The First Reading and the Gospel on a Sunday are usually related to each other and this Sunday is no exception. Both of these readings are about water. The First Reading is about Moses striking the rock from which flowed water at Massah and Meribah, sufficient to assuage the people’s thirst. In the Gospel we hear the wonderful story of the Woman at the Well.
In this meeting at the well the conversation between Jesus and the woman seems to be operating at two different levels. She takes his words at face value and yet Jesus means his words to be understood at a much deeper level. He is talking not so much about the water in the well as of the waters of Baptism. The waters that Jesus talks about will not just relieve ordinary thirst but will quench that much deeper thirst which is our yearning for salvation.
The fact that this is a Samaritan woman is no coincidence. Jesus often has dialogues of great significance with people who are not Jewish. We know that his mission is not only to the Jewish people but in fact to all the people of the world.
This woman would be socially marginalised at a number of different levels. Firstly, she was a woman and so regarded as a second-class citizen; feminism took another two thousand years to make an appearance. Then she is of dubious reputation since she has had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not her husband. Moreover, her appearance at the well in the middle of the day when most people would be at home resting during the hottest part of the day makes one wonder what she was doing there. We are being invited to think that she might have been there for an immoral purpose.
Then there is the fact that she was a Samaritan and therefore considered to be an outcast by the observant Jews. The Samaritans were regarded as an heretical sect and therefore even more hated by the Jews than ordinary Gentiles. But, of course, Jesus has previously spoken about this group when he told the story of the Good Samaritan as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. There is also in Luke an account of the Ten Lepers of which only the Samaritan returned to thank Jesus when he discovered he was cured.
Then there is the matter of all the husbands this woman has had. When she discovers that Jesus knows all about them, she is surprised and this leads her to presume that Jesus is a prophet. This knowledge that he has convinces her that here is someone special, someone who knows so much more than the ordinary person, someone who can speak about spiritual things and do so with real authority. It leads her to talk a little about the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans.
Jesus uses the fact of her being a Samaritan to demonstrate that he certainly knows all about the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. He says, ‘You worship what you do not know but we worship what we do know for salvation comes from the Jews.’ But he then goes on to tell her that the day is soon coming when believers will worship in spirit and in truth. We understand very well that Jesus is blind when it comes to questions of race and religion. He looks into a person’s heart and not to the outward observance of matters of faith or questions of heredity.
Jesus doesn’t often reveal directly to anyone that he is the Messiah but he does so to this Samaritan woman despite her dubious reputation. This is an example of how Jesus favours the poor and despised. We don’t know for certain whether she was poor but we certainly can conclude that she was despised. Even his disciples reproach Jesus for talking to her in such an open way. It says that though they didn’t say anything they were surprised to find him speaking to her. I think they we not so much surprised as appalled.
The upshot of the story is that this woman goes back to her village and rouses all the people and tells them that Jesus has revealed to her that he is the Messiah and many come to believe in him. This shows that she understands her new role to be that of an Evangelist and on the strength of her testimony she is able to bring other people to faith.
In this the woman is like us because this is our role too, to speak in a convincing way that Jesus is the Lord of all and that we should believe his words because he is the true son of the Father. We need to bring the Gospel message to the people we live and work among. Primarily this is, of course, to our children but also to all those we meet. Maybe we don’t always have to do it with words but perhaps more effectively by our example.
We cannot ever underestimate the importance of this duty to evangelise others. After all, we would not want it to lie on our conscience that a particular person did not come to faith because we were too lazy to tell them the truths of the Gospel.
Jesus stays in the village for two days and explains his Gospel of love to the people there. They are obviously entranced by his words and his insights and they come to a deep understanding of what God wants from them. Jesus doesn’t convert them to Judaism but rather explains the much deeper truths that he has to offer. We can imagine that he taught them about the salvation that he was soon to bring to the human race and the importance of love as the driving force of our lives.
The people then admitted to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the Saviour of the World.’ After listening to our testimony we would be very happy if other people could say those same words to us.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket