Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Third Sunday of Lent (23 March 2014)

Gospel for Third Sunday of Lent (23 March 2014)

The parts in brackets may be omitted

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common 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 no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

[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 have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”]

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 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 seeks such as these 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” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

[Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is 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 labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”]

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed 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 truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:5-42 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

1.     “There were two ways to make the south-north journey from Judea to Galilee: via Samaria or via the other side of the Jordan. The former was the shorter route and it was the safer under the unified administration of the Romans than it had been in former times. However it was still fraught with danger. The narrator reports that Jesus was under constraint: he had to pass through Samaria (v 4). Geographically this is not true and it may not have even been wise. The motivation for Jesus’ journey through Samaria is some constraint under which Jesus acts out his story. Although it is not clear, at this stage, why this should be the case, Jesus’ presence in Samaria is the result of divine necessity. He must move into the world beyond Israel.” (Francis J Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 116.)

2.     There is a particularly problematic history to the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. In Chapter 17 of the Second Book of the Kings we find an outline of how the King of Assyria deported the Jewish inhabitants of Samaria (721 BCE) and replaced them with other peoples. Although the King of Assyria sent a priest of Israel back to Assyria to instruct those new inhabitants, they were never accepted as part of Israel. (See also Ezra 4.)

a.     In John 8:48 we read: “The Jews answered (Jesus), ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’” In the Book of Sirach we read: “Two nations my soul detests, and the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir, the Philistines and the foolish people that live in Shechem.”

b.     Beneath all the contempt however there were also strong connections between the Samaritans and the Jews because of this place. Abraham (Genesis 12:6) and Jacob (Genesis 33:18) are explicitly associated with the place. Jacob/Israel gave this well to his son Joseph (Genesis 48:21). Joseph’s bones were brought out of Egypt and buried here (Joshua 24:32).

3.     The Samaritans accepted the five Books of the Pentateuch but not the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

4.     It is not known whether the town of Sychar mentioned here in John 4:5 is in fact the ancient town of Shechem where “Abram built an altar” (Genesis 12:6). In any case, Jacob’s well is in Shechem. It is generally said to be roughly where modern day Nablus is, on the West Bank.

5.     Samaritan women not only shared the lot of all the Samaritans in the eyes of the Jews, they were particularly despised as ritually unclean. And this woman seems to have had a “profession” that pushed her further down. She is an unlikely subject for such a remarkable conversation – or is she?

6.     The Samaritan woman immediately recognizes Jesus as a Jew (see v.9). He probably had some identifying characteristic in his clothing.

a.     In Matthew 9:20 and Mark 6:56 there is reference to “the fringe of his cloak”, perhaps in accord with Numbers 15:38-39 and Deuteronomy 22:12.

b.     This may be one more piece of evidence that Jesus was in fact an observant Jew.

c.      In the overall context of this event, it may also point to the very heart of Jesus’ ministry. The New testament scholar, Ernst Käsemann, says Jesus was ‘at once devout and liberal’ – see Jesus Means Freedom: A Polemical Survey of the New Testament, SCM Press, 1969, 16-41. He writes: “…. there cannot be the slightest doubt of Jesus’ devotion. …. Jesus took the obligations of a devout Jew very seriously …. There is no need to mention his going to the temple, his prayers, his familiarity with the Old Testament and his directions on religious and moral questions.” (page 18) And later: “He was a ‘liberal’, because in the name of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit he interpreted and appraised Moses, the Scriptures, and dogmatics from the point of view of love, and thereby allowed devout people to remain human and even reasonable.” (page 27) In other words Jesus was grounded – found his very identity – beyond the structures of religion. This was a scandal to all those who depended on those structures – especially the religious leaders – for their identity and therefore there sense of security. It also meant that Jesus was acutely aware of the ‘divine necessity’ and the consequent ‘must’ that originates beyond all human inventions (see Francis Moloney above). In this sense we can understand Jesus’ words to the disciples: ‘Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work ….”‘

The text

“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.”

In this informal, gentle and, at times, ironic conversation Jesus has with the Samaritan woman, he reveals a truth that lies at the very heart of the Good News: God dwells within us.

God’s gift of ‘living water’ is the Holy Spirit – see John 7:37-39. Wherever the Spirit is, there too are the Father and the Son – see John 14:14 & 23. The Presence of God is the presence of unending life and love.

Wherever God is God does, and God’s doing is always loving and God’s loving is always liberating.

Jacob’s well is about 30 metres deep. It becomes a quiet metaphor in this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. He helps her go deeper – much deeper.

The water in that deep well is only retrieved with a good deal of effort and only in limited amounts. That is the way of the world and should not be condemned or dismissed for that. But we are created for more than that, we desire more than that and we can be more than that.

Our daily lives as disciples of Jesus depend on our awareness of the Presence of God within. Waking up is the key!

Thomas Merton says it vividly when he describes his famous experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut on March 18 1958:

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a common-place realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

“This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them – and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers!” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday, 1989, 157-158.)