Third Sunday in Lent, Year A. John 4:5-42
AIM: To encourage the hearers to deeper conversion to Jesus Christ.
“Go, call your husband,” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well. To which she replies at once: “I do not have a husband.”
“You are right,” Jesus responds. “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” She has tried her luck with five men. Now she is living with a sixth. Numbers in the Bible are often symbolic. Six is a number of imperfection, lack, or deficiency. Living with her sixth partner, the woman is in a situation of lack and deficiency. In none of these six relationships has she found what she is looking for.
In the thought world of the Bible seven, on the other hand, denotes completeness, consummation, perfection. There are seven days in the week, seven petitions in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kgs 8:29-53). The most sacred object in the Temple, apart from the ark of the covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments, was the seven-branched candlestick, called even today by Jews the Menorah. When the Syrian general Naaman came to the prophet Elijah to be healed of his leprosy, Elijah told him to wash himself seven times in the nearby Jordan River (2 Kgs 5:10). There are seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. When Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother, and suggests seven times, Jesus tells him that the duty of forgiveness is unlimited: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt. 18:22). The gospels record seven utterances of Jesus on the cross, and an appearance of the risen Lord to seven disciples after a night of fruitless fishing on the lake (Jn. 21:2).
As this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well unfolds, we discover that the seventh man in this woman’s life is Jesus. As she opens up to him, she finally experiences the satisfaction of her deepest longing and desires — of her heart’s thirst.
The story’s starting point is thirst. Tired from his journey, Jesus sits down by the well and asks the Samaritan woman who is drawing water: “Give me a drink.” Jesus is thirsty. What could be more natural than for him to ask the woman to give him some of the water she is drawing to quench her own thirst? In reality, Jesus’ request was anything but natural. The woman herself finds it astonishing. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” she says. Jesus’ request violated two boundaries: first, the one which forbade him, as an observant Jew, to share a cup with a Samaritan; and second, the prohibition of any extended social interaction in a public place between a man and a woman not of his own family.
The ensuing conversation between Jesus and this woman, member of a people looked down upon and despised by the Jesus’ people, is the longest dialogue recorded in any of the four gospels. The gospel writer tells us that when Jesus’ disciples return from the village they are “amazed that he was talking with a woman.” If Jesus had remained within the boundaries of his time, he would hardly have spoken to this woman at all — or at least only briefly and superficially. A superficial contact could have produced only a superficial result.
In his concern for this unfortunate woman — member of a despised minority and with a messed up life — Jesus breaks the boundaries of his time. Unlike many modern evangelists, however, Jesus does not condemn. He does not threaten. He does not intimidate. Instead he invites the woman to give him a drink. Then he challenges her: “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” When she says she has no husband, Jesus affirms her: “You are right in saying I have no husband.” Finally he tries to enlighten her doubts. When she mentions the Messiah, Jesus responds: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
What is it about Jesus that makes such a tremendous impact on this woman? Simply this: for the first time in her life she meets in Jesus a man who understands her and respects her; and the first man who knows her through and through, yet does not reject, condemn, or use her. In her excitement she forgets her water jar, and her thirst — as Jesus evidently forgets his own thirst — and runs back to the village to tell all her friends: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.” She is so overjoyed finally to have found a man who satisfies her deepest longings that she wants to bring others to him. The convert has become a messenger and missionary to others.
Here in the Eucharist we receive, from these twin tables of word and sacrament, the living water of which Jesus speaks to this Samaritan woman. We need to come again and again. Why? Is it because the Lord gives us only a little each time? No! When God gives, he gives abundantly, even super-abundantly. We come repeatedly not because the Lord’s gift is limited, but because our capacity to receive is limited. We do not come, however, merely to get our spiritual batteries recharged; to fill up the tank for another week’s journey down the road of life. No, this is a personal encounter with One who loves us more than we can ever imagine; who values us more than we value ourselves.
Like the Samaritan woman with her six partners, we may try to hide the messy situations in our lives. Jesus knows about them already. He does not excuse; but neither does he condemn — any more than he condemned the Samaritan woman.
Toward the end of this long dialogue Jesus tells his disciples, returned now from the village: “Look up, and see the fields ripe for the harvest.” The woman, and the friends and neighbors she has brought from the village, are part of the harvest Jesus is talking about: simple folk, little people we might say, looked down on and despised by Jesus’ people — though never by him. Unlike so many leaders of Jesus’ own people, they do not ask for “a sign”: some dramatic proof which will compel their belief. They accept Jesus in the simple trusting faith of humble people everywhere.
“Look up, and see the fields ripe for the harvest,” Jesus says. Was that just long ago and far away? Don’t you believe it! Whenever, wherever, we find that thrills, success, power, or possessions cannot satisfy our deepest longings, we are thirsting (though we may not know it) for the living water that Jesus alone can give. Today, as in Jesus’ time, the fields are still “ripe for harvest.” That is absolutely certain. We have Jesus’ word for it.
One thing alone remains uncertain. Do we truly want to be part of that harvest? The answer to that question lies in our hands. Jesus Christ is waiting for our answer — right now.