Mar 18, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent: "I am thirsty"

"The water I shall give will become . . . a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 

Exodus 17
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

I would guess that our obsession for clean filtered water is a multi-million dollar business today.  We see shelves of bottled water in grocery stores, we hear of water filters that eliminate nasty particles and dirt from your drinking water, as we feel that for whatever reason the water from the tap, despite what we are told, is simply not clean enough to drink. Yet, it looks certainly safe to drink and use for whatever other purpose. So, I don’t think we put water filters on our bathroom fixtures: shower heads or bathroom sink faucet and we brush our teeth with water from the tap for example.  We wash our clothes with that same “unfiltered” water so the psychology of marketing bottled water for general use at home has made quite a market. We all look for clean water that is safe to drink and enjoy; water that will satisfy our thirst but the readings this Sunday remind us there is a deeper thirst we are really looking to satisfy.

In the first reading from Exodus, despite the complaining of the people, Moses strikes the rock as God told him and clean, fresh water appeared to satisfy the thirst of an ungrateful people.  Yet, in that case, like the Gospel, simple water became a moment of renewed faith in God’s care for them.

Further, on this third Sunday of Lent, we hear of water both from a well, hardly unfiltered yet much cleaner and safe than water from the Dead Sea for example and of a kind of strange “living water” that Jesus offers. On a cultural level this is a shocking and complex story rich with both theological and historical elements.

Simply put, though,  Jesus a Jew and a man, engages in conversation, in public, with a Samaritan woman who comes from a sect of Judaism that considers Jews in Jerusalem to be heretics and mortal enemies. There would be no reason, and quite risky, for Jesus in his position to ask this woman for anything and better for him to simply remain silent, maybe turn his back, or to walk away.

Further, this is no clandestine meeting between Jesus and the unnamed woman but in broad daylight, in the sight of all, with this woman who was no doubt startled by the fact that Jesus would even acknowledge her existence at the well. I would imagine that when she saw him there, she may have hesitated to move towards the well. But, maybe not considering her personal history we hear about.   

Also, she comes alone in the heat of mid-day.  That would have been unheard of since women would travel in groups, in the cool of the early morning, to engage in conversation and to draw drinking water for their day.  So, there must have been some reason why she was shunned from the group of other local women and forced to travel alone to this well in the hot sunshine. So all around, this remains one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospels.  

Despite all of that, Jesus strikes up a simple conversation with her as he requests a drink of water. As the conversation goes deeper, we hear both theological and historical references that are interesting but not so much the heart of this passage.

In this dramatic scene, we hear words of hope from the mouth of Jesus to this woman: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but 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." Since water is essential for life, Jesus offers to the woman a call to look deeper beyond the literal use of water to the sign of the new life he offers to her. 

Jesus finally asks her, "Go call your husband and come back." The woman answered and said to him, "I do not have a husband." Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, 'I do not have a husband.' For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” So shunned among the other women of the area due to what may have appeared a promiscuous lifestyle, Jesus does not belabor that issue nor do anything that would call her to public shame.   Rather, in their dialogue, Jesus holds up a mirror of her life to the woman.  He simply reveals what he knows as God and shows it to her. That powerful and compassionate move on our Lord’s part is a door to deeper understanding and conversion.

God offers us “water” that will never end – union with him through forgiveness and eternal life.  It’s clear, however the woman doesn’t understand the deeper symbolism of Jesus’ words fully but she does perceive that this man she speaks with is unlike any other man she had ever encountered.  Jesus offers something that touches her on a level where our common human thirst for God is satisfied. The woman reflects: "I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one speaking with you."

And she is forever changed as she returns to her community and states in hope that Jesus may be “the Christ” because he “told me everything I have done.”  Which perks interest in wonder as to what more did Jesus reveal to her about her past? What more did Jesus reveal to her about herself? And in that true “come to Jesus” moment, the woman found her need satisfied in Christ; his living water, the presence of the Holy Spirit, would become a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The other women return in curiosity and come to believe in Jesus as the longed for Messiah, the Christ.  Through finding him, no longer on the witness of another, they come to believe that Jesus is the “savior of the world.” They have come to faith now no longer on the woman’s testimony alone but their own faith has been moved by their encounter with the Lord.  Was the woman at the well a kind of Samaritan Apostle as she invited others, like Andrew did with his brother Simon, to meet the Lord?  It seems such in this beautiful story. 

At this time in Lent, along with our Elect preparing for baptism, confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist, we are invited to see the change in this woman.  She is us and despite the complicated historical and theological discussion between Jesus and her at the well, what really does matter for all of us is a personal encounter with Christ. In Jesus, God’s love is revealed and this woman is now invited to seek the water that will satisfy her thirst. To find that in Christ, we meet the source of Spirit and Truth.   

So, we may feel confronted with our own lack of faith and our lack of knowledge and invited to go deeper into the well of Jesus own presence both in the Sacraments and the sacred Word of God.  The Scriptures are a living word that speaks to every age of human history.  What is so appealing about writings that at the newest are 2,000 years old?  We read ancient writings form the Greeks and Romans and various philosophers of the same time when the Scriptures were written.  We hear stories from the ancient Egyptians yet the Word of God remains alive.  While such pagan writings have historical and literary value there is a living presence to the Bible and there we find God and his constant efforts to get our attention. 

In our Catholic life, our Sacraments are not just empty rituals or meaningless words.  The rituals are rather simple yet in that simplicity, such as the Anointing of the Sick or even Baptism or the Marriage Rite itself, we find the living presence of Jesus and through them we experience an encounter with him most especially in the Eucharist where he becomes food for us. 

The unnamed woman came to draw simple water from a well as she had done for a long time.  She never imagined that this Jewish man who reached out in respect for her dignity would forever change her life and that same moment is meant for all of us.  

There is one final question, though.  Did she ever give Jesus that drink of water? 

"Every Christian is a missionary to the extent
that she or he has encountered the love of God
in Christ Jesus."

(Pope Francis from his Apostolic letter:
"The Joy of the Gospel")