Opinion | Discipleship

The First Female Evangelists

Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well couldn’t help but share their good news.
The First Female Evangelists
Image: Sara Wong

We each have our notions about who is and who is not an evangelist. People like Billy Graham, who filled arenas, come to mind. Or perhaps we think of the person who first shared the gospel with us. Bold people. Gifted people. Often it is those who strike us as evidently holy people. Rarely do we think of ourselves as evangelists.

For some, the idea of evangelism causes fear and anxiety. Perhaps we’ve heard horror stories from others or we’ve had our own bad experiences with it. Our notions of evangelism might conjure up thoughts of a complex and slimy enterprise that involves Christians aggressively pushing our faith on others despite their protests. As a result, we may be disinclined to want any part of it.

But when we turn to Scripture, we find an evangelism that is much different than the corruptions we’ve experienced or of which we’ve heard. In the Old Testament, Isaiah 52:7 joyfully declares, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” In Greek, “the evangel” essentially means “to tell good news, to bear witness, and to proclaim.” Princeton Theological Seminary professor C. Clifton Black tells us that New Testament authors use the term good news “to mean the news of salvation, or liberation from sin, brokenness, and estrangement from God. God reveals this good news through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.”

Isaiah tells us what we all know to be true: Those who witness and proclaim good news are beautiful—not odious. Don’t we all welcome good news—and the messenger by which it comes—with joy? In fact, upon hearing it, we celebrate! Some of us throw our arms around the neck of the person bearing good news and plant kisses on his or her cheek. Others of us throw a party, a feast, or hold a ticker-tape parade. Still others post good news all over social media so many can share in our joy. We may even dance a jig. Those of us of Hispanic/Latino descent might dance the salsa or merengue. One thing is for sure: There’s no way we are going to keep good news a secret—not for long, anyway. We let the cat out of the bag the first chance we have. That idea is at the core of evangelism. When it comes to good news, we can’t help but bear witness, can’t help but tell others.

In John 4, we see this up close. Jesus sits down at Jacob’s well and asks a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water for a drink (vv. 6–8). For her part, drawing water was a routine, ordinary task. And it was amid her daily routine that she unexpectedly encountered God. At the well, conversation ensues. She discovers that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, knows everything about her, and is offering her life eternal (vv. 13–18, 26).

Soon after, she hightails it back into town. She is so overjoyed by her encounter with Jesus that she leaves her jug, not giving a second thought to the water she came to fetch. She had more important things on her mind. Once in town, she becomes an evangelist. She is bursting with the good news of Jesus Christ. She beckons her neighbors into her joy and wonder with an invitation: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v. 29). Many of her neighbors responded to her invitation. They believed in Jesus because of her testimony and spent time with him. They told her, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (v. 42).

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Samaritan “woman at the well” is called Saint Photini and, as Eva Catafygiotu Topping writes in Saints and Sisterhood, she “occupies a place of honor among the apostles. In Greek sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries she is called ‘apostle’ and ‘evangelist.’ In these sermons, the Samaritan Woman is often compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to surpass them.”

A similar thing happens with Mary Magdalene after Jesus’ crucifixion. She has gone with other women to Jesus’ tomb in order to anoint his body with spices, a customary burial practice (Mark 16:1). She is standing outside Jesus’ tomb and begins crying in anguish because she believes Jesus’ body was stolen from his grave. However, her anguish quickly turns to joy. Instead of witnessing Jesus’ decomposing body, she witnesses the resurrected Christ (John 20:14)! It is truly the best news in the world.

The resurrected Jesus commissions Mary to deliver the good news to the disciples. He says, “Go … to my brothers and tell them” (v. 17). Flabbergasted and awestruck, she runs with joy to share the good news with the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18). In that extraordinary moment, Mary Magdalene becomes an evangelist to the disciples who are some of her closest friends. She couldn’t contain her joy. And that’s why Thomas Aquinas deemed her apostolorum apostola or “apostle to the apostles.”

When we think of evangelism, we needn’t think of an unnatural, contrived, or scary process. Nor should we think that evangelism necessarily entails crossing land and sea (although for some it will). When we think of evangelism, we can think of it as an overflow of our life in Christ wherever we are. We see this in the lives of the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene. They couldn’t help but share the Good News with the people around them.

Evangelism happens when we rub elbows with people on the highways and byways of our lives—the laundromat, dog park, coffee shop, church, community events, social events, work, or school. It happens among our neighbors and family members. When we connect with others in our daily routines, they have an opportunity to encounter Jesus. If they ask us about ourselves and about what is important to us, the Good News will naturally spill out of us—if we are being honest about who we are and what has happened to us. In our everyday circumstances, we can invite people into sharing the joy and wonder of knowing Jesus. It needn’t be awkward or forced. Some will respond to the Good News we share and embrace it with joy. Others won’t. But those who do will hail us as beautiful, for we have been the joyful messengers of God’s salvation, of God’s abundant resurrection life to them.

Marlena Graves is the author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Learn more at MarlenaGraves.com.

This article is part of our CT special issue focused on women raising their voices. In “Heard,” we explore how women are speaking up, not only in response to scandals or injustice, but also more broadly for the sake of the gospel and the values of Christ’s kingdom. Click here to download a free digital version of our special issue.

Posted:October 31, 2018
November
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

Read These Next

close