Tonight much of the country will be focused on the Academy Awards. Usually by now, I try to see at least all of the nominees for Best Picture. This year I have seen all but one. The last one I saw was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which focuses on Mildred, a divorced mother of a recently murdered daughter, who is now bitter, vengeful, and angry (so it seems) at virtually everyone and everything, whose response to the police’s inability to identify and catch her daughter’s killer seems to be to stay as angry as possible and to lash out at as many people (and institutions) as possible - and to do so in as irrational and destructive a way as possible. Listening today to the familiar story of the Samaritan woman [John 4:5-42] reminded me of Mildred.
Like Mildred, the Samaritan woman’s family life seems to have been a bit of mess. Like Mildred, her relationship with her neighbors was probably problematic as well. Why else would she have come to well at noon, at the hottest hour of the day, when everyone else would be indoors? Who was she trying to avoid? Whoever she was trying to avoid, she met someone else instead, someone who would change her life forever.
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 her 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, as Jews and Samaritans had done for centuries already, as so many do in every time and place including our own. 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 theory, we all 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 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 [Romans 5:1-2], 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 [Romans 5:5-8], 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?
Today’s Mass offers us 2 contrasting images of thirsty people. In the 1st reading [Exodus 17:3-7], 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 troubled personal history is transformed by her encounter with Jesus into a renewed person – and becomes a missionary to her fellow Samaritans.
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, and the Church’s use of it today to celebrate what is called the 1st scrutiny of the elect in their final stages of preparation for baptism at Easter..
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.”