Two powerful stories engage us at mass on this third Sunday of the Lenten season, and both of them involve water. In the first, from the book of Exodus, the people of Israel complain against Moses and put the Lord to the test before he makes water comes forth from the rock. The second story relates the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at a well outside a dusty village, when he uses water as a symbol of life and new beginnings.
Another element that knits together these two passages in my mind is the theme of contention: in Exodus the Israelites were said to have contended with the Lord, while in the gospel a verbal contention unfolds between Jesus and the woman. The word often used in Hebrew for a dispute or litigation is “rib”, pronounced “reeve”; in the account from Exodus this word appears as the core of the place name Meribah.
The Israelites indeed contended with the Lord at Meribah; they failed to trust that the Lord knew best, and they wanted to “go back” to the seeming security of Egypt rather than risk the uncertain journey to the promised land. Our lives are not marked by the high drama of the events of the exodus from Egypt and Israel’s traversal of the desert, but there are plenty of moments, large and small alike, when we settle for less than we ought because we would rather accept the status quo than take a risk set out on a new beginning.
Sometimes it is weariness that keeps us where we are—not feeling that it could be worth the effort to extend ourselves and step away from all that holds us back. Often it is a lack of desire to truly confront another person or situation that keeps us “in our place”, afraid to go forward and become free—and responsible.
The woman at the well goes out at midday precisely to avoid contention with the other women of her community. What she finds however is a confrontation with Jesus, who at first gently and then with sharper focus reveals to her that he knows the very background and life’s story of which she is ashamed. Next he turns their confrontation to her advantage, using the cleansing and refreshing qualities of water as an image of the salvation he brings. The woman sees that though it is a daunting prospect, she can in fact break away from the fear and shame that have hemmed her in and live in the newness of life that Jesus offers.
The isolation which the Samaritan woman’s routine brought her also gave her life a certain security and predictability; although coming into the light of Jesus’ revelation meant leaving that behind it also meant welcoming a new beginning and living her life free of shame and so confident of the goodness of God and of Jesus that she runs back to her fellow townspeople and tells them of her good fortune.
The woman at the well was finally able to break away from old ways and limitations and embrace the living waters of Jesus’ revelation to her together with the freedom that accompanied it. Unlike the Israelites who complained at Meribah, saying they would rather “go back” to Egypt, she contended with fear—and she won through the courage she found in Christ. As we hear the about the revitalizing power of water in today’s readings and reflect on the waters of our baptism, may we find the inspiration to make the choice once and for all to leave behind fear and the seeming security and predictability it brings and embrace our freedom in Christ.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.