If you pray the daily office, and if you read the revised common lectionary, then this week might strike an intriguing but discordant note. In our daily office readings for yesterday and today, we have the account from John’s gospel of Jesus meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well —you know the one. The one where he asks her for a drink, and then proceeds to tell her everything about her life, especially her life with men. Then this Sunday, we get the account from Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman who perseveres in asking for her daughter’s healing.
There are some intriguing parallels in these two stories—and some startling differences. Two women, two encounters, two conversations, and two very different reactions depicted from Jesus. Neither woman is named. Both are along without male accompaniment. Both of these encounters shock those who observe them. In the story from John, Jesus has left Judea proper and is knowingly on “foreign soil” in Samaria. In Matthew’s tale, Jesus and his disciples are on land that once belonged to the Canaanites but now is claimed by the people of Israel, themselves under the occupation of Rome.
In John’s story, Jesus approaches the woman and asks her for a drink, shocking her with both his request and his open conversation with her, although their two peoples are not friendly. Their conversation endures for 35 verses—one of the longest conversations between Jesus and another person in the gospel of John. In the reading from Matthew, the woman approaches Jesus, seeking healing for her daughter, although she is originally ignored by Jesus and rebuffed by the disciples, eventually even being alluded to as a dog. Yet, the Canaanite woman, driven by desperation, persists even in the face of insult, for the sake of her beloved child, and even matches Jesus, claim for claim, refusing to back down. She brushes aside the suggestion she is subhuman—and instead doggedly, steadfastly perseveres in the faith that this man doesn’t have to like her to heal her child.
In the encounter at the Samaritan well, Jesus has all the answers. In the encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus emerges having learned something from this woman: that faith can be found in the most unlikely places, that a mother’s love will power through the risk of humiliation in the hope of the precious gift of healing, restoration, and renewal. Both these women were invited by Jesus into dialogue, and that dialogue ends up demonstrating to Jesus’s disciples, including those in the Matthean community, that the boundaries they take for granted are shattered by Jesus’s willingness to proclaim faith and liberation in the most unexpected of places.
In both of these stories, people of different backgrounds were eventually able to talk with each other and learn from each other, and they left these encounters feeling that they had received a blessing. The horizon where “self” meets “other” converges, and both parties are changed forever, by recognizing each other’s common humanity at a time when keeping the population at each other’s throats was a useful political strategy encouraged by the empire.
Of all of Jesus’s nakedly human moments in scripture, perhaps only exceeded by his cri de coeur from the cross depicted in Matthew 27:46, this is one of the starkest, because he appears to allow himself initially to fall in with the prejudices and even contempts of his day. But Jesus’s encounters shocks his disciples to begin to see with new eyes, to transcend division. This woman—scorned outsider, treated as an interloper on what had once been her people’s home—refuses to let assumptions about her based on her appearance or accent defeat her, and she skillfully walks the line between plea and demand, between supplication and affront.
This woman’s faith, in the end, doesn’t just move mountains. It explodes human-made barriers and divisions, and reminds us of what we have in common. The call to look beyond appearances. The persistence to stop at nothing to help those we love. The power of faith—and the refusal to settle for scraps.
Image: Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib from a 13th century Egyptian manuscript (Wikimedia Commons).
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.