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Women at the well: empowering the women around us

Wells are significant spots for women in the Bible. In her latest blog, Georgie writes about the women we meet at various wells, comparing this household chore to the work women do today...

The pandemic has highlighted and added to the amount of time women spend doing domestic tasks compared to men. In the past year many women have not only had to juggle increased cleaning and working from home but often taken the brunt of the home-schooling too.

It is not a new phenomenon that women shoulder most of the household work – throughout human history women have broadly been expected to run a household and raise children. One of the most common and important domestic tasks in both the Old and New Testaments was the gathering of water from the well. Water was essential for all daily tasks in Ancient Israel. However, drawing and collecting water was a very physically demanding task. When we can now turn on a tap, women had to lower containers deep into a well and then carry the full vessels back to their homes.

In a patriarchal society, it was normally the responsibility of young women to embark on this daily task. However even today domestic tasks are not shared equally between men and women; a recent survey suggested that 69% of young girls and women have spent more time cleaning compared to 58% of young men during this pandemic.

Yet, despite the domestic nature of collecting water at the time of the Old Testament, the centralised location of the well meant that it was a place of social gathering where women could talk freely, and travellers could stop for a drink. It is here we see key interactions in Genesis 24, Genesis 29 and John 4 between men and women which can help us think about both healthy relationships and the value of women.

Rebekah - the woman who had a choice

The first biblical encounter with a woman at a well is Rebekah. Genesis 24 tells the story of Abraham’s servant going to Abraham’s own country to find a wife for his son Isaac.

The servant, whilst loyal, also has doubts and asks Abraham what to do if the woman refuses to come with him (Genesis 24:5). Abraham’s response to this is empowering. In verse 8 he declares ‘If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine’. Here Abraham presupposes the women might actually have a choice and this is echoed in verse 58, where his family asks her whether she wants to go. In a time where a woman was property of a man, Abraham giving Rebekah a choice challenges the power dynamics of the day and shows the extent in which both families want to honour and respect her.

In 2020 approximately 12.5 million girls were forced into marriage before the age of 18. It is clear from the biblical account above, that women should have the right to choose marriage. We as the Church should be inspired by Rebekah’s empowerment and deliberately create environments which women never feel forced into situations.

Rachel and Leah - the women who were wronged

Genesis 29 follows a very similar pattern to the betrothal scene above. Firstly, a son, this time Jacob, has been instructed by his father to gain a bride. Jacob then travels from a foreign land and stops at a well. After a while, a woman named Rachel arrives and Jacob engages in conversation with her. Jacob is also then invited to meet her father, Laban, and spends the night in his household.

However, unlike Genesis 24:25 where the marriage happens without complication, in Genesis 29 there is delay and deceit. It is no secret that Jacob wants to marry Rachel from the very first time he saw her at the well. However, Laban, instead of just giving Jacob Rachel’s hand, forces him to work 7 years and proceeds to trick Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, instead. Laban does not agree with the younger daughter being married before the elder - as was the custom at the time - and causes the ultimate toxic situation. Leah is forced to marry a man who doesn’t love her whilst Rachel is forced to share her husband and envy her sister.

It is clear in this situation that it's neither sisters’ fault for being wronged in this way, nor is God endorsing Laban’s trickery. Laban sets in motion a conflict between the two sisters in a world in which a woman’s value is confined to how many sons she can provide. Feelings of shame can make a victim of domestic abuse blame themselves for their situation. Victims are never at fault, and we as the Church should recognise this.

A Samaritan woman – the woman who has been redeemed

In the New Testament we get a similar scene in Jesus’ ministry in John 4. Jesus approaches a woman at the well, not to marry her but to redeem her. This woman was an outcast due to her race, gender and her past. She was a Samaritan, an ethnic group that Jews did not associate with, and she had a sexually immoral past. Jesus, as a Jewish man, should not have even looked her way, let alone engaged her in conversation.

But Jesus takes time out of his day to speak into the woman’s situation. Instead of judging her, he listens to her, speaks personally to her and declares himself as the Messiah. For a woman who was used to being shamed, Jesus meets her where she is at and restores her in love.

The value of women at the well

Generations of women have had to fetch water from a well, cook, clean, and spend a disproportionate amount of time on domestic tasks. Whilst many women like Rachel and Leah have be side-lined and oppressed, we are called to follow Jesus’ example and value and empower all women in whatever roles they take on inside and outside the home.