Sermon of Fr. Selvam Sahaya, sdb (http://www.sahayaselvam.org)
The Living Water
3rd Sunday in Lent – Cycle A
As I have pointed out in my reflection of last week, during the first two Sundays of Lent every year we have the same themes. The gospel text of the 1stSunday of Lent is always about the temptations of Jesus – from the three synoptic Gospels according to the three year cycle. Similarly, the 2nd Sunday of Lent invites us to reflect on the story of Transfiguration. The remaining three Sundays before the Palm Sunday in Cycle A are special. The gospel passages are taken from the Gospel of John and they develop three central themes of our experience of Jesus that are particularly important for the catechumens – those adults who are preparing to be baptised during Easter:
Jesus, the Living Water (Jn 4: the Samaritan woman) – 3rd Sunday of Lent
Jesus, the Light of the World (Jn 9: the man born blind) – 4th Sunday of Lent
Jesus, the New Life (Jn 11: raising of Lazarus) – 5th Sunday of Lent
The gospel reading of today invites us to reflect on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, so that we may experience Jesus as the Living Water. I would like to develop this reflection using a template that is recurring in the gospel encounters with Jesus – a model that some of my readers will be very familiar with, from my previous reflections.
Empty Jar: The Thirst
To begin with, an important detail to pay attention to in the opening verses of John 4 is the time of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It was the sixth hour – 12 noon. What woman of a traditional culture goes to the well to draw water at noon, in the hot sun? Usually they go to draw water either in the morning or in the evening towards sunset. So we could suppose that the Samaritan woman was either lazy, or she was avoiding other women and their gossips probably due to her way of life: she had robbed the other women of their husbands! She had a way of relating to men that put other women against her. She is an image of a wounded person – wounded by relationships.
“She came to draw water” (v.7). The empty water jar (v.28) that she was carrying then becomes a symbol of her own inner emptiness, which she was trying to fill with her dubious relationship with men. She was not fulfilled. Her strategy to cope with that thirst left her even more empty, more thirsty and more wounded. I tend to see her as an addict – a sex addict. Thus, her thirst for water which drew her to the well could be a symbol of her inner thirst for God that will draw her to Jesus.
This is our own story. We are wounded. We are thirsty. We try to fill the emptiness deep within us with the things of the world: pleasure, power and possession. They leave us more empty. The acceptance of the thirst is the beginning of our Christian life journey.
Well: The sign & the invitation
We are told Jesus was travelling northward from Judea to Galilee and he had to pass through Samaria (Jn 4:1-4). The place of the encounter was a well. We could perhaps say, Jesus was actually waiting for this woman at the well. And alone! “His disciples had gone into the town to buy food” (v.8). In traditional societies, the well is a very significant setting for an encounter, especially between young men and women. In the Old Testament many Patriarchs encountered their future brides at the well. In Genesis 24:10-67, Abraham’s servant met Isaac’s future wife, Rebecca, at the well. In Genesis 29:1-17, Jacob fell in love with Rachel at the well. Exodus 2:15-21 describes Moses encountering his future wife Zipporah at the well. So what was Jesus up to? No wonder, later in the passage the returning apostles “were surprised to find him speaking to a woman” (v.27). It was the setting that raised eyebrows! Can we say then that, this passage tells us powerfully that Jesus is like a bridegroom who wants to relate to us as his brides?
With the Samaritan woman who came to the well, it is Jesus who initiates the encounter. It is God who draws us towards Him by placing within us the thirst for transcendence. But beginning the journey towards the fulfilment of that thirst is our choice of free will. God created us with intellect and will, and He expects us to use these faculties to move towards Him. God does not act against our free will, because that would be acting against his own initial plan. Once we make a decision, God guides us through the journey by offering pointers that serve to show us the path that we need to take. So Jesus’ request to the woman at the well, “Give me something to drink” (Jn 4:7) is the proposal that God makes to every human being. It is His invitation to enter into a relationship with Him.
Conversation: the Journey
The experience of God often comes in stages. It is a journey. This was true also for the Samaritan woman. When Jesus initiated a dialogue with her, her immediate reaction was, “You are a Jew. How is it that you ask me…“ (Jn 4:9). A blatant refusal to relate! This refusal comes from her wounded self. As we said earlier, she has a problem in relating to people. She has a very dubious way of relating to men that makes her suspect Jesus’ intentions. She is too physically oriented in her outlook of events and persons. She looks at Jesus as a man – a Jew. And when Jesus talks about water, she is thinking of H2O. But Jesus has a plan for her. He would not give up.
As the “hound of heaven” God comes after us. He moves us from within. He stands and knocks. Waiting! This gratuitous way of relating to the woman begins to touch her. This is not perhaps how her previous six men had related to her. She responds. She gets interested. “Sir,” said the woman, “give me some of that water…” (v.15). Her respect for Jesus increases. She addresses Him, “Sir!” A step further from verse nine where she wanted to have nothing to do with that Jew! But still she is physically oriented: she is focused on the water from the well. When Jesus speaks of ‘the living water’ she thinks in the Semitic sense of ‘water from the spring’: “You have no bucket, sir, and the well is deep: how do you get this living water” (V.11)?
Further on, when Jesus challenges her at a personal level and to invite her to get deeper, she begins to discover Jesus more, “I see you are a prophet, sir” (v.19). Nearing the climax of the journey, she comes up with a sense of expectation, “I know that Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming; and when he comes he will explain everything” (v.25). This was her time.
Water: The Encounter
Water is the central theme of this Sunday. It prepares us for the symbolism of the water that will be used during the Easter Vigil. It reminds us of the water that was poured on us during baptism. Is this water mere H2O?
At this point allow me to share a personal experience. We were born and brought in a Catholic family, in a village that used to be 100% Catholic. Our forefathers have been Catholics even before St Francis Xavier came to teach us Catechism. But recently some of our people, particularly those who worked in the Gulf countries, have joined the Pentecostal churches. My eldest sister is one of them.
A few years ago, I was at home for my home leave. I was presiding at a Eucharistic celebration for our family at home. In the beginning of the mass, I invited my siblings and their in-laws to mention names of people who had died, so that we could pray for them during the mass. When it came to the turn of my eldest sister, who had lost her father-in-law a few months earlier, she simply said: “You don’t need to pray for him.” I thought it had something to do with her new-found faith. And we continued with the mass. After the Eucharist, during the meal, my sister comes to me and says: “You see, I told my father-in-law that unless he is baptised again he will not be saved. And he died without being baptised so it is no use praying for him.” I knew my sister was talking about baptism by immersion which is so absolutised in their church, because the father-in-law was a Catholic! I did not want to argue. But as I went to bed that night, I prayed: “God, would you just reduce salvation to a mere matter of water – H2O – whether it is in a bowl as in the Catholic baptism, or in a river as in some other churches?”
Next morning, as I woke up, I had this thought (a message from God?): “Read John 4”. On reading it again later during the day, I realised that the whole story of the Samaritan woman revolves around the theme of water. But there was no exchange of water. So ‘the living water’ that Jesus talks about is HIMSELF. And receiving that water is experiencing HIM as the Son of God.
Let us summarize the steps that the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42) went through in her encounter with Jesus. The story begins in a situation of wounded-ness. This woman comes to the well with her empty water jar at 12 noon. The timing shows that she wanted to avoid people (v.6). At the well she encounters a Jew who requests water from her (v.7). Jesus begins a journey with her talking about the water in the physical context of the well. She is very physical in her interpretation of things (vv.9,11,15). Jesus continues to challenge her to a higher level of being. At the appropriate time he makes her aware of the cycle of addiction that she had got into (v.16). She has had relationship with six men and yet there is no one whom she can call a husband (vv.17,18). At this, she becomes interested in theological truths (v.20). She is evidently impressed by Jesus’ approach to her; by his knowledge of things. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming; and when he comes he will explain everything’”(v.25).
This is the moment of Jesus’ self revelation to her: “That is who I am, I who speak to you” (v.26). Surely, this statement has allusions to Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am he who is.’” This is the peak of the encounter between the woman and Jesus. The story takes a ‘U’ turn. She seems to have found the answer to all her questions. No more questions. No more words. What we hear next is that the woman is already on her way back to the people (v.28).
Back to the People: Conversion, Proclamation and Mission
When she experienced Jesus as the I AM, the Samaritan woman’s thirst was fulfilled. The “seventh man” that she met had perfected everything. She did not need the empty water jar anymore: “The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town…” (Jn 4:28). This was her point of conversion, which was the result of her encounter with Jesus.
We remind ourselves that she came to the well at 12 noon, apparently because she was avoiding people. But her encounter with Jesus heals her of the wounds, and “the woman … hurried back to the town to tell the people, ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done; could this be the Christ?’ (Jn 4:28-29). Her encounter made her free of her addiction, and as a result she returned to people; returned to the people as a herald of “Good News.”
Here, as in the story of the two disciples, John and Andrew, who went and stayed with Jesus for the rest of the day, the invitation of Jesus, “Come and see”, becomes a chorus.
May this season of Lent help us encounter Jesus – the Living Water.