Third Sunday of Lent
by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The Gospel today is the wonderful account of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well as recorded in the Gospel of John. It is a well-crafted story with multiple layers of meaning. Several times in it there are misunderstandings and double meanings from which unfold many different layers of relevance.
Let us take the theme of thirst since it is also what the first reading is about. We read there how Moses struck the rock at Massah and Meribah and of the miraculous flow of water that resulted.
The Samaritan woman is at Jacob's Well presumably looking for water, and so we understand that she is thirsty; but it is soon revealed that she thirsts not just for water but for knowledge. She wants to know the deeper meaning of life; she wants insight too into the life of faith.
But it was rather unusual for a lone woman to be at such a well in the middle of the day and even more unusual for her to engage a single man in conversation. These circumstances suggest that she might be at the well for another purpose; perhaps for an assignation. The likelihood of her bad reputation is underlined when we eventually hear that she has had five husbands.
Here at the well on that auspicious day she meets a man, yes, but more than a man, for she meets the Lord of Life himself. She meets the only one who can forgive her sins, in fact she meets someone who knows her motives and actions better than she does herself.
But he does not sit in judgement on her, he does not condemn; instead he teaches her that salvation is at hand and that it is available to all whether they are saint or sinner, man or woman, Jew or Samaritan.
Going back to the beginning of the story, this woman comes to the well because she is thirsty but it is Jesus who asks her for a drink. He then proceeds to talk about the gift of living water that will well up to everlasting life.
The word he uses for gift, in Greek area' exclusively refers to divine bounty which means that this living water that he is talking about has a very special character indeed. We Christians understand without being told that he is referring to the waters of Baptism.
The woman then asks for this living water but still she is confused and thinks that this living water is for the slaking of a merely physical thirst. When Jesus refers to her five husbands she realises that he is a prophet but then he reveals himself to be not just a prophet but the Messiah in person.
Before she can even express her amazement the Disciples of Jesus return and express their surprise that he is talking to a woman of questionable virtue at that hour of the day. The misunderstandings continue when the Disciples offer Jesus food and he talks about the food that they do not know about and goes into a kind of poem about the readiness of the world for the arrival of the Messiah.
The villagers then appear and believe in him firstly on the strength of the woman's testimony, but then because they experience for themselves that he is indeed the one true Saviour of the World.
The Samaritan Woman is in fact the first missionary in the Gospel of John. For all their faithfulness and their presence at the miracles and teaching of Jesus the Apostles lag well behind. Here in one conversation, even though it is full of misunderstandings, she gets the message and comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. And it is through her witness that the other villagers come also to believe in him.
The lesson for us here is that we must understand that this is our role too: to be a missionary, a witness to others that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World. We must never neglect this task, we must realise that when we received the Sacrament of Confirmation we were specifically commissioned to bring the Good News of salvation to the whole world.
We know these things, we realise that this is our task and yet so often we fall down on the job. We frequently fail to ever speak about Jesus or his message that is so vital for the world.
Even in our own families matters of faith can be taboo. We might go to mass every Sunday but as soon as a religious topic comes up it is as if we were struck dumb. We fail to discuss matters of religion in our families, in a safe environment, and so it inevitably becomes that much more difficult to do so in a more hostile situation.
The problem is that because we don't talk about the faith at home we find that over a period of time we have lost the vocabulary. Then when we are put on the spot at work or in a social situation we find that we don't have the right words and so we just clam up and keep our mouths shut. We find that we are afraid to speak out because we don't have the right words to say.
So, I strongly encourage you to talk about the faith at home. Even if like that Woman at the Well there are many misunderstandings please do persevere because only then will you have the right words when you really need them.
On Friday mornings after mass we have a group that gets together to discuss the Sunday readings. It could be that coming along to that meeting might be something that you could find useful. It might help you to find the right vocabulary to discuss the scriptures and to explore matters of religion.
I'm not here to advertise but joining this group could be very helpful. I know that those few who do come find it to be something which enriches their faith.