Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle A — Modern
John 4: 5-42
In the Book of Exodus we find a scene in which the people of Israel begin to contend with Moses and even with the Lord himself while they wandered in the desert. The Lord nonetheless preserved them in their perilous condition, giving them water from the rock at Meribah to quench their thirst. The Gospel too presents a story of the Lord being in the midst of his people and not being fully recognized, and a scene which features the striking image of water as well. Jesus is traveling with his disciples through the desert land of Samaria, on his way from Judea to Galilee.
We discover the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well at midday, when the Sun would be brightest and any sensible person would be in the shade. Midday, the time when the Sun is brightest, is symbolic of personal enlightenment in John’s Gospel: the woman is about to learn something life-changing about the mysterious man whom she encounters at the well.
The discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman follows a pedagogical track: he first gently chides her for not recognizing him for who he is, and then he explains that the water he can give far exceeds that of the well where they are talking: it is the living water that sustains one to eternal life. The Church has traditionally seen this as a forecast of the saving power of the water of baptism, which renews us and makes us members of the living Body of Christ.
When he sees that she is beginning to catch on, Jesus asks the woman to go and call her husband; she is ashamed because she has had a series of marriages which all failed, and she was currently living with yet another man. When Jesus reveals that he knows all of this she recognizes in him someone truly extraordinary, and calls him a prophet—the woman’s enlightenment is reaching its peak.
Jesus’ subsequent teaching about worshipping God in Spirit and in truth brings the woman’s process of enlightenment to completion; she realizes that he is the one whom her people were awaiting, and leaving behind the shame and embarrassment which had previously constrained her, she runs back into her village and reports to all who would listen that she has encountered the Messiah. Her gradual recognition of him as the Messiah leads her to joyfully share what she has learned and experienced with others.
A Moral Lesson
The moments in life when we are overtaken by shame are also the moments when the revelation of God in Christ can most powerfully shine forth in our hearts. Once received, the liberating light of divine revelation is of such a nature that one is compelled to share it; this is why the woman at the well runs back to town to tell all of her neighbors about Jesus. At first they believe her word, and then they encounter him personally and the inchoate spark of their faith is brought to completion: We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world! (John 4:42).
St. Paul has some advice for us that may knit together today’s readings. If the waters of Meribah and the Samaritan well are symbolic of the new life which God manifested first in leading his people to freedom during the Exodus, and then in revealing his liberating and enlightening presence in Christ, Paul urges us to recognize the new life which is ours in faith when we acknowledge and welcome into our hearts the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:5). Having been immersed in the saving waters of baptism, we too are called to worship God in Spirit and in truth, and to share this gift of freedom and new life in Christ with all whom we encounter.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.