3 Lent A – March 3, 2013 – Women at the Wellspring of Life
One hundred years ago today, March 3, 1913, five thousand women marched along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. They were demanding the right to vote. Imagine. Up to 1920 (when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified) the President of the United States was elected by only the men in this country!
In the past 100 years there have been great cultural and attitudinal shifts about women’s equality and emancipation. However, all of the problems pertaining to women’s rights have not been solved. The stronghold of patriarchy is still locked in place. In the words of writer, Stephanie Coontz, gender equality is stalled. 
Our own Catholic church continues to sanctify a patriarchal model. The future leader of 1.2 billion Catholics once again will be selected by an elite hierarchical all male electorate. While not all Catholics are anxious to protest this custom there are signals that multitudes are exercising their baptismal rights to object and to call for a more egalitarian approach to church governance.
In a recent adult faith formation class between the Masses we reminded each other of the potential each person has to be holy. We know this in our hearts but sometimes we forget that God speaks to all people in diverse ways. We forget that different voices can give credence to the same Holy Spirit. This morning’s psalm begs of us: if we hear God’s voice, harden not our hearts, close not our lips. Boast in hope of the glory of God (the second reading today).
Today’s gospel suggests that we pay attention to essentials. Most scripture scholars believe this story never took place. The other three gospels do not mention it. The Syrophoenician woman, Photina by name, was not suppose to speak to a strange man in public much less a Jew. Further, as a woman she would have been forbidden to speak to the crowds in town about her experience with Jesus.
So why do we read this story attributed to John the beloved disciple? Commentators suggest that the author was stressing the divinity of Jesus which, at the time, was a topic of debate between Jewish authorities and Christians. Jews and Samaritans were enemies; they held nothing in common; they accused one another of worshiping on the wrong mountain; they considered one another to be unclean and impure. Apparently Jesus did not get this memo.
This passage offers a peaceful compromise. The reference to water is not to be taken literally as the woman did. She thought she would never again have to go to the well to get water for her family. Rather, Jesus was referring to an inner wellspring that provides nourishment for all who follow his example and serve as advocates of global peace and justice.
Jesus shocked his entourage to prove this point. While there may be disagreements over accidentals like which mountain to worship on, where is a common ground? What can diverse camps, partisan philosophies and theologies, agree to? Changing aging cultural and religious attitudes is not easy. Changing the way our church selects a pope will take a major effort. Jesus’s ministry was the beginning of a reformation that continues today.
The woman in the story is not a foil for Jesus or the author. Jesus clearly presents to the woman a new way of looking at life. Photina collaborates in Jesus’s agenda. She runs to spread the word that she met the messiah. She is the first disciple to the Samaritans. Could it be that the author was suggesting a new role for women in a cultural period when women were underestimated and ignored. How is it possible that some nation states and organizations still undervalue women thousands of years later?
Like other women in the bible, named and unnamed, Photina (which means light) is illuminated in a spirited way. Our elect, Star, Wendy, Ron and Camille are also enlightened by the same spirit. Their journey to the Easter sacraments is a reminder that each one of us also is a light to the world, each one of us is a refreshing drink of water for each other.
March is Women’s History month. We remember the women in our lives who paved the way for us by their courage and wisdom. We recall those 5,000 women whose march on Washington 100 years ago made a difference in women’s rights. We embrace their convictions and visions. We look ahead on the path to human rights and justice for all. That was the path that Jesus was on. He died along the way but his Spirit lingers on in all of us. Let us pray that that same Spirit will be at work in the Vatican in the days to come.
1 Coontz, Stephanie. “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in The New York Times February 17, 2103, SR1
2 Rensberger D. revised by Attridge, H. in Attridge, H. (Ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper) 2006, 1815
3 Wills, Gary. What the Gospels Meant (NY: Viking) 2008, 174-178