One of the persistent jokes in my family of origin revolves around the incredible richness of the Scriptures, so someone might say “the Gospel today was really good!” to be responded with “unlike those other Gospel stories!” One can’t help but laugh with joy when one takes a moment to consider the great and powerful gift of the Scriptures!
It would be foolish to spend much time ranking Gospel stories, for they are all a revelation of one and the same gloriously loving God, but it is true that some offer more material for profound reflection and therefore could perhaps be said to be more beautiful. One of these stories is that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It was one of the options for Sunday’s Mass, and the priest not only chose it for our Mass, but he also expounded upon it lectio divina style, which was exactly what my heart was yearning for after being touched by it in a new way during the Gospel reading.
The story found in John 4 is a powerful story of mercy and of the ardent yearning of God for our love. In homilies past, I have had my attention drawn to the significance of the encounter happening at a well, a place that, in Biblical tradition, was a significant meeting point for man with a woman: it was at a well that Moses met Zipporah, that a bride was found for Isaac, etc. In John 4, the well that had associations with the most intimate human alliance draws attention to the marriage that God yearns to share with His people.
The following is very much inspired by Sunday’s homily.
6 Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 There came a woman of Samar′ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar′ia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
Here Father drew attention to the setting: It is noon, the hottest hour of the day, the hour when most women would prefer not to be fetching water from a well. But the Samaritan woman is an outcast, the gossip of the town, having taken up with many men and perhaps being eyed with fear and suspicion, if not judgment, so she chooses this hour so as to avoid uncomfortable encounters. God knows her schedule, however, and he has plans to meet her. The division between Jews and Samaritans makes the woman wary of Jesus, anticipating more hostility, to which she is accustomed.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
Jesus is not phased, however, by her apparent unreceptiveness; he knows her heart. We can imagine with what love he looked into her eyes and began to speak to her of the Good News. The woman does not understand that Jesus is speaking symbolically and eagerly latches onto the idea that she might not have to return to this well, a reminder of her humiliation.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
Christ is eager to give her everything, all the living water of life that he has to offer, but he also knows there is an obstacle, namely her sins. He cannot avoid the truth, but he brings it up very gently; he does not launch into accusation or lecture. The woman is no doubt ashamed, but Jesus is not scandalized. Our sins may give scandal to others and even to ourselves, but they never scandalize God. Jesus sees into the confusion and shame brought about by her sins; he speaks truth to her, but he does so gently. He also lets her lead the conversation: perhaps inspired by her own discomfort with her sinfulness, she turns the conversation in another direction. Christ does not press her, he does not insist upon a discussion of her sins, he has opened that door for her, an invitation if she wishes to go further into it, but he has not come to condemn her, only to draw her to himself.
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain;[a] and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
This part of the story is exciting, the action rises to the climax: the present problems of the division of Jews and Samaritans is almost the past, the time is coming that God’s new covenant will be fulfilled, the woman becomes hopeful that perhaps this man speaking to her might know something about the long-awaited and much desired Messiah, and Christ responds to her hope with the most beautiful revelation the world has ever known: He is the Messiah, the Deliverer.
Yes, it is fitting that such an encounter should take place at a well, for it reads with the same sort of excitement and hope as when one reads a Jane Austen novel and yearns for the heroine to find peace and love in the man who loves her. Certainly, human romantic love is but a reflection of the Great Romance that is God’s love for his people, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. I do not know that any other religion perceives the Great Romance so much as Catholicism, for in Catholicism we have some who are so overcome by it that they happily renounce human marriage for the sake of a life devoted solely to God and his Church. We believe in it so much that, in the Roman rite, we make it a requirement that priests not marry, for they ought themselves to be consumed by the Great Romance and consider themselves in relation to us as Christ is in relation to us.
I have wandered from Father’s homily. There were two other important lessons he imparted, but I don’t remember how he fit them in. The first was a reminder that when God speaks to us, it gives us a sense of peace and joy (of course, He may allow our conscience to be needled for the sake of conversion, but ultimately He brings peace and confidence; confusion and distress come from the Devil). I remember this very well from when I was making a big change in my life from seriously pursuing religious life to opening my heart to dating my now husband. All I wanted was to love God with all my heart and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to within marriage, and I brought this confusion before Jesus one night in the tabernacle in the convent where I was living, and it seemed he placed words in my heart that I was free to do as I wanted and should not be afraid, and my heart was filled with peace and joy and gratitude. I soon realized that God was offering Rob to me as much as Rob himself was, and within six weeks we were engaged. It still amazes me how quickly one can run along what had been for years a narrow and difficult path when one entrusts one’s heart and life wholly to God, and when the timing is right.
The second lesson was that we must make time to have a daily conversation with the Lord, about fifteen to twenty minutes would be good. I struggle very much to remain faithful to a regular prayer time at home. I prefer to go to Mass or go to Adoration where Jesus is physically present, but as a mother of three children three and under, that’s simply not feasible on a daily basis. As it so happens, however, I’ve taken the past week with my husband on parental leave to enjoy a couple visits to the Adoration chapel, and there Christ has impressed on my heart that I need to find a way to continue the relationship at home in a disciplined manner. When I heard our priest exhort us to regular, scheduled prayer once again, I was confirmed in my sense that it’s time to take this relationship with Jesus to the next level, haha.
There we have it, one of the most beautiful stories among a collection of stunningly beautiful stories. Perhaps the beauty of the various Gospel stories may be likened to the beauty of the various individuals God has made: each different, and some revealing Him to a greater depth than others, but all dazzling with His radiance, His glory, His love.