Those Preaching Women: Reflections on the Woman at the Well
Third Sunday of Lent: Jn. 4: 4-42
We, Dominicans, celebrate Mary Magdalene as the first person to preach the Gospel; she is, in fact, the patroness of the Order of Preachers. However, in the scripture today, we learn of Mary’s preacher-precursor, the anonymous, but infamous “Woman at the Well.” Moreover, the Gospel for this third Sunday of Lent, casts light on the transformational power of the Samaritan woman’s preaching. The early church writes, “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in Jesus because of her testimony.” What do these women have in common? Why were they chosen to be preeminent preachers of the Gospel? What does this have to do with our Lenten journey?
The Samaritan woman, not unlike her countrymen, the “good” Samaritan, (Lk. 10: 30-36), and the Samaritan leper cured by Jesus, (Lk 17: 11), is a lightning rod of controversy among Jesus’ contemporaries. We can almost hear them whispering to one another, “If he is trying to build a base of support for his Gospel, his association with these Samaritans is definitely not a good idea!” Because of the longstanding religious, as well as ethnic based animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus would be expected to avoid all contact with them. Yet, he doesn’t. Why?
In a similar way, Mary, credited with being the first to see the risen Jesus, and commissioned to preach this “Good News,” is a woman with whom the early church is clearly uncomfortable. Although she is named, her identity is muddled by a number of characterizations of her. Is she the woman of ill repute who anoints Jesus’ feet with precious oils? Was she the woman possessed by many demons? Is she the woman who accompanies Jesus as he is executed on the cross? Is she one and the same woman? Why is there so much haziness about Mary’s identity?
The Samaritan woman, like her sister Mary, steps into, and right out in front of Jesus’ life. Being invisible or deferential is not in the play-book of either one of these women. It is likely that at first, our woman-at-the-well, is anticipating an argument with the Jewish man leaning against the water source. She is predictably hot, tired, and out of water. In other words, “in no mood.” Yet, he manages to draw from the well of her empathy and capacities; after all, she is the one with the bucket! He makes a request, “give me a drink.” Once their conversations starts and her curiosity is engaged, she rises to the occasion. She speaks as an equal, is far from deferential, and boldly offers Jesus an education about their cultural and religious diversities. She is unafraid of intimacy, and this is where Jesus meets her. This place of intimacy, symbolized by the well, is also a place where they share a need. She, has had multiple marriages, and is now living in an unsanctioned relationship. He, is on his way to his death, and is beginning to experience the parching effect of alone-ness.
From what we know from her hazy identity, Mary of Magdala is the only other woman, besides his mother, who touches the body of Jesus. At the dinner party which she crashes, (Mk. 14: 3), the host and guests are insulted by her presence and her actions. She massages Jesus’ feet with expensive, aromatic oil, and dries them with her hair. When the hosts and guests try to rebuke her actions, it is they who become recipients of Jesus’ rebuke. The audacity of Mary’s full throttled trust and faith in Jesus’ acceptance of her stands in stark contrast to their fear, and carefully calibrated association with him.
The Woman at the Well, as well as the patroness of our Order, Mary, are sister-preachers who together are proclaiming and preaching the Gospel this third Sunday of Lent. As you listen closely, may you hear their voices. Listen for the invitation to go to the well to meet Jesus. Bring along a bucket full of insights and questions to ponder with him, and pose to him. Here are a few from which you might choose:
The Samaritan Woman meets Jesus at a well; it is a place where they share a common need.
· Visualize yourself at the well having an intimate conversation with Jesus about your needs. Where do you discover commonality?
The contributions to our Church of Mary of Magdala and the Woman at the Well remain fairly unknown. Have your ever felt anonymous or unknown as a member of the Church?
· What has been your experience of women in leadership roles within the church?
· How have you experienced the Church as diminishing, silencing, qualifying or obscuring the dignity and role of women as leaders and preachers today?
· Where do you see evidence of women’s courage, trust, intimacy and audacity as they strive for equality, visibility, and fuller ministerial capacities in the Church today?
Closing ritual: As you bring your reflection to conclusion, take a moment to pause, and as you consider the next step in your Lenten journey, mindfully, take a drink of water.
Sr. Arlene Flaherty, OP