Living water and the end of thirst: 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.”

This Gospel reading comes at a perfect time, not just in our progress at Lent but also to remind us of our connectedness in spite of all our differences. Today’s Gospel and readings remind us that Jesus came not to save the perfected and the spotless, but to rescue all who would come to Him, regardless of their social status or human divisions.

In today’s readings, we get two different scenes dealing with water and our thirst for both it and communion with God. The first takes place in Exodus, in which the Israelites have grown rebellious yet again, this time over a lack of water. They have refused to trust the Lord or Moses, His prophet, in ensuring their survival until they come to the Promised Land. Despite the fact that the Lord appeared in their midst as a pillar of fire and split the Red Sea to rescue them from the Egyptians, the Israelites still thirst — not just for water, but for confidence that the Lord loves them.

This pushes Moses to an understandable frustration with his people, but he turns to the Lord for help rather than deal with it on his own authority. Moses, at least, still trusts in the Lord and acknowledges the proper relationship between himself and God. The Lord works with him to provide living water from the rock, a miracle that not just provides water for the Israelites’ physical needs but a sign of the Lord’s love for them. He wants to build their trust in Him not for His sake but for their own; had they rebelled, they would have either fled into the desert to die or ended up enslaved by Egyptians or others.

The water in this case provides that communion between the Lord and His people. He again condescends to the Israelites to free them of their attachment to sin and obstinacy, emphasizing His love for them and His sustenance as long as they remain true to their covenant.

By the time Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, the Israelites have long since devolved into factions and have utterly failed in their mission to bring God’s Word to the nations of the world. It has become so bad that Judeans and Samaritans will have little to do with each other, divided over the proper form of worship as a consequence of the Babylonian conquest centuries earlier. The divide between the two communities has become so profound that Jesus uses it in one of his most well-known parables, that of the Good Samaritan who truly loves his neighbor — a parable that certainly seemed intended to tweak Judeans for their attitudes towards their cousins in Samaria.

This, however, goes far beyond a parable. Jesus is not just speaking to the Samaritans, he is speaking with a Samaritan woman, and a sinful one at that. His request for water from the community well crosses all sorts of boundaries of that time, and Jesus even weighs in on the Judean/Samaritan divide in the Judeans’ favor. Yet not only does Jesus continue to engage and encourage her, He also preaches to her in more direct terms than He usually does with Judeans. Jesus reveals His nature by describing her sins in detail, and He also tells the Samaritan woman that He is the Messiah — a revelation Jesus carefully avoids with His disciples for much of His mission.

Why does Jesus provide this living water so directly to the Samaritan woman? He senses her thirst for it, and her willingness to receive it. The Samaritans are lost in their own way and dying of thirst, even if they do not necessarily realize it. Jesus provides the living water of faith to keep them alive and to help bring them out of their own desert of isolation and sin.

However, do not forget that Jesus is doing the same for the Judeans as well throughout His mission. The Judeans are also lost, but in a different way. They “understand” the law, as Christ tells the Samaritan woman, but not fully — and that failure is also preventing their full communion with the Lord. The Samaritans worship what they do not understand, while the Judeans have turned worship into both a material-world power struggle and a form of idolatry over the temple, just as they had in the days before the Babylonian conquest. Jesus has come to bring living water to both, and then to all nations of the world. In the end, Christ will sacrifice Himself and conquer death for all to drink from this water — the word of God — and to bring humanity back into full communion with the Lord. The alternative is to rush out away from the Lord and our own destruction, and Christ in His love for us wants to direct us back to the Father — just as the Lord did with Moses and the rock.

This Gospel passage teaches us that we are far more alike and equal in our failings than we imagine ourselves to be. It puts our prejudices and grudges into their proper perspective, which is immaterial when it comes to our self-created divisions with the Lord. We are called to overcome and forget those divisions so that we might all be saved by the living water of God, and return to our true natures as brothers and sisters in Christ. In that way, we can all help each other drink from the well.

 

The front-page image is a detail from “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Annibale Carracci, c. 1604-5. Currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.