By Bishoy Dawood
“As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too have had to live through shame as we grew up among our families, friends, schools, and churches… Reflecting on the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman can help us overcome our shame and realize that we are witnesses of Christ as the Saviour of the world.”
Encountering Jesus as gay and lesbian Christians is the means of our theosis: we as persons, with our identities, orientations, and personalities become transfigured to be like God. Jesus’ unitive love with us becomes our fruitful service to our communities, and we find Scriptural evidence of this in the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman.
The Gospel of John recounts a strange encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman, as he rested by Jacob’s well on his journey from Judea to Galilee (John 4:1-42). In the Pentateuch, encountering women at the well was linked to marriage. In the book of Genesis, for example, Abraham sent out a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac from among Abraham’s people, rather than from the Canaanites among which they lived. The servant, arriving in the city of Nahor towards the East, prayed in the evening to ask God to help him find the right woman. Rebekah showed up at the well and drew water for the servant and the camels. That encounter at the well was the sign for the servant that Rebekah was the right person for Isaac (Gen. 24:10-50). Genesis also recounts the story of Jacob going to the East and meeting Rachel, who came to the well with her sheep at an unusual hour: “it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together,” exclaimed Jacob (Gen. 29:7). After working to water the flock, Jacob kissed Rachel, his cousin, and eventually married her. There is also the story in Exodus: Moses is fleeing from Egypt and heading East to Midian, and defends the daughters of the priest of Midian from the shepherds at the well, eventually marrying one of the daughters, Zipporah (Exod. 2:15-22).
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman blends the Old Testament traditions together. John mentions that the encounter occurred at noon, which was an unusual hour for women to go draw water from the well, due to the heat of noontime; this reflects the story of Jacob and Rachel, who also met at an unusual hour at the well. Like the men in three well stories, Jesus did not determine ahead of time who he would meet — he just happened to rest from his journey, as his disciples went to fetch food (John 4:8). Jesus encounters a woman who was a Samaritan, a group of people who were living in theological and political enmity with the Jews. The encounter with a stranger is unlike what we are told about the wives of Isaac and Jacob, who were among the closed circle of family and nationality, but it is similar to the story of Moses marrying Zipporah, who was not a Hebrew.
The Samaritan woman was a person who thus lived in shame and mistrust: she went to the well at the unusual hour of noon to draw water to avoid meeting other women who might harass her for her choices. She was not looking for a husband, and her tone in the Gospel shows she mistrusted Jesus when she first met him.
On the other hand, the Samaritan woman was unlike the other women who were encountered at the well and got married to the patriarchs and prophets. Unlike Rebekah with Abraham’s servant, she did not offer Jesus water (John 4:9, 10). Unlike Rachel and Zipporah, she was not out to water the flock of sheep. Unlike all three women, she was not a virgin girl who lived with her father before being given in marriage, but lived in what many would consider adultery: divorced from five husbands and living with a common-law partner (John 4:16-18). The Samaritan woman was a person who thus lived in shame and mistrust: she went to the well at the unusual hour of noon to draw water to avoid meeting other women who might harass her for her choices. She was not looking for a husband, and her tone in the Gospel shows she mistrusted Jesus when she first met him. Little did she know that in that noon hour, she would encounter a man who would offer her a greater love than all six men with whom she had been, and who would offer her water greater than that in Jacob’s well. This love, while it is unitive and fruitful just as in marriage, goes deeper. It is a love that is offered by Jesus to whoever is willing to drink of the rich spring of life-giving water that he offers.
A little later in the Gospel of John, Jesus offers the Jews the same living water. John interprets this living water as the giving of the Holy Spirit: “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not glorified” (John 7:39). What’s interesting is that in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, we are first told that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing and making “more disciples than John [the Baptist]” (John 4:1). The Jewish believers who got baptized in water had not received the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus offers the Holy Spirit as life-giving water to the Samaritan woman (John 4:14). Many baptized Jewish disciples of Jesus turned in disbelief when Jesus spoke of himself as the life-giving bread of heaven who gives his flesh to eat and his blood to drink (John 6:66) so that they might abide in Christ and have eternal life. But it is a traditional enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, who accepts Jesus’ offer of eternal life through the Holy Spirit: he will abide in her, and she in him. He invites her to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23, 24), rather than as a separated individual in hiding from others who are perceived as enemies.
The adulterous Samaritan woman becomes a member of the Body of Christ. She leaves her water-jar and runs back to the city, as though she was really filled by the life-giving spring of water of the Holy Spirit; she forgot her shame among her people and gushed out her witness of this encounter with Jesus, becoming the first apostle. Because of her apostleship, many Samaritans believed in Jesus and confessed: “this is truly the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42). The unitive love of Jesus for the Samaritan woman by the well gave her the capacity to be fruitful by building up the first community of believers.
As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too have had to live through shame as we grew up among our families, friends, schools, and churches. Some of us may even feel shame because of sexual encounters we had as we were discovering our orientations and identities, just as the Samaritan woman felt shame from her painful search to find the right husband. Some of us had to deal with shame by hiding in the closet and avoiding interactions with our neighbours, just as the Samaritan woman avoided being shamed by her neighbours by going to the well to draw water at noon rather than in the evening. Some of us, because of shame, have no idea where we’re heading in our lives, what kind of relationships we could enter into, what kind of communities we could belong to as Catholics. Reflecting on the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman can help us overcome our shame and become witnesses of Christ as the Saviour of the world.
This may sound unusual to us, to try to encounter Jesus within ourselves, where we are finding shame: but it is in the unusual circumstances of who we are to ourselves and to our communities that Jesus surprisingly encounters us, as he encountered the Samaritan woman in the unusual hour of the day.
Encountering Christ leads to a conversion from shame to the recognition that we have the dignity of being a baptized child of God. Just as Jesus offered the Samaritan woman the life-giving waters of the Holy Spirit, he offers to abide in us and we in him, so that our identity is no longer “me” as an individual who is hiding in shame, but “us” as members united with one another and with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As baptized believers, we are all members of the Body of Christ. In the Eucharist, we participate in communion with one another as the one Church, and in communion with Christ himself. The Samaritan woman was converted because of her surprising encounter with Jesus at the well. Let us also imitate her and find our inner transformation by encountering Jesus within our own wells of deep pain and shame.
This may sound unusual to us, to try to encounter Jesus within ourselves, where we are finding shame: but it is in the unusual circumstances of who we are to ourselves and to our communities that Jesus surprisingly encounters us, as he encountered the Samaritan woman in the unusual hour of the day. Instead of drawing out water from the well of our own shame, we hear and observe what Jesus offers us: Jesus offers us his inclusive love, a love that is unitive, as he offered it to the Samaritan woman.
When we do encounter Jesus, we will find that we are enabled to worship in spirit and truth, as we truly are in our identities, as we are in our lives wherever and however we may find in our circumstances. Encountering Jesus, worshipping in spirit and truth, and participating in the Eucharist are the means of our theosis: we as persons, with our identities, orientations, personalities (and never separate from them), become transfigured to be like God. Jesus’ unitive love with us becomes our fruitful service to our communities. That transfiguration of our persons in Christ is what makes us shine as the lights of the world, not hiding in shame under a bushel basket, but placed on a lamp-stand to give light to the whole house (Matt. 5:14, 15), like the Samaritan woman who left her shame at the well and was filled with honour to be an apostle to the Samaritans.