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On Unconscious Bias, Gender, and the Woman at the Well - A Sermon for Lent 3

All of us exercise bias in our lives. Despite our very best intentions, we all show some degree of prejudice. Sometimes it can be explicit and deliberate bias. Sometimes it can be implicit and unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is deeply engrained. It displays automatically, with no thought going into it. Unconscious biases are often focused on gender, race, and social matters. Many of us will form an unconscious bias on the basis of somebody’s accent, what they wear, where they come from – we’ve all done it.

I’d like us to think about unconscious bias around gender. Despite having made major headway in our society, prejudice against women is still prevalent. One of my friends said to me that as a woman, ‘it happens so much, it’s like living with rubbish on the streets of south London. It just becomes part of your world.’ Women in the workplace constantly having to define themselves against the male norm. An automatic assumption that it is women who are going to look after children. The not-so-subtle art of mansplaining – when a man (and it is always a man) explains something to a woman in a particularly condescending way. The list goes on. This implicit prejudice is simply everywhere. Our world continues to be dominated by a male paradigm. The glass ceiling is still there, needing to be smashed through.

The church is no different. It has been rigged against women for centuries. Thank goodness women priests are now part of the fabric of the Church of England, albeit belatedly. And thank goodness they can now be ordained bishops, although we’re still far from this being commonplace. But many of my female colleagues still experience a great deal of bias. The Church of England still structurally allows churches not to accept women’s ministry. The language we use in our services is so overtly male. Their leadership, preaching, management style, and childcare arrangements all subtly undermined. That feeling that they have to work that little bit harder to justify themselves in comparison to their male colleagues.

The centuries-old gender bias in the church has saturated its theology as well. I wonder what you think of the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well in our Gospel passage today? I’m fairly confident that many of you will be thinking that the story of this woman is connected to sin, that there’s some kind of wrongdoing that needs to be addressed. I suspect that there will be a number of sermons today that will be talking about this reading in precisely this way. They will look at the woman at the well through the lens of that verse that occurs about halfway through the passage. This is when Jesus says to her, ‘you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your own’. It is an easy step to conclude that with so many husbands she must be a sinful person. It is an easy step to conclude that her current relationship with someone who isn’t her husband must mean that she’s committing adultery. There will be many sermons based around the idea that she is little more than some form of a harlot, a deviant with a shady past. They will draw the conclusion that her encounter with Jesus redeems her. It saves her from her sinful existence.

Have a look at the text on the readings sheet. Where in this whole passage does it actually say that the woman is sinful and in need of redemption? Where does Jesus encourage her to confess her past and turn to him for forgiveness? However hard you look at this text, it is simply not there. There is nothing that even vaguely infers this. What’s more, looking at the verse that has led to this common interpretation, it could easily be looked at in a completely different way. It is more than plausible in the first century that our Samaritan woman had five husbands but that each of them died. Or they could all have simply abandoned her. It would be unfortunate, but perfectly possible. What about the man she is in a relationship now – a husband who is not really her husband? Well, there was a curious law in which a childless widow could be married to her deceased husband’s brother. Odd, but again, another perfectly plausible position.

If we begin to look at the story of this encounter at the well in this way, it leads us in a very different way. It leads us in a much more positive direction. It leads us towards seeing the woman as someone who has experienced a tough life and has become utterly dependent on others. Through no fault of her own, she has become someone society has pretty much sidelined. Instead of story of sin and forgiveness, we find a great story of welcome and inclusion. Jesus sees the woman both physically and personally as well, responding to her situation with great compassion. It is in seeing her and accepting her that the woman in turn sees and accepts Jesus for who he is.

She sees Jesus is a special prophet and rushes off to share the good news with others.

So why is it that so many people jumped to the conclusion that this is a story of the woman’s sinfulness and redemption? One reason might be to do with what I was talking about last week. This is the church’s obsession with sinfulness: the all too regular starting point that everyone is sinful and that faith is all about wrongdoing seeking redemption. But a more likely answer is that it is an example of misplaced misogynist theology. The place of women in the Bible has often been sidelined, both in the content itself and in the way it has been interpreted. There are plenty of women in the Bible who play significant roles, but more often than not, history and the Church have overlooked them, their voices lost. And women are so often seen as doers of sinful things. In Genesis, who is the one who first eats the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? It’s Eve. It’s the woman. The theological blame has been firmly placed with her. But don’t forget – Adam was there and could perhaps have stopped the whole thing. Mary Magdalene is another woman who has been falsely portrayed as a redeemed prostitute when there is absolutely nothing to support this point of view. The Church has long held a structural, unconscious, unthinking bias against women. And it is a bias that still continues today, that still deeply affects its practice and the way in which it interprets and communicates its faith.

What, then, should we do? As a church in which such bias has been, and in many ways remains unconsciously engrained, we must be open about the mistakes we’ve made. We need to ask for forgiveness for our institutional bias against women.  We need to make sure that such bias no longer hides under a mask of theological correctness and that it is called out for what it is. We need to celebrate and include the female voice and contribution in our church on an equal footing with confidence and joy. From a personal perspective, we must grow in awareness of the biases that are built into every one of us. In our awareness, we need to challenge ourselves and our own inherent attitudes, and call out the attitudes of those around us as well. If we believe that God’s kingdom includes everyone without exception, if we believe that in turning to God, God loves each one of us without hesitation, then our church and all of us within it need to work unfalteringly to embody this vision in our world. A world of no bias. A world of no prejudice. A world in which we truly inhabit the radical equality to which Christ calls us.

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