Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday of Lent – Year A – March 19, 2017
There’s a priceless water
For many years the Jews in the Sinai experienced thirst and mirages. They dug wells and dreamed of a land where water falls from the sky in the form of rains and dews, where springs gush out and flow through the valleys.
Nomads in a desolate wilderness associated the sunny and arid lands to death and water to life, beauty and God’s blessings. They thought of the Lord as “he who summons the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the earth” (Am 5:8).
In the Bible, the image of water occurs in the most varied contexts. The lover contemplates his beloved: “Fountains that bedew the gardens, a well of living waters, gushing streams from Lebanon” (Song 4:15). God assures the deportees a prosperous and happy future with promises related to water: “For water will break out in the wilderness and streams gush forth from the desert. The thirsty ground will become a pool, the arid land springs of water” (Is 35:6-7; 41:18). Moving away from the Lord means making choices of death. It is equivalent to remaining without water: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water to dig for themselves leaking cisterns that hold no water” (Jer 2:13).
The heartfelt words of the prophet who calls his people to conversion—“Come here all of you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Is 55:1)—prelude to those spoken by Jesus in the Temple Mount: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (Jn 7:38). He is the source of pure water that quenches all thirst.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Quench us with your water, Lord, do not allows us to approach other wells.”
After the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites, led by Moses, took the road in the desert to reach the promised land. At first, the trip was tackled with energy and enthusiasm. Assured of the protection of their God, the Israelites showed their gratitude by raising a hymn to the Lord who “has gloriously triumphed, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:1).
Soon, however, the difficulties began: the sweltering heat, fatigue, serpents, hunger and especially thirst. Finding water in the desert is not easy. It is exactly due to lack of water that the desert is formed. There are only stones and sand, some acacia, scattered bushes and a few stems of grass. “This place is horrible—the Israelites cry out to Moses—it is no place for grains or figs or vines or pomegranates and there is not even water for drinking” (Num 20:5).
The people think they are being led to die there. They begin to doubt the faithfulness of God to his promises. They come to suspect that the deliverance from Egypt was a trap. The people think that God does not want to lead them to freedom and life, but to death. They argue with him and conclude: it is necessary to test, fight, tempt and force him in some way to show what he has in mind.
The last words of the reading are the synthesis of their challenge: “Is the Lord with us or not?” (v. 7). The place where this incident happened was called Massa- Meribah, two words in Hebrew that mean: temptation–discussion.
God responds to this challenge in his own way. He does not react with threats and punishments but shows understanding of the fragility, difficulties, doubts and perplexities of his people. He knows that there are times in which it is really hard to continue to believe and trust in him. Hearing the protests of the people, he calls Moses to grip the staff with which he crossed the Nile and orders him to bring forth water from the rock.
Why did he want it to look like a miracle? He could have solved the difficulty in the most simple and plain way: suggesting the direction towards the nearest oasis or indicating the place where to dig a well, so even the people would have given their cooperation to solving the problem. He chose to make a miraculous sign to show the Israelites that the water was not the result of their efforts, their commitment, their ability. It was a gift, only his and completely free.
The rabbinical commentaries have enriched this story with legendary traits. One of these is of interest to us in a particular way: from that day on—the rabbis said—the rock no longer remained fixed. It had accompanied the people throughout their wandering in the desert. It climbed the mountains and down into the valleys in a perpetual gush of water. This detail is important because Paul has identified the rock with Christ (1 Cor 10:3-4). He is the one who does not cease to quench the thirst of the pilgrim people of God.
The experience of Israel that comes out of Egypt is repeated in the life of every Christian. Each conversion is an abandonment of the “land of slavery” and marks the beginning of an exodus. The first moments of a new life can be quite serene, especially if it is supported by good will and enthusiasm and is encouraged and assisted by the brothers in the faith. Then begin the inevitables, regrets, and nostalgia and, sometimes, the disappointing experience of the life of the Christian community.
Doubts, qualms, hesitations, and the temptation to call into question the choice made. One feels the need for some signs, claiming from God the proof of his loyalty.
There’s no wonder that these hard times come. They are the sign that one has arrived, as Israel… in Massa-Meribah. The Lord will also show his patience with us. To our weak faith, he will offer a sign: prodigious water gushing from Christ, his Spirit, his word, and his bread.
In the midst of difficulties and uncertainties of life, we can also think that God has abandoned us and that our hope does not have a solid foundation.
On what can we base it? On our good works?
If that were true, if God’s blessing depended on our merits, we could never be certain of salvation. We would live constantly anxious and worried because we are aware of our weakness and fragility. We know that we could easily deviate from the right path.
Paul assures us today. Hope is not founded on our good works but on God’s love. It is not a weak, inconsistent and uncertain love as ours. We are able to love only the good ones, friends, those who do us good. For these, we could, in some exceptional cases, be even willing to sacrifice our life. God is different. He loves people even if they are his enemies, and he has given the evidence: while they refused his love, despised him, kept themselves away from him, he sent them his Son (vv. 7-8). For this reason—the Apostle assures—“our hope does not disappoint us” not because we are good, but because he is good (vv. 1-2).
John never refers to the facts of Jesus’ life in their pure materiality. He rereads them and uses them to compose dense pages of theology: it’s never easy to establish what really happened. The case of the Samaritan is an example. The symbolism that accompanies the whole story seems so obvious, that someone has even cast doubt on the historicity of the event and thought that this is a literary composition of the evangelist. We believe that there was a meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman, but the fact was then redacted with the language, images, and biblical references with which he wanted to convey a theological message.
In our review, we keep in mind two levels—the historic and the theological—focusing our attention on the second.
In ancient times, the well was the place where people came together. At the well, the shepherds met to water their flocks. The traders stopped there with their wares waiting for customers. The women came to the well to draw water (and maybe even have a chat…). Lovers go to the well to seek a companion.
The Bible tells many of these meetings at the well (I suggest you read the following: Gen 24:10-25; 26:15-25; 29:1-14; Ex 2:15-21). The one read in today’s gospel has Jesus and a Samaritan woman as protagonists. The well mentioned still exists. It is located along the road that leads from Judea to Galilee. It is more than three thousand years, is very deep (32 m) and still gives good and fresh water, as in the time of Jesus. It was the place where all the travelers were stopping, resting, and regaining strength.
Even Jesus, tired from his journey, sits on the well. It is noon when a woman comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink.
The surprise of the woman is understandable: from the accent one immediately realizes that it has something to do with a Galilean unpopular with her people. How dare he ask for a drink from her, a Samaritan woman? Why does he violate the strict rule that forbids him to speak alone with unknown women? The rabbis taught that even asking for an information, the words had to be minimized. The celebrated episode that happened to Rabbi Jose, the Galilean, at a crossroad, who asked a woman: “Which road leads to Luz?” Recognizing him, she replied: “You talked too much with a woman. You only have to say ‘Luz’.”
Since this is the mentality, it also explains the wonder of the disciples. Upon returning from the village where they went to buy food, they find Jesus with the Samaritan woman.
The free attitude of the Master offers food for thought, although marginal in relation to the theme of the passage. Jesus demands from the disciple’s purity of heart and intention. He is even stricter on this point: “Anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28), but behaves freely and rejects all forms of discrimination.
After this introduction, we come to the central part of the passage, i.e. the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (vv. 7-26).
It is important to understand who is this woman.
The way in which the evangelist presents her clearly reveals his intention to transform her into a symbol.
Let us try to identify her: she has no name, nothing is said where she comes from. The only element that defines her is that she is a “samaritan”, which is equivalent to a heretic, unfaithful to God. Who can it be?
She comes to the well and the well in the Bible—as we have noted—is often the meeting place between lovers who then end up getting married. There is something curious here. To leave Jesus and the woman alone, the evangelist, in a rather clumsy and unlikely way, sends the disciples away with the excuse of “going into town to buy some food” (v. 8).
Whom do two “lovers” at the well represent?
The Old Testament often speaks of the people of Israel as the bride to whom the Lord is tied with an unfailing affection (keep in mind that Israel, in Hebrew, is feminine). This marriage did not have a happy outcome. The falling in love started in the desert where God and Israel had lived unforgettable experiences. At these moments, the Lord looked back nostalgically: “I remember your kindness as a youth, the love of your bridal days when you followed me in the wilderness” (Jer 2:2). Then the infidelities of the bride began, her betrayals, her infatuation for lovers, the regret for the gods of Egypt, the worship of Baal of the Canaanites, the flirts with the gods of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and finally, even the Romans, causing the jealousy of her husband.
What will be the reaction of the Lord? Repudiation, divorce, punishment?
It is not even talked about: “Who could abandon his first beloved? Says your God.—For a brief moment I have abandoned you, but with great tenderness, I will gather my people” (Is 54:6-7). The Lord will choose another solution. At the cost of humbling himself in front of the unfaithful spouse, he will retake to correct her because his only goal is to reclaim her. “So I am going to allure her, speak to her tenderly. She will answer me as in her youth, as when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hos 2:16-17).
At this point, the identification of the Samaritan woman is taken for granted: it is the bride Israel, backed by her whole story of love and adulteries. She had many “husbands” and what she has now is not her husband. At the well, Jesus meets her and wants to bring her back to the one true love, the Lord.
In light of this spousal imagery, even the seemingly marginal details of the story are meaningful. First of all the strange remark: Jesus had to pass through Samaria: from the geographical point of view he was not obliged to pass. He was in Jordan (Jn 3:22) and it would have been much simpler for him to go back down the river. The “had to” cannot but refer to that irresistible urge of the groom—God—who cannot help but meet his beloved.
He was tired from the trip. It is the only time in the gospel that Jesus’ fatigue is mentioned. It is not surely to brief us of his physical stamina. The detail is introduced to address the long journey, the infinite distance that the Lord has had to travel to find the bride who had abandoned him: from the heights of heaven, he came to earth, driven by an overwhelming, infinite passion. He went down even to the deepest abyss in search of his beloved. No distance, difficulty, nor effort has discouraged him. One immediately thinks of the hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God… he emptied himself, taking on the nature of a servant… made in human likeness… humbled himself till death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
We are introduced to the central theme of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
The disciples went in search of material food. The woman came to draw water from the well. Jesus instead provides to all a food and a water that they do not know (vv. 10,32).
The thirst of the Samaritan woman is the symbol of the most intimate needs that torment the heart of the bride-Israel: the need for peace, love, serenity, hope, happiness, sincerity, consistency and of God. These are the needs that every man experiences.
The water of the well indicates the attempts and tricks that man puts in place to quench this thirst that no material “thing” can satisfy.
The living water that Jesus promises is of another type. It is the spirit of God. It is that love that fills the hearts. Those who let themselves be guided by this spirit gets peace and do not need anything else.
The Samaritan woman, at the beginning of the dialogue, thought of material water. She did not even suspect that another type of water could exist. Gradually she began to perceive and accept the proposal of Jesus. Her progressive discovery is carefully underlined by the evangelist. At first, for her, Jesus is a simple wandering Jew (v. 9), then he becomes a master (v. 11), then a prophet (v. 19), and afterward the Messiah (vv. 25-26), finally, with all the people, she proclaims him the Savior of the world (v. 42).
Through the spiritual journey of the woman of Samaria, John wants the Christians of his community to perceive the proposed route to every disciple. Before meeting Christ, man is solely concerned with the material aspects of life. They are important realities, even essential, but not enough. They cannot constitute the sole purpose and goal of life. Only a person who meets Christ, who discovers that he is the “Saviour of the world” and welcomes the gift of his water, feels that each and every hunger and thirst can be satiated.
The last part of the gospel (vv. 28-41) presents the conclusion of the spiritual journey of the Samaritan woman and every disciple. What does this woman do after meeting Christ? She leaves the pitcher (she has no more use of it because now she found another water) and runs to announce her discovery and happiness to others.
It is the call to become missionaries, apostles, catechists to tell everyone the joy and peace experienced by one who meets the Lord and drinks his water.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos