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Let’s hear it for the ladies

Kate Barrett | Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the next couple of days we’ll hear two very significant stories from our gospels. In both, which appear nearly back-to-back tomorrow and Sunday, women have prominent –– and indeed, similar — roles.

Tomorrow, March 25, is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the day the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would bear a son, Jesus (which means, you guessed it, exactly nine more shopping months till Christmas).

The gospel for this Sunday, March 27, tells the story from John’s gospel of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and eventually opening her heart, and the hearts of all the Samaritan townspeople, to come to believe in him.

The gospels contain plenty of stories of people who encountered Jesus without ever understanding that they had just met the Messiah. They stood right there in the presence of Jesus Christ and just didn’t get it. But Mary did, and the woman at the well did too. What can we learn from these two so that we are open enough to recognize our own encounters with God?

Women don’t really get a lot of good coverage in the gospels. With the exception of Luke’s gospel, and probably due in large part simply to the culture of the time, we just don’t hear too much about the ladies of first-century Palestine. So consider this: why were these two stories of women responding to the Lord’s call thought to be important enough to make the cut? How did they end up in John’s and Luke’s final drafts?

The story of Mary’s annunciation is an obvious choice: it lays the scriptural foundation for our understanding of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. But if we look a little deeper, and especially if we consider both of these women together, the woman at the well and the mother of God have something to teach us about our own responses to God in our lives.

Now of course, especially with the benefit of hindsight, we’d expect Mary to have the reaction she did. Even though God, through his messenger Gabriel, had just dropped a bomb she couldn’t have seen coming, she could immediately respond with obedient openness to his plan.

The situation of the woman at the well might more closely resemble our own. Jesus doesn’t have any earth-shattering news for her. In fact, he just needs a favor, as he’s hot and thirsty from his travels. However, he is a man, speaking to a woman; he is a Jew, speaking to a Samaritan. Both these distinctions set off red flags for her.

Additionally, the woman almost certainly only drew water from that well in the heat of the day because she hoped no one else would be there. Married five times, she seems to have acquired a reputation and lost the respect of her community. If you wanted to be alone in Samaria, you would definitely choose high noon for your most labor-intensive outdoor chores.

When Jesus inexplicably walks right up and begins to speak to her, she views him with the skepticism of a person who’s been burned before. Only as she comes to realize that Jesus already knows her deepest humiliations and still wants to share his saving love with her does she open her heart to worship him and even find the courage to urge others to do the same.

We might respond to an encounter with Christ much like the woman at the well did because our lives, like hers, are burdened by the sins, fears, self-consciousness, selfishness and guilt that keep us from welcoming freely the love Jesus offers us. Our good news is that, like the woman at the well, we too can argue with God. We can put up defenses. We can speak to him out of our fear or embarrassment or guilt and he will continue to engage us until we too can say, “we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

While we might recognize ourselves in the reluctance of the woman at the well, we might also pray for the open heart of Mary, the mother of God. In one of these women we come to understand the burdens that our own guilt, fear and shame place on our ability to respond to Jesus. In the other we recognize the beauty of a courageous willingness to follow the will of the Lord. Rarely do we encounter these two readings in such close proximity, but in the next few days we can pray with the living stories of two women who each knew — as John’s gospel states — that Jesus knows everything about us and longs for us to follow him.

Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus Program in Campus Ministry.  She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.