I was at Mass yesterday sans kids, which means that I was able to listen to the Gospel for once. And it was a great reading: the one where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42 ).
It’s a pretty long reading, but I love it, because it’s about Jesus hanging out with someone who is on the fringe. This is a woman who is operating totally outside the sexual norms of her society (she’s had five husbands, and the guy she is currently with is not her husband). She’s clearly used to gossip and cold shoulders from the women of the town, and probably used to lascivious looks from their husbands. She is surely not accustomed to men who recognize that she has a brain and a heart — but that is exactly what Jesus does in his conversation with her.
As the priest said during the homily, Jesus saw two things in her: a capacity for faith, and a capacity for inquiry. She is open to belief, but first, she asks the tough questions. She is not afraid to ask and press for details. Jesus seems to have liked that in her, and it’s a good reminder for all the rest of us, too. Faith is a process, and Jesus can take the tough questions and skepticism that we may throw at him in the process of making belief our own.
And really, this reading shows how astonishing Jesus was for his time. He’s treating a woman of dubious sexual morality as an intellectual equal, and she’s a Samaritan woman, to boot (there was no love lost between the Samaritans and the Jews). There is absolutely nothing conventional about what Jesus is doing here. And though nowadays we tend to see Jesus as safe and mainstream, the Gospels just keep showing, over and over, that he was actually very subversive. He didn’t shunt people into society’s strict categories so he could dismiss them easily. He met them where they were, even if it meant operating outside of the expected rules of his time, even if it meant talking to a woman whom everyone else appears to have maligned. This kind of behavior got Jesus into trouble, time and again. And somehow, for reasons that just keep becoming more clear to me, it’s the part of his ministry that I love the most.