addresses the story of the woman with the flow of blood, a narrative that is intertwined with Mark’s story about Jairus’ daughter. She points to the often overlooked fact that “Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are prefigured in the experiences of the two women” (p. 45) through specific verbal links.

The third chapter is a discussion of the very familiar Martha and Mary story from Luke 10. This is clearly the passage with which Gench is most uncomfortable as she finds in it, at best, an ambiguous presentation of the two women’s social roles. She points to the ways in which Jesus’ chiding of Martha appears to devalue her ministry while affirming Mary’s passive and silent behavior.

Gench turns in the fourth chapter to Luke’s story of the “daughter of Abraham,” who had been stooped for 18 years by a “spirit of weakness.” Here Gench fruitfully reads the text in light of how the church can contribute to the wholeness of disabled women and men.

The fifth chapter revisits the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4. In this chapter, from which the book’s title is drawn, Gench makes special note of the “interpretive litter” that has junked up the story. Too often, she laments, preachers have focused on the woman’s assumed sexual misconduct while missing the narrative’s central point, namely that the woman possesses the true mark of discipleship. She bears witness to Jesus more effectively than even his own disciples.

Finally, the sixth chapter focuses on John’s account of the woman accused of adultery. Gench highlights the way in which the passage unfairly puts all the blame for sexual misconduct on the woman. She also sadly notes that this story encountered tremendous resistance within the early church and among the Reformers for Jesus’ refusal to condemn the adulterous woman. She concludes that, “Adultery is a scandal, to be sure. But … perhaps the even greater scandal is grace” (p. 155). Thus she ends the chapter with a discussion of how “judgmentalism” continues to exist in the church and points to the text’s ability to free those who have been afflicted by a “disfiguring spirit of judgment.”

The book’s features, including its clear and accessible writing, make it useful for a wide range of clergy and lay audiences. Church groups will appreciate each chapter’s study suggestions and questions for reflection. The bibliography of resources at the end of each chapter will prove valuable for those eager to explore the text and issues further. Theological educators for their part will appreciate its judicious and challenging scholarship that includes critical- contextual and reader-centered approaches deftly woven into each discussion. Pastors will also find that Gench is their ally in the move from text to sermon as she draws significant homiletical insights from these stories.

In true Reformed fashion, this volume offers words of both grace and challenge. Gench attests to the ways in which these stories are “texts of transforming power with much to teach us about God’s way in the world and our own human experience …”(p. xv). At the same time she challenges the way in which the stories have furthered the subordination and demonization of women, especially with regard to sexual matters. She also challenges anti-Judaic readings that have often accompanied some of these stories. No doubt some readers will not be comfortable with the way in which she troubles the waters of cherished and familiar stories. However, those who wish to drink deeply from the Scriptures will be richly rewarded.

AMY C. MERRILL WILLIS is instructor in Religious Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

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