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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