The resurrection appearances in John’s brilliantly crafted narrative bring to poetic conclusion so many themes. There are multiple reiterated ideas from John’s gospel itself which find their climax in Chapter 20, as well as deeper underlying, intertextual, Biblical-theological ideas. Consider the significance of it being “the first day,” (20:1, 19), light and darkness (20:1), seeing and not seeing/ knowing and not knowing (20:1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 18, 20, 29), the garden/gardener (20:15), naming (20:16), believing (20: 8, 25, 27, 29, 31).
This year, I am particularly struck by the man and the woman in the garden at the dawn of New Creation. And Jesus twice calls Mary, “woman” in chapter 20. And this is the conclusion of a thread of vocative, “woman” addresses in John’s gospel – six in total.
John 2:4, Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My time has not yet come” (which has worried interpreters because it seems disrespectful).
John 4:21, Jesus says to the Samaritan at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. ”
John 8:10, Jesus says to the adulteress, ““Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
John 19:26, Jesus says to his mother, from the cross, Woman, behold, your son!”
John 20:13, Jesus asks Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
John 20:15, Jesus asks again, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
The idea that Jesus and Mary in the garden somehow represent a re-take on the man and the woman in the garden in Genesis 2 has ancient pedigree. That somehow Jesus is a bridegroom seeking a bride, that Mary represents the church – us – that there is an intimate, significant encounter taking place, this is an idea well-grasped. But there’s more.
The vocative “woman” is used by Jesus six times in John’s book. John, who loves the number seven, who repeatedly crafts sevens into his narrative, here leaves us hanging, incomplete, off-balance, pointing towards an as-yet-unrealised, eschatological seventh vocative. The final wedding feast of the Bride and Bridegroom, perhaps?
Do Jesus’ encounters with unmarried/single women throughout John all represent aspects of Christ encountering his church?
In Chapter 2 Jesus’ mother (whom tradition holds as widowed, since Joseph nowhere appears in the adult gospel accounts) and Jesus have an interaction at a wedding. At a wedding. The six stone jars for ceremonial washing speak of the old covenant, external, concerned with ritual cleansings. Jesus turns this water into wine for drinking. As drinking is superior to washing, so is the new covenant superior to the old. As wine is superior to water, so is the new covenant superior to the old. When Jesus says, “My time has not yet come,” he is thinking about his own wedding and his own bride. Jesus will not be a shameful (stingy) bridegroom who runs out of wine.
In Chapter 4, we see a re-constitution of a very Genesis type-scene. In the Pentateuch, whenever we see a man and woman meeting at a well, they are meeting to marry. Abraham’s servant finds Rebekah at a well as wife for Isaac (Gen 24). Jacob meets Rachel, the love of his life, at a well (Gen 29). Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well (Exodus 2). And so on.
This man-meets-woman-at-a-well scene always reminds us of Eden in Genesis 2. It suggests fruitfulness and the production of life. For Hagar, who does not have a husband, who is a marginal, despised, mistreated slave woman, it is God himself who meets her at a well, removing her shame, and she in the next verse becomes pregnant (Gen 16:7-15).
Thus, Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at a well, a woman who does not currently have a husband, and who is, therefore, in a patriarchal society, without a male interface with the world, recalls these stories. It is a marriage type-scene. Salvation from shameful man-less-ness is through a redeemer taking responsibility, as in the Ruth and Boaz story. And yet here, in Jesus’ re-constituted scheme of things, this woman does not have to marry to find her place in the world. Her community meets Jesus’ community. She is brought into a new place of shame-removal, the Church. She can now have a place to stand viz-a-viz a patriarchal world, she has men to represent her; brothers in Christ, uncles in Christ. And she has the indwelling Holy Spirit. So when Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” (4:13-14) he could just as well be using the spring-water as a metaphor for marriage. This is a woman who has drunk the waters of marriage several times and yet always been thirsty again. He is offering a salvation from shame that is superior in its quality and permanence even than what Ruth received from Boaz.
In Chapter 8, the woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus, publicly in the Temple courts, by the scribes and Pharisees, early in the morning. They want to stone her to death. After Jesus challenges them, they all depart, until eventually “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (8:9). A man and a woman, in the early morning, in the Temple courts (the Temple was supposed to be a re-embodiment of Eden). A woman with no man to protect her, but Jesus protects her. A woman adulterous and unfaithful, as God’s Betrothed was often called in the Old Testament – see Hosea! Jesus turns the vehemence of the crowd away from the woman and onto his own person – at the beginning of the chapter they want to stone her, by the end of the chapter they want to stone him. Jesus absorbs her shame at great cost to his own person. God’s people are unfaithful to Him – including the scribes and Pharisees, and yet the Man has come to redeem the Adulteress.
In Chapter 19 Jesus is crucified, at the sixth hour on the sixth day (19:14). There are four soldiers and four women in the story, formally juxtaposed in verses 23-25. The men are unnamed, the women are named. The men are powerful, the women are vulnerable. The men are serving the wrong king, the women are serving the wrong-ed king. The men take something from him, the women have Him taken from them.
When Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the beloved disciple, “Behold, your mother,” he is counter-culturally handing over responsibility for his husband-less, oldest son-less mother, not to his other biological brothers (who are not yet believers), but to his spiritual brothers. He is forging a radically new family, where his blood creates more significant ties than mere biological blood, and where his disciples take responsibility for one another. The church is formed right here at the foot of the cross.
This matters, because in a patriarchal world any woman who had no male representative (father, husband, brother, adult son) was vulnerable, caught “in between,” liable to exploitation and abuse, and a potential shame-bearer for the whole community. Be she widowed, divorced, unmarried, barren, the only real solution was marriage. This kind of marriage was often abused – see Tamar’s story amongst others. In many parts of the world today, this is still the deal. The only real solution for shame is marriage, but due to the fallenness of man, these marriages can be quid pro quo, toxic, abusive. Not always, but the pain of patriarchy is well-documented.
In all of the stories discussed in John, Jesus is standing before a vulnerable woman, and offering a solution that is different. Within the great over-arching metaphor of Bride and Bridegroom, with Woman representing our corporate identity; the people of God, the church, the Helper, as Jesus comes seeking his bride, we can see ourselves in these stories. And in the new order that Jesus is creating, there is plenty of honour for these unmarried women. Now they have family, representation, care, provision, and their own important place in the story. They often see things that men don’t see; the Samaritan woman (ch 4) believes whilst Nicodemus (ch 3) does not, Mary Magdalene sees angels where Peter and John only saw graveclothes, and is the first to see the risen Christ himself (ch 20). And none of them are compelled to marry in order to find their complete resolution. Mary Magdalene becomes the first in a very, very long line of single women who witness to the living Lord. Even today, single women on mission vastly outnumber men.
Jesus’ commission to Mary Magdalene is soaked in family language to make this point to her;
Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (20:17).
And so, we have Man and Woman, in the garden, early in the morning, as the darkness is passing and the light is dawning, on the first day of the week. Bridegroom and Bride. Christ and the Church. God and his people. A new humanity. A new creation. A new beginning. A new family. Individually, Mary Magdalene is given a lasting, honourable legacy – we still know her name and celebrate her faith two thousand years later! And corporately, the bride of Christ is constituted as a family of mutual responsibility, of shame-removal, of protection for the vulnerable, a faithful bride.
And one day, at the wedding to end all weddings and the feast surpassing all feasts, our joy will be complete.