Today’s Liturgy of the Word – where God reveals himself to us – starts out with the Israelites and Moses in the desert. After gladly accepting God’s invitation to abandon slavery for freedom, the people quickly started complaining. They missed the food the Egyptians let them have, they feared they would die of thirst … and on and on. Acting as if God had made no plans and was incapable of providing for them, they groused so much that Moses feared for his life. In response, and to show how evident their lack of trust in God was, the creator of all brought water from a rock, demonstrating that for God, nothing is impossible. We need merely to put our trust in him.
Of course, I think we can all identify with these desert wanderers. After all, they had no idea where their next meal would come from and water was becoming scarce. And, they had spent so little time in freedom that they were like dependent children, frightened because the situation was entirely out of their control. We all like to be in control, don’t we? And, it is a real challenge to put our trust entirely in God, who doesn’t usually give us a road map for our lives.
Israel’s thirst and God’s response prepares us for the gospel account of the woman at the well. Pay attention to the ironic contrast between the two incidents. In the first reading, it is the untrusting Israelites who are thirsty and God provides them with the water they yearn to have. In the Gospel, it is God – in the person of Jesus – who is thirsty and it is a recalcitrant Israelite descendant to whom he turns for water. We, who usually turn to God for help, are faced with Jesus, the Christ, sitting thirsty by a well without a bucket. Then, along comes this Samaritan woman. The Savior of the world makes a request: “Give me a drink.”
As a result of the droughts and floods we have been hearing about in our country and around the world, we’re all becoming more and more aware of the important role that water plays in our lives. Whereas we are blessed with an abundance of water, it is a precious commodity in the desert. Sharing water there symbolizes hospitality, openness to the stranger and respect for life. In an inside out image of the God who made water gush forth from a rock, the vulnerable Jesus must ask for water. And, where does he do this? At Jacob’s well, the well that symbolizes the heritage of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers of the Jews. Once the woman and Jesus have begun their conversation, however, the tables turn and Jesus reveals that the divine thirst is not for water, but for a life-giving relationship with humanity – all of humanity, even those who have abandoned their faith.
You will notice that, while the woman is preoccupied with the proper place to worship God, all that mattered to Jesus is that this idolatrous and adulterous woman – and by extension all people – would come to know God. He thirsted for her to be moved by God’s own Spirit and to abide in the truth-generating relationships that flow from that encounter.
And, this is exactly what happened. As this woman began to comprehend what Jesus was saying, her surprise turned to curiosity and then to faith. As the representative of a people who had been unfaithful to their covenant with God as they engaged in a series of self-serving affiliations – the five husbands represented the Samaritans’ alliances with the Syrian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman nations – she found a truth and love worthy of her faithful response and the was even impelled to share it.
It is easy to focus on the woman’s five husbands, as if this story were about the conversion of a loose woman. But that prevents us from seeing the astounding theology and universality of this Gospel message. Theologically, this Gospel story reminds us that our creator invites all of humanity into relationship with him. This paints a picture of God as both vulnerable and thirsty, ever waiting near some well to offer life to those who can listen, wonder and respond. The universality of today’s message comes through Jesus’ proclamation that real worship and relationship with God does not depend on place or ritual, but on how the people become open to the Spirit’s action in their lives.
St. Paul preaches this very same message in his letter to the Romans when he assures us that our “justification” is based on faith. If we put Paul’s idea in the context of the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we can see that salvation springs from relationship with God; it is never bound by any particular deed, creed or ritual. Salvation happens when we attend to God’s thirst and respond with personal hospitality. Once we have been touched by a relationship with God, it automatically begins to flow into all our other relationships, making us not just believers, but eager evangelizers, just like the woman in today’s gospel.
The woman at the well calls us all to seek God, to respond to his invitation to a close relationship with him through his Son and in the power of his Spirit. She represents the ways in which we have been unfaithful to God and urges us to seek the only one who can quench our deepest thirst so that we can come to enjoy this living water forever. Like her, all we need to do is respond in faith. As we continue our Lenten journey, let us sit quietly with our God, allow him into our lives, turn away from any distractions that keep us from him and draw deeply from the well he provides. After all, as we hear so clearly in today’s second reading, God has proven his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us; that’s how much he loves us.