By: Fr. James Gross
Bread and water are the staples of sustaining physical life. All by themselves, they don’t make for an appetizing diet, but see what happens when you try to do without them. Moses felt the wrath of his kinsmen’s anger when the food ran out. Yes, the Egyptians were far in the rear view mirror, washed into the sea, but Moses complained to God that the people would run out of patience. The answer to their prayers comes in the form of two miracles: a mysterious food they called “manna” (which literally means “what is this?”) which they collected every morning, and water flowing from a huge rock which Moses struck with his staff. God provided for this large nation on the move in a way they themselves could not have imagined.
Move forward now to what we see of Jesus’ compassion. “Sir, give me this water so that I may not be thirsty,” the Samaritan woman asks him. She knew that she had both a natural thirst and a spiritual, supernatural thirst. From her conversation with Jesus, she came to believe that both of these thirsts would be satisfied. Without harshness or contempt, Jesus awakened in her both a spiritual thirst and the courage to satisfy that thirst through faith in him.
The Gospel readings for the next three weeks have a couple of special characteristics. First, each one is a little longer than we’re accustomed to. In addition to the Samaritan woman, we will hear about Jesus’ healing of a man born blind and his raising Lazarus from the dead. Secondly, St. John’s style is not to take a snapshot of the scene and run along—that is, giving a bare-bones account of who was there and what happened. No, he kicks off his sandals, flops on the couch, and stays a while. This is an important gift to us because St. John has a way of probing deep into the mystery of Christ. Sometimes it feels like Our Lord is barnstorming into a new town every day; but here he is in no hurry, entering into the kind of dialogue that feels extraordinary and lavish.
That is just how Jesus wishes to interact with us. He has all kinds of time for us; do we really not have time for him? Or could it be that we are so distracted by everything else going on in our lives that we restrict him—we’re giving God an hour here today and that’s good, but when else?
Let’s carefully examine the case of this Samaritan woman. She has an impressive knowledge of her religious background, and an impressive courage in staying there with the Lord and not allowing shame to send her running away. But there are things in her personal life that are morally inauthentic—that is, they cannot abide with a godly life.
Why do you suppose we were told that she came to the well around noon? Numerous scholars argue that the prime time for gathering water was early in the morning, so that you could have it to conduct your household duties all day. This woman could have come earlier, too, but maybe the brood gathered there would revile her and give her a hard time, because they “knew what kind of woman she was.” Maybe she concluded it wasn’t worth the static, and would arrive later when she knew they’d be gone. So, in her encounter with Jesus, the woman faced a two-fold problem: she, a Samaritan, expected Jews who met her to treat her like a second-class citizen, and on top of that, she was the village outcast.
But to her undying credit, this woman was brave and vulnerable before Christ. She resolved that for too long she’d been in the bondage of the evil one. Here was her chance to break those bonds, so that she could begin to live a noble, holy life as a true daughter of Israel. Her neighbors might have been skeptical at first, but she never doubted Jesus’ claim that he was the long-awaited Anointed One. She permitted him to show her a new path for her life.
Notice how soon her fortunes change: mere moments after being the penitent in need of mercy and healing, this woman is now the evangelist, telling her neighbors, “Come see this man for yourselves!” Overjoyed at the gift of Christ’s purifying love, she saw this gift as being too good to remain a secret. Could anyone else have proclaimed the Good News more faithfully than she did that day? This woman was a walking Gospel lesson, and an illustration of how the Lord always comes in search of those who are lost. Everyone, regardless of the mountains from their past that stand in the way, can find Jesus, who gives us faith to move mountains.
Think about the person in your lives who is the woman at the well at this moment. Whom do we know that consider themselves on the margins or even outside of the family of God? Have our actions repelled them, or have we tried to invite them back? And if we haven’t, what’s stopping us? Have we possibly set up expectations that they’re not interested in new life in Christ, and if so, why? We need to show them that there is nowhere else we can go to satisfy the hunger and thirst in our souls. Christ alone is our living water and daily bread. This Lent, and for the rest of our lives, let us unceasingly ask the Lord for these gifts.