Sunday, March 15, 2020 • 3rd Sunday of Lent
Liturgical Color: Violet
First reading: Exodus 17:3–7
Psalm: Psalm 95:1–2, 6–7, 8–9
Second reading: Romans 5:1–2, 5–8
Gospel: John 4:5–42
This week’s Gospel Reading is the passage about the woman who meets Jesus at Jacob’s Well near a town in Samaria. It’s one of my favorites. Unfortunately, inept language and personal assumptions can, and sometimes do, miscue sacred Scripture, as I encountered a few days ago while researching resources for this passage. Here is some of what one commentator wrote:
Jesus almost seems to be teasing the Samaritan woman, deliberately leading her into misunderstanding about what he means by living water or about the conditions of worship. Nothing daunted, she gives as good as she gets, replying with a cheeky series of sarcastic questions. (Universalis)
As the sacred context reveals, this is a private encounter between two individuals who, by cultural convention, are not supposed to be talking with one another. For contrast, compare the above with an excerpt from the Navarre Bible Commentary on the same passage:
The Samaritan woman’s reply [to Jesus’ request for a drink of water] starts the dialogue and shows how well she is responding to the action of grace in her soul: her readiness to talk to Christ, who was a Jew, is the first stage in her change of heart. Later (v. 11), by taking a real interest in what Christ is saying, she opens up further to God’s influence. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
What we really have in this passage of Scripture is a somewhat tense encounter between a Samaritan woman and a Jewish man. Relations between the two ethnicities were not, in the main, very cordial. As a result, the woman is, at first, very guarded in her approach.
The remark that a Samaritan woman came to draw water at noon introduces another important motif in this story: conduct that transgresses cultural and social expectations. The woman probably has something to hide because she goes to the well both at the wrong time of day for drawing water (not morning or evening) and by herself (not accompanied by other women of the village). The departure from cultural norms continues when Jesus initiates a conversation in a public place with the woman and says, “Give me a drink.” Although it is in a public place, Jesus goes against the custom of his day because men would not address women who are not family members in one-on-one conversation, especially when they are alone — a condition underlined here by the remark that the disciples are absent. The Samaritan woman points out Jesus’ breach of religious convention: he, a Jew, is asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. On account of dietary and purity laws, the Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Nevertheless, Jesus had taken this route north from Jerusalem specifically to speak to this woman. We know this because there are several routes he could have taken, some of which would have avoided Samaria altogether, as Jews commonly preferred. His divine knowledge and his unity with the will of the Father guided him to this particular place and this particular woman in order to allow her to serve as a primary evangelizer to her village and to Samaritans in general, as manifested in the latter part of this passage.
The conversation began with literal talk about drinking water, but now Jesus shifts to a spiritual level with his reference to “living water,” which refers spiritually to the water of eternal life. Jesus is thirsting for more than drinking water. He wants the Samaritan woman’s faith commitment to him. Jesus thirsts to give her the living water, the Holy Spirit, who is frequently referred to as “gift” in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45) and symbolized by water (John 3:5; 7:37–39). But the expression “living water” is also a Semitic idiom that means “running water” (Leviticus 14:5–6 NJB). The woman, like Nicodemus, thinks here in earthly terms and thus does not understand Jesus’ meaning. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
As in his dialogue with Nicodemus [John 3], Jesus makes use of common expressions, to get across teachings of a much deeper nature. Everyone knows from experience that water is absolutely necessary for human life; similarly, the grace of Christ is absolutely necessary for supernatural life. The water which can truly quench man’s thirst does not come from this or any other well: it is Christ’s grace, the “living water” which provides eternal life.
Once again, taking occasion of human interests and preoccupations, Jesus awakes a desire for things supernatural; in the same way as he led St. Peter and others away from their work as fishermen to involve them in the apostolic work of being fishers of men, he leads the Samaritan woman away from her chore of drawing water from the well to the point where she desires to find this better water which wells up to eternal life (v. 14).… Christ is referring to the change worked in every person by sanctifying grace, a share in God’s own life, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul, the great gift which those who believe in him will receive. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
Now things are getting serious. Jesus elicits an admission on the woman’s part, and he will take this as an illustration of the state of the country of Samaria in God’s judgment. Just as the woman has bounced from one man to another, evidently through a series of divorces and remarriages, so Samaria has bounced from worship of the one true God to embracing one pagan god after another. Note, too, that what Jesus says here about the woman’s marital history is in perfect harmony with Catholic doctrine.
At the ordinary level, the woman’s relationship history is highly irregular and suspicious. But the biblical background of this story suggests a deeper dimension. The location at the well recalls biblical stories featuring Isaac, Jacob, and Moses where encounters at wells lead to marriages. Moreover, the biblical account of Samaritan religious history includes the imported gods, which lingered in Jewish memory. In this light, when Jesus speaks of the woman’s husbands, he is concerned not only with her relationship history but, even more, with the Samaritans’ relationship with God: the woman’s five husbands symbolize the pagan gods of five nations mentioned in 2 Kings 17. Jesus thirsts not only for water but, more important, for a permanent union between the Samaritans and the Father.
This is the reason this particular woman is important. Throughout the Bible, God uses sinners, foreigners and public outcasts to convey His message to others. Moses left Pharaoh’s court and Egypt because he had killed a man. This, in turn, allowed him to learn the ways of the desert and guide the Israelites to freedom in the Promised Land. David, who committed both adultery and murder, was God’s choice to establish his son Solomon to build the Temple and centralize the worship of the one true God. This national bond, in turn, allows the Jews to hold together through the upcoming years of exile. And Jesus establishes his Father’s kingdom by bringing sinners to holiness through repentance, thus providing them an inheritance which they otherwise would have forfeited.
Although the woman cannot yet realize the deep meaning of what he is saying, Jesus uses her growing interest to reveal to her his divinity, little by little: he shows that he knows about her life, the secrets of her heart; he can read her conscience. In this way he gives her enough to motivate her to make her first act of faith: “I perceive that you are a prophet.” Her conversion has begun.…
The Samaritan woman, now fully aware that she is speaking to someone of authority, asks our Lord one of the key questions affecting the religious life of the two peoples: where was the right place to offer worship to God; the Jews held that only Jerusalem would do; whereas the Samaritans claimed that the shrine erected on Mount Gerizim was also legitimate (they based their claim on some passages in the Pentateuch: cf. Genesis 12:7; 33:20; 22:2).…
Jesus not only answers the question but takes advantage of it to confirm the value of the teachings of the prophets and thereby reaffirm revealed truth: the Samaritans are in the dark about many of God’s plans because they do not accept any revelation not found in the first five books of Sacred Scripture, that is, in the Law of Moses; the Jews, on the other hand, are much nearer the truth because they accept the whole of the Old Testament. But both Samaritans and Jews need to open themselves to the new Revelation of Jesus Christ. With the coming of the Messiah, whom both peoples are awaiting, and who is the true dwelling-place of God among men (cf. John 2:19), the new, definitive, Alliance has begun; and neither Gerizim nor Jerusalem count any more; what the Father wishes is for all to accept the Messiah, his Son, the new temple of God, by offering him a form of worship which comes right from the heart (cf. John 12:1; 2 Timothy 2:22) and which the Spirit of God himself stirs people to render (cf. Romans 8:15). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Thus Jesus forms and executes his plan of redemption and salvation by means of the very sinners that the “righteous” despise. We, in turn, should not despise those sinners who turn to God and repent, because they will enter heaven before those “righteous” who look down on them.