The Samaritan Woman Still Questions

Long ago and far away, I remember studying the text of today’s gospel ( John 4) with Michael Goulder and having a wonderful time deconstructing various elements and putting them together again in the way beloved of scripture scholars. What struck me then, and strikes me even more today, is how far we have drifted from appreciating the way in which Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman, and the challenge it presents the Church. To question, to argue, to shift ground, to seek understanding: how much is that really encouraged, especially among the laity? If I were at Mass this Sunday, I’d be sitting silently in the pew, listening to a (male) priest or deacon doing his best to interpret the gospel for me; and while I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of his preaching or the amount of prayer and study that would (hopefully) have gone into its preparation, it would still be an interpretation I would receive essentially passively. Any engagement, any critique, any questioning, would be in my own mind, as a solitary individual, wouldn’t it? There would be no dialogue, no understanding as a community.

There are indeed times when keeping quiet and paying close attention to what is said is exactly what we should do (and I am familiar with what the GIRM says about the homily and its place in the Mass). I know, too, that readers who belong to scripture study groups will think of the benefit they derive from studying the scriptures in common with others and point out that this is a valuable way of engaging with the text and the questions it raises outside official Church structures. But the way in which the Samaritan Woman engages with Jesus should set us thinking. Isn’t the kind of questioning she represents meant to be an essential part of how we explore and articulate faith as a Church? In Orthodoxy, the woman at the well is given a name, Photini or Svetlana, and her role is rightly seen as apostolic, i.e. an announcer, or perhaps we should say in this context, elucidator, of the Good News. Is that an insight we have lost? In emphasizing the teaching role of the clergy, have we forgotten or undervalued the role of the laos, the People of God? Is that an impoverishment of the Church as a whole?

Today’s gospel is so pregnant with meaning that I think it can provide material for a lifetime’s reflection. Jesus at the well shows himself vulnerable, open, humorous and humane; the woman likewise shows herself vulnerable, open, a bit ‘lippy’ and desirous of knowing the truth — at whatever cost. She stands for all of us who come to the Lord with all our imperfections, all our sinfulness, and long to be saved. The Church born of the blood and water that poured from Christ’s side on Calvary is here presaged in a cup of cold water and an exchange that is charged with symbolism. The dialogue between Jesus and the woman is truly life-giving, not only for her and her fellow villagers, but for all of us who follow after. That is worth pondering. There are many women at the well today, so to say, still questioning, still seeking; but will they find anyone with whom to engage? The answer we give is not just for ourselves or for our own time: I think it is part of what it means to worship in spirit and in truth.

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8 thoughts on “The Samaritan Woman Still Questions”

  1. We had almost a paraphrase of your explanation of the Gospel by our Irish priest at Mass this morning – he had us all smiling. We have several ‘Samaritan women’ in our Parish! I am one, aged 88! I’m still smiling. Thank you.

  2. Ooh, how your post has resonated with me, reading it as I did on my return from morning Mass. Much to ponder on today.

    This became one of my all-time favourite passages, springing from Lenten discussions years ago in a prayer group led by a previous parish priest, now my spiritual director (dg), who used to try and encourage us to share together in the week before the gospel was to be read at Mass … and effectively give him input for his homily preparation and prayer. He also used sometimes to try and get responses from the congregation on Sundays during his homily. Most though were not as “lippy” as I am and may have felt uncomfortable about speaking up, more’s the pity. I am sure many had valuable thoughts to share in reaction to the gospel reading but were too shy to speak.

  3. At Mass today our priest quite sternly asked us all to put missals/mass sheets down and juat listen to the Gospel. We were surprised and afterwards he explained that the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan womas is crucial to understanding our relationship with God. We were urged to consider the fact it was a woman who would have been overlooked by the community Jesus came from who He chose to speak to and who He had one of the most revealing conversations with.

    I am not surprised to see how important you feel this Gospel is. Your post is a great springboard to further contemplation.

  4. This reading has left me wanting to understand more from it. There is such a lot of meaning and message on so many different levels. It left a strong impression on me. Incidentally, as I happen to be an Anglican it was read by a woman priest.

  5. This interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman points up the important role for women in the universal church. We are all God’s children and there is no good reason for excluding women from the priesthood or the espiscopacy.

    • The Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, maintains that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Pope Francis has called for the situation with regard to the diaconate to be investigated further. I suspect it might be more helpful to think of ways in which the laity, male and female, can contribute to the building up of the Church other than through ordained ministry. And I do mean a bit more than cutting the grass or doing the flowers!

  6. Oh yes!

    I was preaching at hospital (2-3 mins) and in that context focussed on “the well is deep and we have no bucket”. But we do have Jesus beside us as we face our deep..

    Back to you, Jesus seems to respect and respond to feisty women! And send us out…

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been thinking about this gospel reading all day since it was read in church this morning – it is so full of meaning, carries such a precious message and quickens the spirit. It really makes me feel quite joyful! There are some superb icons of the subject to ponder on-line for anyone who enjoys these visual presentations of the gospel.

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