Monday, March 9, 2015

The Woman at the Well

Sunday, March 8, 2015

If your parish has a group of Catechumens preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, now less than a month away (!), then at least one scheduled Sunday Mass most likely included a rite called the "First Scrutiny", and instead of the Gospel reading about Jesus running the money-changers and merchants out of the Jerusalem Temple from John 2: 13-22, the faithful heard about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4: 1-42.)

Ever since my own RCIA journey ten years ago, this has been one of my favorite Gospel accounts.  It contains multiple layers of meaning and describes startling actions and statements by our Lord, all presented in the mystical, fluid prose of St. John the Evangelist.  Certainly the Gospels are chock full of stories like this, which point in multiple directions and seem to reveal new truths each time one reads and reflects on them, and it's hard to put my finger on exactly why this particular story has always resonated so deeply for me.  I'll try to lay it all out here, with some significant help from the commentary of Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible-New Testament (Ignatius Press, 2010).  If you don't already own this marvelous volume, I recommend it most highly.

Most every serious commentator on this story points out, as they should, the important historical context of this encounter.  Recall that in Jesus' day, the Jews considered the Samaritans an impure, apostate people, and refused to have anything to do with them.  (For their part, the Samaritans weren't particularly interested in socializing with the Jews, either.)  The Assyrians invaded northern Palestine in the eighth century B.C. and had their way with the place and the people.  Most Israelites living in the area were deported and replaced by Assyrian immigrants and other foreigners, all of whom were pagans and idolaters.  The few remaining Israelites were labeled Samaritans by the southern Palestinian Jews, and held in contempt for intermarrying with the invaders and adopting many of their pagan ways.  The Jews particularly regarded as forbidden the sharing of food or drink with Samaritans.  In addition, Jewish tradition at the time strongly discouraged men from having any public interaction with women.  Finally, as portrayed a number of times in John and the other Gospels, Jews were expected to avoid any association with "sinners." 

So right off the bat in this story, Jesus ignores three significant cultural rules of his community.  Of course, this was just one of many such instances in his Earthly ministry.  It bears noting here that all of these situations in which Jesus defied convention add up to a powerful rebuttal of the notion that he chose only men to be his Apostles out of deference to cultural norms.  That one just doesn't wash.  Today is not the time for me to discuss the inapplicability of the Sacrament of Holy Orders to our beloved sisters in Christ, but the absence of any women among the Twelve always has been understood by the Church as one of the major reasons for it. 

Getting back to the story, after Jesus asks the woman for a drink, and she asks him why he's even bothering to speak to her, ("How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"), the Lord drops the first of his verbal bombshells, saying (I'm paraphrasing) "If you knew who you are talking to, you would have asked and I would have given you living water."  (Jn 4:9-10) The woman's reaction to Jesus' mysterious statement is, unsurprisingly, a sort of first-century equivalent of "Huh?"  She points out that Jesus doesn't even have a bucket, so where, she asks, is he going to get this "living water", anyway?  Then she issues a little challenge--"Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?" (Jn 4:11-12)

Here, the Samaritan woman acted without the malice normally shown by Pharisees who challenged Jesus with various questions throughout the Gospels, but her question nevertheless managed to generate one of the Lord's classic evangelistic prophesies:  "Jesus said to her, 'Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.' " (Jn 4:13-14) (Don't you wish you could go back in time and hear some of these statements as they were made, and watch people's reactions?)  Now the woman apparently understands that Jesus is not talking about the well water, but something else entirely...and she wants some!  (Who wouldn't, after that little speech?)  But even so, her reply shows that she doesn't completely get it: "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." (Jn 4:15) She seems to think it would be pretty neat never to be thirsty and not have to trudge back and forth from home to that well a couple of times a day, but she misses the more supernatural aspect of Jesus' statement, especially the reference to eternal life.  (Whenever I read or hear this part, I think "Hello, pay attention!")

Since our Lord was well accustomed to having people fail to understand him fully, especially when he spoke in "mystical mode", he decides it's time for a little demonstration.  He directs her to go get her husband and come back, and when she admits she has no husband, Jesus reveals that he knows all about her situation and her checkered past--five husbands, and currently living with a man not her husband.  Now, she elevates her opinion of him, saying "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet."  After she mentions that her people worship "on this mountain" and that "you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship," Jesus proceeds in rather dramatic language to predict that both the Samaritan mountain and the Jewish temple worship will be replaced: "Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.' "  (Jn 4: 16-24)

As Hahn and Mitch note in their commentary, here Jesus is referring to the distinctions between Christian worship--spirit and truth, a theme Jesus will repeat at the conclusion of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6--and both the ritual animal sacrificial worship of the Jews and the idolatry of the Samaritans.  Notice also how Jesus shows great respect for the Samaritan woman, as he addresses her in the same way as St. John witnessed him addressing his Mother on two important occasions, at the Wedding of Cana ("O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come", Jn 2:4) and while hanging on the Cross ("Woman, behold your son", Jn 19:26).  Otherwise, I can find only three instances where Jesus uses this form of address:  In Mt 15:28, when he heals the demon-possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman, ("O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire"); at the healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath ("Woman, you are freed from your infirmity", Lk 13:12), and on the day of the Resurrection when he speaks to Mary Magdalene, ("Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?", Jn 20:15). 

At this point, the Samaritan woman begins to get a glimmer of what's going on, it seems, as she replies to Jesus' predictions by saying "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things." And then Jesus drops the Big One: "Jesus said to her, 'I who speak to you am he.' "  (Jn 4: 25-26)  This is one of only two times in the entire New Testament that Jesus explicitly claims to be the Christ; the other is during St. Mark's account of the trial before the Sanhedrin. (Mk 14:61-62.)

After the disciples return and "marvel" at the fact that Jesus is talking to the woman, the conversation bears immediate fruit, as she heads back into town and starts telling everyone about her encounter with "a man who told me all that I ever did", and asking "Can this be the Christ?" (Jn 4:27-29)  In effect, she becomes an evangelist herself, and as a result, St. John tells us, the people of the town began coming out to see Jesus, asking him and his disciples to stay with them, which they did for two days.  Many from that city became believers, either because of the woman's testimony or from hearing Jesus' teaching.  (Jn 4:30; 39-42)  The remainder of the account describes Jesus' speech to his disciples after the woman has "left her water jar" (similar to how the disciples themselves "left everything behind") to spread the news to her community of her encounter.   Again, as he so often did, Jesus reminds the disciples that doing the will of the Father is the primary mission: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work." (Jn 4:34)  This recalls his statement, recorded in each of the synoptic Gospels, that those who do the will of the Father are in effect members of Jesus' family  ("my mother, sisters and brothers"; see Mt 12:50; Mk 3:35; Lk 8:21). 

How, then, to look at this story as a whole?  On the surface, in addition to Jesus' typical defiance of cultural conventions, I think we have in this account one of the more impressive stories of large-scale evangelization and conversion in the New Testament, especially given that it was unaccompanied by the working of any miracle of healing, feeding a crowd, or raising people from the dead.  We are not told the size of the city or exactly how many became believers due to these events, but the implication seems clear that at least a majority of the citizens were converted, thanks to the faith awakened in a single Samaritan woman.  In fact, the only similar conversion event I can think of from the New Testament is the baptism of 3,000 on the day of the Christian Pentecost, recounted in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, which was preceded by the miracle of tongues, itself triggered by the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room.  That's pretty heady company for a simple woman of Samaria, living in a state of serious sin, and stands in stark contrast to the reception Jesus got in his own home town of Nazareth, where his friends and neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff in return for his teaching. (Lk 4:16-30)

But of course there is more under the surface.  The Samaritan woman's story seems to be a microcosm of the experience of all who seek to fill the longing in every human heart for God.  Her having cycled through five husbands suggests, as our priest noted in his homily this weekend, that she was searching for love, obviously without much success prior to encountering Christ.  The "living water" Jesus promises to her is traditionally understood by the Church to refer to Baptism, but Hahn and Mitch also note several instances where the Old Testament prophets used water as a metaphor for God's blessings.  For example, in Isaiah 12:3, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation"; or again in Isaiah 44:3, "For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring."  And who can forget the beautiful symbolism of Ezekiel 47:1-12, where the prophet describes his angelic vision of the life-giving river flowing around and out from the Temple?

So whether by Sacrament or otherwise, as through prayer and reflection or other ways of seeking God, the "living water" of God's blessings comes to us, if we are willing to receive it.  Often, this means major conversion for us, as for the Samaritan woman leaving her water jar, the Apostles leaving their former lives, or perhaps less dramatic but no less important changes in the little things we do, think and say each day.  But it never fails to have an effect.  This, I would venture to guess, is at least one reason why the Church places the story of the Woman at the Well in the liturgy of the First Scrutiny, where the journey of Catechumens on their way to full communion with the Church heads into the home stretch.

That's all for now.  Thanks for reading. Laudator Jesus Christus!


  1. Great meditation, Frank. It was really enlightening to know how the evangelical aspect of this story is very similar to Pentecost. Thanks for sharing and God bless!

    1. You're welcome, thanks for reading! .