Third Sunday in Lent
Christianity would be all the poorer without today’s gospel narrative - as it would if we did not have the story of the Good Samaritan! John carefully introduces this story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well saying that Jesus had to pass through Samaria, a place Jewish people tried hard to avoid. Against community expectations Jesus deliberately passed through this area and is found at this well at an unusual time of day with a woman who was trying to avoid her fellow villagers. She encounters a strange man who begins a conversation with her. He listens to her and she listens to him.
Last week, the disciples saw and experienced Jesus, and themselves, differently, on the mountain of the Transfiguration. They were transformed. This encounter with Jesus is a transformative experience for this woman and ultimately for her fellow villagers. The one who was ostracised, ignored, not listened to, now finds them listening to her. A confrontation takes place. It is not between good and evil but a conflict of exclusivist, sexist and racist cultures. The whole point of coming to fetch water at noon in ungodly heat for the woman is to avoid meeting anyone else. Obviously, the stranger did not know her secrets and might soon go away. When Jesus’ disciples returned, they registered their shock. Central to the story is that God’s love is poured, like water, into our hearts. And that living water finds the lowest point in our hearts. God comes to us as living water in the form of a stranger. This eternal life begins with being seen. It starts with the truth – the naked truth of one’s original wound and one’s original beauty and every good and bad thing about oneself. You have heard it said that water finds its lowest point – well, living water finds your lowest point. There are many ways we try to use substitutes for God to try and make sure our damage is not seen.
For Catholic theologian James Allison, faith not about intellectually ascending to some theological propositions, but in relaxing in God’s love and presence as one can in the presence of someone we are certain is fond of us. There is a freedom, spontaneity and no need for pretending. Might this not have been the experience of the woman at the well. Allison says faith is relaxing. This may have happened to the woman at the well. Water found a crack in her defenses and trickled down to her lowest point, her deepest wound, her greatest need, and she finally exhaled. In fact, she relaxed so much she totally left her water jar at the well.
Through this encounter with Jesus, the woman goes from being a stranger among her own people into a messenger of hope for them. We have all had encounters with others whose kindness, sensitivity, compassion, encouragement or care has mirrored God’s goodness and made real the Gospel message. By accepting that invitation, we step out confidently to the work of reconciliation and justice, calling from one another the goodness we all possess as sons and daughters of God.
God’s life flows through us when we are outside our comfort zones — when we break with conventional behavior; when we speak with strangers; when we endure suffering; even when we question and quarrel with God. Jesus cared more about the woman’s thirst than about morality. The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Spirit who was given to us, and that love of God should lead us always to deeper love for God and for all our brothers and sisters without exception. That is what we hear if we listen to the Spirit speaking deeply within our own hearts. Pope Francis constantly urges us to look into the eyes of another, to recognise her or his humanity and not trash it irrespective the person.
Many people today do ask ‘Is God in our midst or not? How is God amongst us? We may be tempted to scream at God and shout, ‘How can you tolerate such suffering as we try to be in solidarity with people who endure dispossession, violence and death or stand alongside hungry and thirsty people and. Maybe God is present when the humanity of the enemy or the stranger or the foreigner is respected in spite of poverty, hunger, violence. The readings remind us that God comes amongst us as a stranger in the suffering of the poor, the person seeking asylum seekers and refugee, the abused and neglected and from those situations shouts back at us and our social systems that cause and perpetuate hunger, poverty, discrimination and inequality. If we truly listen, we can hear the cries of God in the people. We are ever reminded that ‘God loves the world so much that God sent the Son into this world…’ In 2013 Pope Francis reminded us that ‘The presence of God among people did not take place in a perfect, idyllic world but rather in this real world, which is marked by so many things both good and bad, by division, wickedness, poverty, arrogance and war. He chose to live in our history as it is, with all the weight of its limitations and of its tragedies. In doing so, he has demonstrated in an unequalled manner his merciful and truly loving disposition toward the human creature. He is God-with-us. Jesus is God-with-us. Do you believe this? Together let us profess: Jesus is God with us! Jesus is God with us always and forever with us in history's suffering and sorrow.’
For women who have been disdained yet persistent and fearless over the centuries, the woman in the gospel is like a spiritual matriarch. All kinds of borders have been crossed and survives and thrives in a society that privileged and privileges mail power. Jesus literally crosses a geographical border when he goes from Judea to Samaria on his way to Galilee. He crosses ethnic, political, religious borders by being a Jew interacting with a Samaritan. He crosses a serious gender border by meeting a woman all alone at a well, as wells were meeting places of future spouses. This strong woman (who may not have felt strong) survives and thrives in a society that privileged male power. She boldly stands her ground and does not cower before the male gaze or ‘natural authority’ based on gender. When Jesus makes a request she is street smart enough to be on guard: ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ She even assumes that their conversation is unlikely to bear fruit, but she does not permit cynicism to define or petrify her. Yet, she continues to engage.
Unfortunately, so many interpretations, when speaking of her husbands, describe her as a ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute.’ We are not told why she had numerous husbands. Did they die? Leave? She often depicted as a ‘nasty woman.’ Despite meaning being imported into this text, there is not sympathy or understanding of her plight.
Both she and Jesus are willing to be vulnerable together, and risk something together. Jesus risks critique for talking to a woman who is a Samaritan. The woman risks ridicule when she tells the other people that Jesus, not one of them, is someone worth following. She persists despite attempts to silence her. She is one of the first proclaimers of the good news of the healing, wholeness, and life that Jesus brings. The failure of the disciples is a failure of the imagination as they awkwardly respond to Jesus’s interaction to this woman and worry about its appropriateness.
The woman has little time to deal with their sexist notions. She goes preaching so others will catch the vision and then also spread the vision. The disciples are kerfuffling around while she is working. Is this not the story of so many woman who lead communities of faith around the world, e.g., Amazonia, rural areas of our country, etc. What she has sown, the men will reap. She’s building a foundation that the men will, eventually, add to. This despite the fact that one’s identity is consists of numerous embodied aspects that are valued differently and hierarchically in a society. Men have more value and power than women. females. Nondisabled people more than people who live with disability. Straight people more than gay. So-called ‘white’ people more than people of other colours. For the woman in the gospel there is the double whammy being both a woman and from an ethnic minority. She, like so many women and other people who are disdained, persist, ignore those who hate them and follow the path set before them with Jesus and build God’s reign through sharing their lives and building effective coalitions. Can we move out of our comfort zones, leave our old ‘water jars’ behind and welcome the gifts of God that are being offered to us? Lent is the season when we are called to strike the rock of our hard hearts with rods of fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
If we carefully listen to the gospel today, we see how Jesus really respected the full humanness of this woman. The law was secondary when weighed against respect for a human person. None of this extraordinary encounter could have happened if Jesus had not been the most radical liberator who breaks taboos and crosses boundaries. He is free to be fully human, not Jewish, humbly admitting his exhaustion and need for a drink.
The Samaritan woman is a person of another culture and religion, a foreigner, a stranger. Jesus offers the ‘living water’ of hope to all people, of deliverance from the oppressive practices that deny people their true dignity, and the assurance that God does not judge on the basis of society’s values but ‘in spirit and in truth. As we listen to the gospel, our respect for another must flow from the fact that she or he bears God’s imprint. The Message Bible has Jesus responding this way: ‘…the time is coming,’ Jesus says, ‘it has, in fact, come – when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It's who you are and the way you live that counts before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.’
God is in our midst. How often we forget this. We forget that the one who meets us here and everywhere is the One who has something to give from his heart. This one has allowed his heart to break open and let the world in. In Jesus, God comes to us in the form of a stranger. And Jesus speaks to us through the stranger, the other. We have things to say to each other: the black person to the white, the Christian to the Muslim; the Muslim to the Jew, employees to employers, gay to straight, women to men, young to old, Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal, asylum seekers and new-comers to Australians. It can change our thinking, our attitudes and our behaviour. We see that God will be worshiped in the heart of every person who is reconciled; where racial and social barriers, religious and sexual prejudices are abolished. What matters is that Jesus would not allow differences (or laws) prevent the Samaritan woman from being called into new life and new mission. Martin Buber once said, 'All real living is meeting.' We are liberated for life - for ourselves, and for all others.
People live on the edges in every community and every church – people who are ‘thirsty’, struggle to make ends meet and have little access to the fullness of life. What is needed is an environment that is supportive and enables people to live a vibrant and meaningful life. This is the ‘living water’ that people long for: where there is healing, restoration, freedom and connectedness. As followers of Jesus we also have this ‘living water’ to offer one. As suggested earlier, the conversation was less about the woman’s living arrangements but to a completely different subject: The worship of God and what constitutes right worship?
Fr. Claude Mostowik msc