In ancient times, access to a reliable well was essential. Without a steady supply of clean water, life would be difficult, if not impossible. In this week’s Gospel, we see Jesus sitting by a well in the country of Samaria. It’s noon, and we can assume that he is hot and tired. We know he is thirsty, because he asks a woman who is there drawing water to give him a drink.
This woman, known to us as the Samaritan Woman at the Well, has a checkered past. The upstanding women of the community drew their water early in the day; she doesn’t want to be seen so she comes at an off-hour. When Jesus, who is a Jew, speaks to her, she is taken aback. Jews didn’t usually speak with Samaritans. In fact, a little later when his disciples join him, they aren’t too keen on the fact Jesus was chatting with a Samaritan woman either.
This week, we will see that this Gospel scene has a kind of nuptial quality about it because a well is where a groom would come to meet his bride. Like a bridegroom lovingly seeking his bride, Jesus ardently desires this Samaritan woman (and her people whom she represents) to be reunited with God. The Samaritan woman has been a bride five times, and Jesus points this out. But then he goes beyond reminding her of her failure by reaching into the recesses of her deepest wounds of rejection and lack of love to tell her that he is, indeed, the long-awaited one, the Messiah—the one who will fulfill her deepest thirsts and longings. Through her, Jesus invites the Samaritan people, who were separated from the people of Israel, to return to their true bridegroom. By extension, he also invites all of us who come to him with open, thirsting hearts to join him at every Mass—at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb—so that we might say with the Samaritans: “This is truly the savior of the world!”
Better he slavery you know than the freedom you don’t—that could be the theme for this reading. Though the Israelites have just left a life in Egypt that has been described as “the whole cruel lot of slaves,” they seem to have forgotten this when saying to Moses, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” We’d think the answer would be obvious. But human nature is such that our memories are short, and our threshold for discomfort is low.
This reading presents us with a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual life—that of thirst. In the desert, the Israelites long for the more easily accessible waters of Egypt. Yet God shows them that if they trust him, they can be sure of water anywhere. With God, one isn’t forced to fearfully hug the banks of the Nile like slaves to stay alive; one may chart a course straight out of the desert with faith confidently knowing that he will provide. In this desert of modern life, we may likewise be certain that God will give us the living water we need to survive. Certainly he’s the source of living water that we can count on—even in the desert places.
St Paul expresses the fulfillment of the promise given by Christ in our Gospel reading of streams of living water that will become a “fountain within…leaping up to provide eternal life.” St. Paul writes to the church at Rome that “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
It was from the pierced side of Christ, which flowed blood and water, that the saving tide began to flow. St. Paul identifies that saving death as the source of the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, which transform godless, powerless, sinners into children of the Father. He implicitly reminds us that if any boasting is to be done, it’s in “the grace in which we now stand.” Grace, of course, means “gift.” So if any glory is to be given, it should redound to God who gives—not to the undeserving who receive it, among whom St. Paul includes himself.
At the time of the Messiah’s coming, Rome held Israel in its imperial grip. Yet despite its many struggles, Israel knew that “salvation is from the Jews,” as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel. That phrase suggests that salvation is intended to be passed “from” Israel to all nations. This scene points to the future extension to all nations of the salvation won by Christ. Samaria represents the first step in spreading the Gospel to the whole world.
Jesus points ahead to “an hour” when worship “in Spirit and truth” will be offered to God not merely “on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” but everywhere in the world. Although the Jews are God’s firstborn, we see in this passage that in Jesus, God’s plan is for the whole world, for every soul.
Jesus encourages his disciples to look at the world anew and to see beyond the borders of Israel and beyond the national and racial limits of Jacob (Israel). “Open your eyes and see! The fields are shining for harvest!” he exclaims. The universal purpose of God’s saving work in Christ is given its last word in the last line of this reading, appropriately spoken by the Samaritans: “This is truly the savior of the world!”
DIGGING DEEPER: The Samaritans
The Samaritans were a group of people who claimed to be the direct descendants of two tribes of Israel who survived the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 BC.
They claimed that they had preserved the true religion of the Chosen People, and the religion as prac- ticed by the Jews had been changed and altered during the Babylonian exile. Both Samaritan and Jewish rabbis taught that it was immoral to have contact with the other group and neither was to enter the other’s land. For Jesus to not only be traveling in Samaria, but to be talking to not just a Samaritan, but a woman in addition, would have been utterly scandalous.
The Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim, located in the West Bank, not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is the location of God’s holy of holies. It is to this location that the Woman at the Well is referring when she says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”