The Gospel from the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A, is the story of the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. This passage is filled with imagery and meaning important to our relationship to the Lord and our daily walk with Him. It is the story of conversion, the woman’s and ours; one that takes place not all at once, but in stages and progresses over a lifetime, even if it begins in dramatic fashion.
We will start with the fact that Jesus, as He so often did, shatters our comfortable worldview and preconceptions with gentleness and irony.
Traveling through Samaria, Jesus and His disciples arrive at the Well of Jacob. As they did not carry food with them, the disciples go to the nearby town to purchase food. It is important to remember that Jesus is both True God and true man. Travel in those days was difficult and tiring; Jesus, in His humanity, was not exempt. He was hungry, thirsty and tired. So the Gospel tells us that in the heat of the day, Jesus sat down at the well. He experiences what we experience. He can relate through personal experience how we too grow weary in our daily toil in both body and spirit. The journey from Judea to Galilee would have been a 3-day journey through hostile territory for Jesus.
A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (John 4:7)
What should be striking about this verse is that Jewish men, especially rabbis, did not speak to women in public – particularly a Samaritan woman. Add to that two facts, (a) Jesus did not have any utensils or vessels for drinking and (b) Jews considered Samaritan utensils and vessels as unclean, then we can begin to see that this encounter is to break through the conventions and notions of the day. This does not mean that Jesus did not respect the Mosaic dietary laws, but He is preparing us to see that their time is passing and that their fulfillment will yield to new means and boundaries by which God will call His people into covenant. We have already seen this through the first of the Signs presented in John’s Gospel – the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
The woman approaches the well to draw water for her and her family at the noon hour when it she is unlikely to encounter others. As we will learn in the coming conversation, this woman would have been somewhat of an outcast in her society so she likely wished to avoid others at the well. But, Jesus sees in her the dignity from God which each of us possesses. He thirsts for water, but He thirsts much more for this “lost sheep”. So He says, “Give me a drink.” The woman expressess her not surprising shock by saying, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
It will help us to understand the significance for us of the barriers that could prevent this encounter if we understand just a bit of the history that defined the estrangement between the Jews and the Samaritans. When the Assyrians occupied the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they deported the Israelites to foreign lands. Those Israelites who remained behind intermingled with the newly imported peoples and it is from this lineage that the Samaritans came. When the Jews were returned to their land, the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Temple, but this offer was rejected. Consequently, they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, the site the Samartitans believed was the location where Abraham nearly offered his son, Isaac, in sacrifice. The Jews believed the site was at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the second century B.C, the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple. So it is easy to see that there was no love lost between them.
Jesus broke through all that animosity with His request. It is all the more startling when we place it in the context of the Person of God asking one of His creatures to aid Him.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (The woman) said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? (John 4:10-11)
Gently and ever so carefully, Jesus begins to reveal to this woman who He truly is and what He has to offer to her. He understands all about her and what is in her heart. He recognizes an opening and begins to prompt her to respond to His call. Can we not see this in our own lives and encounters with Him? Maybe like the woman of Samaria, there have been times when we are emotionally, spiritually, and physically down; times when maybe we feel alone and estranged from those around us. And Jesus, passing by, encounters us where we are and calls out to us. Do we listen for his loving voice? When we hear Him, do we mistake and doubt His meaning? Like Nicodemus, introduced to us earlier in John’s Gospel, this woman at first responds only at the surface, misunderstanding “living water” to mean only water from a moving source, such as a stream. Her physical needs were inhibiting her from, instead of leading her to, the deeper understanding of Christ’s words, but as we will see, she was open to the truth.
Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:13-15)
The door to her heart is opening wider – still misunderstanding His meaning, she nonetheless expresses the desire for what she understands Him to offer and Jesus is ready to lead her even deeper. Do we allow the troubles of our day, our daily sufferings and trials, our responsibilities, our secular distractions, and particularly our sins to keep us from the only One who can satisfy all our needs? We need not and must not let them do that; Jesus is prepared to take us deeper and meet our every need when we simply let him.
Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” (John 4:17-26)
As the encounter continues, Jesus lets the woman know that He knows… knows all about her, about her past and her present. And it is not that He does not care about all of that – He does care – but He cares in an unexpected way; He offers her healing and forgiveness through the grace of living water so that she may be sanctified and never thirst unproductively again. Eventually He reveals that He is the Living Water that will be for us a “spring of water welling up to eternal life”. She comes to know that He is indeed greater than Jacob at whose well they talk. He is the answer to every prayer. And on realizing this, she cannot wait to go and spread the good news, leaving behind her cares and even the vessels she brought with her to collect water. That’s what we do when we recieve great news. We share our joy with others. She even went to share hers with the very people she was trying to avoid by coming to the well at noon.
Do you want to know such joy? Do you want to receive from Jesus the living water that never runs dry? As a Samaritan and as a woman with many husbands and an outcast, she had every reason the world gives to ignore Jesus and remain as she was. But she didn’t. And neither should we. Jesus knows where you are and what you feel. He knows all your triumphs and failures. He knows your sins. He made you for Himself and He wants to purify you and give you every good thing, drawing you ever closer to Himself. But He willl never force the matter, only invite you; gently and lovingly.
Listen for His voice today and let Him lead you home to the living water.
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