In the context of Sri Lanka (SL), it is not misguided to claim that food practices are gender based. They shed light on a broader cultural, religious and economic analysis. Not eating together, not sharing the same food and differences between food practices based on gender differences signify distance, the hierarchical attitude and exclusion of people due to their gender, ethnicity and class. Despite these factors women in their roles as wives and mothers are discriminated against. These types of eating habits in Sri Lankan cultures on one hand, express a variety of identities of men and women and the separation among people in the country. On the other hand women’s relationship to food practice and the relationship between women and food portray how women produce and resist gender constructions they have been experiencing for centuries.
Being conscious of the living experience of women in female headed families in SL, Rasika explores how the Samaritan woman who could have been widowed or abandoned or divorced journeys from a man-made well to a well of eternal water. This journey marks four significant crossroads namely; (1) Jesus asking for water as he is thirsty, (2) sharing the vessel in the midst of dialogue, (3) the woman asking for living water and (4) the woman becoming conscious of the great potential within her. The transforming interaction between Jesus – a Jew and a Man – and the unnamed Woman who is a ‘Samaritan’ and a ‘Woman’ – reaches a climax where the woman becomes aware of the living water that Jesus promised to give her which symbolizes an ever-lasting flow that is directly linked to life itself. Finally, unlike the disciples of Jesus who went to the city to buy bread, the Samaritan woman went to the city to spread the news of the Bread of life and the ever-flowing living water whilst using her own voice that was silenced by the existing hegemonies in her society.
Rasika’s presentation entitled, “From a Literal well to a well of eternal water: a theological reading of the Samaritan woman’s meeting with Jesus in the light of the struggle of women in Sri Lanka,” begins by showing the statue of a woman at a well carved by a Buddhist and shows how, what, why people eat, and drink are key elements in structures in society. These express variety of identities of men and women, and the separation of people among the country. These can also express how women produce and resist gender constructions they have been experiencing.
From this context, Rasika theologically reads the story of the Samaritan Woman with Jesus at the well in the Gospel of John (John 4:1-42). This text is usually interpreted using the lens of power and patriarchy, though the gospel story is also used for liberation. It is set amidst hostility between Jews and Samaritans wherein Jews claimed themselves as superior to Samaritans. Jesus asking for water (John 4:8) shows him as being down to earth in need of a drink. Jesus is not portrayed as a superior giver, and the woman is not portrayed as powerless. Asking the woman for a drink is a self-transformative act of Jesus which leads to fulfill his mission. It is self-liberative and not a patronizing act of liberation. Sharing the vessel of water signifies the breaking of the barriers of sex, race, religion and class. Both Jesus and the woman engage in a dialogue that leads to the liberation of themselves and the members of the community. This leads to a participative transformation where eating and drinking become signs of solidarity and where there are mutual giving and receiving from both sides. The woman asking for living water (John 5:15) where living water symbolizes ever-lasting flow signifies that the transformational interaction between Jesus and the Woman comes to its climax in the destruction of the barriers between them. Furthermore, a challenge is found anew towards the end of the story (John 4:21-24). The woman breaks her previous silence and becomes an apostolic witness. The Samaritan woman proclaims the bread of life using her own voice that was silenced. This is expressive of how women use their voice to break the silence that has bound them for centuries. The dream of a communal and inclusive table fellowship then becomes articulated and realizable.
The message of the story applies to women’s struggle as breadwinners in female-headed families in Sri Lanka. In the traditional family, men are the breadwinners and heads. In food practices in such families, men have the best food. An analysis of this traditional situation reveals that money plays a key role in the family, there is a hierarchy of the work performed by men and women wherein work outside is superior to household work, and there are traditional gender roles. The traditional family and food practices has been strongly challenged by working women who have functioned as breadwinners in the post-war situation where there are many female-headed household during a time when the war left many widows. Some women in female-headed families live their leadership in an alternative way. Instead of hierarchy of food practices, there is sharing. There is a recognition of women gifted with skills rather than women being restricted to roles defined by patriarchal structures. Hence, similar to the Samaritan woman, Sri Lankan women have broken boundaries through dialogue and solidarity. Like the Samaritan women who have recognized the potential within her, Sri Lankan women have also done so. This is where they find God anew.