Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Veronese c.1585, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
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[Jesus said], “…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:14.
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Apart from a controversial astronomical theory, the universal consensus is that life cannot exist without water. It is an absolute requirement. Whether we take it in through regular H2O or through some other liquid form, soup, alcohol, soy milk, whatever, it is essential to survival for all life forms. Hence it is an interesting metaphor, wonderfully demonstrated by Jesus in today’s gospel, and eagerly accepted by the lady he met, at noon, alone, in Samaria, filling her bucket for the day’s needs. In so doing, he was trampling on several taboo traditions, making this event quite memorable. Certainly, his companions, when they returned from their shopping expedition into town, were “amazed that he was talking to a woman”. And that’s just the first reaction. She had already been astonished at Jesus’ perceptions, insight and very exciting proclamation about water.
The first reading is another famous, or infamous, event during the Hebrews’ 40-year exile in the desert. They were complaining about the lack of – water, and what is God up to allowing this? Is God with us? Wouldn’t have we been better off staying in Egypt as slaves? Naturally God was not pleased with this lack of confidence demonstrated by the Chosen People. And then there is the second reading, sent to the Christians in Rome. They experienced the love of God “poured into their hearts”, another liquid metaphor strongly suggesting that we cannot live without that supreme gift – certainly not for eternity! So today we have the basic reality, water, without which there is no life at all, and the water “welling up to eternal life” which is even more essential, necessary for life eternal. So water, real, virtual and spiritual is all around us.
Now, some other thoughts. In hot lands, such as the Holy Land in the summer, you do not go out in the middle of the day to collect your daily supply of water: you get it during the cooler hours of the early morning. That’s when everyone does it. Not this woman, she was there, alone, at noon. Jesus noted that aberration. She noted that he was clearly Jewish, not Samaritan (possibly because of his accent, or clothing), and yet he talked to her, also noted, as it collided with tradition. And as you probably know from the numbers of times Jews and Samaritans collide in the gospels, there was no love lost between them, though both had Jewish, Hebrew, roots. It was probably like the bad old days of Catholics meeting Protestants, more liable to fight each other than have a civilized conversation (think Northern Ireland). So it would seem this woman had been ostracized from her community, and Jesus knew that immediately: five husbands and at present another man living with her! Her feisty acceptance of his knowledge did not intimidate her at all; indeed she was highly impressed with his insight. This woman was quite something! And then they have a bit of a theological clash. She was proud of Jacob “who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself” as she said. Then Jesus contrasts the water from Jacob’s well with the water that he can give, water to eternal life! Then she reminds him of the Samaritan history, “our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem”, picking a particularly sensitive difference between the two communities. Well, Jesus launched forth into a theological treatise at that point, pointing out that “salvation is from the Jews” rather than her people. Utterly unmoved, she now spoke about the Messiah, as both Samaritans and Jews were waiting for him. And then the clincher: “I am he, the one speaking with you”. She is the first person to hear that! So a woman, an outcast among her own people, a Samaritan, hence a sort of heretic, was the first person to hear that the Messiah was in their midst. Also note that Jesus did not say that she should keep that revelation to herself, quite unlike last week’s transfiguration moment when he insisted that his three closest disciples keep the event to themselves until much later. The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, at that moment could not contain her excitement and rushed off to the village, Sychar, today thought to be Askar, to tell everyone she had found the Messiah!
Jacob’s Well, Greek Orthodox Church of Jacob’s Well, Nablus, Palestinian Authority.
So this Lenten Sunday’s readings hold a wealth of experience, knowledge, humanity and history to keep just about everybody happy. The first reading is notorious in Jewish history because of the evidence of the people’s lack of confidence in God and even the apparent desire to drop everything and return to Egypt. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us of Jesus’ total confidence in God, dying for us, the “ungodly”, with complete trust in God’s providence. Then Jesus’ revelation to a woman, who was an outcast, that he was The One sent by God, is, I believe, today’s message. No-one – no-one – is beyond God’s love and trust. The wandering Jews did, eventually, enter their Promised Land; the Christians in Rome survived as the seed of the Church; and the Samaritan woman stands for all of us, and I invite each one of us to identify in one way or another with her qualities, failures, sassyness even. She seems to be the universal human, and it was to her that Jesus revealed himself as the savior of humanity. And so it is with each one of us. And so do we, like her, do what she did as our Lenten exercise?
The Water of Life, 19th Century copy taken from apse of the Church of San Clemente, Rome, Italy.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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