Jesus and Women in the Indian Church

How does Jesus show the Indian church to overcome barriers, engage women, and recognise their role in advancing the kingdom of God?

I grew up attending Sunday School every week and Vacation Bible School every year. What I remember most is the imaginative retelling of missionary stories. Almost all of those stories were of women; people like Amy Carmichael, Ida Scudder, Pandita Ramabai, and many others.

I listened in awe to their stories of courage and passion. These women lived with a motivation to serve Jesus and share the gospel in word and deed. They wanted to serve as witnesses of Jesus and left the comforts of home to do pioneering work in missions at great personal cost.

Then as I grew up and went out into the world, it confronted me with views that the Bible is a sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic book that devalues women, considers them somehow inferior to men, and perpetuates stereotypical gender roles.

Unfortunately, along with that, I had encounters in the church with attitudes and practices that imitated our broader culture, which often considers women inferior to men.

By God’s grace, I knew these practices and attitudes were not an accurate reflection of the biblical view of women and men. Though different by design, God made men and women equal in essence, value, worth, and dignity. He made them in his image and called both to engage in his mission together (Gen. 1:26-28, Phil. 4:3).

This conflict drove me back to the Bible. In reading the Gospels again, I discovered the God who sees, values, pursues, teaches, calls, disciples, and sends women on his mission. The way Jesus interacted with women breaks man-made, cultural stereotypes and barriers—not only for the first century but even for the 21st century.

There is something absolutely beautiful and counter-cultural in the way Jesus interacts with women. The story in the Gospels that stands out to me the most is Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Jesus Overcomes Barriers with Women

In his interaction with the Samaritan woman, Jesus breaks all sorts of cultural, social, moral, and religious codes. His encounter with her was not an accident. It was by divine design. Jesus departs from Judea to return to Galilee. He deliberately chooses to pass through Samaria. Weary from his journey, he sits next to Jacob’s well, as if he is waiting for the woman to make an appearance.

When she appears, Jesus asks her for a drink. He initiates the conversation with a request that shocks her. She even blurts out, “How are you a Jew asking me a woman from Samaria for a drink?” This is so out of the ordinary, the narrator has to explain it: “For Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 1:9).

In those days, Jews considered Samaritans to convey uncleanness. More specifically, they treated Samaritan women as in a continuous state of ritual uncleanliness. By asking for water from her, didn’t Jesus know he would pollute himself, according to his Jewish custom?

A Great Revelation

Jesus asks for water but also uses water as a metaphor to reveal himself to her. He does something remarkable in this encounter, something that he rarely does in the Gospels. Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, to a woman.

In his day, the rabbis taught against prolonging a conversation with a woman. They considered it a waste of time to talk with a woman in public, even if it was your wife. A man could better use this time in the study of the Scriptures.

Jesus does not reserve theological discussions for his male disciples only

So when they return to the scene, it is not surprising that his disciples are in shock to find Jesus talking with a woman. They do not say anything but the narrator reveals what they were thinking. “They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” (John 4:27)

A Great Opportunity

In her book Jesus Through the Eyes of Women, Rebecca McLaughlin says, “Jesus’s longest recorded private conversation with anyone in the Gospels is with a woman Jewish men would have avoided at all costs. This woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus explicitly reveals himself as the Christ, and she is the last person with whom a respectable rabbi should have been spending time alone.”

The church in India has an opportunity to overcome our cultural, social, religious, and moral barriers, the way Jesus did. We can boldly imitate him in the way we value and engage with women in the Indian church.

Jesus Engages Women in Deep Theological Conversation

The conversation at the well takes many twists and turns. Jesus abruptly changes the subject from living water to her personal life. But he does not mean to shame or condemn her.

Then he asks her to call her husband (John 4:16). This is not to say that unless a husband or male relative is present, he cannot continue the conversation.

Rather, he wants to gently reveal to her that he knows and sees her. He wants her to know that he sees the things she may not even want to disclose, and what he is offering her meets her deepest need for renewal in a way that no husband can.

Jesus Knows Her

She immediately realises that he has supernatural knowledge of her life. His knowledge of her past (five husbands), and of her present (living with a man who is not her husband)— is possible only because he is a prophet.

She quickly changes the subject to the question of worship. Perhaps because she did not want to go down the route Jesus was taking. So she deflects.

Perhaps she genuinely wants an answer to a theological question now that she realises he is a prophet, maybe even the prophet. Either way, her question reflects her knowledge of the current theological debates and of the Samaritan Scriptures.

Jesus Engages Her

Jesus does not dumb down his conversation with her. He follows her tangent into a beautiful and deep discussion on the theology of worship. Jesus reveals to her the nature of God and the nature of true worship: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

We quote this beautiful truth so frequently. How marvellous that Jesus revealed it to us in a conversation with a woman.

Too often, Christian leaders exclude women in the church from intentional theological training and practical equipping for discipleship and ministry. But Jesus does not reserve theological discussions for his male disciples only. The Gospels frequently reveal this through his deep conversations with Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and others (Luke 10:38-42, John 11:21-27, 20:11-18).

Jesus Recognises the Ministry of Women

The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus transforms her into a witness to her people. She leaves her jar and runs to her town, testifying to what she has seen and heard. “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)

She becomes one of the first missionaries in the New Testament. Her message is personal, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” Her message points to Christ, “Can this be the Christ?” As a result of her testimony, many of the Samaritans went out of the town and were coming to Jesus.

God gave the creation mandate and the Great Commission to men and women, to fulfil together

Jesus uses this opportunity to teach his disciples about the urgency of his mission. He urges them to look up and see with their eyes the harvest right in front of them: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).

He invites them to see the harvest that is ready, the approaching Samaritans. It is the harvest in which the Samaritan woman plays a crucial role, because they heard about Jesus through her ministry.

Often, the church fails to include women in ministry in a meaningful way. It sees women as serving in a secondary capacity, creating a dichotomy between the men who do “real” ministry and the women who merely support the ministry. But God gave the creation mandate and the Great Commission to men and women, to fulfil together.

By God’s design, men and women complement each other in this mission, providing unique ministry value. So highlighting one’s role over the other only hurts the flourishing of the mission.

Jesus and Not-So-Famous Women

Though I mentioned stories of famous women in mission, those who answer Jesus’s call to follow him are not just big names. There are countless not-so-famous women throughout church history, who have served as the backbone of God’s mission, building his kingdom over the centuries.

Some of these women we know personally—our mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, aunts, teachers, church members, and leaders, not to mention countless others who are unnamed and invisible.

Jesus’s followers include many women who have faithfully prayed, discipled, parented, taught, evangelised, planted churches, served the poor, cared for the vulnerable, healed the sick, and so on.

Many women faced opposition for their service to God, persevered through prejudice, and endured the ungodly attitudes of people who treated them as inferior. But they resolutely pressed on because, in the pages of Scripture, they encountered the God who saw, valued, loved, chose, and called them.

As Panditha Ramabai said, “The Bible says that God does not wait for me to merit his love but heaps it upon me without my deserving it. It says also that there is neither male nor female in Christ. . .How good, how indescribably good! What good news for me a woman, a woman born in India among Brahmans who hold out no hope for me and the like of me! The Bible declares that Christ did not reserve this great salvation for a particular caste or sex.”

So as Jesus continues to call women, may our churches be spaces that work for their flourishing so that together we can reflect the image of God and engage side by side as brothers and sisters in advancing God’s kingdom.