There are two reasons, say many New Testament scholars, that Jesus should not be talking to the “Samaritan woman” or the “Woman at the Well,” given the customs of the time. First, she is an unaccompanied woman, and therefore off limits; and second, she is a Samaritan, a member of a religious group often at odds with the Jewish people.
But Jesus speaks to her anyway in this beautiful Gospel story.
And Jesus not only speaks to her—he listens to her. For me, this story perfectly embodies what Pope Francis means when he calls for a “culture of encounter.” Instead of calling her a sinner (for having been married several times and currently living with someone who is not her husband) or critiquing her for not being Jewish (remember the religious differences), Jesus spends a great deal of time with her, engaging one of the longest conversations he has with anyone in any Gospel.
And at the end of his time with her, after he reveals who he is, she leaves her water jug behind to proclaim the Gospel to her people. The New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., suggests that she is a counterpart to St. Peter, who similarly leaves his nets behind to follow Jesus.
In the last few years, especially in my ministry with LGBT people, I’ve found this Gospel helpful when thinking about how we encounter people “on the margins.” Surely this woman was. Notice that she is visiting the well “about noon.” Why? Probably because she’s too embarrassed to go there when the other women of the village do. People on the margins are often made to feel a sense of shame. Jesus, however, shows us how we are to help people reclaim their own dignity, by meeting them as friends.
Who in your life is on the margins? Who feels a sense of shame? Who is too embarrassed to “come to the well”? Can you encounter them as Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman? Can you reveal a bit of yourself to them? Most of all, can you love them?
For further reflection, from the editor: The emerging realities in the U.S. and around the world presented by COVID-19/coronavirus might ask us to utilize Fr. Martin’s reflection to examine the following questions:
1. Who is newly or further marginalized by the realities of coronavirus—consider those most susceptible to illness, healthcare workers, those families and children who are presented with significant challenges during extended school closures, those in prison or immigration detention, and many others.
2. How can you encounter these people and help to meet their needs with love, compassion, and community in unique ways during this time, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman?
Fr. James Martin, S.J., is an editor at large at America Magazine and author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.