Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
“Today that we might hear your voice, harden not our hearts.”
May I speak in the name of the one God, creator, redeemer, and sustainer.
When have you been really thirsty? And what are you thirsty for at the moment?
While you reflect on this, forgive me for sharing a personal story with you. On an August day, back when I was young and strong, my then husband and I set out to spend the whole day climbing a high mountain. We took water bottles with us—empty. The water in the campground wasn’t too tasty and we had noticed… on our excellent topographical map ..that we would be crossing a stream about a half mile above the base camp. And sure enough, we did come to that stream. It ran at the bottom of a gully filled with enormous boulders. We could hear the running water. But we couldn’t reach it. And so we continued our day-long hike. And so we were thirsty all day.
“First world problems,” you might say. We were not in danger of perishing. That was one day in our lives, not forty years. The US northeast, and Canada for that matter, are endowed with plentiful water even now, when so much of the world and even parts of our own continent face desertification. This is not just a metaphorical problem.
Those wandering in the desert knew real thirst, didn’t they? It’s not so hard to picture the mood turning ugly, even mutinous.
And yet. What Moses is offering, what Jesus is offering, is not simply H2O… not simply elemental liquid water, as lifegiving as water is for people in a desert. The deeper question is “Is the Lord with us?” and the answer is a resounding Yes.
Today’s Gospel also takes place in a dry part of the world. We find Jesus beside a well in Samaria, a rocky and arid country perched tantalizingly high above the green valley of the Jordan.
In the Eastern Church, the Samaritan Woman…named Photina after she had been baptised… is recognized as a saint and, later, a martyr. Despite this tradition, though, we still read reflections today that emphasize the fallenness, coyness, or relative unsophistication of this Samaritan woman.
Just this week, Trinity Church Wall Street included in its weekly newsletter this so-traditional description of Jesus’ interlocutor: “She comes alone to the well in the middle of the day, when typically women would go together in the morning because it was safer and cooler. Scholars note this may be a sign she was ostracized by her community because of her marital history. We can imagine this was a source of difficulty and pain in her life.”
Well what if we don’t go there? What if we didn’t follow those particular scholars? As early as Origen (the Church father who was almost contemporaneous with the final redaction of the Gospel of John in the form we have it today), suggests, for instance, that the five husbands referred to here are not earthly guys at all, but the five nations who had invaded Samaria, each bringing their own gods (their ba’als) with them. Note that the word ba’al means both “god” and “husband”.
Twenty years ago, Sandra Schneiders, who was a scholar and a lifelong Roman Catholic sister, and whose language is stronger than I could have possibly have managed on my own, drew this line in the sand:
“As anyone familiar with the major commentaries on the Fourth Gospel knows, the treatment of the Samaritan woman in the history of interpretation is a textbook case of the trivialization, marginalization, and even sexual demonization of biblical women, which reflects and promotes the parallel treatment of real women in the church.” I do not assume, she continues, “that most women (insofar as they are interesting at all) are whores and that Jesus’ paradigmatic relationship with women is centred on saving them from sexual sins,” nor do I accept “the assumption that Jesus called only males to apostleship or that all missionary activity in the early church was done by men.” (p. 139).
The Samaritan woman is not teasing Jesus or flirting with him, but …. remarkably… testing him to see who he is, according to her own religious tradition. In Samaria, the Messiah is expected to be above all other things a prophet, for instance. And when Jesus solves this little problem about where worship is to take place, by saying that the worship of God will not happen on any mountain, but “in spirit and in truth,” he is removing one barrier for the entry of the Samaritans into shared, communal worship. And when Jesus tells her “I am he” he is using the phrase that the Samaritans most prefer in speaking of God.
In summary, Schneiders writes, “the entire dialogue between Jesus and the woman is the “wooing” of Samaria to full covenant fidelity in the new Israel by Jesus, the new bridegroom. It has nothing to do with the woman’s private moral life but with the covenant life of the community. Nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel is there a dialogue of such theological depth and intensity.”
So I was thinking about that. Given that Jesus has already appeared in history, it seems crazy (not to mention theologically wrong) to wonder what we would do if Jesus turned up in OUR world here and now, not looking like notions we might have about him. I found myself wondering: What are our criteria, how would we know or interrogate him? Would we depend solely on charisma?
A book group I’m part of has just finished reading THE BOOKS OF JACOB by Olga Tokarczuk, a long historical novel based on the life and times of Jacob Frank, a self-proclaimed Messiah in Poland in the middle of the 18th century. It’s a pretty grim account, and there’s a lot of ego in him and, well, misbehaviour. It reminded me how natural it seems for people hunger and thirst for certainty and strong leadership… including spiritual leadership… during times that are scary and politically unstable, when poverty and plague, hardship and calamity, put everything, even God’s goodness, into question.
But the Samaritan people are not in jeopardy. In John’s Gospel, they literally “come to Jesus” and come to believe. We are given to understand that this happened, historically; that is, that the Gospel account reflects the fact that the Samaritans people had, by the time the Gospel was finished, already been missionized. One clue is that when the disciples return, they are more surprised to find Jesus talking to a woman than to find him speaking with a Samaritan. This is only one of several “coming to believe” stories that form the Church’s teaching during this holy season of Lent, when we include in our prayers those who are preparing to be baptised at the Easter Vigil.
Meanwhile, we who are already baptised have the opportunity to consider the living water that Jesus is promising.
What form does that take for us? What thirst are we bringing with us this morning, this week, this year?
Can we dare, as a community, to really be an Oasis here in Montreal? A source of living water?
I’ll end by quoting from Revelation:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17).
Thanks be to God. Amen.
The scriptures appointed for this morning, the Third Sunday in Lent in 2023, are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.
I am sharing many ideas from an extended discussion of John 4 by Sandra M. Schneiders in her book Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroads, expanded and revised edition, 2003). This book is available in the online library at https://archive.org
The illustration is “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Post a comment