Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: EX 17:3-7; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 5: 1-3, 5-8; JN 4: 5-42. (Parenthetical numbers in today's homily refer to Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.)
The Lenten project of my parish in Kentucky has a group of about 25 parishioners studying Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). All of us have been inspired by its positive tone and its call for "changing everything" (JG 27). We're encouraged by the words of the text and by what discussion causes to emerge from the spaces between the lines. And we're finding what the pope says about women to be surprising and hopeful. In fact it suggests that women should run the church from top to bottom!
That's relevant to today's gospel reading -- the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The story says a lot about Jesus and his "preferential option" for women. It also exemplifies once again how the women in Jesus' life were more perceptive and courageous leaders than the rather dull, timorous men with whom he surrounded himself.
Pope Francis, if not exactly on the same page as Jesus, is only a few paragraphs behind. He might even lag a sentence or two behind his own reasoning processes.
Before I explain, recall today's gospel episode.
Jesus finds himself in Samaria among "those people" the Jews hated. Since the reasons for the hatred were located in Israel's distant past, many Jews probably remained foggy about the exact reasons for their anti-Samaritanism. No matter: they had no doubts that Samaritans were despicable. [Just to remind you: Samaritan s were the ones in Israel's Northern Kingdom who seven centuries earlier had intermarried with Assyrian occupiers. Like "collaborators" everywhere, Samaritans were considered unpatriotic traitors. Religiously they were seen as enemies of God -- apostates who had accommodated their religious beliefs to those of foreign occupation forces. (Grudges connected with foreign occupation and religion die hard.)]
In any case, in today's gospel we have the counter-cultural Jesus once again on the social margins transgressing his people's most cherished taboos. It's not bad enough that he is in Samaria at all. He's there conversing alone with a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that! (What self-respecting rabbi would do either?) And besides, it's a loose woman who's his partner in conversation. She has a shady past that continues to darken her life. She's been married five times and is currently living with a man with benefit of wedlock.
Yet the compassionate Jesus eschews moralism and instead of scolding chooses this marginal woman to reveal his identity in ways more direct than to his male disciples. With no word of reproach, he tells her clearly, "I am the Messiah, the source of "living water' that quenches thirst forever." After her literalist failures to grasp Jesus' spiritual imagery, the woman finally "gets it." She calls her neighbors and shares the good news: "Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?"
In sharing her good news, the Samaritan woman not only illustrates the privileged position of women in early Christian traditions (like the Gospel of John), she epitomizes as well the corresponding "missionary" role that Pope Francis centralizes in the Apostolic Exhortation that my friends and I have been discussing during Lent. There we find that, following Jesus, Pope Francis expresses a "preferential option" for women. He even suggests that women should be in charge before male priests and bishops.
I know; I know . . . You're probably thinking, "But aren't women the weak point of the pope's "Exhortation?'"
True: that's what everyone said immediately following its publication last November. Commentators said that Francis simply endorsed the position of his two conservative predecessors and excluded women from the priesthood. That said it all, they declared. It's right there in black and white: the exclusively male priesthood is not open to discussion (104).
But there was more -- lots more.
That is, while Francis' rather wishful (and, of course, impossible) thinking clearly says "the reservation of the priesthood to males . . . is not a question open to discussion" (104), his prohibition actually downgrades the priesthood and bishops in the process, while raising to unprecedented heights the position of women precisely as women.
The pope's reasoning runs like this:
1. Why should women consider the priesthood so important? After all, it's just one ecclesiastical function among others. That function is simply to "administer the sacrament of the Eucharist." Apart from that, the priest has no real power or special dignity (104).
2. Real Christian power and dignity come from baptism, not from ordination -- or in the pope's words: "The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all." These words pull priests off their traditional pedestals and return them to the rank and file of "the People of God" along with other servants of their peers.
3. Even more, according to the pope, women enjoy a dignity above bishops simply in virtue of their gender. The pope sets the stage for this conclusion by stating, "Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops" (104).