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Those who break the glass ceiling

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29 May 2021

Samaritans: women who raise the stakes, yesterday and today


Samaritan women. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman and, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus pointed to any Samaritan as an exemplary figure of obedience to the Mosaic Law.

In fact, the Samaritans had long since built their own temple on Mount Garizim because the Jews considered them schismatic. Because of their ethnic and religious contamination, they were prevented from participating in the official cult of Jerusalem. It is Jesus, therefore, who is the first to come out of the system.

The Woman of Samaria


I have always wondered why one of the most famous Parisian temples of the consumerist era was given the name La Samaritaine. The reason is anything but insignificant, for on the façade of the first water pump placed there by King Henri IV (1553-1610) on the oldest bridge in Paris, Pont Neuf, there was a group of sculptures depicting the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. There too, on that very same bridge, Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jaÿ had a shop where they founded the famous department stores of the Ville lumière around 1870.  When the memory of the Bible was still woven into the life of Europe, it was natural to associate water with the evangelical woman of Samaria.

Unknown to the three synoptic gospels, the Samaritan woman [Jn 4:4-42] is, for John, a significant protagonist of his gospel. Her encounter with Jesus takes place in the city of Sicah, which is important from a religious point of view because it is linked to the memory of the patriarch Jacob and his son Joseph, and due to the presence of a water well that is still venerated there today. It should come as no surprise, then, that the well, the water and an amphora are for the evangelist clear narrative clues to the meaning that the entire story has for him, centred on the first long discourse with which Jesus begins his public revelation.

It is true that there had been a meeting immediately just before with Nicodemus [Jn 3:1-21]. However, if one considers the narrative as a whole, it seems almost as if the dialogue with the important rabbi of Jerusalem, a man of the system, is useful above all to prepare the one with someone who is, instead, doubly outside the system because she is a woman and because she is a Samaritan. Nicodemus intentionally goes to Jesus, but the meeting takes place at night, almost as if he does not want to compromise himself, their dialogue advances with difficulty. Nicodemus also asks questions, he tries to know who the man is, but Jesus’ answers soon turn into a long monologue because Nicodemus leaves the scene silently.

The meeting between the Samarian woman and Jesus is instead incidental, and takes place in the full light of day. Their encounter culminates in Jesus confessing his messianic condition to the woman who even undertakes a successful missionary action towards her fellow citizens.

The woman meanwhile left her amphora, went into the city and said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done. Is he the Christ?”

The rhetorical strategy of misunderstandings, dear to the evangelist, permits us to focus on the fact that the true fulcrum of the dialogue lies in the recognition that water, the symbol of the wisdom that gives life, is at the same time a figure of Jesus’ teaching and of the gift of the Spirit too. The jug left by the well is a sign that the Samarian woman has understood, as Jesus told her, if she accepts his teaching she will no longer “thirst forever”. For the evangelist, the Samaritan woman’s prominence is significant.  She is the interlocutor with whom Jesus elaborates the first of his revelatory discourses.  The spiral progressive movement of her questions forces Jesus to increasingly reveal himself until he openly declares himself as the Messiah. As a consequence of the Samaritan woman’s insistence, Jesus pronounces a discourse that is both strongly rooted in the Old Testament tradition, and visionary, leaning towards the novelty of the messianic gift of the Spirit.

Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink”. His disciples had gone into the city to stock up on food. Then the Samaritan woman said to him, “Why do you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman? The woman answered him, “I know that the Messiah, called Christ, is to come, and when he comes he will tell us all things. Jesus says to her, “It is I who speak to you”.

For her part, the woman also becomes more and more aware thanks to her own questions and understands that, in order to welcome the messianic revelation, she too must question her religious system. Unfortunately, today as in the past, many interpreters prefer to believe that Jesus’ sudden request to her to go and call her husband refers to her past unconventional sexual disorder, since she is forced to admit that she has no husband and seems to accept his reproach for having had more than one. Rather than the instability of the woman’s marriage history, what if the reference to her “five husbands” is understood for what it is intended to be, i.e. Jesus’ denunciation of the multiple divinities to which the Samaritans worshipped along with YHWH.  Then, it is perfectly in line with the rest of the discourse and prepares for the disruptive revelation of the new cult, which now takes place “in spirit and in truth”, and to which all, Jews and Samaritans alike, will have to convert.

For an evangelist like John, who draws on a spiritual tradition that runs parallel with the system of the “great church”, the prominence of the woman of Samaria serves to allude to two significant factors. First, the fact that God’s revelation clashes, on the one hand, with the mysterious rejection of those who could have received it and, on the other, with the unexpected reception by those considered most alien to it.

It is certainly not surprising, then, that it is women, who at that time were already progressively pushed out to the margins of the first Christian communities. After all, it is they who play a very important role in the development of the theological plot of a gospel that wants to be, if not transgressive, at least alternative.  These women include: Mary of Nazareth,  who watches over the beginning and the fulfilment of her son’s messianic mission; Martha of Bethany who pronounces the highest Christological confession in the whole gospel; her sister Mary who, in addition to witnessing the resurrection of their brother Lazarus, prophetically anoints Jesus’ feet and head at the supper that precedes the path of the passion; and, Mary of Magdala who is the recipient of the first apparition of the Risen Lord and receives from him the first apostolic delivery. With them, the woman of Samaria, the heretic, too. 

The Good Samaritan


It must have been the late 1960s, a Sunday noon mass in the the Church of the Gesù, Rome. A Jesuit priest I knew very well was preaching, and he dared to bring the parable of the “Good Samaritan” up to date. He spoke thus:  two cars, the first with the number plate SCV (Vatican City State) and the second with the number plate DC (Christian Democrats), were passing by without noticing an injured person on the road; while, a third car, with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), number plate had someone get out and take care of the unfortunate man. Perhaps these somewhat naïve juxtapositions did not cause any scandal among us youngsters, but cost the Jesuit a month long ban from preaching. A sanction that should not come as a surprise; after all, Jesus suffered a far worse fate. On the other hand, saying that a heretic inherits eternal life because they respect the Law more than two exponents of the official religion must not have pleased many.

The parable, which is one of the best known in the Gospel, is told by Jesus in response to a challenge by a doctor of the law who questions his right to teach since he is not officially accredited to do so. As always, he turns the perspective of his interlocutor upside down. It was not two institutional figures, a priest and a Levite, but a heretic, a Samaritan, who came to the aid of a poor man who had been left wounded by robbers on the side of the road. The scene is all male, first the unfortunate man who runs into the bandits, then a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, and an innkeeper.

On the other hand, it is safe to assume that at the time of this occurrence with Jesus, no woman could have ventured alone on the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho. If we were to represent her today, however, we could certainly imagine an all, or at least partly, female cast. Moreover, since the parable begins with a generic “a man”, and since we must always assume that this term does not necessarily mean a male, then it is quite legitimate to imagine that those who are attacked by the robbers and those who take care of them could also be women.

Today, if we were to reread one of the Gospel’s most famous parables in this way, no one would be surprised. Not so much because of political correctness, but because a significant fact, perhaps not at all incidental, is now plainly visible for all to see: the sphere of charity was the first “glass ceiling” that women in the Church managed to break. Today, a large number of them occupy important positions in the hierarchies of humanitarian organisations in all churches and Countries today. Some years ago, I attended an international women’s meeting at which leaders of large institutions in different Countries spoke. These were people who work, and often live, in close contact with emergencies of poverty, disease, war, sea rescue, and deportation.  There are so many women who are present in Caritas, Misereor, the International Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières. In addition, there are the thousands of women who are sources of dedication that do not need cameras, but are there for the countless unfortunate people throughout the world. There are so many who devote themselves in missions or on the roadsides of our cities. In recent months, have we not seen so many of them facing the pandemic emergency in our hospitals, quietly becoming the neighbours of those who were forced to die alone?

This is certainly nothing new. Throughout the Christian centuries, there have been countless good Samaritans, some of whom have been recognised and held up as examples, or even beatified and sanctified, while others -and whom are the majority-, who have remained anonymous, like the Samaritan in the parable. On our streets, there are many “heretics”, those women whom we consider extraneous to our social system, and often to our religious system too, but who do not shy away from caring for and dedicating themselves to the many “unfortunates” of our affluent society. Even the Samaritan women, who are capable of being a neighbour to anyone in difficulty, are no less provocative than the Samaritan of the Gospel. At the conclusion of the parable, in fact, Jesus pronounces not a teaching, but a warning:

Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10, 36f).

We may wonder how many of us would be willing to take a leaf out of someone else’s book.  Take as an example a person who comes from a distant country, who has a different skin colour, who does not have all the necessary permits to be considered part of the system, who belongs to another church or honours another God, but just because she does good deeds.  

Yet, yesterday and today, evangelical Samaritans mirror the ministries that many women exercise in the Church in the area of charity, but also in theological teaching and catechesis. Outside the system? Perhaps the time has come - and this is it - when it begins to cease to be true.

By Marinella Perroni
Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum Saint Anselm