Sunday reflection: John 4:5-42

This morning’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.”

Several years ago, in my pre-blogging days, my family went through a crisis. The exact nature of this crisis isn’t really important, nor was it unusual, and it turned out very well in the end. While we were in this crisis, though, the crisis became all-encompassing for me and others in our family. Everything in my life suddenly got viewed through the prism of this crisis, and as happens in times of intensity, it became very difficult to keep a balance between this crisis and other obligations at work and in the community. After a couple of issues at work, a long-trusted friend had to sit me down and tell me that people had begun to wonder whether I needed a lot of time off, not to deal with the crisis, but to remind myself of who I really am. Fortunately, that was precisely what I needed to hear, and it put me on the path of regaining my balance and perspective.

All I can say is that this is one of the reasons that I’m grateful that my blogging career started after this crisis had resolved itself. (And it’s not the only reason, either.)

Keeping the proper perspective on life can often prove difficult, if not impossible, because of all the moving parts in our lives as individuals and the various communities in which we live. Even apart from our spiritual needs, we all have the same basic instincts at all these levels — to survive, to thrive, and to protect ourselves and our families in order to do both. In a world fallen through original sin, however, we become too focused on the immediate, too focused on ourselves, and this leads us to conflict, strife, and further sin. We miss the forest for the trees, as the saying goes — we get too caught up in our own narratives to see the bigger picture.

We see this same lesson in our readings today. Our first comes from Exodus 17, with the nation of Israel still journeying to the promised land and losing faith in the Lord. Despite the miracles that attended the Exodus, the Israelites had repeatedly grown weary of their test in the desert and had rebelled against God. In this episode, they complain about the lack of water and bitterly rebuke Moses for leading them out of Israel in the first place. Moses tells God that the Israelites are about to kill him, at which point the Lord works yet another miracle through Moses to demonstrate His protection of the Israelites.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well, an action that would give offense in two ways — a man speaking to a woman not related to him, and a Judean speaking to a Samaritan. When the disciples see Jesus speaking to the woman, they were “amazed” at it, but knew enough not to question it.  Even though both the worship of the Jews and Samaritans originated from the same Israelite nation, they had become divided against each other on questions of sacrifice and other practices. The woman mentions the biggest issue between the two communities, which was whether to worship the Lord on Mount Gerizim or on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a conflict that made both anathema to the other.

How does Jesus respond? As a Judean rabbi, the expected response might be Of course you should be sacrificing in Jerusalem, and we’ll see you there next Sabbath. Alternately, perhaps a Samaritan might hope to hear from an itinerant preacher that their side had it right all along, or that sacrifices could take place at either location. Jesus offers none of these options, but instead tells the woman that she’s missing the point — she’s not seeing the forest for all the focus on the trees in front of her. The specific mountain does not matter; what matters is faith in the Lord and cooperation with His will. “[T]rue worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth,” Jesus explains.

The same lesson applies in a different way with our Exodus reading. Having water in the desert is certainly a very important priority, and going off without it is a surefire way to die horribly, as the Israelites already knew. Undoubtedly, the lack of provision made them focus on this danger, but they did so at the expense of their faith. They lost the perspective of salvation, and not for the first time on this journey.

Did the Lord lead His people out of Egypt through a thicket of miracles just to lead them to their deaths in the desert? Of course not; He wanted them to become a nation of priests through which salvation would come to the whole world. The Israelites at that time and later became so preoccupied with their own worldly and material status that they forgot that mission, and paid the price through the destruction of both Israel and Judea. In fact, some historians believe that the exiles of Israel and Judea after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests are what produced the Samaritan/Judean split that we see in today’s Gospel. Not only do we miss the forest for the trees in our conflicts, but our conflicts compound that consequence even further.

If we get lost in the trees, what’s the forest? Paul expresses it beautifully in his letter to the Romans, our second reading for today. It’s simply this: God loves us, and wants us all to return to Him. He sent His Son to pay for all our sins just to give us the grace to do so. Paul writes about the extraordinary nature of such a sacrifice:

For Christ, while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Why did the Lord lead the Israelites out of Egypt through a succession of miracles and power that were almost unprecedented even in the scriptures? Because He loves us, and chose the Israelites through Abraham as His instrument of salvation for the whole world. Why did Christ die for us? To light that path to eternal life forever. In both cases, God did not provide us with redemption because we were worthy of it on our own; He did so out of His overflowing love for us. That is the forest we continually miss for the trees.

It’s never too late to take a step back, let go of our prejudices and appetites, and see that truth. Our responsorial today in Psalm 95 reminds us of all we need do to accomplish this. “If today you hear God’s voice,” we sing, “harden not your hearts.” The Samaritan woman manages that in today’s Gospel, and that’s what brings her salvation in Christ.  May we all encounter Christ in the same manner.

The front-page image is “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman” by Paolo Veronese, circa 1585.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only 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.