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Woman at the Well in Samaria

The readings for Sunday, March 19, 2017, Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, are
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8, 9-11; and John 4:5-42.

The gospel reading of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in Samaria is the first of three readings the liturgy of Year A (Matthew) imports from the Gospel of John. These readings, narrating major episodes from Jesus’ life, are particularly suitable for instruction of catechumens preparing for baptism.  Next Sunday uses the story of Jesus giving sight to the man born blind. The Fifth Sunday of Lent uses the climactic miracle of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem — the resurrection of his friend Lazarus.  The context of today’s Gospel: Jesus and his disciples had begun their own baptismal ministry, like that of John the Baptizer, at the Jordan River in Judea in southern Palestine. Some problems arose which caused Jesus to decide to leave Judea and return to Galilee, his home province in northern Judea. He took the faster route north directly through Samaria.

This was a problem because of a centuries-old hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Passing through Samaria he came to a well supposedly dug by the patriarch Jacob many centuries earlier. Jesus was tired by this time. He sat down by the well because he was thirsty.

The Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said, “Give me a drink.” He was by himself. He was by himself. The disciples had gone shopping for food. The Samaritan woman notices that the thirsty man is a Jew. She points out to him that Jews and Samaritans are enemies, “and you ask me for a drink?” John’s story turns mysterious, when Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who is addressing you, you would ask him for a drink of living water.” Jesus replies that those who drink from this well will thirst again, but the water he would give becomes a spring within the person who drinks it, “welling up to eternal life.” The “living water” is probably a reference to the Holy Spirit. See John 7:37-39. Characteristic of John’s Gospel, someone has to play the dummy and ask Jesus to explain a mysterious statement. The woman asks Jesus for a drink of this kind.

The subject abruptly changes, when Jesus says, “Go, call your husband, and come back here.” The woman says she has no husband. Jesus points out that she has had five husbands, and the one she now has is not hers. Strange again. This seems to be a reference to the five eastern tribes imported into Samaria when the Samaritans themselves were deported into oblivion by their Assyrian conquerors in 722 B.C. These imported tribes brought with them their gods and mingled their idolatrous religions with the Israelite religion still practiced by the remnant of Israelites not deported — the country people. The resulting mixed religion was one of the causes of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans.

The woman’s formation begins to mature. She recognizes an important aspect of Jesus’ mission when she concludes that he is a prophet. She has a practical question which was always in hot debate. Where was the correct place to worship? In Jerusalem as the Jews did, or in Samaria on Mt. Gerizim where once stood a Samaritan temple? Mysterious answer: Neither place. John is writing in the nineties of the first century, long after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D. True worship, says Jesus, must be “worship in spirit and in truth.” The author is of course referring to Christian worship of God which is not bound to one particular temple in one particular place but is to be worldwide.

The woman recognizes Jesus as the long awaited Messiah and Jesus identifies himself as such. This prompts her to set out on a mission  to be completed at the end of the story. The disciples returned from their grocery shopping and were shocked that Jesus was talking to a woman in public. They offer him food, but he gives another mysterious answer, “I have food of which you do not know.” It is their turn to play the dummy and ask if someone brought him food. More mystery! Jesus starts talking about the fields being ripe for harvest. At that moment we have to imagine Jesus and his disciples seeing all the people of the Samaritan town streaming toward them, a true harvest. The woman, first missionary in the Gospel of John, has done her work well.

The Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them. He stayed two days. The story ends with a major profession of faith in Jesus by the Samaritans who received  him as a guest. “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  A man, a Jew, a prophet, Messiah (Christ) and universal Savior!

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