The scripture readings for this third Sunday of Lent are rich with layers of symbolic meaning as
—we accompany the through the desert Israelites who fear they will die of thirst before they reach the Promised Land.
—we discover a spiritual kind of thirst as we ponder the story of the woman at Jacob’s well.
In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites are reaching some dark moments in their desert journey as they ask and test the Lord. “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” If God is in our midst, then why are we suffering from this thirst for water? Moses cries out to God in the midst of this murmuring crowd, and God provides water for his people as God orders Moses to strike the rock. In the Gospel of John that we just heard, we have the amazing story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She comes to the well at an unusual time, at the sixth hour, noon. This woman has no name and is known only as a foreigner, a Samaritan.
—Jesus initiates a conversation with this woman when he says, “ Give me a drink.” (John 4:7)
—The woman realizes that this is a scandalous conversation…when she says to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of a woman of Samaria.
—Jesus is breaking all the social norms of the time.
• A Jewish man should not be talking with a Samaritan woman. • A Jew should not consider drinking water from a Samaritan’s vessel. • Jewish rabbis did not speak to women in public.
—In ignoring these social norms, Jesus is breaking open the boundaries and demonstrating that the grace of God has no boundaries. It is available to all. Jesus and his ministry will not be bound by the social conventions of the time.
He says to the woman, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water… the water that I will give, whoever drinks of it will never thirst again.” (John 4:10) The woman sees the advantage of having water that will quench her thirst forever …then she would not have to come each day to draw water at the well. It is understandable that the woman does not grasp the full theological implications of her dialogue with Jesus. Jesus is giving us a role model for the process of evangelization. He allows her to ask questions and gives her time to reflect and weigh the matters so she can make the applications to her own life. A spark is gradually ignited within her as the dialogue continues as she is treated with great respect by Jesus. As the story unfolds, we note that the disciples and others see it as problematic that Jesus is not adhering to the social norms of the time:
—Some commentators raise questions about the moral character of the woman.
—Other commentators doubt that the woman had the ability to carry on this kind of theological conversation with Jesus, being she was a woman.
—Both of these interpretations cast doubt on the fact that this Samaritan woman was a recipient of the Gospel message and became an evangelizer.
It is very surprising to read the various interpretations of this Gospel story as they focus on the moral character of the woman who had five husbands. However, if we do a careful reading of the story, we find that Jesus is not particularly concerned about the marital status of this woman nor does he cast judgment upon her. One commentator noted that the conversation about the woman’s husbands served two purposes for Jesus.
—It illustrated the ability of Jesus to know all things, which is a central theme in John’s Gospel.
—It is a moment of revelation for the woman, a moment when she is able to see Jesus with new eyes. It is a moment of growth in her faith.
The woman responds to this revelation about her life with the words, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” (John 4:19). One can note that this woman’s heart is being softened as she speaks with Jesus. Her first greeting to Jesus was “You, a Jew” which was a derogatory title and now she uses a more complimentary title….“Sir.” This woman is very knowledgeable about her tradition and presents Jesus with the most pressing theological dispute of the time. “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus, gently, but firmly goes on to explain that the place where we worship is not as important as the attitude that we bring to worship. Jesus continues his dialogue with the woman and identifies himself to her. When the woman says to him, “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.” The dialogue at the well has opened her heart to the compassion, love, and mercy of Jesus. When the disciples return, she leaves her water jar at the well and goes off to evangelize her people of Samaria. Like the apostles who left their fishing nets, their boats, and their parents to answer the call to discipleship, this woman leaves her water jar behind. She rushes into the city, “Come, see the man who told me all the things that I have done; could he possibly be the Christ?” The scriptures tell us that many believed because of her word. Others believed because they had been touched by the teaching of Jesus. They respond, “We know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (John 4:42) They invited him to stay with them. We might ask ourselves as we ponder the wisdom of this unnamed woman at the well as we take to heart the words of Jesus: If only you knew….
—If only I knew the gift of God’s mercy.
—If only I knew the depth of God’s faithful love.
—If only I knew God’s all embracing compassion.
—If only…. If only….
Judy Ritter sums up the message of this Third Sunday of Lent in her poem entitled:
Woman at the Well
by life-giving water,
offered by a man who had no bucket,
who knew me not,
yet knew me well.
My past washed clean
in the spring that I became—
flowing, flowing through me,
Never again shall I thirst.
—Sister Mary Josephine Torborg