Lectionary commentary: third Sunday of Lent, year A



READINGS

A reading from the book Exodus, 17:3-7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95:1-2. 6-9. R/. v. 8

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 5:1-2. 5-8

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 4:5-42


Today’s readings are rich in contrasts. The slaves making their way through the desert of Sinai to a promised land of hope are complainers. Their faith, shaky at the best of times, gives way when thirst begins to destroy the excitement of escaping from Egyptian torment. They complain that Moses brought them out of he flesh-pots of Egypt. But Moses did no such thing. It was God whose mighty arm set them free. So the Lord steps in and saves again. But their grumbling will never be forgot. They were at it again when Jesus was talking Zacchaeus the tax collector into a new life (Luke 19:1-10).

In contrast to grumbling and blaming, today’s Responsorial Psalm remembers Massa and Meribah but sings a new song. It is a hymn of joy and thanks. The story of the woman of Samaria and the man sitting at the well waiting for her to arrive with her bucket is a triumph of faith over prejudice, over mistrust, even hate, a triumph of honest talking, of love over pain, and of trust over a lifetime of disappointment.



A reading from the book Exodus, 17:3-7

The people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord with us or not?”

The word of the Lord.

Infinite patience. That’s what God has. No matter how often the rescued slaves contemplate returning to the flesh-pots of Egypt, the Lord God is on hand to defeat despair and the loss of faith. The future does not lie in the stoning of prophets such as Moses. God is forever standing on the mountain of Horeb (otherwise known a Mount Sinai) and giving all that is necessary for life, for peace. The Saviour of the World never stops saving and will brook no obstacle to what is event God’s intent.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95:1-2. 6-9. R/. v. 8

R/. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence
with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise. R/.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. R/.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. R/.

Psalms 93 to 99 are songs. They invite people to sing God’s praises, to acclaim the Lord, that is, joyfully to recognise God’s goodness and to shout it from the rooftops. Let’s make noise!

Singing together brings us into the Lord’s presence. And what Lord! God is,

  • the rock who saves us
  • the God who made us
  • the rock of our salvation
  • a great God
  • a great King
  • above all gods
  • earth and sea are in his hands
  • the mountain peaks belong to or Lord
  • his hands formed the dry land
  • the Lord is our Maker.


If our Lord God is so identified, who then are we who sing praise and who acclaim his holy name? We are,

  • the people who belong to him
  • the people of his pasture
  • the sheep of his hand.


Therefore, with hearts unhardened,

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise.



A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 5:1-2. 5-8

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. [This] hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The word of the Lord.

St. Paul is our greatest theologian and our greatest pastor. Of course, he would never separate the two dimensions of his call to be an apostle. That means that he always gives us pearls of great price. But his pearls are always on a chain of theological gold, heavy to wear but beyond price.

Today’s few sentences tells of all that God in Christ has done for us - precious gifts indeed:

  • we are justified by faith
  • we are at peace with God
  • we have access to God’s grace
  • we stand I hope of the glory of God
  • God’s love is poured into our hearts
  • we can rejoice in our sufferings
  • for our character is transformed
  • our hope is not compromised
  • for God’s love has been poured into our hearts
  • for we have been given the Holy Spirit.


Pearls of great price, to be sure. But how has all this come about? It is all, says the apostle, through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through him that we have been enriched. This is where the theology comes him.

For, while we were weak, at the opportune time (not “the right time”, as the ESV translation offers; it is a God-appointed time), Christ died for the ungodly. Every word comes from the deep depths of Paul’s thinking.

First, humanity is without strength; it is weak for it lacks the strength of God. As Paul understood the story of Adam, all humanity is, to use his phrase, “under sin” (Romans 3:9). Paul plunges into his Bible and offers a raft of explanation:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;

together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,

and the w
ay of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Romans 3: 9-18

Paul points out that both Jew and Gentile lacked two significance elements in the process of nearing God, that is, in being orientated toward God and a godly way of life: righteousness and faith. Two key sentences at the beginning of Paul’s letter may be taken as a summary of the whole:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Roman 1: 16-17

First, what is the gospel? The greeting in the letter’s first lines explains in an elegant and informative sentence:

Paul,
a servant of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle,
set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ …

Romans 1: 17

A theologically rich sentence is intended by St. Paul to define the phrase “the gospel of God”. The word “gospel” means “good news of a victory won“. Paul fills out the who, the how, and the why of this divine promise that was outlined before it happened in the writings of the prophets of Israel. The “who” is God for the battle and the victory are God’s doings.

The how of the victory is achieved through God’s son, a human being descended from King David but more. This son is the “son of God” imbued with God’s power, filled with a spirit of holiness that ensures his resurrection from the dead for death cannot be victorious over him. Death cannot rule where such divine holiness resides. This Jesus Christ is Paul’s Lord and the Lord of all who have faith in him and who “belong to him”. This good news is for “all the nations’’; all peoples are invited to commit themselves to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is named four times in this opening greeting, a fact that demonstrates the effective rôle of the Lord in all that is done on God’s behalf for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike.

Paul calls on all to have faith in what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love is there for the asking. God did not wait for us to get on our knees. While we were in our sins God was chivvying away at the business of rescuing humanity from its destructive ways. God is busy pouring love into human hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 4: 5-42

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman from Samaria came to draw water.

Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink
from me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that 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 have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him 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 will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”


Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking 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 Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

Just then his disciples came back. They marvelled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.


Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps. ’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.”


Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to remain with them, and he remained there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.

The Gospel of the Lord.


A Woman of Samaria

So what do you think of her? What kind of woman is she? What does she look? What age is she? Would you invite her to your home?


Setting the Stage

The writer(s) of St. John’s Gospel is particularly detailed in setting the scene for this drama of Jesus and the woman of Samaria. First they tell us that, because of “the Pharisees” and objections they had to Jesus baptising as John did (“although Jesus himself did not baptise”, we are told), Jesus left Judea and departed again for Galilee”. Therefore “he had to pass through Samaria”. But he didn’t. There was a perfectly good road east of the River Jordan in Perea, a road that enabled Jews to travel north from Jerusalem to Galilee without having to pass through Samaria.

The Greek text is better translated “Now it was necessary for him to go through Samaria”. The verb I have translated “it was necessary” is in the imperfect tense that stresses an on-going obligation, an unavoidable and irrevocable imperative, something he just had to do. John’s Gospel uses this verb 10 times and I will quote most of them in order to impress on you what was meant by “Now it was necessary for him to pass through Samaria”.

Consider the following sentences from the Gospel according to Saint John:

You must be born again.

John 3:7
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John 3:14
Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

John 3:30

You say that in Jerusalem is the place where people must worship.

John 4:20

God is spirit, and those who worship him must
worship him in spirit and in truth.

John 4:24


And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must
bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

John 10:16

… the Son of Man must
be lifted up.

John 12:34

… for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must
rise from the dead.

John 20:9

Why “must” in all of these sentences? It is because in each of these sentences a divine necessity is being emphasised. Being born again is a divine necessity, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus in chapter 3. Jews did insist that it was God’s will that sacrificial worship take place in the Temple in Jerusalem and not on Mount Gerazim, below which Jesus and the woman of Samaria were sitting at Jacob’s well. The God-given mission of Jesus demanded that he seek out “the other sheep”. That he be lifted up on the cross is also a must. And, of course, he must, in God’s design, rise from the dead.

When we read that Jesus must pass through Samaria, then we know that it is his Father’s will and command that his Son sits down at the well with the woman of Samaria. It is not a geography lesson. So if the meeting is not by chance but by divine decree, what about the timing?


The Time of Day

It was about the sixth hour (4:6). Now you may have accepted

the explanation of this simple sentence given by a thousand preachers. It is assumed that she is a very sinful woman. She is not welcome at the well with the other women of the city. To avoid the heat of the day, they come in the cool of the morning and in the cool of the evening. The woman of Samaria is forced to come at the sixth hour, at midday, when the heat of the sun is intense. But I ask is this the way women would have treated each other in a patriarchal society? Or any oppressive society?

There is a hymn entitled Dies Irae (The Day of Wrath), written either by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano (1200-1265) or by a Dominican named Malabranca Orsini (d.1294). Mozart and Verdi incorporated the hymn in their Requiem settings as did many others. For centuries it was used in the Roman Liturgy of the Requiem Mass. Its last appearance was in the 1962 Roman Missal, issued before the reforms of the liturgy introduced by the Second Vatican Council took effect. Its liturgical purpose seems to have been to scare the mourners to death. It gave little comfort and did not appear to have much truck with the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. However, some stanzas added to the original hymn reflect a more positive theology. Such a one was this:

It was me you were seeking out
when exhausted, you sat by the well;
me that you redeemed
when you suffered on the cross.
Do not allow such toil to be in vain.

This stanza would suggest a more benign and hopeful encounter at the well. But it also suggests that the meeting at the well was arranged by divine intention to link what happened at the well with another midday event:

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:14-16

Notice the precision. It was about the sixth hour when Jesus sat down by the well. And it was about the sixth hour when Jesus was delivered to be crucified. Again, the timing is not a casual piece of information. Its purpose is to link the woman of Samaria with the saving death of Jesus. The woman of Samaria meets with the Saviour of the world, as the last words in her story proclaim. She stands for all who, like her fellow citizens of Sychar, are brought to the well (a hint of baptism?) that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.

So place and time and circumstance have been stage-managed by God the Father:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:16-17


The Context

The people of Samaria were a remnant of the foreign people planted between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south following the eight century B.C. Assyrian invasion. They adopted a version of Judaism but were regarded as heretics by those who considered themselves to be true believers. The Samaritans had their own priesthood, their own liturgy, and a very reduced version of the Bible. Communities of Jews and Samaritans despised each other and contact between them was limited. Some of this mutual loathing is obvious in the meeting at the well.

[There is one translation problem. If it is true that “Jews had no dealings with Samaritans” how is it that “the disciples went into their city to buy bread”? Modern scholarship suggests that the text should read, “have no vessels in common with Samaritans”; a conjecture that fits in with the surprise that Jesus asks the woman for a drink from her bucket.]


First exchanges

That Jesus asks for a drink elicits an inevitable surprise:

How is it that you,
a Jew,
ask for a drink from me
a woman of Samaria?

John 4:9

Many English translations speak of the Samaritan woman. But this is not how the woman describes herself. She is, she says, “a woman of Samaria”. Before she is a Samaritan, she is a woman. Notice that she identifies Jesus as a Jew, not “a man from Galilee” or whatever. She loads Jesus with all the routine disgust Jews had for Samaritans. When the disciples return to Jesus they wonder, not that he has been talking to a Samaritan; rather,

They wondered that he was chatting with her.

John 4:27 (my translation)

Two points. First, notice that their wonder was that he was chatting to a woman. They are not concerned that he was chatting to a Samaritan. Secondly, throughout the story the conversation is characterised by “He says”/She says, in the present tense that English translators tidy up into “He said/She said”. But what causes the disciples to wonder is that “he was chatting” with her. The writer(s) of this story suddenly changes to a different verb that is more intimate and informal, that is, from “he says to her” to “was chatting with her” - an imperfect tense. They wonder but don’t ask,

Why are you chatting with woman?

But more astonishing is the wording of Jesus when identifying himself to the woman and revealing who he really is. Not a Jews; much more than that,

I AM, the one chatting with you.

John 4:26

More needs to be said about that revelation but first we need to ask whether the way Jesus sometimes addresses women is all that it ought to be.


Women in John

In the account of the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) we are told that “the mother of Jesus was there”. Mary is never named, not here nor anywhere throughout John’s Gospel. Twice she is called “the mother of Jesus” and once “his mother”. When Jesus speaks to his mother he calls her “Woman”. Scholars have trawled through ancient Greek literature for an instance that a son addresses his mother as “Woman”. It just isn’t done. Such an address seems to be without affection, without even respect. The word in Greek by which Jesus addresses his mother is γυνη (gunē (pronounced goon-ay) from which the word gynaecology is derived. It is, we might agree, no way to speak to a woman. Certainly, it is no way to speak to your mother.

Yet that is what Jesus does. When Jesus speaks to his mother from the cross, in the moment of his dying, he says,

Woman, behold your son!

John 19:26

When Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb where Nicodemus had placed the body of Jesus, two angels appeared and spoke to her:

Woman, why are you weeping?

John 20-13

When Jesus appeared he said to her the same,

Woman, why are you weeping?

John 20:14

When Jesus formally addresses the woman at the well, he reveals to her that real worship begins with the Spirit of God:

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father, You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

John 4:21-24

What seems to me to be the case is that Jesus adopts this exceedingly formal address to underline the significance of what he is saying. The words of Jesus to his mother, to Mary Magdalene, and to the wonderful woman he met at the well are revelations, privileged insights, into the very nature of Jesus and to the nature of his ministry to the world. He speaks to them precisely as women.


Signs

At Cana in Galilee Jesus did the first of his signs and revealed his glory. At this revelation his disciples believed in him. Notice that the “Woman” does not ask her son to do something. She calls his attention to what is not more than a human embarrassment: They have no wine. She knows her son and advises the appropriate responsive to his word: Do whatever he tells you. She reveals not only what the servants must to do but what everyone who hears him must do. What this woman is doing is bringing about the manifestation of his glory that causes his disciples to believe in him. The women in this Gospel are always doing this.

Again, at the foot of the cross, there is another moment of revelation. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved, the dying Jesus places his beloved disciple in safe hands. That is a revelation that has borne much fruit as the story of Jesus made its way in the world.

Mary Magdalene can see that the tomb is empty. The two angels ask why she is weeping. The Risen Lord asks the same question and in a moment of recognition she jumps into his arms. But more for Jesus to complete his earthy mission more needs to be done and to be revealed. This woman, this Mary, is appointed the apostle to go and tell

… go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.

John 20:17-18

From that day to this the world knows that the Father of Jesus is “Our Father”.

To the woman of Samaria Jesus reveals that it is not the place of worship (temple, synagogue, church) that is of the essence. True, real worship is worship in the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit of truth, promised and given to his brothers and sisters by Jesus (see 14:15-17; 15:26-27; 16:12-15), animates worship. For worship of the Father must always be inspired by the Holy Spirit if it is to be true worship. Jesus is not recommending worship in the sanctum of our own hearts. Rather true worship is a coming together in the Spirit we have received and glorifying the Father so that the “My Father” of Jesus becomes the Our Father. That is why Christians gathered in house-churches and that is why they built larger churches. Great faith builds beautiful churches.

Calling these amazing women “Woman” is not an insult. Rather it is precisely as women that they are each recipients of revelations that are the sinews of Christian faith. And the woman of Samaria is one of them. Mary Magdalene is called “the apostle to the apostles”. The truth is that there are five of them in John’s Gospel.


Disciples being disciples

The word “disciple” means a learner, an apprentice, a pupil, a student. It is amazing in all four Gospels what poor students those named disciples are. They seldom show much understanding and are often wide of the mark. But their lack of discernment often leads to Jesus clarifying the business in hand. So here read 4:31-38. These men who are to have responsibilities given them are never called “apostles” in John’s Gospel, no matter how much Jesus cares for them and protects them. When they return from their shopping Jesus has to explain that his purpose is to accomplish the work God gave him to do. He will require of all learners/disciples to attend to the harvest, to reap where he has sown. In contrast, the woman carries the seed sown in her by Jesus and,

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.

John 4:39


A Woman of Truth

What about the five husbands? It is Jesus who says to her “Go call your husband”, seemingly a trap to expose her immorality. First, if that is how you read the story, I would beg you to ask yourself whether this is the way Jesus treated/treats people.

I think that Jesus asked her to fetch her husband in order to enter her pain. Divorce (with re-marriage) was so common among Jews in the time of Jesus that it was a subject of intense debate among rabbis with heated opinions on the matter. It was rare in Samaritan society. Neither in Jewish nor in Samaritan society were women permitted to divorce (and that is still the case).This was a male prerogative. Secondly, once divorced a woman had no claim on property and another marriage was the best refuge available. Many divorced women found themselves forced into prostitution. Try to enter the pain of the woman who knows in her heart that she has no husband, no love that did not have the next divorce to look forward to. Whether out of shame or embarrassment, she answers “I have no husband”. And that is what Jesus wants to hear; he wants to enter her pain:

This that you have spoken is the truth.

John 4:17

Jesus has been sitting at the well chatting to a woman who values what Jesus values beyond all else. Think of these words of Jesus

God is true.

John 3:33

He who sent me is true.

John 7:28

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth
.

John 1:14

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

John 14:6

If you abide in my word,
you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

The truth shall set you free. The woman of Samaria is a woman of truth and Jesus knows that she is a woman of truth. Sitting at the well he sets her free. She may have been passed from pillar to post. But Jesus has work for this woman to do. She has to go and start reaping the harvest he is sowing in the world.

The word “apostle” is never used in John’s Gospel. But this woman goes from Jesus and witnesses to him in her city. Of course, when they come to Jesus himself her work is done. She has brought them to Christ and the rest is up to him for it is he, not her, who is,

The Saviour of the world.

John 4:42

There is much more to be learned from this amazing story. But nothing will be learned if we insist that the one who finds the weary Jesus sitting at the well is a Samaritan woman. She is a woman of Samaria, a woman first, a Samaritan second. But she is to the last bone in her abused body a woman of truth. It is that truth which sets her free to be an apostle. Did you notice that she left her bucket behind?

However, the lesson of the writer of this amazing story is not primarily about the status of women. It is about an obvious fact: when someone comes to Jesus, when one recognises Jesus and is recognised by him, then one outcome is certain. The disciple must become a preacher. The disciple must become a proclaimer of the gospel. Pope Francis stresses the point:

Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope, and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomes, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), §114.

The lesson is that we can’t sit down at the well having very interesting conversations, or sit in the church saying our prayers. We have to be out there.


Jesus at the Well

While it is important to discover the true identity of the woman at the well, it is even more important to discover who this Jesus is who sits with her. Step by step our portrait of Jesus grows from that from a man wearied from his journey to one who is the Saviour of the world. Notice how his identity unfolds:

The place: Jesus did not have to pass through Samaria to get home to Galilee. He observes God’s will directing him there: he had to pass through Samaria

A weary man: Wearied as he was from his journey, he was sitting beside the well. This is an imperfect tense, that is, it expresses the sense that he was waiting there. There was purpose and intent in his sitting beside the well. We are told that it was about the sixth hour. The author of the Gospel warns us that this is the man who will be handed over to be crucified about the sixth hour read this:

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:14-16

Jesus the Jew: The woman gives us a vital clue to the identity of Jesus, one that must never be forgotten: a Jew. Jesus asks he for a drink. That in itself is surprising, as the woman points out. The author(s) of the Gospel step in to explain (though there is difficulty translating what they meant).

A gift from God? Jesus begins to reveal himself, engaging the woman’s attention:

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that 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 have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock. John 4:10-12

The woman reminds him of her story. First, what is “living water”? Is it flowing water like a river? Is it a well bubbling out of he ground in a rush of water? Then she tells him her story. This is a Samaritan well, given to her people by Jacob. You need to read the wonderful love story that began at “a well in the field” and a very beautiful shepherdess in Genesis 29:1-24. There is room for a romantic tinge to the meeting of Jesus and the woman at this well.

Note, too, that the woman of Samaria claims Jacob to be “our father”. But we know from Matthew 1:2 and from Luke 3:34 that Jesus was descended fro Jacob, the grandson of Father Abraham.

Eternal life: Somewhat teasingly, Jesus continues to reveal what he brings to her. It is not well water, though, of course, that in itself is life-giving. The water Jesus offers cannot be put in a bucket. it will come from a well within, a spring that wells up inside to new life, to eternal life. The woman’s reply is entirely right: What are you playing at? What is this water? If its all that you say it is, then give it to me and I won’t have to traipse out here every day.

A matter of truth: When Jesus brings up the matter of her husband, he is not doing so as a cruel pastoral strategy to reveal the sinful past of a wanton woman. Anyone who knows anything about Jesus would not jump to that nasty conclusion. Jesus knows her situation: she has had five husbands. The woman who knows the sadness of her life answers with a clarity that needs but three words:

Ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω
Non habeo virum
I have no man
I have no husband.

Jesus, knowing quite well the plight of the woman, tells her that he understands. Note the understanding tone, not always conveyed by English translations. The Latin has Bene dixisti: You have spoken well. Similarly, the Greek. It does not imply guilt but a candid, honest statement of fact. That is why Jesus goes on to clarify how he understands what she has expressed. A proper English translation demands this:

You have had five husbands.

That is why Jesus can declare that this woman is a woman who tells the sad truth of her life:

What you have said is true.

Jesus, as we know, is the way, the truth, and the life. She is fit for a new way, a new life, and life of honest truth, long hid by her pain. Remember the bucket.

A Prophet: Again, preachers beware. The woman is not being sarcastic, as if to say “Clever-clogs”. She names Jesus aright, recognising that Jesus speaks God’s truth.

It is the woman who moves on to deeply theological matters, matters of vital concern to all who come to God, the matter of true worship. Samaritans worshipped on the mountain that rises just behind the well, Mount Gerizim. From here on Jesus begins to teach this amazing disciple.

True worship: Jesus tells her that worship is not a matter of mountains or cities. Salvation may have begun with Abraham and continued with Isra’el through the faithful living of their covenant with God. But true worship needs a deeper residence, a home in every human heart. Jesus tells her that the reality of worship must be doneand will be donein spirit and in truth. Worship, as, indeed, the prophets have long insisted, must not be done because one belongs to one nation or another. Worship is not a national symbol. To be true worship, it must be a matter of the heart, a matter of humility of the spirit.

Notice in the theological exchange that Jesus addressed her as Woman. She is now as his mother, and as Mary Magdalene. It is as such that she can begin to jump, theologically speaking:

I know that the Messiah is coming!

I AM: What Jesus says is this. It is one of many such revelations in the Gospel of John:

Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι
Ego sum, qui loquor tecum
I AM, the one talking with you.

That is all we know, and all we need to know. But there is one more glorious revelation that comes through the ministry of this wonderful woman. Many any Samaritans who came to declare a new faith through her catechesis:

We know that this is indeed the Saviour of the World.

All of which goes to show that theology is not all Thomas Aquinas; it can be a woman at a well.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.