Third Sunday of Lent – A

Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-9; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-15,19-26,39-42

LIKE THE WOMAN AT THE WELL,
WE ARE SEEKING- FOR THINGS THAT CANNOT SATISFY

  • Many of you might still remember the hollywood Marilyn Monroe of the 1950s? Monroe had everything — beauty, fame, money. In spite of that, deep down she was unhappy and her life empty. One morning she was found dead. She had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
  • Then there was the rock-and-roll star Elvis Presley who went on to make dozens of Gold Records, send millions of hysterical fans into adulations of delight, and had a gross US$1 billion in earnings—before he died at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977. He died of an excess of drugs and junk food.
  • A young man came to the priest with tears in his eyes. His girlfriend had left him. The priest knew her and was not surprised by her capriciousness. Still, he tried to show as much sympathy as he could for the brokenhearted boy. At one point the young man stated she was “the most perfect girl” he had ever met.

    The priest stopped him, “Was she really all that perfect?”

    “Well,” he admitted, “she did have her faults.” For example, she always got him to do things for her but never reciprocated. But that only made him more crazy for her. And, yes, she did criticize a lot of things about him, the way he dressed, his friends, his job, how he ate, his driving… Once again that habit bonded him even closer to her.

    The priest was going to point out that those traits might not be so endearing in ten or twenty years, but what he said was, “Um.”

    The young man continued. Talking about her put him in a kind of melancholy trance. The thing that most tore him apart was how she flirted with other guys in his presence. Jealousy now stabbed him as he thought about her with someone else.

    Unable to restrain himself, the priest asked him, “Do you think you would have been happy with her?”

    The young man was silent. He then answered honestly, “No.” Then he quickly added, ” But I would rather be miserable with her than happy without her.”

    “John,” the priest said, “she is not the one you want.”Puzzled, he asked, “Who?”"The one you want,” the priest said, “is God.”

All of us have this longing – not for pleasure or comfort or tranquillity. We would gladly sacrifice those things – and more – if we could only have that for which our heart yearns. Like the woman in today’s Gospel, we thirst.

Upon the Cross, Jesus said “I thirst,” and his thirst was not principally for wine mixed with gall but for us, for souls, so that he might fill us with himself, with his love, with his divine life. His whole life was an insatiable quest to give us that spring of living water gushing up within us to eternal life. In his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said, “Jesus’ thirst was not so much for water but to encounter a parched soul. He needed to meet the Samaritan woman to open up her heart. He asks her for a drink in order to bring into the light the thirst that she bore within herself.

Images of water pervade the Gospel stories, symbolizing chaos, rebirth, and new life. Jesus was baptized in water, walked on water, and turned water into wine. These and other narratives are grounded in the stories and experiences of the ancient Israelites, who used ideas about water to better understand their God.

We see Jesus’ humanity in his self-immersion into the waters of baptism. We also see his divinity as he shows that he too can control water. Jesus quieted a chaotic storm (Mark 4:35–41), walked on water (Matthew 14:22–33), and turned water into wine (John 2:1–11) Taking the water (a reminder of God’s first covenant with the creation) and turning it into wine (a symbol of the blood of the new covenant), Jesus said, “If you are thirsty come to me and drink! Have faith in me, and you will have life-giving water flowing from deep inside you, just as the Scriptures say” (John 7:37–39).

The First Reading of today from the Book of Exodus tells us that God provided the Israelite people with ‘living water from the rock.’ God has rescued them from Egypt and the grip of the Pharaoh, but because they have been traveling in a desert, they are very much in need of water and are dying of thirst. It was actually one of the three events found in the Old Testament that speak of people thirsting for water. Here once again people exhibit spiritual weakness and grumble against God and Moses. This basic need for water makes them question God’s hand in all this. This all takes place at a place called Massah, which means ‘a time of testing’ and Meribah, which means ‘dissatisfaction.’ God displays great patience both with Moses and his people. Moses, who is the leader and caretaker of the people and who always acted upon God’s direction and aid, goes to God for help again. Using the very staff he used when he led his people out of Egypt and opened the Red Sea for them, Moses strikes a rock and water pours out. Once again everyone has the evidence that God is in their midst.

In view of the above events, Moses became a type of Christ, both providing water to the people.

While the Second Reading of today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans does not draw on the symbol of water, it does comment on the question of God’s love for sinners and justification by faith. St. Paul says that faith and hope enable us to be open to the love of God because it has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us through Christ. The divine love of God assures salvation to those who are justified. Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through peace with God, our reconciliation replaces our alienation that was caused by the disobedience of Adam. Our justification, St. Paul further says, comes from God and not from ourselves. God loves us, and sent his Son to die for us. He points out that it is very hard to die for a good person or a relative, but almost impossible to die for someone who is evil or uncaring. Yet God has done this for us. He died for us while we were sinners and faithless. Truly God is kind and merciful.

The Samaritan woman at the well in our long Gospel reading today, Jesus talks more to this one woman at the well than with any other individual conversation he has throughout the New Testament. This is amazing on several levels. The first is that Jesus is talking personally to an unrelated, unaccompanied woman as he would to any man. This in itself is unheard of and goes against the cultural norms of his day. Secondly, it is a surprising decision by Jesus to have a long talk with her, because she is an outsider—a Samaritan—a half-breed, a full-blooded pagan as far as the Jews were concerned.

In Jesus’ day, there was a huge wall that divided the people into two camps – the Jews on the one hand and the Samaritans on the other. Their animosity towards each other can be traced back to the period of the first Israelite monarch. King Saul was from the Northern Kingdom while David was from the South. King David unifies the country, but it falls apart after the rule of his son Solomon. From that time forward Jews and Samaritans considered each other to be heretics, ethnically unclean and theologically misdirected. So when Jesus crosses into the hostile territory of Samaria and solicits the aid of a pagan woman it is hard to know who is more chagrined – the Samaritans or the disciples. Women typically drew water in the morning and again toward evening. Wells provided social gathering places, and the woman in this passage seems to have been avoiding such interaction with others by drawing water at noon at the hottest time of the day when nobody else was around. She may have been a social outcast in her own day. In fact, over the centuries, commentators and preachers seem to have focused on the woman’s marital history which suggests immoral sexual behavior.

Jesus, however, is not uncovering a shameful past or exposing a life of sin when he says that she has had five husbands and the man she is living with now is not her husband. Rather, she has most likely been widowed or abandoned five times and is now likely dependent on another man for survival. In order to be legitimate and be accepted in the community, women had to be married. Jesus, then, is not chastising her or calling her to account, rather he compassionately names and understands her circumstances. His knowledge of her seems to impress her greatly. He knows her in some intimate way that she responds to positively. She could have felt shamed and humiliated, but it does not appear that this is her reaction. She apparently feels safe with him, despite his deep knowledge of her personal life. This is why she calls him a prophet.

What is it like to be fully known? For most of us the prospect of being transparent to others—even those whom we trust—is a bit unnerving. We like to keep our secrets and fantasies secret, whether harmful or not. We prefer to hold our past in private memory and only disclose it at our own discretion. We can so easily feel exposed and shamed.

When Jesus first speaks to the woman, she assumes he does not know who she is, but Jesus knows her very well and loves her just the same. God knows who we are, knows all about our dark corners, and loves us anyway. It is hard for us to believe, but because of God’s grace, our secrets lose their power over us. We are free to live with joy. When Jesus initially asks the woman for a drink of water she is astonished by his request for reasons stated earlier. But when Jesus starts talking about living water on a theological level, she becomes confused and immediately brings the discussion back to the reality of the bucket and the well. This tension between the abstract spiritual claims that Jesus makes and the concrete understandings of his listeners is a common theme found throughout the Gospel of John.

The woman misunderstands, but she is intrigued. She asks for his magic water so that she will not have to go through the daily necessity of carrying water from the well. This Samaritan woman is spiritually thirsty, but she does not know the nature of her thirst until she engages in dialogue with Jesus.

For what are you thirsty?

What will satisfy your deepest spiritual thirsts?

What are the thirsts of the people in our community who have yet to enter the church doors or of those who are thinking of returning after being absent for so long? And if they do enter, what will we provide?

The Water Jesus Offers

Don’t miss the five things he says about the water that he gives — and offers you today.

1. It’s the gift of God (verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God”).

2. It’s living water (verse 10: “He would have given you living water”).

3. If you drink it, you never thirst again — that is, it’s always there to satisfy you when your longing soul is thirsty (verse 14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”).

4. This water becomes a spring — a well of water (verse 14: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water”). That’s why you never get thirsty again — not because one drink is enough, but because one true drink produces a well for an eternity of drinks.

5. This water gives eternal life (verse 14: “. . . a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”).

The Living Water

What is this “living water” exactly? Jesus describes what it is in two places in St. John’s Gospel. It is nothing short of God’s divine life — what we call in theology the Indwelling of the Blessed Trinity. In one place, he identifies the living water as the presence of the Holy Spirit; in the other, he identifies it as his own presence through the Holy Eucharist. But we know that whenever one of the divine persons is present in a soul, the other two persons in the one God are likewise present. Jesus’ two descriptions of that living water show us how that holy h2O quenches our deepest thirst:

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” St. John tells us: “He said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive” (Jn 7:37-38). This presence of the Holy Spirit within us is what St. Paul is describing in the beautiful passage from today’s second reading: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Elsewhere in St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus prophesied how the “bread” that he would give would far surpass the Manna in the desert given to the Jews, he stated: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (Jn 6:35; 55-56).

The indwelling of the Blessed Trinity occurs through the Sacraments, when people who are thirsty come to Jesus who fills their hearts with this living water. This reality begins with the life-giving waters of baptism when we first received within us Jesus, the Water Who saves. But this saving water continues in every sacramental encounter, most particularly in the Eucharist, when we receive Jesus, the incarnation of that life-giving water, within our bodies and souls.

Jesus wants to give us this living water of the Holy Spirit, of his life-giving flesh and blood, of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, but his will is not enough. He placed a condition on his own omnipotence; he won’t force us to drink of that water. Paraphrasing the old cowboy aphorism, we can say, “Jesus will lead us stubborn horses to water, but he won’t make us drink.” he wants us freely to ask for it, to desire it. We see this very clearly in his invitation to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would ask him, and he would give you living water.” And the woman used her freedom to say, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty!” In the same way, we need to have a desire for God, for his life inside. We need to thirst for him. And we need freely to ask him to give us that water to quench our thirst.

We know on the other hand, as we pray in today’s Responsorial Psalm, that many times when we hear the Lord’s invitation, we can respond not with thirst, but with hardened hearts. “If today you hear his voice,” we sing, “harden not your hearts.” That’s what happened to the Israelites in the desert and can happen to us. Just like God had Moses strike a rock and have it flow with cool water to quench the Israelites’ thirst, so God can strike our hardened hearts and have it overflow with living water, but he won’t do this unless he’s invited, unless we ask him for that water, unless we crave it.

In one of the most beautiful psalms, which the Church prays in the Liturgy of the hours on the first Sunday of the month and on every major feast day, this necessary thirst for God is highlighted: “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water” (Ps 63:1). The question each of us needs to ask as we pray this psalm, however, is “Do I really mean what I’m saying?” God wants each of us to say, “in spirit and in truth,” “Give me that water!” He hopes that each of us will sincerely exclaim, “My soul pines for you!” But if we mean those words, if we thirst for God, certain behaviors would follow. If we thirst for God, we will pray as much and as well as we can. If we thirst for God, we will get to know him much better in Sacred Scripture. If we thirst for God, we will make the sacrifices to cross the deserts of human life to adore him and receive him in the Eucharist as often as we possibly can. If we thirst for God, we will seek to quench his thirst in those who are needy.

Taking the Water as a Gift

In the beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness.” To thirst for sanctity is to thirst for God. Jesus promised that those who so thirst “shall be satisfied,” and he is faithful to his promises. If we are truly thirsting for him — and not for something or someone else — the Eucharist will be the greatest earthly satisfaction and joy we could possibly receive, because here we receive him for whom we thirst “like a dry-weary land without water.” We consume him “for whom our soul pines.” And we enter more fully into that life giving stream that brings us back to its Source, God himself, in that kingdom were we hope to drink of that life-giving stream to the dregs forever. The Holy Spirit and the Church say, “Come! Take the water of life as a gift!” May we respond to that invitation with an ever greater thirst, and say “in spirit and truth” to Jesus now, “Give us that life-giving water always!”

Like the woman at Jacob’s well, don’t pass this over like so many stories that we have heard so frequently that we don’t listen. The woman comes to the well for earthly water. She comes with an empty water jar, a symbol of an empty soul. The conversation between Jesus, a Jew, and the woman, a Samaritan, is engaging for many reasons. Jesus asks her to give him a small part of herself (her efforts) and in return he promises to give unending ‘living water,” a gift of the Holy Spirit. The woman is so taken with what Jesus is telling her that she runs off, leaving her water jar and calls her neighbors to come and listen to the man “who knows all about her.”

When you come to Mass, whether it is on Sunday or any day, what do you bring to give Our Lord? He holds out to you living water, the Holy Spirit, eternal life and his own flesh and blood to nourish your soul and spirit. So what do you give him in return? Like the Israelites in the desert, don’t miss this opportunity to get more than you can imagine. When you come to Mass along with love and prayers, bring your hurts, your disappointments, and troubles and have them washed away with this living water that flows freely from the altar. Something to think about during your Prayer Time this week!

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Like the woman at the well, I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy.
And then I heard my Savior speaking—
“Draw from My well that never shall run dry.”

Fill my cup, Lord; I lift it up Lord;
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.

There are millions in this world who are seeking
For pleasures earthly goods afford.
But none can match the wondrous treasure
That I find in Jesus Christ my Lord.

So my brother if the things that this world gives you
Leave hungers that won’t pass away,
My blessed Lord will come and save you
If you kneel to Him and humbly pray—

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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