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The Woman at the Well

The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent in the A Cycle of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass features the story of Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. The story is complex and filled with details that can bring up many different "takes" on the incident. One of the prominent features of the story is the verbal interchange, the conversation, if you will, between Jesus and the woman.

This is a very stylized conversation. It is composed of seven interchanges between Jesus and the woman:

  1. Jesus asks the woman for a drink. She responds that this request is "out of order" because their respective peoples are sworn enemies.
  2. Jesus says that if she knew to whom she was talking, she wouldn't make such an observation and that she would have asked him for water which would have been "living water." She responds that he doesn't even have a bucket. However, she softens her tone and calls him "Sir" rather than the insulting response about his being a "Judean man."
  3. Jesus observes that the water he gives is such that she will never thirst again. Now she is interested in this because it would mean she would never have to carry water again, a prospect that would ease her life considerably.
  4. At this point he seems to take off on a completely different tack and tells her to call her husband. She claims not to have a husband.
  5. Jesus then confounds her be telling her that he knows that she has had five husbands. She realizes that Jesus is a prophet and brings up the age old struggle between her people and his people; namely, whether Mt. Horeb or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship God.
  6. Jesus assures her that "hour" has come for this dispute to be put aside and to worship God in spirit and truth. She recognizes that he is speaking of the Messianic Age and wonders if Jesus could be the Messiah.
  7. Jesus assures her that he is the one they have been expecting. She responds by going to the men of her village and acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.

At first glance, it may seem that this conversation might be somewhat disjointed as it moves from the issue of Jesus' thirst in the heat of the noon day sun to a revelation of himself as the expected Messiah or "Christ." Actually, the conversation was about bringing the woman to faith as she reveals through her responses, moving from "Judean man," to "Sir," to recognizing him as a prophet, and finally acclaiming him as the Messiah. Once we realize that this conversation is about coming to believe in Jesus, we remember that St. John has told us that his purpose in writing the Gospel is so that we may come to believe. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

The details of the story lead us to this realization.

  1. Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman. In the Second Book of Kings, we learn that the Samaritans worshipped five false Gods in addition to the LORD. These are, in fact, the five husbands to whom Jesus refers. Remember that the prophets framed the relationship between God and the children of Israel as a marriage covenant. In order to bring the Samaritan woman to faith in him, he reveals intimate knowledge about her that would wake her up to the realization that she is not speaking to a mere Judean man.
  2. The exchange takes place at a well. Throughout the Old Testament, the well has been a trysting place for men and women, a place to establish an intimate relationship.
  3. Jesus' purpose in bringing her to faith is aimed at converting the entire Samaritan community. She becomes the first missionary as she proclaims to the townspeople that she has found the Messiah. They respond to her proclamation by investigating. Once they have heard, they also believe. Remember that the Gospels and the other New Testament books contend that we can only come to faith through hearing.
  4. Jesus then invites his disciples to enter into the missionary activity themselves as he contends that the fields are ripe (or "white," depending upon your translation) for harvest. Interestingly, Samaritans distinguished themselves from others by wearing white clothing.

Finally, let us remember the purpose of Lent. From its very inception, Lent has been a time of preparation for baptism, the sacrament through which we come to faith. This story has been used down through the centuries to remind the catechumens that once they have come to faith just as the Samaritan woman has come to faith, it will be their task to proclaim Jesus to their community, to their family, to their neighbors. For those of us who have been baptized, the Gospel stands as a reminder that we are all missionaries, that we are all charged with the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to acknowledge that Jesus is our Messiah.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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