Third Sunday of Lent Cycle A
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
From our childhood, we love a good story. The great works of literature are great because they tell such great stories. Great books of history bring the events back to life in front of our eyes. Fairy tales teach children important lessons about not straying too far from their parents or not crying wolf to cause a commotion, and the lessons are listened to because they were embedded in interesting stories. We can read the statistics on the sports page but we’d rather read the story about what happened in the game, with all the color and personalities.
Today’s Gospel reading is a great story, told by John early in his Gospel. I’m using the word “story” here not in the sense of “he’s just making up a story” – that is to say, a lie – but in the sense when someone asks you to tell them the story of your life – which means they want more than just the bare facts, and would like to get a sense of who you are. John gives us that kind of story, about a woman who encounters Christ while going about her normal daily routine. It strikes a chord with us since I think that most of us, too, would love to sit down with Jesus, have a drink, and discuss what is important to us. Although not stated explicitly in any of the Gospels, Jesus’ public ministry is estimated by the events discussed to have lasted three years, so during that time Christ would have had numerous encounters with people that are not recorded in any of the Gospels. So when John chooses this one to record in depth, we understand that it is of particular importance to understanding Christ and his message. Part of the greatness of this story is that there are many aspects and multiple layers to it. Many are not evident with a single reading or without knowing some historical information about the encounter.
First, this encounter should not have been happening at all according to Jewish customs and traditions. The Samaritans were a people who were descendants of Jacob's son Joseph. Modern scientists have established that they are genetically similar to the Jewish people, but during the Babylonian exile their religious practices diverged, although both claimed the same books of the Torah as the source for their different practices. As we often see in other groups, the greatest and most heated arguments occur between people who agree on most everything except for what would be to an outside observer some minor differences. In this story, the issue discussed is whether the nearby shrine at Mount Gerizim on the one hand, or Jerusalem on the other, is the proper center of worship. Compounding the fact that she is a Samaritan is the fact that she is a woman. By Jewish custom Jesus should not be addressing her at all, since the sexes were always kept separated. One lesson that we can draw from this is that Jesus was going to call everyone to participate in his salvation, no matter the circumstances.
Second, as Jesus does so many times, He chooses to spread his message of salvation with a person publicly known to be sinner, a woman who does not comply with Samaritan or Jewish law on marriage. Jesus throughout His life chooses tax collectors, people considered unclean due to disease, and similar people to spread His message. She was no saint, although as a result of this story she becomes one: Church tradition says that after this conversation with Christ she is converted and becomes an evangelist, and eventually becomes a martyr, venerated in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox faiths as Saint Photine, or by the Latin Photina.
Third, the woman is, like us, having questions and doubts. She is confused with exactly what Jesus means by such things as “living water” and also is still obsessed with the squabbles between the Samaritans and the Jews. But at the end of the conversation, she is given the grace by Christ to understand His message. The living water which He describes ends up being the water necessary to grow her faith enough to be that of true conversion. She is able to listen and understand. Last week's Gospel account of the transfiguration in Matthew quoted God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [17:5b NABRE] This week, we have someone who does listen, and is transformed by Christ with grace and faith. She joyfully returns to the town and shares this faith with others in her community, and many others come to believe.
As we near the midpoint of our Lenten journey, we too can listen to God, and be transformed in our faith. Unfortunately, I know of no physical well in which to go and find the Lord in the flesh. I know of a well called prayer into which we can cast our bucket and find the living water. Remember, prayer is a conversation, which is to say a two-way communication. Sometimes we are so busy talking, either to God or our fellow human beings, that we forget to shut up and listen. And sometimes God speaks to us in ways that we do not immediately understand. Like the woman at the well, she did not initially comprehend what Christ was talking about. But if we accept the grace of God we were given at the waters of Baptism, and we cooperate with that grace to deeply contemplate the mystery that is God and His revelation through Christ, we too can “get it.” And when we do there is great joy.
We must also have a conversation with others and listen to them. The woman at the well becomes Saint Photine, the converted becomes the one doing the converting. The same is true of Saint Patrick, whose feast day is this week. He converted to Christianity as a young man and goes on to become the great converter of Ireland. We can become missionaries for Christ in the world today if we are willing to have honest discussions with others and really listen to what they are saying. Remember, the woman at the well was not really honest with Jesus. Sure, what she said was technically correct, but it was an attempt to mislead, and Jesus called her out on it. We will also be called out if we are not really honest in our discussions, either with God in prayer or with other people, who can sniff out insincerity and phoniness. In the end we only fool ourselves and do great damage to our relationship with God and with those around us until we come clean. But if we are sincere in our desire to listen and understand one another, we can bring them and ourselves, as Paul states in the second reading, to a “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith.” Don’t we all want that to be a part of the story of our lives?
As we continue with our Mass, let the Eucharist we are about to receive be one of the graces that helps us to listen and understand what Christ is telling us. Through the intercession of Saint Patrick, may we be given the strength and guidance to carry out our parish mission to go and make disciples. May we all hear the story in today’s Gospel and take the time to truly learn its lesson as we make our way through this Lent to the greatest story of all: the glory that is the resurrection.