by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus, tired out from the trip, sat down by the well. It was about noon. While his disciples had gone off to buy provisions, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her: “Give me a drink.” Astonished, the Samaritan woman said to him. “You’re a Jew. How can you ask me, a Samaritan, and a woman at that, for a drink?” Jesus replied: “Ah, if only you recognised God’s gift, and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him instead, and he would have given you living water.” John 4, 5-42
Today’s gospel story of the encounter at a village well between Jesus and a Samaritan woman is one that has been repeated in a multitude of different ways in every known culture. It resonates in the mind and heart of every decent person who has even an ounce of compassion, tolerance and open-heartedness. We have all experienced people who are obsessed with passing on to the younger generation the bitterness of family feuds or fanning the flame of prejudice that divides communities and even keeps different racial and religious groups apart.
A chance meeting between Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman immediately brings to the surface the suspicion and distrust with which their two cultures had indoctrinated them. They begin to spar with one another and trade insults from the moment when they are within earshot. However, Jesus’ refusal to engage in a slanging match leads them to find the common ground of dialogue, which leads to a sea change in the woman’s life and stuns the petty-minded disciples who can’t comprehend what they have witnessed.
From another perspective, we can view this story as an allegory or an extended metaphor of the great thirst in us for satisfaction and fulfilment that can be slaked only by the one who loved us into existence. While Augustine articulated that when he said: “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”, John, in today’s gospel revels in the symbol and image of water to impress on us God’s longing for us to respond to the invitation to come and be refreshed and have our thirst for God fully satisfied.
But, back to the readings. The symbol and imagery of water run through all three of today’s readings like a stream weaving its way through the countryside. In the first reading we see Moses, at God’s direction and to save his reputation, striking the rock, a little doubtfully, with his staff: “Strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17, 6). Then, in the second reading from Romans, Paul proclaims that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5, 5). Finally, the gospel is flooded with images of water. Jacob’s well is where Jesus and the woman meet; the exchange between them is dripping with references to water: “The water that I will give will become a spring that will provide life-giving water and give eternal life” (John 4, 14).
Despite the verbal jousting between Jesus and the woman about the relative merits of the Jewish and Samaritan religions, the woman, in sharp contrast to the disciples, grasps Jesus’ message, forgets the physical thirst that brought her to the well, and heads off to the town to tell whoever will listen to her that she has met the long-awaited Messiah.
In all of this there are some messages for us. First of all, Jesus makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained from nit-picking arguments over religion. Secondly, his disclosure of the woman’s history and his refusal to condemn her demonstrate that the God he proclaims regards our personal history and past failures as irrelevant, once we open ourselves to God’s love. Jesus promises us a Spirit who will convince us that we are valued and loved unconditionally by the God who loved us into life, and who doesn’t stop loving us. Thirdly, being plunged into a relationship with God does not mean that we will be free from uncertainty and floundering when it comes to dealing with people of different mindsets, attitudes and religious persuasions.
When genuine love and compassion are at work there are no barriers that cannot be overcome, be they personal prejudice, race, religion, grief, sickness or physical disability. Whatever the struggles the confront us, whatever obstacles in life we encounter, we eventually come to realise that deep within us is a thirst for the only one who will ever satisfy us, a thirst for God. This gospel story begins with a chance meeting between two people who are looking for water to slake their physical thirst. It ends with a revelation by Jesus to the woman that the only thing that will satisfy her deep-down thirst is God’s love for her. Underlying all the talk and imagery of water and thirst is the revelation of God’s great thirst for each of us, and that Jesus is the conduit of God’s love for us and our world. Let’s not forget that Jesus, too, knew thirst. In this gospel story he is thirsting for water. At the very end of his life, as he hung on the Cross, he cried out “I thirst” – that was a thirst for water and a thirst for God’s love, voiced by him at the lowest point of his life on earth.
In a reflection of a week or two ago, I made mention of Compassionate Friends. The Society of Compassionate Friends came into being in a moment of inspiration when Simon Stephens, the Anglican priest and chaplain to Warwickshire Hospital (UK) brought together two sets of parents who were grieving the tragic death of a child. He witnessed in action the extraordinary support they were to one another as they reached out in compassion and comfort. They responded to one another’s immediate thirst, and, in the very act of reaching out to one another, they became instruments and conduits of God’s love. Today’s readings are a reminder to us all that we, too, are invited to imitate Jesus, to respond to those around us who in one way or another are thirsting for God’s love and compassion.
But, if we take nothing else from today’s gospel story, at least let’s hold on to the picture of a Jew and a Samaritan engaging in conversation at a well; a woman actually talking with a man about substantial and deeply personal issues; two people brought up to hate one another sharing a cup of water; two unlikely people engaging in a way that scandalised a band of petty-minded disciples. Is there not a message here for all of us who belong to a world in which competition, rivalry, factions and wars are endemic? Are we not being invited to risk being instruments of scandal, as we try to reach out to those around us who are thirsting for justice, peace and reconciliation? They are the Rohingya people and refugees from a civil war in Syria, herded into refugee camps and left to languish there, forgotten by a world devoid of compassion. They are our sisters and brothers.