On January 10, 2021, the Holy Father Pope Francis, in a move that received little attention in US Catholicism, issued a Moto Proprio Spiritus Domini, in which he ordered that Canon 320 of the Code of Canon Law be altered to make it possible for Catholic women of good character to participate in the liturgical ministries of lector and acolyte through installation in a liturgical ritual. In a letter to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he wrote that women as lectors and acolytes will “entail a stability, a public recognition and a mandate from the bishop” which would entail a “more effective participation of everyone in the Church participation in the work of evangelization.” In the wake of the discernment which has emerged from the last Synods of Bishops, Pope Francis wanted to formalize and institutionalize the presence of women at the liturgical celebrations of the Church.
In the Acts of the Apostles, “Philip went down to [the] city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (Acts 8:5). The people of Samaria, the same people who had heard of the Messiah from the Woman at the well of Jacob, “With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing” (Acts 8:6).
Let us imagine ourselves as first-century Samaritans from the city of Sychar. Let us not be afraid to visualize ourselves listening to a holy man who arrives in our town with the Good News that the Messiah has finally come to save Israel. He tells us the sad news that the Messiah has been killed. But then he excites us with the news that the Messiah has risen from the dead. The holy man’s name is Philip.
How might we Samaritans respond to Philip’s claims?
Perhaps we said something like, “Deacon Philip, we already know who the Messiah is. He stayed with us for 2 days and he told us who he is. Photini, a woman of great scandal and now a woman of valor, told him of our expectation that a Messiah will come, ‘I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’ We Samaritans already know who the Messiah is, and we rejoice now to be told that he is risen from the dead!”
In our reverie, the woman at the well — called Photini in Orthodox tradition — had already prepared Samaria for the coming of the Good News. Before a deacon arrived to tell them about Jesus, a woman had already personally introduced them to Him.
The narrative of the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4:1-42) is the first incident in the fourth gospel where a person’s interaction with Jesus leads them to go out and reveal his identity as Son of God to others. Nicodemus came secretly at night and departed while it was still dark (see Jn 3:1-21). St. John Chrysostom writes in Sermon 32 on the Gospel of John:
“Moreover, the woman at once believed, and appeared wiser than Nicodemus; indeed, not only wiser, but even stronger. Four, though he heard countless things of this kind, Nicodemus neither summoned any other person to Christ, nor did he himself speak freely of him; while she engaged in apostolic work, spreading the good news to all and calling them to Jesus, drawing to him an entire city from outside the faith.”
The five disciples who have formed Jesus’ entourage, are mute from the call of Nathaniel (Jn 2:1) to the moment of their return to the well at Sychar with food for Jesus (Jn 4:27). They did not want to expand the message of their encounters with Jesus, instead curiously suspicious that a woman had been admitted to their company. When they arrived back with food from the village they are portrayed as men in fear. “At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, ‘What are you looking for?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (Ibid). They show no zeal, while she leaves her jar, and, like the biblical “woman of valor,” runs into the city to testify to the greatness of God. She is the proclaimer, while Nicodemus and the disciples stay silent. Maximus of Turin wrote succinctly that “she arrived a sinner, she left a proclaimer.” It is not unreasonable to assert that having left her jar and run into town, she preaches the very first Gospel sermon. The author of the fourth gospel crowns her efforts with success, the conversion of many people of that town. She leaves her water jar, and, marginalized though she is, she preaches the world’s first sermon about Jesus Christ the Messiah.
In John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman at the well is the first Christian preacher. The conversation at the well was not simply for her, but for the well-being of the world. Augustine speaks of that conversation as “Dicta enim ibi sunt magna mysteria”; “Great mysteries were spoken of, and great likenesses of things, nourishing the hungry soul, reviving the weary and the sick” (Tractate 15,1). Great mysteries, great sacraments of faith, and great fulfillment of prophecy happened that day at the well at Sychar. And they would have remained hidden mysteries and hidden signs if a valiant woman had not preached them.
She brings others to believe in Jesus She is an apostle
Augustine writes of her, “The woman first proclaimed and the Samaritans believed on the woman’s testimony. … So now it is done today with those who are outside and not yet Christian. Christ is announced through Christian friends; and as if with that woman, the Church announcing, they came to Christ; they believe through this report” (Tractate 15, 33, 3) Augustine says that she was ‘ripe fruit’ and the people of the town were “white harvest.” All that was needed was, as St. Paul later wrote in his letter to the Romans, “and how shall they believe in him of whom they have never heard, and how and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 19:14b, 15).
If she was indeed a preacher, what can we ministers learn from her? We can take to heart the words of the Golden Mouthed bishop of Constantinople and preach with prudence and flaming zeal. Even if the Church’s regulations deprive her words of the term “homily” or “sermon,” they glorify the Lord as she teaches, delights, and moves the listeners. Like hers, our preaching must proceed first from her excitement that Jesus may well be the Messiah. “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” (Jn 4:29). Her brief sermon was invitational (“Come and see”). It affirmed the humanity of Jesus (“Come and see the man”). Her sermon is interactive, inviting answers, inviting speculation (“Could this be the Christ?”). She gives personal testimony to her conversion, accepting her sinfulness, (“He has told me all the things I have done”). The power of her words moved the crowd to curiosity and thereby, to conversion. How many sermons have you heard recently that left you curious to know more? How many times in your life as a Mass-going Catholic, have you heard personal testimony of conversion at Mass?
I have seen the Lord!
The other valiant woman of the fourth gospel is Mary Magdalene, to whom the Lord Jesus chose to reveal himself on the very morning of his resurrection (cf. Jn 20:18). She too is described by Augustine as a ‘forma ecclesiae’ a model of the Church. She too was impatient to tell the world that Christ was risen from the dead. She tells the suspicious apostles that ‘I have seen the Lord’.
Perhaps, it is ironic that when many of the Church fathers and popes of our own time speak of Mary Magdalene as the New Eve, they infer that whereas Eve announced death to Adam, Mary announced resurrection to the apostles. This office as deliverer of good and bad news is used in Augustine “For because that serpent first announced death to first man through a woman, life was also announced to the men through a woman” (In Joh. Ep. 3, 2). Though I am sure Augustine had no intention of advocating that a woman be allowed to preach, his words do affirm that Mary Magdalene shared the apostolic work of proclaiming the Resurrected Christ. What is more central to proclamation than preaching?
Mary Magdalene informed the fledgling Church; she brought reliable news that stood up under the inspection of Peter and John. Her witness was clear and it was true. She did not whisper her good news to Peter and wait for him to preach. She opened her mouth and shouted out, “ I have seen the Lord.” The apostles began to believe because they knew her. There is a clear parallel here to the story of the Samaritan Woman, who runs into Sichar and brings the townsfolk out to see the Messiah who has told her all she had ever done. They came because of her witness, and they soon realized that her witness was reliable.
But we are in a unique historical moment. This is the first era in which the Magisterium has encouraged female Christians to be ministers in the liturgical life of the Church. The admission of female Catholics of good character into the order of acolyte and lector marks an important moment in how the Church now interprets Revelation concerning the place of women in the plan of salvation. This is a permissive rather than a prohibitive document, admitting rather than excluding women from a place in the Church.
St. Ambrose of Milan once wrote that the human mouth never performs so sacred a task as when it proclaims God’s Word. This most noble of the Fathers — eloquent, musical, and profoundly wise — was, in his infancy, surrounded by a swarm of bees, who entered into his mouth, sweetening it with their mysterious honey so that, from that same mouth might all the more sweetly come forth the mystery of the Gospel. It was that great preacher who, by his eloquence and integrity, brought the great Augustine into the Church. The Word is sacred mystery, and the tongue of the preacher, proclaimer, or witness must be as wise as Solomon’s bees. Just as the Holy Father recently saw fit to open the sacred ministry of lector to eshet hayil, women of valor, should not the pastors of souls be able to ask such women to share their experience of Jesus in biblical reflection within the sacred liturgy?
Many others have written on women’s rights, on the inability of the female to be in persona Christi, on the need for liturgical modernization, and on numerous other aspects of this issue. My take is simply this: Holy Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Two women are portrayed in John’s Gospel as essential proclaimers and witnesses to the resurrection. Surely, it is time to do two things. Firstly, teach our priests to give witness to their own ongoing conversion. Secondly, admit that God inspires women just as he does men. Let the inspired and the converted preach and give witness. Let them all proclaim to the glory of God the Father; Jesus Christ is Lord.
Image: Photini the Samaritan Woman and Christ at the Well. By TedFollow. Via Flickr, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) – https://flic.kr/p/6LkdYJ
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Father Tim Kelly is a priest of the Diocese of Tyler in Texas. Ordained in 1999, he has spent most of his ministry in parishes in "Deep East Texas." He spent three years studying Patristics in Rome and two years teaching at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Fr. Kelly’s interest is in the history of theology -- the forces which shape how the Catholic Church expresses herself in any particular moment of history.