Our reflection for the third week of Lent (23 – 29 March) is written by Sr Alison Munro OP, director of the AIDS Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC).
The Gospel on Sunday, 23 March, of John 4:5-42 focuses on the relationship of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he meets quite accidentally at the well, and on what happens in her life because of him. Humanly speaking he could not have known he would find her there. Jesus breaks through barriers, one steeped in racial bigotry, another a hurtful disposition separating men from women. He is willing to throw out the rules, focusing on grace, recognising a person loved by God, winning her conversion and that of others. Not for the first time in his public ministry nor the last, Jesus shows us how to love.
It is a beautiful example of engagement, invitation, breaking taboos, non-threatening challenge, conversion, repentance, forgiveness and evangelisation. Surely an example for us all in our relationships with others, those who are different, those affected by AIDS, anyone society so easily casts aside. Our call to follow the example of Jesus can take a cue from this story and others like it that invite us to be generous and forgiving, rather than centred on the narrow-mindedness and judgemental attitudes and legal frameworks that so often trip us up in our Christian journey.
The Samaritan is a woman, a foreigner, a sinner in the eyes of people. The Jewish attitude to women, not so different from attitudes to women that prevail in societies and cultures today, was less than ideal, and men did not speak to women in public. There was animosity between Jews and Samaritans, with roots going back to the time of the Babylonian Exile, concerning the canon of Scripture and, important in this story, an understanding of who the Messiah is and how he would reveal himself to people.
And the woman is an outcast, looked down on by her own people because of her chosen lifestyle. She has a reputation, and Jesus exposes details of her life he could not have known naturally.
Jesus, tired from his journey, asks her for a drink even though “Jews, in fact, do not associate with Samaritans”, and she is a woman. The woman engages with Jesus, prepared to spar with him before perhaps responding to his request. Ironically, as the story unfolds, it seems that his desire for water remains unmet. In the conversation another scenario unfolds, and we see Jesus as a bearer of the water of life, whose ministry is about saving the sick and serving those who need healing, turning his request into an invitation to her.
He engages her, offering her much more than she could have imagined when he says “If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: ‘Give me a drink’, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.” This living water is a gift, bringing salvation to all those who recognise the need for it. And we soon see that she is open to the gift, hearing his invitation at a faith level, eager to respond, dropping the barriers she often erects to protect herself from the scorn and discrimination levelled at her.
God, Jesus shows us, finds people worthy of his love: people are valuable to God, even when they are different from us or outcasts of society or HIV-positive or living a ‘sinful’ life. This fact sometimes startles us when prejudices and stigma and ingrained attitudes, like those of the Pharisee in the parable about the tax collector, are involved. And it is through Jesus that people obtain eternal life, ourselves too, despite our misgivings and weaknesses and deliberate turning away at times from the truth that he offers.
The woman, like other Samaritans, and Jews does believe in the promised coming of the Messiah. Jesus touches her faith and she concludes he is a prophet when he says “Whoever drinks this water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.” The woman admits she needs water, her thirst is self-evident. And not just for ordinary water. Her spirit is enlightened, illuminated by Jesus. She takes yet another step in faith, expressing her belief that Jesus is truly the Messiah when he says “I who am speaking to you … I am he (the Messiah).” She has no fear of the truth when he challenges her and she admits quite freely that she has no husband, repenting of the sins of her past, and longing to share her joy with others.
Her testimony is powerful, and others in the town, we are told, also believe when she says “Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did.” One cannot but ask how the story might unfold if Jesus simply accepts water from the woman, assuming she is willing to give him a drink. Very differently!
To see the other Lenten reflections in this series, please go here.
To read this reflection in French, please go here.