Stumbling blocks and foolishness: Sunday reflection

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.”

I tell a lot fewer jokes than I did as a young man, mostly because I’ve realized that people have almost always heard them already. Perhaps it’s the Internet, or perhaps people always had heard them already, but either way, the set-up gag seems passé. This one, however, is an exception even if you’ve heard the punchline before. What do you brush your teeth with, sit in, and sleep in? The answer: a toothbrush, a chair, and a bed.

Hey, I didn’t claim it was a great joke. It’s not really a joke at all; it’s a demonstration of simplicity as opposed to expected complexity. People expect one answer to cover all three bases, a clever and witty reference rather than just a simple answer. (If you try telling it as a joke, I’d suggest setting it up with a couple of the clever and witty ones first, or better yet, instead of.)

Today’s Gospel reading is also a demonstration of that simplicity. Consider the difference between Jesus’ dialogue with a lowly Samaritan woman and the theological debates that ensued with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They challenged Jesus with penetrating questions — mainly in bad faith — about the law and its observation. In those cases, Jesus responded with complex parables that even His disciples had trouble unpacking. In fact, they became so used to this that Jesus had to tell them when He wasn’t speaking allegorically, such as two chapters later in John’s Gospel (6:47-58):

Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

What happens after this? Many of Jesus’ disciples at the time abandoned Him, and only the Twelve remained. Jesus makes no explanation of this as a parable, as He routinely did after engaging the Pharisees in particular. Peter then makes his declaration that Jesus is “the Holy One of God,” and Jesus tells them that the Father has chosen them to understand.

Yet, in today’s Gospel — which precedes Peter’s revelation — Jesus offers not just direct answers to the Samaritan woman’s questions but practically puts the questions into her mouth. He had not revealed himself as the Christ yet to anyone else, but Jesus does so with this woman who is living in sin. What is going on here?

Reading through this passage, the Samaritan woman’s simplicity practically rings out. She is clearly an adult and competent, but childlike in her faith and her approach to Jesus. There is no artifice in her, at least in this dialogue, and her speech and reactions are what we might expect from a child even today. She has an open heart and no agenda other than to learn what Jesus wants to say. And when she approaches Jesus with that openness and simplicity, He reveals to the Samaritan woman His entire mission, to the amazement of the Twelve. Furthermore, when He finishes His discourse with her, Jesus tells the disciples that he has no need of other sustenance — that doing His Father’s will was sufficient nourishment.

In our second reading today, Paul tells the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” but that Christ’s followers need only follow Christ crucified. That, he proclaims, may be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but it is wisdom that far surpasses human understanding. Paul calls the Corinthians to simplicity in faith rather than an overreliance on intellectualism.

In our rational and scientific times, this overreliance on evidence and scientific method for that which is at heart faith become our own stumbling blocks and obstacles. Paul chastised the Jews for seeking signs and the Greeks for demanding wisdom, but are we any different? We ask for divine intervention on our own terms to prove faith, as if it could be proven, rather than satisfy ourselves with the signs we have already received. We tie ourselves in knots attempting to use the scientific method for the existence of God, who by definition much precede the material world which the scientific method was created to understand. We seek greater and greater complexity rather than simplicity, and in doing so, we take ourselves farther and farther away from the grace which this Samaritan woman received.

Does this mean we have no room for reason and philosophy in our faith? Of course not! We have had giants of both, from Saints Athanasius through Thomas Aquinas all the way through to John Paul the Great. Nor does this undermine the value and necessity for reason and philosophy in the living of our lives. The scientific method allowed a quantum leap in human understanding of the universe which benefits us to this day, and philosophy enlightens us to the workings of human cultures.

But the Lord precedes and transcends all of this, which is why the call to faith has to be based on simplicity, as another famous doctor of the church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux made clear. When we come to Jesus with our hearts open and without any agenda, then He can fill our hearts and our understanding of the basic truth of our faith — that Christ came to lay down His life for us and to show us that death had been defeated for all time, for those who choose to follow Him.

That’s a deceptively simple and powerful message, and perhaps only those who truly emulate the Samaritan woman can grasp it.


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