It’s always enlightening to dig deeply into the Gospel of John—what we refer to as the mystical gospel. On the surface of today’s reading, we see the bones of an historical event: Jesus and his disciples were passing through the Samaritan territory that lay between Judea and Galilee on their way home from Jerusalem after the arrest of John the Baptist. The Samaritans were heretics, what remained of the northern kingdom of Israel after having been conquered and overrun by the Assyrians in 720 BC. They became a mixed race as a result of the Assyrian policy of taking the educated nobility to Assyria and settling foreigners into Israel in their place. They believed in Moses and the Law, but not the prophets. They worshipped God on Mount Gerizim rather than in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were considered by faithful Jews to be ritually unclean and to be shunned and avoided.
Something happened as Jesus was passing through Samaria. He had a closer-than-usual encounter with the Samaritans. John describes it as a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus never showed any animosity toward the Samaritans. In fact, he often used them in his teaching to contrast the goodness of the despised with the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. John uses this occasion to highlight the shallowness of strict orthodoxy with the depths of the gospel message of universal love that eclipses it. He uses the figure of water to expose and illustrate deeper truths.
Water was used in the Hebrew Scriptures as a symbol of the Law of Moses—the Torah. Just as water could be used for cleansing, for thirst-quenching, and for sustaining life, the prophets and rabbis recognized the same qualities in the Law: it cleansed the people from their evil deeds, satisfied their thirst for moral guidance, and led the faithful into a deeper spiritual life with their God. That was the promise of the Torah and the promise of the Jewish faith. Now, John uses this same symbol to contrast the cleansing, thirst-quenching, and life-giving that Jesus brings with the promises of the Law.
Rather than the exclusivity and strict ritual purity that was taught by the Pharisees and traditional rabbis, Jesus’s message was inclusive. Both the Jewish and Samaritan societies were strictly segregated by sex. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the court of the women was separate from the court of the men (which was where the real worship took place). Likewise, in the synagogues, women were also kept on the sidelines. Men did not talk to women who weren’t related to them. Breaking this barrier was a serious breach of protocol at the very least. Yet here we have Jesus conversing not only with a Samaritan but with a woman. The disciples were taken aback when they saw that Jesus was talking with a Samaritan, but they were scandalized that he was talking with a woman. Right there—at the outset of this gospel passage—we see Jesus breaking open the narrow strictures of the Law.
Jesus thirsts. Even this early in Jesus’s ministry, John gives us a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. Jesus thirsts not only for refreshment but for followers in faith. As such it prefigures the ministry of the Church in its thirst for the lost. Jesus reaches out to the woman, who in turn, questions his flaunting of the taboos. He tells her that their encounter involves much more than the obvious. He turns his request for water into a prophetic gesture—a sign of something deeper that causes wonder and questioning in the observer. Jesus promises her “living water.” In their language, that can be interpreted two ways: either as “running water,” or “life-giving water.” She misunderstands (maybe deliberately?) and thinks he’s promising her running water—something that even the Patriarch Jacob couldn’t provide. Jesus corrects her. In the depths of his meaning, he tells her, in effect, that the life-giving that the Patriarchs and the Law promised but couldn’t deliver can now be hers through faith in him.
The woman asks for that life-giving water—still trying to keep the conversation on a superficial level. Jesus won’t have it. Even with her lack of understanding, she still benefits from the gift that Jesus has offered her. She receives the first gift of spirituality: self-knowledge. He holds the mirror of spirituality up to her so that she can truly see herself. It’s as though she can see herself reflected in the water. He doesn’t condemn her; he doesn’t criticize her; he doesn’t even ask her to change. He just lets her see what’s there. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of a spiritual life: getting to see yourself as you are. Isn’t that the essence of humility: seeing yourself exactly as God sees you?
In seeing herself, the woman’s appreciation for Jesus grew from his being just a thirsty Jewish rabbi to a prophet. What was her reaction to being in the presence of a prophet? Grace makes us uncomfortable. She was so uncomfortable that she needed to change the subject. She wanted to talk about their differences in religious practices. It’s less challenging to talk about dogma rather than faith. Once again, Jesus refuses to play that game and moves the conversation back to a higher plane. Real worship, he tells her, is in “spirit and truth.” That phrase contains a little-recognized figure of speech called hendiadys. It means making one idea out of two conjoined words. “Spirit and truth” actually means “true” or “enduring spirit.” Jesus moves the question of worship out of the formalities and into the realm of universal spirit. She sees him in a new light, beyond being even a prophet. Could he be the Messiah? Jesus assures her that, not only is he the awaited Messiah, but he also says “I am,” in other words, Yahweh.
Once she has begun to recognize Jesus in his true identity, she herself is transformed. She leaves her water jar behind (a symbol of her old way of life) and she becomes an evangelist. Jesus asked for her faith and, when she gave it, he transformed her life into something new and more meaningful: a life of enduring spirit.
Why are we given this reading today, during our Lenten preparation for the coming celebration of the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection? It’s to remind us of the cleansing, thirst-quenching, and life-giving grace that comes to us through our union in faith with the death and resurrection of Christ in the waters of our own baptism. As we delve ever deeper into our spiritual interconnection with God through Christ Jesus, we too are given a clearer vision of who we really are, and who this Jesus is who asks us to quench his thirst for our faith. Like the people in today’s gospel, we come away today from our encounter with Jesus in word and Eucharist saying, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”