From our childhood, we love a good story. The great works of literature are great because they tell such great stories. 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. We read 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. Jesus probably had any number of these encounters throughout his ministry, but John chooses this one to record in depth. 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 see today between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations or between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam, the greatest and most heated arguments occur between people who agree on most everything except for, to what an outside observer would be, some minor differences. In this story, the issue discussed is whether the nearby shrine at Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem is the proper place 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 segregated. The 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 publically 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.
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 from a cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This week, we have someone who has listened, 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 mid-point 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 do 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 converter. 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 others 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 to, as Paul states in the second reading, a “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith.”
Christ tells us that He is the living water, and, as we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, He now presents Himself in his Body and Blood for us. We experience Him at Mass through the Eucharist, and we can continue to experience Him throughout our week in our prayers to God and in our encounters with our fellow humans whom He made. Saint John the Evangelist tells a great story today in the Gospel, one of an encounter with Christ which leads to justification by faith through grace and an acceptance of His revelation. We should also make our lives a great story, a story of our encounter with Christ, leading to the same justification and salvation.