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Jesus Never Met the Woman at the Well

So proclaims a recent column in my local archdiocesan newspaper. Is it no wonder Catholics fail to appreciate scripture?

Basically, the gospel truth of the matter according to this enlightened "biblical scholar" and columnist is that:

Biblical scholars seriously doubt that this event ever took place in the life of the historical Jesus. After the resurrection of Jesus, the Johannine community, the one responsible for writing the fourth Gospel, included Samaritan believers. Thus, this scene was read back into Jesus’ lifetime by the Johannine community. It was their way of welcoming and including both Samaritans and women who had come to believe in Jesus.

How do we know this? Because "Contextually and historically speaking, the story is froth with irregularities." Never mind the "irregularities" of the resurrection narrative. Or maybe the "historical Jesus" didn't rise from the dead? At any rate I digress...

Anyway, while some may naively view this gospel encounter as a profound reflection on the relationship between God and Israel, and the ongoing infidelity of the bride Israel to her husband Yahweh, the author shares what is really going on:

Clearly a subversion of patriarchy is taking place here. The Johannine community is affirming new roles for women. Women are faithful witnesses to who Jesus is and are not constrained by male cultural norms. Women are able to dialogue with Jesus.

Subversion of patriarchy? Now I am really getting confused. I thought that was one of the problematic "irregularites" of the original story. Or maybe it is the case that the historical Jesus was unable to subvert the patriarchy but the Johannine community was able to? I guess this new exegesis is a little more challenging that I first though.

The worst part of it all is that such a reading strips so much meaning from this gospel passage. Sure you can lift a few quotes, throw in some histroical critical speculation and come up with a subversive anti-patriarchal reading to lay the groundwork for the ordination of women, but it doesn't hold together very well in light of the gospel narratives as a whole or the tradition that has guided interpretation of this passage.

And then to take this shallow reading, and promulgate it to 100,000 Catholics in the official newspaper of the archdiocese? That is the true tragedy. How long Lord?


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Comments (3)

This is why I refuse to read the Catholic Spirit... and I encourage everyone I know to get the Catholic Servant instead.

Jason A.:

While I am sure that the "woman at the well" is not a condemnationn of some amorphous, "post-modern" term known as patriarchy, consider this:

Jesus does three amazing things in this scene. First, as a Jew he speaks with a Samaritan. Sharing a cup with a Samaritan woman would have rendered him ritually impure according to religious custom. Secondly, he speaks directly to a woman which was verboten in that society. Men did not speak directly to unfamiliar women in public. Third, he speaks with a woman who was an outcast of the community. She is a woman of bad morals, and the other women of the community have ostracized her, preventing her from gathering water with them in the cool morning. Instead, she is condemned to collect it during the hot midday. And Jesus uses a term of endearment -- "woman." Ironically, the Greek word is better translated as "special lady." Jesus will not use this word again until speaking to his mother from the Cross.

Additionally, exchanging water from a well was a sign of covenant between persons in ancient society. Jesus is inviting this woman into relationship with him in a special way. God takes the initiative and intervenes in our lives, no matter what barriers are erected to stand in his way. He seeks out a relationship with us. Just as the Samaritan woman asked Jesus why he would have anything to do with her, we may ask why Jesus would have anything to do with us. But it is precisely because he desires covenant, or relationship with his people.

That seems to get to the heart of the passage. While I am reluctant to impute a more aggressive social critique to the story, there is something going on. Jesus is transcending traditional cultural and religious boundaries to seek us out.

BTW - this is not my ingenious exegesis. This was the substance of a homily I heard this morning at St. Paul's church, the Catholic parish of Harvard University by a very well-spoken priest.

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