A Bible passage that is most challenging to Scripture scholars is the episode of Jesus encountering the Syrophoenician woman who begs a cure for her daughter (Mk 7:24-30). By any standards, the Master seems to insult the woman by rudely countering her request: “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Not outdone, the mother counters, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Seemingly put in his place, Jesus answers, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” Commentators sympathetic to Jesus claim that he was only testing the woman to probe how sincere was her faith. Commentators unsympathetic to the Savior easily understand this episode to betray bigotry, racism and prejudice on the part of the Son of God.
This tale of a Jewish Jesus seemingly resisting the plea of a Gentile woman is ironically nestled between two episodes that reveal an open-minded and sympathetic Jesus dealing kindly toward the Gentile community at Gennesaret and toward a deaf man at the Greek settlements known as the Decapolis. Of Gennesaret St. Mark writes, “Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.” And of the Decapolis cure, the second Gospel writer notes, “They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and [the] mute speak.” So Jesus was much more a Red Cross orderly than a Klu Klux Klan wizard.
These observations direct the Bible reader toward the lengthy Gospel passage from St. John featuring Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman to be proclaimed at Mass this coming Sunday. Jesus spent very little time in Samaria. The province was merely an unfriendly passage way for Jesus’ infrequent trips to Jerusalem. Recall this observation from Luke 7:54: “On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.” Under ordinary circumstances Jesus and any Jew of that era would have kept any Samaritan at arm’s length. And of course in those days a Samaritan woman would have been treated even more remotely. As evidenced in some Asia Minor cultures even today, the public approach of men and women is severely limited. So Jesus’ open encounter at a public well with a Samaritan woman, of questionable reputation as it turns out, is, frankly, a startling testimony to Jesus’ non-judgmental attitude toward persons whose way of life differed radically from his own traditions and customs.
Jesus does not endorse the woman’s faulty notions on religion (“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain”), nor does he wink at her life style (“For you have had five husbands”). The Master rather foregoes any discussion of theology or morality and raises the conversation to the level of faith. And specifically, faith focused on Jesus Christ himself as Lord and Savior. “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus knows that personal acceptance of Christ into the heart and mind of the believer is the root and foundation of all supernatural life and heavenly grace: “…the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” As St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s reading, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand.” Jesus’ gentle invitation to this woman has some immediate results. She hastens to her fellow townsfolk: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”
The Samaritan woman’s incipient faith began because of an exchange of words: “He told me everything I have done.” And her fellow villagers would later come to believe because of a personal exchange of words with Christ: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” Jesus had deliberately taken his time conversing with these once hostile Samaritans. He quite unusually remained in their village two days.
It should be no surprise that dialogue with Jesus always has beneficial results. And such a sincere conversation with Jesus is, of course, simply regular prayer. Prayer entered through the reading of Scripture; prayer entered through the celebration of liturgy; prayer made effective through fasting; prayer accompanied by almsgiving; prayer accessed through personal devotions and private meditation — prayer in all its many forms is an invitation to sit by the well with Jesus and allow his saving words to enter into one’s mind and heart.