Address given at St Michael's, Limerick City on Sunday 19 March 2017, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, year A
I must begin by giving credit to Canon Patrick Comerford, the new Priest-in-Charge in Rathkeale & Kilnaughtin – in this address I have drawn heavily on a reflection of his.
Today’s Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) about the Samaritan woman at the well is a charming story, isn’t it?
To begin to understand it we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship to Jews like Jesus and his disciples in the NT period.
The Samaritans are strangers to the Jews. Although these two peoples share the same land, the Samaritans are outsiders, seen as ritually unclean by pious Jews. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Jews see the Samaritans as having a different religion. But Jesus tries to break down those barriers.
For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples are doing something surprising.
They have gone into the city of Sychar to buy food. But this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.
While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we should respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.
The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman has five husbands.
A Jewish man like Jesus would normally have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink from her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt slighted by his behaviour and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.
All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.
When the Disciples arrive back they are filled with questions.
But they are so shocked to see Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.
But their failure and their prejudices are shown in another way: the woman gives water as she and Christ talk, but they fail to return with bread for Christ to eat and they fail to join in the conversation about faith and about life.
They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman recognises Christ as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say and came to believe that Jesus is truly the Saviour of the world.
Jesus was thirsty, he asked the Samaritan woman for water, and she gave it to him.
But in return she received much more from Jesus: he gave her the ‘living water’ which became in her ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. She believed in Jesus, and because of her many Samaritans believed in him. His thirst led to her and their conversion.
‘I am thirsty’, is the fifth of the seven last words of Christ from the Cross on Good Friday, and in response he is given wine with bitter hyssop (John 19:28-30). Many people have compared the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request to the Samaritan woman, ‘Give me a drink’, and the promise that follows, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’.
In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those people, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need, and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water.
St John tells us Christ said ‘I am thirsty’, ‘in order to fulfil the Scripture’. The dying Christ echoes the words of Psalm 22: ‘My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22: 15). And again, later in the Psalms, we hear the words: ‘and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (Psalm 69: 21).
In his thirst on the Cross, I think the dying Christ seeks something much more than water or vinegar. He is thirsting for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life and passion, death, resurrection and ascension. His thirst is for our salvation.
So to finish:
Let us give thanks for the openness and trust of the Samaritan woman.
And let us pray that Christ will give us, as he gave her, ‘living water’ which will become in us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.
O God, living and true,
look upon your people,
whose dry and stony hearts are parched with thirst.
Unseal the living water of your Spirit;
let it become within us an ever-flowing spring,
gushing up to eternal life.
Thus may we worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Christ, our deliverance and hope,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.