The third Sunday of Lent, we come to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. We hear it today because it is the Sunday of the First Scrutiny for those being baptised at Easter. This is paradigmatic of the journey they have been making towards to baptism. This journey is the progressive awakening of desire, of love in a person in the encounter with the God who is Love itself.
Jesus is making his way from Jerusalem through Samaria. Samaria was the
capital of Israel, the Northern Kingdom. Unified Israel would split into
‘Israel’ in the north and Judah in the South after the time of Solomon. Around
721 B.C, the reigning super-power, Assyria, would devastate Israel and disperse
the ten northern tribes around the world. They would then plant the people of
five different nations in the North. Israel would no longer be pure blood and
would come to be despised by the Jews in the South. The prophets constantly
warned the people – you have abandoned God, who is your own and gone after
other gods. And one of the frequent images the prophets used for Israel
(and Judah’s) unfaithfulness was prostitution. She has forsaken her husband –
God – and gone after other lovers.
And now, a woman, whom we will see has been married to five husbands comes
up; she becomes an icon of Israel in its harlotry. Jesus, tired from his
journey, stops by a well. John mentions its the sixth hour – noontime. It
is entirely the wrong time to fetch water, for the sun would be scorching.
Women would usually come, as a group, either in the morning or evening. It was
a good time to catch up on the town gossip. This woman comes by herself; maybe
it’s because she is frequently an object of that gossip. Be it so, most things
in John’s gospel also have a symbolic value. Six is a number which symbolises the
defect of sin or at its extreme, evil, in the Scriptures (think 666).
There is something deeply defective in this situation and the Holy Spirit,
author of all divine appointments, places Jesus at just the right place. Why
the well? Well. If you remember your OT stories – Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and
Rachel, Moses and Zipporah – they all meet at the well. And here, the one whom
the Baptist has introduced as Israel’s Bridegroom, sits by the well, waiting
for his bride.
This is the perfect image of grace. Grace which finds us, without us
looking. Why is it that there are these particular catechumens here and not
others? Why me? Why you? This is the mystery of God’s choice. God loves all,
but not as a nameless mass –he loves you specifically, it is personal. And
here, it comes to a woman not looking for it, at least, not actively. She has
settled into a way of life which is not great, but has found a way of living
it. This is an image of the defect sin produces in our lives. It leaves you
half-dead without any desire to really live fully.
And to her, Jesus says, Give me a drink. The next time he says that would be on the Cross – I thirst. Jesus, is of course, tired and thirsty. But as the Israel’s bridegroom, the God, who doesn’t need anything, waits, thirsting for the love of his bride. Yours and mine. As she comes, Jesus doesn’t point out her wayward life, accuse her of anything. He simply presents his own need to her. The woman is shocked – men and women didn’t openly speak to each other, let alone Jews and Samaritans. But Jesus invites her to look beyond these barriers. If you ask him, he will give you living waters. Living waters? Now, her curiosity is awakened.
You do not have a bucket sir, and the well is deep. She must probably understand this is about more than just water, but she tries to make sense of it from within her own experience. This well is obviously the only source of water. It is symbolic of the life she has known. I put my hope in these relationships and they all die out, leaving me empty, but what else is there? Fetching this water is wearisome, but how else can I live? The only thing I can think would improve my situation would be to not have to fetch this water in the noon-day sun.
What is this well in your life? You have to interpret it. I have to excel in
this career, only then I can be happy. I cannot be happy unless I get married.
I have to amass so much money so I can be guaranteed a future. If
Jesus is giving me a promise, surely, it has to mean a husband, a job, more
money? The life of grace Jesus offers though, is of a different order. We are
always trying to fix the symptoms, confined to the defective life we have known
while Jesus wants to change our life altogether.
Jesus continues – the water he gives will satisfy forever. She still doesn’t
understand but decides to take the bait. And now Jesus touches on her issue: bring
your husband and come back. You’ve been wedded to all kinds of things
which you believe will satisfy you. Bring that to me. The water that Jesus
promises, the life of the Spirit comes free. He’ll pay the price for it. But
like any well, if there are rocks blocking the ground, it has to be dug out
before the water can flow. Jesus doesn’t begin the conversation with a
condition. He brings up her situation only when her desire has been
sufficiently awakened, because only the touch of true love can give one the
strength to give up what is not real.
But the conversation has suddenly become personal. She doesn’t run away, but
she buys herself more time. She brings up an old theological argument. This
woman, who might have been dismissed by the crowds as having no interest in the
things of God, evidenced by her irregular life reveals a deep interest in them.
Her love continues to blossom. But theology can be a double-edged sword. It can
easily become a way of talking about God to avoid talking to
God. There are a lot of people who do Religious studies in university, who have
no faith. Talking to God should eventually lead to giving our life to him. That
can be frightening, making one vulnerable. But Jesus answers her question
seriously. Where you worship is not important, only whom and how you
worship – in Spirit and Truth. What is it that you worship in life?
She makes a final bid for an escape. When the Messiah comes, he will sort all this out. And for the first time in the gospel, Jesus reveals himself. He pronounces the divine Name, first heard by Moses at the burning bush. Ego eimi. I AM. This is extraordinary. A name so holy that it could be
pronounced only once through the year, by the High Priest, on the day of Atonement is now pronounced by the new High Priest at the well. He is entrusting this divine secret, in some ways, the truth of who he is, not to a saint, but to a woman in a questionable lifestyle. He makes himself vulnerable to her, even before she does. This is the mystery of the God whose love for you
and me will take him to the Cross. She drops her bucket, symbolic of her confined life, and goes to the very people she was avoiding, now to bring them to Jesus.
Each Eucharist, Jesus, your true bridegroom comes to claim his bride for himself. You are the bride whose dowry he paid on the Cross. At communion, he comes, sits at the well of your heart, to woo you to himself. Proverbs says, The spirit of a man is like deep water, but one of intelligence will draw it out (20:4). He is the one on whom rests the spirit of Wisdom and intelligence (Isa 11:2) who draws out from within you to show how much deeper the well runs – and how much more you were created for. It is in this encounter that we come to know our true selves. It is in this encounter we find true love and life.