Sunday reflection: John 4:5-42
posted at 10:01 am on March 23, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
Today’s Gospel reading is John 4:5-42:
Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon.
A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” —For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.— 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? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” 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.”
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 Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman 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?” They went out of the town and came to him. Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”
Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I have done.” When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
In today’s Gospel, we have one of the most momentous and instructive passages in Scripture — the Samaritan woman at the well. The lessons learned from the fourth chapter of John could take an entire semester to unpack, but for now we’ll look at this as a model of prayer, conversion, and evangelization.
Why a model of prayer? See how the exchange starts: Jesus initiates the conversation with the woman by asking her to give him a drink. The Samaritan woman reacts in surprise, knowing that the Israelites consider Samaritans entirely unworthy and idolatrous, and marvels that a Jewish teacher would deign to contact her. This encapsulates the exchange of the gift of faith and the humility with which it should be received. Prayer is the conversation between the sinner and God which God always initiates with the gift of faith, a gift given to even the most unworthy if they are humble and penitent to receive it.
The woman does humble herself at the first contact with Jesus, but is unclear what to do next, having no way to offer Him what he asks. Jesus instead tells her that she should ask for the gifts of “living water,” which we know as the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants a prayer of petition, one specifically asking to be filled with the “wellspring” of salvation and eternal life.
The Samaritan woman then offers a prayer of petition, but Jesus is not done teaching her how to pray. He asks the woman to call her husband, knowing full well she has lived a sinful life. She confesses her sin, and offers praise. Jesus then gives her insight into how to pray, which then leads her to inquire about salvation. Jesus then does a remarkable thing — he tells the Samaritan woman that He is the Messiah whom she seeks, revealing Himself even though Jesus has only done so with the disciples at this point. In fact, in John 4:26, Jesus uses “I am he” to identify himself as Messiah, a construct normally avoided by pious Jews as it echoes God’s identification to Moses. Armed with this rare gift of knowledge before the Resurrection, the Samaritan woman experiences a conversion of her heart and goes out and evangelizes in her community, converting many others.
This is a model of prayer, but also a model of hope and salvation for all — and our mission. God opens the conversation of prayer and faith and waits for us to respond, even at our most wretched, as the Samaritans were considered in those days. We are called to respond with humility, gratitude, praise, and petitions to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we make disciples of all nations. The Samaritan woman does all of this in response to Jesus’ call, which comes completely as a gift. If we answer when God calls, we are no longer rejected but embraced by God.
Contrast this to the response to thirst in our first reading, Exodus 17:3-7, when the Israelites began to run out of water in the desert. Here again, God has started the call to faith and conversion with the Passover and the liberation of the slaves into freedom, only the Israelites have not yet humbled themselves or opened their hearts to God. Instead, they demand that God pass a test, while His prophet Moses worries that he has a full-fledged revolt on his hands. Keep in mind, too, that the people had already demanded a test of God with the bitter waters of Shur (Ex 15:22-26) where the Lord promised to take care of Israel, and again in Exodus 16, when the Lord fed them manna after they complained about a lack of food and longed for slavery over freedom. And even then, the Israelites broke the commandment and tried to glean manna on the Sabbath (Ex 16:27-30). Clearly, this was not a nation that wanted to hear about much of anything except bread and water of this world, rather than of eternal salvation.
Here we have two very different responses to the call of faith. The nation of Israel repeatedly rejected it, repeatedly lamenting their departure from death and slavery rather than trust in the God that freed them, while the Samaritan woman immediately embraces Jesus’ call and goes out to free others. The irony of that juxtaposition would not have been lost on the disciples, who started with the presumption that salvation would only belong to the Jews, and should not be lost on us, either. Nor is this the only time in the Gospels where this irony occurs. In Matthew 8:5-13, the response of the Roman centurion (another outsider despised by the Israelites) in faith causes Jesus to marvel,“Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The centurion’s statement of faith is paraphrased in the Liturgy of the Eucharist: ““Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
Salvation is freely available to all who choose it in response to God’s call to faith. Which would we choose with our gift of free will — the difficult path of faith and salvation, or test God with our unbelief? For me, I’ve certainly done both in my life, and probably a lot more of the latter than the former over the years. At times, I have forgotten the moments of true connection with God and chosen to act as if He had never worked in my life. At other times, I have followed God but with plenty of grumbling about the apparent paucity of response to my petitions and longed for the slavery of sin and the idolatry of material goods. In those periods, I gave God only grudging worship, and only to the extent that it served my own selfish purposes.
The absurdity of this is easily seen. Jesus says to me, Hey, here’s eternal joy and life, along with freedom from the slavery of sin and the material world. My response too often is Yeah, yeah, yeah, why haven’t you given me the winning Powerball numbers yet? Because I’m not just going to trust you to provide, you know. And I wouldn’t mind getting my hair back, too, while you’re at it. And yet, Jesus continues to offer the gift of faith, and asking us to provide him a drink by accepting it with glad hearts.
Let’s return once again to the episode at the well for one final point of context. Jesus asks the woman at the beginning of this passage to give him a drink after being “tired from his journey,” and yet by the end of it Jesus refuses any refreshment at all from His disciples. Instead, Jesus says, “I have food of which you do not know,” explaining, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish His work.” He has been refreshed by the Samaritan woman’s embrace of His Word. This seeming contradiction echoes later in the Gospel, when Jesus cries out on the cross, “I thirst.” Jesus is sustained not by food in this context but true conversion and evangelization — which the Samaritan woman provides Jesus in exchange for the gift of faith granted freely and undeservingly, as it is to all of us as well.
Jesus continues to cry out, “I thirst.” Which answer will we give?