Today’s Mass offers us 2 contrasting images of thirsty people. In the 1st reading, from Exodus, in their thirst for water the people grumbled against Moses. That’s the same Moses who just a few weeks earlier had led them through the Red Sea. It’s a familiar phenomenon found in every time and place, the fickle demandingness of hard-to-satisfy people, who ask: So what have you done for me lately? Moses’ people do eventually get their drink, but it has a sour aftertaste: Is the Lord in our midst or not?
In the Gospel, in contrast, a foreigner with a somewhat complicated personal history is transformed by her encounter with Jesus into a renewed person – and becomes a missionary to her fellow Samaritans.
Travelling north from Judea to Galilee, Jesus passed through Samaria – a route Jews generally avoided, because they despised Samaritans as a people of mixed ethnicity and dubious orthodoxy - ever since the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel some 700 years earlier. In a desert climate, of course, wells were very important. At such a well, one associated with the patriarch Jacob, ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans, Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down at the desert day’s hottest time. So, when, despite the unusual hour, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus asked for a drink.
For a Jew, Jesus’ request risked ritual impurity. Hence the Samaritan woman’s amazed reaction: How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink? Jesus, however, answered by turning the whole discussion upside down, offering her something even better than stagnant well water – living water welling up to eternal life.
Surely, it would have been easy – human history shows repeatedly just how easy it is - to dismiss such talk and settle for the familiar world of stagnant water and unresolved conflict, quarreling and testing the Lord. But this Samaritan woman wanted something more from life, and so she said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty.”
At this point, Jesus suddenly got very personal with her. In principle, we all need and want to be known and loved as we truly are, although we aren’t always actually all that ready and willing to respond when someone offers to do that. What would otherwise seem to some of us maybe more like a frightening invasion of privacy, in someone open (as she was) to conversion, Jesus’ unexpectedly personal knowledge of her (and his acceptance of her as a person) offered an opportunity not to be missed.
Now, however heretical Samaritans may have been from Jerusalem’s perspective, they too were awaiting a Messiah, one who would presumably resolve the religious disputes dividing the two peoples. Jesus here minced no words, reminding her of something which we over the centuries sadly have sometimes forgotten - that salvation is from the Jews. But, while the story starts there, it doesn’t end there. Through Jesus, that salvation has at last become the blessing for all the nations that it was always intended to be. As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand.
And so then the most wonderful thing happened. After all the trouble she had gone through, trudging to the well with her water jar at hottest hour of the day, suddenly she left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” It’s still a question for her, but her hope has been stirred.
And hope, St. Paul assures us, does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
So she became a missionary – and quite a successful one, preaching not just with words but by the powerful witness of her transformed life. Perhaps the people in that Samaritan city simply sensed that what Jesus had done for her was what we all need and want – to be known and loved as we truly are and so to find the refreshing possibility of renewed life.
So how do we, here and now, get to Jacob’s well – and the living water, which only Jesus can give us?
This season of Lent is organized around two converging themes: conversion and repentance (and two corresponding sacraments: baptism and penance). Outsider though she was, the Samaritan woman was open to conversion. Sought by Jesus, she sought him in return, and then shared what she had found. Hence the significance of her story for those preparing for baptism at Easter, and the Church’s use of it today to celebrate what is called the 1st scrutiny of the elect. But what about the rest of us, baptized long ago, life-long (or at least long-term) members of his Church? Have we perhaps lost some of our fervor? Are we maybe more like Israel in the desert, quarreling and testing the Lord, asking “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” Lent challenges us to rediscover the new life first offered us in the living water of baptism, offered again and again in the sacrament of penance.
As Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded us: “the Lord never gets tired of forgiving, it is we that get tired of asking forgiveness.”
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church and Holy Ghost Church, Knoxville, TN, March 22-23, 2014.