Dignity and worth

Chester Cathedral

Jesus and the woman at the well.

Lent 3 – 2017

John 4

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose eyes we have infinite worth, no matter what our life-style, our choices or our achievements. Amen.

During the week I read the extraordinary story of Bhenwari Devi an Indian woman from a low-caste potter Kumhar community. In 1992, at dusk, while Bhenwari and her husband were working in the fields, five men from the higher Gujjri caste (the most affluent and influential in her village) attacked them both. Two of the men attacked her husband and restrained him, the other three took turns in raping Bhenwari. As the news over the past year has informed us such attacks are not unusual. In India women and girls of a lower caste and especially untouchable women and girls are often raped and sometimes killed by those who come from a higher caste background, sometimes in retaliation for a perceived slight, and sometimes just because they are there. The shame and stigma associated with sexual crimes make it difficult for women such as Bhenwari to speak about their experience or to seek justice. Their gender and their lowly position in society only serve to exacerbate the situation.

When Bhenwari reported the rape, she was accused of lying. Her assailants told police that there had been a dispute but that the pair were not attacked. The police did not take the assault seriously, did not give her a thorough examination until the next day and ignored her cuts and bruises. Because she reported the crime, Bhenwari was seen to have brought shame on her community. She and her husband were shunned by their neighbours, who would not sell them milk or buy their pots. Their own families did not invite them to family weddings. For twenty-one years Bhenwari took her battle to the courts and while justice may have eluded her, her case has seen the government introduce legislation to prevent further such cases.

I’ll leave you to read the rest of the story for yourself[1].

It can be difficult for someone to hold their ground in the face of so much opposition, especially when they feel disadvantaged by gender, race, creed or their position in society. Even in relatively affluent and educated countries such as our own, there are those whose voices are more respected and those whose opinions hold little to no weight – the poor, those with a disability, victims of domestic violence to mention just a few. It takes courage and confidence to refuse to let such factors be a reason to stay silent.

In today’s gospel we meet a woman who would not be silenced. Like many of the New Testament characters, the “woman at the well” has no name. Never the less we know a great deal about her. This woman is triply disadvantaged. She is a member of the despised Samaritans, she is female and, probably because of her sexual activity, she is ostracised by her community – (which is why she is at the well in the middle of the day). Coming to the well at this time allows her to escape the censure and derision that would be levelled at her if she came earlier when most of the villagers would be gathering water for their families.

On this particular day though she cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus ignores all the social norms that would prevent him from speaking to the woman and he asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked, but not overwhelmed. She challenges Jesus: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As the conversation continues the woman refuses to let her cultural disadvantages hold her back. She questions Jesus, confronts him on questions of faith (where one should worship) and finally is so convinced that Jesus is the Christ that she convinces her fellow villagers – those who despise and condemn her – not only to believe in Jesus but to persuade him to delay his journey for two more days.

Bhenwari and the woman at the well are examples of people who, despite their disadvantages, their place in society and the ostracism by their communities have been able to maintain a sense of self-worth and a sense of dignity. Jesus doesn’t see race, gender, religion or morality. He sees a worthy debating partner. Despite their circumstances and their standing within their own communities, the woman at the well and Bhenwari have a strong sense of their own worth and refuse to be cowed and intimidated, by those who would shame, condemn and exclude them.

We, of all people, should know our own worth. After all, didn’t Jesus die for us proving once for all God’s boundless, unconditional love and that we are worthy of that love?

Lent is love. The unbelieving, timid Nicodemus is given a place in God’s story and the despised and ostracised Samaritan woman is given a voice. The stories of their encounters with Jesus remind us that there is no standard that we have to reach to take our own place in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. It remains for us to believe in God’s love for ourselves, which in turn enables us to believe in ourselves and to understand that if God overlooks our shortcomings, then we also ought to overlook our shortcomings. Above all, it means that God’s opinion of us matters more than the opinion of those around us and that we should not allow our lives or our faith to be determined or limited by self-doubt , by our position in the world or by the attitudes of others.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39265653

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