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. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/032314.cfm (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: Samaritans 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 kind of 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 without 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).
4. Moreover, Mary “is the icon of womanhood” itself (285). That is, by looking at her, we see the idealized position that women should occupy – above both priests and bishops.
5. According to Francis, this realization opens the door to women assuming unprecedentedly powerful positions in the church.
6. He writes, “. . . we need to create still broader opportunities for more incisive female presence in the church (103). So he urges “pastors and theologians . . . to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (104).
As one of those theologians the pope references, I suggest that his words in other parts of his Exhortation direct us to put women in charge of the church as a whole – including the papacy itself. After all:
• “The church is a mother, and . . . she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child” (139). (Why then expect men to preach like a woman?)
• The faith of the church is like Mary’s womb (285). (This means that faith nourishes Christians in a uniquely feminine way.)
• “. . . (E)very Christian is . . . a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister . . .” (285). (“Every Christian!” Is it possible to issue a clearer invitation to men – including the hierarchy – to recognize their own feminine qualities so essential to Christian identity? And who can better exemplify and evoke those qualities than women leaders?)
• The “female genius” (with its “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets”) equips women more than men to be the out-going missionaries the pope’s Exhortation centralizes (103).
• And since “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (15), it seems that women “more than men” are uniquely equipped to embody the essence of what the church should be doing in the world.
My conclusion from all of this is simple. Regarding women, Pope Francis is far more radical than most realize (perhaps including himself). In fact, Francis’ “preferential option for women” actually mirrors Jesus’ choice expressed so fully in today’s gospel. There Jesus chooses a woman as an apostle (“one sent”) and preacher. Her simple words referencing her own uniquely feminine experience (“everything I’ve ever done”) persuade her village neighbors to meet Jesus and spend time with him. They then draw their own conclusions. They say, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves . . .”
All of this indicates that truly following the rabbi from Nazareth means thinking for ourselves and moving even beyond the pope’s perception of his words’ implications. Those words imply that the church and its mission are more feminine than masculine. They suggest that if only men (because of their physical resemblance to Jesus) can perform the newly demoted function of priest, then women’s physical resemblance to Mary uniquely qualifies them for offices “more important than the bishops.”
In the church hierarchy, what’s above a bishop? A cardinal, of course. And the pope is always drawn from the College of Cardinals. Hmm . . . .
Move over, Francis, make way for Pope FrancEs THE FIRST!