Speaking Truth to Power: Women’s Voice and Quaker Ministry
I am blessed to share worship with you this morning. Although I have relied upon developing and maintaining a relationship with God through worship with Friends or walks in the desert wilderness, space for speaking with God in public worship was not always open for me. I remember when I was 7 years old and visiting my brothers in seminary, then slipping off, tiptoeing into the chapel. All was still and no one was there. I wanted to serve communion, union with God, in the hushed space, with the afternoon light slanting through the windows, a vaulted roof and silent, empty pews.
I spoke the sacred words to share the Bread of Life and waited for a thunderbolt to strike me down, for surely God did not allow women to officiate in the Church. Or did God? There was no thunderbolt, but I could see no future for my longing to serve people in the Catholic church. This early memory of spiritual nudging to serve was central to responding to a call to attend seminary at Earlham School of Religion. I spent many years developing skills in listening, counseling, conflict resolution and community organizing.
Even then I had stirrings that would eventually find expression when I joined our tradition of Quaker women, who also had struggles, became humbled and found living waters to fuel standing up for equality and equity. Quaker women have a long history of opening their hearts to the Light, to invite and embrace the guidance from Christ Jesus to show them the way of things and to encourage them in all their brilliance, in their shadows, in all their errors and in their capacity for compassion and reconciliation so that they brought living waters to others.
Choosing courage, choosing to admit our errors, choosing to speak truth has deep roots in our society. There are some shared characteristics that can be noticed when reflecting on this choice to speak, characteristics such as Humility, persistence, resilience, love and trust come to mind. I’ll share a bit about women who have influenced my own journey of speaking in ministry.
Alice Paul was one of our lesser known Quaker leaders whose work on behalf of equality for women was a model of persistence, resilience and blind spots. A vocal leader, she helped secure the passage of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution and continued her work- authoring the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70’s.
Alice Paul was devoted to the work of equal rights and she is a model of persistence and resilience. When she needed to search more deeply for a thought, she would pause…and wait, allowing the words to emerge within her and then continue speaking. Alice Paul spent much of her life enabling other women to speak on behalf of equality for women. This can come only through our own personal prayerful examination of the roots of inequality and a deep listening for God.
Author Vanessa Julye quoted African American Quaker historian, Emma Lapansky, who describes a way forward that asks friends to persist in our regular examination of ourselves, to continue to “follow our spiritual light” so that we can continue our own struggles for living our lives in the Light. (Julye 2009)
Early Friend Elizabeth Bathhurst pointed to the power of deep listening to God as the pathway for living in the Light, she said, “The Seed, or Grace of God, is small in its first Appearance, even as the Morning Light; but as it is given Heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in Brightness, till it shine in the Soul, like the Sun in the Firmament at its Noon-day Height.” (EB 1655-1685)
Yes, the seed is small and we all struggle, and it is through struggle that spiritual nurture and moral work can be realized. We can live in the Light through combining a well-seasoned clarity of our personal and communal ethics, our shared virtues, our love of people and trust in God. This work asks us to walk humbly, to live in the intersection of faith and ethics.
The Samaritan woman in our reading this morning was astonished that Jesus was speaking to her at all. His boundary crossing seems to know no limits. In his day Jews and Samaritans did not get along and men did not speak to a lone woman. In this story this woman is startled at his speaking. She invites Jesus into a deep theological discussion, and he surprises her when engages her in this discussion.
Our nameless woman at the well is even more surprised that Jesus sees her, even more surprised when he knows her story (a complicated story at that) and is frankly astonished when Jesus offers her a new way to know God. Then to top it off, he invites her to drink of living waters. Jesus ups the risk-taking game when he responds to her spoken hope that “the Messiah, when he comes, will explain everything to us.” Jesus says, “I, the one speaking to you, I am he”. Thus, emboldened with a direct encounter with the reality of God in Jesus, and justified by faith, this woman leaves her jar (a valuable item at that time) and goes forth to tell the multitude that Jesus is near. She is, perhaps, the first to spread this good Word and bring many to seek Jesus. One gap in the story is what happens after she stepped out to speak to her community. What might have happened to her? Perhaps she was commended by her people and her partner for bringing this news, later perhaps she was persecuted along with so many of the early Christians. But as Jesus demonstrated, speaking truth, bringing the truth of God’s immediate presence in our lives is one hallmark of faithful living regardless of risk.
We know that, often, there are consequences for free and bold speaking. I have faced displeased leaders, and explicit threats to my employment by standing up for environmental justice in poor neighborhoods in Phoenix, Arizona. My ministry at that time was to stand alongside those who felt they were not able to be heard and to support their request for fair housing and a clean air and soil.
In Nazi Germany, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer brought sermons expressing his understanding of Jesus’s teaching, he was eventually jailed and executed for his ministry. Today he stands as a model for Christian ethics and witness, speaking truth to power. We live in a tender time. We have many edges that we are walking. Certainly, we can see the challenges facing men and women even today; when we speak up we risk everything from our ability to earn a living to risking the physical safety of ourselves and our families.
Recently I spent a month on an interfaith pilgrimage in India. I met Sumaira Abudlal, a Muslim woman living in Bombay. She leads a campaign raising awareness of sand theft from river banks in India. There is a worldwide shortage of concrete today. Armed bandits in India come in the dark of night to gouge out the banks of rivers and streams to steal sand…the results destroy small farmers land, access to clean water and endanger homes. Sumaira has taken evidence of this thieving to the supreme court in India and environmental agency despite receiving death threats. She persists even after having her car run off the road. She remains resiliently emboldened through love and grace.
Why risk Bold speech?
In my experience the main draw for me has been witnessing both the love and justice that is the living water of Jesus’s being. There is confusion between humility and speaking truth to power. But what I understand of our faith is that we are all called to be tenderhearted truthtellers. This combination is a creative synthesis of standing up to support basic human rights for freedom and dignity. Jesus modeled this combination and the woman at the well embraced this synthesis. She allowed Jesus to see her, to love and to guide her. Jesus loves us today! We are held within the Divine and the Divine lives through us, speaks through us. We are made in love, to be love and speak love. When we are attuned to the Holy Spirit, this divine love wants to speak and shine through us. This love can only shine through us when we pray with humility. It is for us to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God.
In the story of the woman at the well we see the author of John riffing on timeless themes and sacred imagery- Jesus, a traveler taking risks, entering a bold, loving, cross cultural conversation. This is an illustration of Jesus leading by being an example of bold boundary crossing of social conventions- he is speaking with a stranger, and what’s more, a woman who has a “past”. Then, instead of receiving drinking water from this nameless woman a reversal occurs so that Jesus offers living water to her! He gives her what no one else can, total love and acceptance.
These metaphors of water permeate the bible, in this story water at the well is an invitation to dwell in the sacred and to drink from streams of living water. Our woman at the well becomes a nameless prophet. Leaving her jug behind, there is no need for the receptacle since she has become a receptacle of the great I Am. She hurries off to witness and testify to the truth of Jesus as the Way. She must have expressed her experience so beautifully that the community came to see Jesus themselves- this became an encounter that lasted for two days where Jesus taught the Samaritan people, changing their lives forever.
Women speaking boldly, prophetically is part of our Quaker heritage. Margaret Fell, certainly was an advocate for women bringing the good news of Jesus. When writing to Cromwell (imagine the danger she faced?!) she offered these thoughts:
“Thus, much may prove that the Church of Christ is a Woman, those that speak against the Woman’s speaking, speak against the Church of Christ, and the Seed of the Woman, which Seed is Christ; that is to say, those that speak against the Power of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking in a Woman, simply, by reason of her Sex, or because she is a Woman, not regarding the Seed, and Spirit, and Power that speaks in her; such speak against Christ, and his Church”
Margaret Fell went on to draw from our reading today -John:4 in her bold speech:
“Again, Christ Jesus, when he came to the City of Samaria, where Jacobs Well was, where the Woman of Samaria was; you may read, in John 4. how he was pleased to preach the Everlasting Gospel to her; and when the Woman said unto him, I know that when the Messiah cometh, (which is called Christ) when he cometh, he will tell us all things; Jesus faith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he; This is more than ever he said in plain words to Man (that we read of) before he suffered. (http://dqc.esr.earlham.edu:8080)
Margaret was an example of loving presence, humble, resilient, and persistent, clear in her offer to the world of the loveliness of eternal waters wrapped up in plain speaking, teaching all that men and women are both essential containers of this living water.
We have a history of ministry which comes from the deep well of faith, enabled by centuries of women speaking with faith and truth to power with love. As we turn to a time of silent worship, I invite you to open your hearts to our loving God and, if so led, speak from the well of your faith.