Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42
The theme of today’s readings centers on water. The links with Baptism are obvious. Water is the source of life but also of destruction. In the early Christian community this is the third scrutiny of the catechumens. It is centered round baptism and new life. So we have the story of the Flood, which brought salvation to Noah and his family but death to a sinful world; the crossing of the Red Sea, which meant life and liberty to the Israelites but death to the army of the Pharaoh; and the water from the rock for the Israelites in the dryness of the desert. We will hear more about these at the Easter Vigil during the blessing of the baptismal water.
The Gospel which we have just heard is about the Woman at the Well and it also centers on the theme of water and life. The woman can be said to represent three oppressed groups with which Jesus and the Gospel are interested: – women – prostitutes and sexually immoral people generally – all kinds of outsiders, people who are unclean, infidels, foreigners…
What is this water that Jesus speaks about? It is God’s Spirit which comes to us in Baptism. Baptism is not just a ritual producing magic effects. It is the outward, symbolic sign of a deep reality, the coming of God as a force penetrating every aspect of a person’s life. And this happens through our exposure to Jesus and to the Gospel vision of life and our becoming totally converted to that vision. This can only happen through the agency of a Christian community into which we are called to enter. As the Second Reading says today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. It is not just a question of a ritual washing or immersing and saying magic words but of a real drinking in of that Spirit. The spirit quenches our thirst, not by removing our physical thirst but spiritual.
Jesus now invites the woman to come back to the well once more with her husband. Jesus’ mission to these people begins with reaching out to a family. But she says she has no husband. Jesus reveals her true situation: she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. She is a “loose” woman who must have been deeply despised by people around. No wonder she came to the well alone! The water that Jesus promises is closely linked to conversion and forgiveness of sin. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the sin must first be exposed and acknowledged. And Jesus’ goal is not just the woman’s sin but the whole town from which she comes. Sinner that she is, she will become the agent of their salvation and conversion.
She is staggered at Jesus’ insight into her life. She is embarrassed and so there is a sudden change of topic to something theoretical and “safe”. The question the woman asks is about Jewish and Samaritan places of worship: Jerusalem, holy to the Jews, or Mount Gerizim, holy to the Samaritans, or the well of Jacob where they are. But it gives Jesus the opportunity to make another important point. The “holy” well where they are will become irrelevant. So will the Temple of Jerusalem and the mountain of the Samaritans. True worship will be done “in Spirit and in truth”. There will be no more temples. It is not places which are holy but the people who use them. It is we who are the Temple of God and the dwelling place of Christ. The woman goes on to say that when the Messiah comes he will tell all about this. At that point Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah. How extraordinary! It is a religious outsider and a multiple adulterer who is the first in John’s Gospel to hear this revelation! Precisely because it is people like her who need to hear it. People who are healthy do not need the doctor, only the sick.
Many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of the woman’s witnessing. Then they asked him to stay with them, otherwise he would have continued on his journey. Jesus often needs to be invited to stay. Remember the two men walking to Emmaus? He would not have stopped if they had not invited him to stay the night. He stands at the door and knocks but he will not come in unless invited.
As a result, in this story many in that Samaritan village came to believe in Jesus. And they said: “It is no longer because of what you [the woman] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the World.” For our catechumens, and for all of us, the faith that has been handed on must become our own faith. So that, even if everyone around us were to abandon Jesus, I would not. Ultimately faith is totally personal. “I live, no not I, but Christ lives in me.”