Lessons from the woman at the well

John 4:1-43

If we go to school to the Samaritan woman at the well, what lessons can we learn for women in the church today? There are at least three dimensions to the instruction to be received from this unnamed woman, having to do with daring to question, with openness to truth and with taking responsibility.

First, this woman is faced with a request from a stranger. He is a man and she is a woman; of course he might expect her to give him a drink. But, like Mary of Nazareth, she neither complies with the request nor refuses it before asking her own questions. The woman’s willingness to engage the stranger in conversation — a conversation that she shapes as much he — leads the two of them deeper and deeper into a relationship. At the end of a series of dizzying exchanges, in which she follows the stranger’s logic and counters with some of her own, she finds herself before one who knows her — who, in revealing himself, reveals herself.

In all likelihood, none of this would have transpired had she mutely obeyed or stridently refused the man’s initial request. By determining to have her questions satisfied, she finds herself with new questions and unimaginable satisfactions. Women need the same kind of daring today. We must be prepared to ask our own questions of those who expect certain patterns of behavior of us. The Samaritan woman’s question could be a leitmotif in our own day: Why do you ask this of me? Why do you, a man, ask this of me, a woman? Why do you, the ordained, ask this of me, the laity?

A second lesson is that the woman at the well allows the relationship to change her. The symbol of this transformation, as Sandra Schneiders has identified it, is the abandoned water jar. The Samaritan woman has moved from being caught up in the daily struggle for water to an existential plane where she can forget the vessel that is all important to a woman’s life in her time. No less than the disciples, who abandon their fishing nets, this woman has undergone a metanoia — that great shift of imagination which turns priorities upside down and inside out.

Inasmuch as this shift is set in the context of a relationship, there is another side to the story. Despite interpretations to the contrary, the woman at the well is not the only one to change. The Johannine text reveals important alterations in Jesus himself. He who was tired and thirsty at the beginning of the exchange, never receives a drink and never again asks for one. He who was presumably also hungry — since the disciples went off in search of food — declines their offer of something to eat after his conversation with this woman, claiming that he has food they know not of. He, who at the beginning of the story is merely passing through Samaria, says after meeting this representative of her people, “These Samaritans’ fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!” In allowing herself to be changed, this unusual woman has also changed the stranger. Conversation with her slakes his thirst and eases his hunger. Her openness to truth brings him to recognize the broader scope of his mission. The lesson here concerns the power of true dialog, which has the potential for transforming each of the partners as they come to deeper and deeper understandings of the other. Women of the church ought, then, seek and accept opportunities for dialog related to important ecclesial issues.

A third lesson we can draw out is this: The Samaritan woman takes responsibility for her own people. Once she has tasted the truth of the stranger’s words, she runs to her townspeople to share what she has learned. However we interpret the famous lines about the five husbands, she does not think herself unworthy to be the one to tell the good news. And she is fearless in claiming her own power to recognize the one to come, in letting her own experience be the criterion for inviting others to come and see. That experience is familiar to the mystics of all ages: He told me all about myself, he knows me inside and out.

There is no doubt that the church is in trouble these days and that many of us long to be able to do more. Even if those in authority will not recognize and sanction women in official roles of teaching, sanctifying and governing, it is still our duty to take responsibility for the church where we are. Many of us know people who think they are not orthodox enough, not straight enough, not married enough, not certain enough, not regular enough, not whole enough to approach God. Let the story of this Samaritan woman inspire other women of the church to share with these seekers the results of our own ongoing conversation with the one who knows us inside and out. Like this woman in John’s Gospel, we will need to ask our own questions and risk being changed as well as being agents of change so as to take responsibility for the Samaritans of our day.

[Mary Aquin O’Neill  is a Sister of Mercy who holds the doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August of 2013, Sr. Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats.]